The Jobless and Recoveryless Recovery
By James Howard Kunstler
on September 14, 2009 6:33 AM
Now that everybody in the USA, from the janitors in their man-caves to the president addressing congress, has declared the "recession" over, is exactly the moment when what's left of the so-called economy is most likely to implode. If there were still shoeshine boys on Wall Street, they'd be starting their own hedge funds now, and CNBC's Larry Kudlow would be toasting them in the Grill Room of The Four Seasons. What we've seen in the vaunted rally for the last six months is the triumph of wishing over facts, combined with the most arrant market manipulation by floundering banks backstopped by a panicked government -- all pounding sand down a rat-hole of hopeless non-performing debt, while pretending that the machinery of capital finance still grinds on.
Despite what a few elderly Mr. Naturals may say about abolishing "capitalism," we're not going to have an advanced economy without a coherent banking system, and by advanced economy I mean one in which the lights stay on. By coherent I mean a system that is able to deploy accumulated wealth for productive purposes, in the service of continuing civilization. (And, yes, I know that the followers of Daniel Quinn are not so sure that civilization is worth the trouble, but unless you support the killing-off of about six billion humans right away, things on Earth are not favorably disposed just now for a return to hunting-and-gathering.)
I would hasten to cut through the fog of despair to reassert -- for the thousandth time -- that a true American perestroika is possible, if the public could overcome the plague of cognitive dissonance sweeping the land and form a consensus for action that comports with reality's agenda. But that is looking less and less likely. Instead, what we see is a rush into delusion, seasoned with grievance and gall. Spectacles like last weekend's march on Washington don't happen for no reason, of course. From where I sit, the uproar can be attributed to comprehensively bad American leadership, a crisis in authority and legitimacy that has left a functional vacuum in every executive office throughout the land -- from the White House to the state houses, to the lairs of the CEOs, to the towers of the deans and department chairs, to the glitzy sets of the nightly news deliverers, to the makeshift quarters of the NGO chiefs. In former times, clueless and impotent leaders stuck their heads in the sand. Nowadays, with pandemic narcissism abroad in the land, the heads are more usually inserted into the aperture that leads into the large bowel....
But I indulge in diverting objurgation when I should perhaps explain this American perestroika more clearly. The Russian word roughly translates to "restructuring." They flubbed it in 1989 because their system was too ossified and too far gone -- though history and circumstance eventually did it for them. A similar outcome is possible here, too, in which things just have to completely fall apart before emergent reorganization occurs. But you can be sure that if we allow this to happen, an awful lot of things will get smashed along the way, including lives, careers, families, property, and cherished institutions.
This monster we call the economy is not just an endless series of charts and graphs -- it's how we live, and that has to change, whether we like it or not. Now, it is obviously a huge problem that a majority of Americans don't like the idea. If they were true patriots, instead of overfed cowards and sado-masochists, they'd be inspired by the prospect. But something terrible has happened to our national character since the triumphal glow of World War Two wore off. I just hope that the Palinites and the myrmidons of Glen Beck don't destroy what's left of this country in a WWF-style "revolution." In the best societies, such idiots are marginalized by a kinder and sturdier consensus about justice. In America today, the center is not holding because there is no center.
American perestroika really boils down to this: we have to rescale the activities of daily life to a level consistent with the mandates of the future, especially the ones having to do with available energy and capital. We have to dismantle things that have no future and rebuild things that will allow daily life to function. We have to say goodbye to big box shopping and rebuild Main Street. More people will be needed to work in farming and fewer in tourism, public relations, gambling, and party planning. We have to make some basic useful products in this country again. We have to systematically decommission suburbia and reactivate our small towns and small cities. We have to prepare for the contraction of our large cities. We have to let the sun set on Happy Motoring and rebuild our trains, transit systems, harbors, and inland waterways. We have to reorganize schooling at a much more modest level. We have to close down most of the overseas military bases we're operating and conclude our wars in Asia. Mostly, we have to recover a national sense of common purpose and common decency. There is obviously a lot of work to do in the list above, which could translate into paychecks and careers -- but not if we direct all our resources into propping up the failing structures of yesterday.
The most dangerous illusion, of course, is a belief that we can return to a hyped up turbo debt "consumer" economy -- and perhaps the most disappointing thing about Barack Obama, is his incessant cheerleading for a "recovery" to what is already lost and unrecoverable. The man who ran for office on "change" doesn't really have the stomach for it. But, of course, events are in the driver's seat now, not personalities, even charming ones. I'd venture to say that if Mr. Obama thinks he's seen a crisis, and gotten through it, then he ain't seen nothin' yet. We are for sure not returning to the kind of credit orgy that made the last twenty years such a nauseating spectacle -- of which, by the way, the misfeasances and wretched excesses of Wall Street were just one manifestation.
Some theorists out there say that economy follows mood, not vice-versa, and that the anger and sourness on display around the USA, in events like the weekend Washington march, is a clear sign that tectonic shifts in the structures of everyday life are sure to follow. There are too many truly good and intelligent people in this country, to leave our fate to the Palins and the Glen Becks. But the good people had better man up and start telling the truth with some conviction that the truth matters