Kunstler.com

Our Economy Is Built Around a Bunch of Scams and Pure Greed -- and the Alternatives Are Staring Us in the Face

Wall Street is only one of several financial roach motels in what has become a giant slum of a global economy. Notional “money” scuttles in for safety and nourishment, but may never get out alive. Tom Friedman of The New York Times really put one over on the soft-headed American public when he declared in a string of books that the global economy was a permanent installation in the human condition. What we’re seeing “out there” these days is the basic operating system of that economy trying to shake itself to pieces.

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The Smog of Fraud Permeates the American Economy

Team Obama pulled a cute one last week nominating Blythe Masters, JP Morgan’s commodity chief, to an advisory committee of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) which supposedly regulates activities on the paper trades in corn, pork bellies, cocoa, coffee, wheat, corn — oh, and gold, too, by the way, in which JP Morgan has been suspected of massive gold (and silver) market manipulations and other misconduct lately. That would include the 2011 MF Global Fiasco in which nearly a billion dollars from “segregated” customer accounts somehow ended up parked over at JP Morgan as a result of bad derivative bets on tanking Eurozone bonds. MF Global, primarily a commodities trading brokerage, was liquidated in 2011. The CFTC never issued referrals for prosecution to the Department of Justice in the matter and, of course, MF Global’s notorious CEO, Jon Corzine remains at large, enjoying caramel flan lattes in the Hamptons to this day. Such are the Teflon transactions of the Obama years: nothing sticks.

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Why America & China's Future Plans Are Totally Nuts

Societies periodically go insane. Fallacious memes sweep through a frightened and confused populace and bad things happen, bad choices get made. Two bad ideas in particular infect the American thought-o-sphere these days: 1) that non-cheap oil can keep all the rackets of consumerism going; 2) that we can offset all the quandaries of non-cheap oil with accounting fraud and debt creation.

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Consider Obama's Pick to Regulate Finance -- If We Were a Functioning Republic, It Would Be Called Insane

History has a special purgatory where it sometimes stashes feckless nations punch drunk on their own tragic choices: the realm where anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares. We've surely crossed the frontier into that bad place in these days of dwindling winter, 2013.
Case in point: Mr. Obama's choice of Mary Jo White to run the Securities and Exchange Commission. A federal prosecutor back in the Clinton years, Ms. White eventually spun through the revolving door onto the payroll of Wall Street law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, whose clients included Too Big To Fail banks JP Morgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and UBS AG, defending them in matters stemming from the financial crisis that began in 2008, as well as other companies that needed defending from allegations of financial misconduct, such as the giant HCA hospital chain (insider trading), General Electric (now a virtual hedge fund with cases before the SEC), and the German-based Siemens Corporation (federal bribery charges).
A republic with a sense of common decency -- and common sense -- would have stopped the nomination right there and checked the "no" box on Mary Jo White just for violating the most basic premise of credibility: that trip through the revolving door that shuttles banking regulators from the government agencies to the companies they used to oversee and sometimes back again.
Has there not been enough national conversation about the scuzziness of that routine to establish that it's not okay? Does it not clearly represent the essence of dysfunction and corruption in our regulatory affairs? Didn't President Obama promise to seal up the revolving door? So how could Mary Jo White possibly be taken seriously as a candidate for the job? And how is it possible that everyone and their uncle, from The New York Times editorial page to the Sunday cable news political shows to the halls of congress, is not jumping up and down hollering about this? Well, because anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares.
The funny part is that, when challenged over her past connections to the banks and companies she would now have to regulate, Mary Jo White offered to recuse herself from future cases involving them. So, from the get-go as SEC head, Ms. White would not concern herself with the doings of JP Morgan, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley? How is it that gales of laughter did not blow Mary Jo White clean out of the hearing room? Is there not another qualified person from sea to shining sea who could come in and do the job without one hand tied behind his or her back?
Now it also turns out that upon leaving Debevoise & Plimpton, Ms. White is scheduled to collect monthly retirement checks from the company amounting to a half million dollars a year -- that's for life, by the way -- while she supposedly runs the SEC. How is that not a conflict of interest? The remedy proposed by Ms. White and her attorneys was for her to take the retirement loot as a lump sum during her tenure as SEC chair, after which she could revert to collecting her pension in the $42,500 monthly payouts. Pardon me, but, well ...what the fuck? What planet are we on?
As if that's not enough, Ms. White's husband, John W. White, is a partner at another giant Wall Street law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which frequently tangles with the SEC on behalf of its clients. Mr. White proposed to change his pay structure while his wife runs the SEC. More gales of laughter. He is also on the advisory committee of the Financial Standards Accounting Board, the group that oversees national accounting practices and which, in 2009, infamously changed its Rule157 so that TBTF banks could "mark to fantasy" the fraudulent CDOs and other bond-like "innovative" securities that they created -- many of which they had to eat after the housing bubble bust when the collateral for these swindles lost its value and the "innovators" could no longer pawn the stuff off on credulous pension funds and other client "muppets."
The silence over this disgraceful matter -- and many others like it, including the dead hand in the empty suit posing as US Attorney General -- indicates that not only is the rule of law extinct in this country, but so are public figures of principle and credible news organs. Nobody has made a noise about it. Anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares. So, the objection to it has to come from outside the authorized channels. And the consequences will mount outside the fortress of lies that the establishment has become.

After Ruining America, the Era of Giant Chain Stores Is Over

Global currency wars (competitive devaluations) are about to destroy trade relationships. Say goodbye to the 12,000 mile supply chain from Guangzhou to Hackensack. Say goodbye to the growth financing model in which it becomes necessary to open dozens of new stores every year to keep the credit revolving.

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The Delusional People Who Want to Frack This Country Up

On Sunday night CBS hauled Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, on board their flagship Sunday infotainment vehicle, 60 Minutes, to blow a mighty wind up America's ass (as they say in professional PR circles). America is lately addicted to lying to itself, and 60 Minutes has become the "go-to" patsy for funneling disinformation into an already hopelessly confused, wishful, delusional, US public.
McClendon told the credulous Leslie Stahl and the huge viewing audience that America "has two Saudi Arabia's of gas." Now, you know immediately that at least half the viewers misconstrued this statement to mean that we have two Saudi Arabia's of gasoline. Translation: don't worry none about driving anywhere you like, or having to get some tiny little pansy-ass hybrid whatchamacallit car to do it in, and especially don't pay no attention to them "green" sumbitches on the sidelines trying to sell you some kind of peak oil story.... It also prepared the public to support whatever Mr. McClendon's company wants to do, because he says his company will free America from its slavery to OPEC. By the way, CBS never clarified these parts of the story by the end of the show.
First of all, they are talking about methane gas, not liquid gasoline or oil. There are large deposits of methane gas locked into shale deposits roughly following the Appalachian mountain chain from New York State through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, into Ohio, but also hot spots out west. It's hard to get at. You have to basically blow up the shale rock deep underground with high pressure water that is loaded up with chemicals and sand particles to keep the rock fragments separated once they are blown apart. Chesapeake Energy specializes in this rock fracturing (or "fracking") method for drilling. You can get gas out of the ground this way. The question is how much, over what time period, at what cost.
At the present time, with America anxious about any kind of future energy, shale gas sounds like a dream-come-true. Mostly what the public saw on 60 Minutes last night was a sell-job for Chesapeake Energy to boost its stock price. Here are some facts:
Over a 50 year period ahead, all the shale gas drilling of the Marcellus fields in New York State will produce the equivalent of three years US consumption at 2008 levels.
A price of $8 per unit is required to make shale gas fracking economically viable in theory even for a short time. Gas is currently around $4. Expect to pay at least twice as much for gas.
Even at higher costs, shale gas fracking is arguably uneconomical. It requires huge numbers of rigs, generally 8 wells per "pad," meaning very high capital investments. The wells produce nicely for a year, average, and then deplete very steeply - meaning you get a lot of money up front and very soon all that capital investment is a wash. Translation: Chesapeake can make a lot quick money over the next few years of intense drilling and they don't care what happens after that.
Chesapeake itself estimates that 5.5 million gallons of fresh water are needed per well, often delivered in trucks, which require fuel.
It takes three years, average to prepare a drilling "pad" and the up to 12 wells on it, working 24/7 in rural areas with significant noise and electric lighting
The fracking fluid is a secret proprietary cocktail formula amounting to 5 percent of the liquid injected into the earth. It's composed of: sand; a jelling agent to suspend the sand because water is not "thick" enough; biocides to kill bacteria that thrive in jelling agent; "breakers" to thin out jell-thickened water after fracking to get the fluid out of the way of released gas and improve "flowback;" fluid-loss additives to decrease "leak-off" of fracking fluid into rock; anti-corrosives to protect metal in wells; and friction reducers to promote high pressures and high flow rates. Of the 5.5 million gallons of fluid injected into each well, 27,500 gallons is the chemical cocktail.
Mr. McClendon said on 60 Minutes that it couldn't possibly harm the public's water supply because they were drilling so far below the 1000-foot-deep maximum of most water wells. He left out the fact that they have to drill through those drinking water layers to get down to the shale gas, and pump the fracking fluid through it, and then get the gas up through it. He also left out the fact that the concrete casings of drill holes sometimes crack and leak at any depth.
The fracking fluid cannot be re-used. You have to mix new cocktail fluid for each injection.
"Flowback" fluid inevitably comes back up with the gas, sometimes spilling over the ground. In any case, the stuff that does come back up is stored on the surface in lagoons. Often it contains heavy metals, salts, and radioactive material from drilling through strata of radon-bearing granite and other layers. Liners of flowback fluid lagoons have been known to fail.
Gas well failures in Pennsylvania, where production was ramped up quickest in recent years, have ended up polluting well water to the degree that residents can no longer use their wells.
Little is known about the migration of fracking fluids underground.
It seems to me that the chief mass delusion associated with this touted "bonanza" is that Americans would supposedly be able to shift to driving cars that run on natural gas. I believe they will be hugely disappointed. Between the cost of fracking production (and its poor economics), gearing up the manufacture of a new type universal car engine, and installing the infrastructure for methane gas fill-ups - not to mention the supply operation by either new pipelines or trucks carrying liquefied methane gas, we will discover that a.) America lacks the capital, and b.) that households will be too broke to change out the entire US car fleet.
What this disgusting episode really shows is how eager the USA is to mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs, including massive collective self-deception. The lying starts at the very top, not just in Aubrey McClendon's office at Chespeake, but in every executive suite throughout the land - including the Oval Office - where any lie is automatically swallowed and then upchucked for public consumption in the interest of keeping a nation based on addictive rackets stumbling on without having to change our behavior.

America Is One Big Clunker and No Amount of Cash Will Buy Us a New One

In The Long Emergency (2005, Atlantic Monthly Press), I said that we ought to expect the federal government to become increasingly impotent and ineffectual -- that this would be a hallmark of the times. In fact, I said that any enterprise organized at the colossal scale would function poorly in years ahead, whether it was a government, a state university, a national chain retail company, or a giant midwestern farm. It is characteristic of the compressive contraction our society faces that giant hypercomplex systems will wobble and fail. We should expect this.

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Ten Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society

Editor's Note: James Howard Kunstler is a leading writer on the topic of peak oil the problems it poses for American suburbia. Deeply concerned about the future of our petroleum dependent society, Kunstler believes we must take radical steps to avoid the total meltdown of modern society in the face looming oil and gas shortages. For background on this topic, read Kunstler's essay, "Pricey Gas, That's Reality."

Out in the public arena, people frequently twang on me for being "Mister Gloom'n'doom," or for "not offering any solutions" to our looming energy crisis. So, for those of you who are tired of wringing your hands, who would like to do something useful, or focus your attention in a purposeful way, here are my suggestions:

1. Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed "greens" and political "progressives" are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymaxâ„¢ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car. We have to make other arrangements for virtually all the common activities of daily life.

2. We have to produce food differently. The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy.

3. We have to inhabit the terrain differently. Virtually every place in our nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami ...) will support only a fraction of their current populations. We'll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g. Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature -- as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components -- at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.

4. We have to move things and people differently. This is the sunset of Happy Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it. Don't waste your society's remaining resources trying to prop up car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in restoring public transit. Let's start with railroads, and let's make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal systems -- including the towns associated with them. The great harbor towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to restore maritime shipping based on wind -- yes, sailing ships. It's for real. Lots to do here. Put down your Ipod and get busy.

5. We have to transform retail trade. The national chains that have used the high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies-of-scale (and kill local economies) -- they are going down. WalMart and the other outfits will not survive the coming era of expensive, scarcer oil. They will not be able to run the "warehouses-on-wheels" of 18-wheel tractor-trailers incessantly circulating along the interstate highways. Their 12,000-mile supply lines to the Asian slave-factories are also endangered as the US and China contest for Middle East and African oil. The local networks of commercial interdependency which these chain stores systematically destroyed (with the public's acquiescence) will have to be rebuilt brick-by-brick and inventory-by-inventory. This will require rich, fine-grained, multi-layered networks of people who make, distribute, and sell stuff (including the much-maligned "middlemen"). Don't be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local retail economies. Internet shopping is totally dependent now on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap. It also is predicated on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead. Do you have a penchant for retail trade and don't want to work for a big predatory corporation? There's lots to do here in the realm of small, local business. Quit carping and get busy.

6. We will have to make things again in America. However, we are going to make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in America for decades. But we will still need household goods and things to wear. As a practical matter, we are not going to re-live the 20th century. The factories from America's heyday of manufacturing (1900 - 1970) were all designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of them have already been demolished. We're going to have to make things on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more water power. The truth is, we don't know yet how we're going to make anything. This is something that the younger generations can put their minds and muscles into.

7. The age of canned entertainment is coming to and end. It was fun for a while. We liked "Citizen Kane" and the Beatles. But we're going to have to make our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers. We'll need theater managers and stage-hands. The Internet is not going to save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the electricity is on the fritz half the time (or more).

8. We'll have to reorganize the education system. The centralized secondary school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive the coming decades. The huge investments we have made in these facilities will impede the transition out of them, but they will fail anyway. Since we will be a less-affluent society, we probably won't be able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more equitably distributed schools, at least not right away. Personally, I believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the home schooling movement, as home schooling efforts aggregate locally into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be salvageable. And the activity of higher ed itself may engender huge resentment by those foreclosed from it. But anyone who learns to do long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great advantage -- and, in any case, will probably out-perform today's average college graduate. One thing for sure: teaching children is not liable to become an obsolete line-of-work, as compared to public relations and sports marketing. Lots to do here, and lots to think about. Get busy, future teachers of America.

9. We have to reorganize the medical system. The current skein of intertwined rackets based on endless Ponzi buck passing scams will not survive the discontinuities to come. We will probably have to return to a model of service much closer to what used to be called "doctoring." Medical training may also have to change as the big universities run into trouble functioning. Doctors of the 21st century will certainly drive fewer German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the cosmetic surgery field. Let's hope that we don't slide so far back that we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science. Lots to do here for the unsqueamish.

10. Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled. You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail -- everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who esteem you. An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.

So, that's the task list for now. Forgive me if I left things out. Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.

Moving in Uncharted Territory

When people of any political persuasion cry for America to pull out of Iraq, what do they suppose will be the result? That America will go back to being the same nation of easy-motoring, McMansion-buying consumpto-trons we were in 1999? Things have changed.

The world oil markets have changed. Their stability through the 1990s was a transient phenomenon, and a circumstance which, unfortunately, put us to sleep. During that time, OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, was the world's "swing producer" -- the oil producer with spare capacity that could always open the valves and pump more. And they did, even cheating on their own official quotas, which only had the effect of flooding the market with "product" and driving down the prices -- so by the end of the last century oil had sunk to $10 a barrel.

That was great for America in the short term. It reinforced the widespread illusion that the oil disruptions of the 1970s were a shuck and jive. We ramped up all our car-dependent behavior, built more malls and "lifestyle centers," carved more housing subdivisions in the farthest-out asteroid belts of the metroplexes, bought cars the size of tactical military vehicles, and acted as if this was a way of life with a future.

Many things have changed. One is that a potent segment of the Islamic world declared war on the west (jihad). Another is that OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, has apparently lost its spare capacity, and therefore its role as the world's swing producer of oil. Another is that the North Sea and Alaskan oil fields have passed their production peaks and are depleting at phenomenal rates -- in the case of Great Britain's fields, up to 50 percent a year -- because they were drilled so efficiently with the latest technology. Yet another is that rising ocean temperatures have led to several years of massive hurricanes wreaking havoc among the oil and gas platforms of the US Gulf Coast. Still another is the industrial turbo-expansion of China and India, taking advantage of their ultra cheap labor to become the world's factories and back-offices, while jacking up their oil consumption.

Oil trade has now become a dead heat race between supply and demand, with demand looking like the stronger horse coming into the home stretch. As it overtakes supply, even more strange changes will unfold on the world scene. These are likely to take the form of fierce geopolitical struggles to gain favor in or control those regions that still have a lot of oil, foremost the Middle East, with Iraq located at dead center of it.

There is really only one condition that will allow us to pull out of Iraq. That is if we make an enormous collective effort to change our behavior here in North America; if we break free from an economy pegged to suburban sprawl, reform the way we do agriculture and retail trade, make substantial investments in public transit and railroads in particular, and practice fiscal restraint at every scale, including an end to the reckless creation of mortgages. Unless we face these facts and the tasks associated with them, then we will find ourselves at the center of that geopolitical struggle.

Right now, nobody from any political stance is talking about these facts and these tasks. Those in the anti-war movement are by-and-large people who enjoy the same suburban "entitlements" as the war hawks. The anti-war leadership is even worse than the pro-war leadership, because the war hawks don't even pretend to be interested in reforming the way we live -- they've declared it "non-negotiable."

If the anti-war movement has a different idea, they sure haven't expressed it. If the Democratic Party were to take the lead in the anti-war movement, they would have to start negotiations for changing the way we live in this country. To evade the responsibility for this would simply be cowardice. Leading sometimes means taking public opinion into territory it hasn't been to before.

We're now entering that territory, by the way. Stealthily over the past week, the price of natural gas has crept above $14 a unit (one million BTUs). Half the houses in America are heated with the stuff. 90 percent of America's farm fertilizers are made out of it. Above $14 really is uncharted territory.

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