"Racking up immense debt was our way of faking it. If you can’t cover your costs in the present, just borrow from the future. Unfortunately, that works only as as long as there’s some reasonable expectation that debt can be paid back. We’re so far beyond that now, it’s not funny."
The author is a prominent American social critic, blogger, and podcaster, and one of our all-time favorite pessimists. We carry his articles regularly on RI. His writing on Russia-gate has been highly entertaining.
He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed 'The Dystopians' in an excellent 2009 profile, along with the brilliant Dmitry Orlov, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.
You can find his popular fiction and novels on this subject, here. To get a sense of how entertaining he is, watch this 2004 TED talk about the cruel misery of American urban design - it is one of the most-viewed on TED. Here is a recent audio interview with him which gives a good overview of his work.
If you like his work, please consider supporting him on Patreon.
I suppose many who think about the prospect of economic collapse imagine something like a Death Star implosion that simply obliterates the normal doings of daily life overnight, leaving everybody in a short, nasty, brutish, Hobbesian free-for-all that dumps the survivors in a replay of the Stone Age — without the consolation of golden ages yet to come that we had the first time around.
The collapse of our techno-industrial set-up has actually been going on for some time, insidiously and corrosively, without shattering the scaffolds of seeming normality, just stealthily undermining them. I’d date the onset of it to about 2005 when the world unknowingly crossed an invisible border into the terra incognito of peak oil, by which, of course, I mean oil that societies could no longer afford to pull out of the ground. It’s one thing to have an abundance of really cheap energy, like oil was in 1955. But when the supply starts to get sketchy, and what’s left can only be obtained at an economic loss, the system goes quietly insane.
In the event, popular beliefs and behavior have turned really strange. We do things that are patently self-destructive, rationalize them with doctrines and policies that don’t add up, and then garnish them with wishful fantasies that offer hypothetical happy endings to plot lines that do not really tend in a rosy direction. The techno-narcissistic nonsense reverberating through the echo-chambers of business, media, and government aims to furnish that nostrum called “hope” to a nation that simply won’t admit darker outcomes to the terrible limits facing humanity.
Thus, we have the Tesla saga of electric motoring to save the day for our vaunted way of life (i.e. the landscape as demolition derby), the absurd proposals to colonize distant, arid, frigid, and airless Mars as a cure for ruining this watery blue planet ideally suited for our life-form, and the inane “singularity” narratives that propose to replace grubby material human life with a crypto-gnostic data cloud of never-ending cosmic orgasm. The psychological desperation is obvious. Apparently, there are moments in history when flying up your own butt-hole is the most comforting available option.
I expect the collapse to pick up more momentum as we turn the corner around summer. The system that we have most willfully abused and perverted is finance. This monster that so many observers call “capitalism” is just a set of methods for managing surplus wealth — the catch being that nothing nearly this complex has ever been seen before in history and is a pure product of the 200-year-long industrial orgy driven by fossil fuels.
That is, the world never before accumulated so much surplus wealth in such a short span of time. We commonly refer to this dynamic as “growth.” When that growth, as expressed in modern GDP terms, slowed dramatically after 2005, we launched an array of clever mechanisms to keep faking it for a while.
Racking up immense debt was our way of faking it. If you can’t cover your costs in the present, just borrow from the future. Unfortunately, that works only as as long as there’s some reasonable expectation that debt can be paid back. We’re so far beyond that now, it’s not funny. And that realization alone will destroy the bond markets and anything related to and dependent on their operations to function.
This is a broad outline to the coming end of the Trump miracle economy. It was the after effects of the previous debt blowup — the phony-baloney mortgage bond market in 2008 — that mortally wounded the American middle class and put Donald Trump in the White House. His base is correct to feel swindled.
That is exactly what happened to them, and the beat goes on now with securitized sub-prime auto loans. Throw in the horrific burdens of unpayable and non-dischargable college loans that will ruin millions of lives and pricey health insurance with $5000 deductibles and you have a recipe for a complete loss of faith in the system.
The next debt blowup will be the end of Mr. Trump’s improbable credibility. It may also be the beginning of serious difficulty in being able to get many of the goods of daily life, because the producers of things will be very unsure of getting paid on delivery of just about anything. A freeze up of short-term lending would quickly lead to empty WalMart shelves and “no gas” signs at the filling stations.
That’s when collapse finally goes kinetic, and becomes something more than just bad feelings and inane ideas.