"The global economy is like the St. Andreas Fault: You know that a terminal disaster is inevitable, but you keep your fingers crossed and try not to think about it," I wrote in the print issue of Chronicles seven months ago ("Waiting for the Big One," March 2008). "When a tremor occurs, you often fear it could be the Big One and sometimes panic," I went on, "but then, when the dust settles, you sigh with relief to find yourself alive and the Golden State still above the ocean." Well, the Big One is nigh; and here's the rest of that old column in which I argue that, in the end, the meltdown may be all for the best
The fiscal imbalances caused by President Bush's addiction to deficit spending, by the overindebtedness, by ordinary Americans' negligible savings, by the huge and growing foreign debt, and by the falling dollar, are all still there.
For the time being, the United States is still able to issue and sell large quantities of low-cost debt, denominated in dollars, through Treasury bonds. Right now, they yield less than the inflation rate, but for as long as much of the world's oil continues to be traded mainly in dollars, central banks around the world have to keep holding substantial dollar reserves. Furthermore, to the extent that the OPEC cartel raises oil prices to capture the dollar's constantly falling purchasing power vis-à-vis the euro – rather than simply because of chronic excess demand for oil as it peaks out – it imposes on Europe the burden of sharing that part of the oil price hike that follows the falling dollar. This, paradoxically, creates additional built-in support for the dollar, without which its current sickkness could have been well nigh terminal. Other countries' dollar reserves are still invested in American assets, creating an artificial capital-accounts boost for the US economy.
When the "petro-euro" becomes reality, the global demand for dollars will collapse. [ ] World trade will cease being a scheme in which Washington prints dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy. The U.S. economy will no longer enjoy the benefits of a gigantic subsidy provided by the goods and services of countries holding their reserves in dollars – notably by Japan, whho imports four-fifths of its oil from the Middle East. The fewer dollars circulating outside the United States will then translate into fewer goods and services that this country can obtain from abroad on what amounts to interest-free credit. The current-account deficit – at present 800 billion dollars – will no longer be financed by foreign capital, because its influx would simply cease. Global demand for shares of U.S. companies and Treasury bonds will collapse. Without foreign investors, interest rates will zoom into double digits and the Fed will find inflationary pressures simply irresistible. [ ]
For too long, Americans assumed that they could maintain effortless prosperity by investing in assets that produce no profits – dot.coms in the late 1990's, followed by housing – and then using them to generate spending cash. Instead of helping America sober up, however, the Federal Reserve merely postponed the Big One by cutting rates [ ] More affordable liquidity, as it happens, is no cure for a credit crisis prompted by years of excess liquidity. The underlying financial malaise is still there. The Fed had saved the market, albeit temporarily, at the expense of the economy.
Keeping the markets oxygenated with billions of "our" dollars will not save them in the long term, however, because the malaise is moral and spiritual. Just like under San Andreas, the plates move past each other, producing cummulative strain. The Fault that will produce the global meltdown is the gap between the postmodern heart and mind, the impossibility of ever consuming enough goods and services to feel sated, and the unwillingness to settle the bill for those goods and services in cash. When mere servicing of the ever-growing tab leaves nothing for further consumption, however, the end will be nigh:
The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore – cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and perils; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men. (Revelation 18:11–13)
If reasonable men agree that our civilization is spiritually diseased, morally rotten and demographically moribund, then a colossal, rapidly spreading global economic crisis should be neither feared nor wished away. It may yet be our last best hope for survival.
The meltdown has to be rapid and brutal, however. Only the collapse of hoi polloi confidence in the ability of the all-pervasive State to manage relief would force blighted billions to re-examine their lives and their assumptions. By getting no relief from the collapsing State (including the European Union, the World Bank, the IMF, or Oxfam) they would rediscover self-reliance – or die. Being disillusioned by progress, they would rediscover the value and force of tradition. The ensuing struggle for diminishing resources may make them drop the neurotic becoming in favor of just being – that is, surviving. The Hobbesian mayhem in New Orleans after Katrina offered a glimpse of what is to come.
A predictable benefit for the survivors would be the return of fertility to historically normal levels. Even in darkest Tuscany or the Upper East Side, children would no longer be seen as a burden, an obstancle to self-fulfilment, and a financial liability. In the aftermath of the burst bubble, they would regain their traditional value as economic assets and the long-term substitute for collapsed welfare programs, entitlements, and pension systems. The family would reemerge as the essential social unit. Amid collapsing political structures all ideological "propositions" would be recognized as empty abstracts. Communities linked to their native soil and bonded by kinship, memory, language, faith, and myth would be revived. And in adversity, the eyes of men would be lifted, once again, to Heaven.
We do not know when this will happen, just as we don't know when San Francisco will turn into rubble; but when it happens – and it will happen – the American interest demands that it takes the form of a short, sharp shock, utterly unmanageable by the ruling political and economic elite that is destroying us.
Read the entire article on the Chronicles Magazine website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.