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Decoupling From Reality

      Back in the golden age of American Flyfishing — say around 1913
— when technical innovation in a prissy and recondite sport was joined
by a new leisure class emanating from the white glove canyons of Wall
Street, some new-minted guru of angling came up with method for
whipping up action on a trout stream when no fish would rise to the
fly. It was really lame. The idea was to artificially create the
illusion of a mayfly hatch — that moment when the larva of, for
instance, Ephemerella subvaria, the Hendrickson mayfly, swims
to the surface, molts, and dries its newly unfurled adult wings in the
brisk spring air. This is famously the moment that drives trout crazy,
and when it occurs en masse, with zillions of mayflies “hatching” off
the water, a trout feeding-frenzy can ensue. The idea with the
artificial hatch was to pitch a fake Hendrickson fly made of feathers
and fur in so many furious, rapid casts that the dumb trout lurking
below would get suckered into a feeding frenzy — and, shortly, into
the buttered frying pan, with a nice “tuxedo” of cornmeal and bacon.

      In the annals of flyfishing, this gambit has been all but
discredited, except among the mentally sub-normal who sometimes venture
over from the lumpen realm of crank-and-plug fishing in search of
improved social standing. But the tactic naturally transferred into the
precincts of finance, where it reappeared in such disparate practices
as Ponzi schemes and Keynesian “pump-priming.” Now it is being employed
at a scale never seen before, on an economy that is the equivalent of a
great dead river poisoned by the toxic effluents of the same society
that inhabits its banks (no pun intended). The dark secret of this
river is that the fish who once ran there are all dead.
     Much has been made in recent weeks of “animal spirits” and the
“psychology of markets” in the hopes that mere attitudes might overcome
the laws of thermodynamics. Math wizardry has now yielded to
self-esteem building, an understandable sequence of events, since
trafficking in the mutant spawn of Wall Street algorithms has ended up
completely demoralizing the United States of America. Sadly, this is a
little like subjecting a man who has just watched his house burn down
to twelve segments of Oprah shows about the triumphal secrets of weight
      The Great Wish across America is to resume the life of
comfort-and-convenience that seemed so nirvana-like just a few short
years ago, when the very constellations of the heavens might have been
renamed after heroic Atlanta realtors and Connecticut hedge fund
warriors, and the boomer portfolios groaned with earnings, and millions
of graying corporate salary mules dreamed of their approaching
retirement to a satori of golf and Viagra, and the interior decorators
grew so rich installing granite countertops that they could buy their
own houses in the East Hampton, and every microcephalic parking valet
in Las Vegas qualified for a bucket full of Ninja mortgages, and Lloyd
Blankfein could dream of divorcing his wife to marry his cappuccino
      The choices now are stark and the kind of life on offer by the
future is rather austere. The job of the current president, and the
people who work with him, is to manage an epic contraction — let’s
say, to land a very large, loaded defect-ridden airplane that has both
run out of fuel and suffered grievous mechanical breakdown… and to
bring down that vehicle in an unfamiliar country filled with angry
savages. Sadly, the new president and his co-pilots just want to keep
the plane up there, circling. The president’s viziers are working
round-the-clock to come up with some way, some toggle-switch, that
might turn off the laws of gravity (which are not unrelated to the laws
of thermodynamics). But all they seem to be able to come up with are
mumbled prayers that are pale imitations of the algorithms once
concocted by the Wall Street engineers who designed the aircraft
they’re riding in.
     Well, that’s enough conceits and metaphors for today.
     We’ve digested the so-called “stress tests” for now with nary a
burp and in a few weeks General Motors will step into the dark cave of
bankruptcy. All the ancillary businesses linked to the US car-makers
face contraction and annihilation. A couple of things occur to me which
have not even entered the national debate on these matters: 1.) the US
will still need to manufacture engines and chassis for military
vehicles. Do we intend to send out to Mitsubishi for those things in
the years ahead? 2.) the US will need rolling stock (i.e. choo-choo
cars and engines) for a revived passenger railroad system. Do we intend
to buy all that from the quaint peoples of other lands? (While the US
workforce instead focuses on updated releases of Grand Theft Auto.)
       At the moment, there is tremendous hoopla and jubilation over
the start-up of so many “shovel-ready” highway projects around America
— as if what we need most are additional circumferential freeways to
enhance the Happy Motoring lifestyle. How insane are we? Is this the
only thing we know how to do?
      I remain confident that the months ahead will introduce the
American public and our leaders to a range of horrors that will begin
to penetrate our addled collective imagination. We’re far from done
with the crisis of banking and money and the related fiasco in
mortgages — which translates into the very real situation of many
people become homeless. It remains to be seen what may happen on the
food production scene, but the current severe shortage of capital and
the intense droughts shaping up around the world will resolve into a
much clearer picture by mid-summer. The price of oil has resumed
marching up and has now re-entered a range ($50-plus) that spun the
airline industry into bankruptcy last time around. Enough carnage has
already occurred on the jobs scene that the next act among many
chronically jobless may tilt toward desperation, anger, and violence.
The sporting goods shops around the nation are already rationing
     It’s not just the stock markets that have decoupled from reality
as we enjoy the fragrant vapors of spring — it’s the entire conscious
consensus of everybody holding the levers of power and opinion. To put
it as simply as possible, we’re still sleepwalking into the future.

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About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

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