The idea that the very same economic forces that are
currently plaguing Greece, et al., are somehow not
relevant to the United States' circumstances does not hold water. As goes the
rest of the world, so goes the US.
When we back up far enough, it is clear that money
and debt are there to reflect and be in service to the production of real
things by real people, not the other way around. With too much debt relative
to production, it is the debt that will suffer. The same is true of money.
Neither are magical substances; they are merely markers for real things. When
they get out of balance with reality, they lose value, and sometimes even
their entire meaning.
This report lays out the case that the US is
irretrievably down the rabbit hole of deficits and debt, and that, even if
there were endless natural resources of increasing quality available at this
point, servicing the debt loads and liabilities of the nation will require
both austerity and a pretty serious fall in living standards for most people.
Of course, the age of cheap oil is over. And as Jim Puplava says, the oil price is the new Fed funds rate,
meaning that it is now the price of oil that sets the pace of economic
movement, not interest rates established by the Fed.
However, of all the challenges that catch my eye
right now, the one most worrisome is the shredding of our national narrative
to the point that it no longer makes any sense whatsoever. I'm a big believer
that our actions are guided by the stories we tell ourselves. To progress as
a society, having a grand vision that aligns and inspires is essential.
But when words emphasize one set of priorities and
actions support another, any narrative falls apart. At a personal level, if
someone touts their punctuality but chronically shows up hours late, the
narrative that says "this person is reliable" begins to fall apart.
Likewise, if a company boasts about being green but
its track record belies them as a major polluter, the "green"
And at the national level, if we say we are a nation
of laws, but the Justice Department selectively prosecutes only the weak and
relatively powerless while leaving the well-connected and moneyed entirely
alone, then the narrative that says "we are a nation of blind justice
and equal laws" falls apart.
I wish this was just some idle rumination, but I see
more and more examples validating the importance of alignment of narrative
and behavior. Because when there is a disconnect
between words and actions, anxiety and fear take root.
Unfortunately, there is quite a lot to fear and be
anxious about in the most recent State of the Union address and GOP response.
State of the Union
The recent State of the Union speech by Obama, and
its Republican response, are both remarkable for what they say as well as
what they don't say. The summary is this: The status quo will be preserved at all costs.
Here are a few examples of the sorts of disconnects
between rhetoric and reality that are absolutely toxic to the morale of all
who are paying the slightest bit of attention.
Let's never forget: Millions of
Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government
and a financial system that do the same. It's time to apply the same rules
from top to bottom. No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America
built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.
We've all paid the price for lenders
who sold mortgages to people who couldn't afford them, and buyers who knew
they couldn't afford them. That's why we need smart regulations to prevent
It's time to apply the same rules from top to
bottom? Is Obama aware of what Erik Holder is up to over there in the Justice
Department? The robo-signing scandal alone has
thousands and thousands of open and shut cases of felony forgery that can and
should be applied to as many individuals as were directly involved, from top
to bottom in every organization that was engaged in the practice.
Here's the reality. Under Obama, criminal
prosecution of financial fraud fell to multi-decade lows during what is and
remains one of the most target-rich environments in living memory.
And I will not go back to the days
when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules.
So if you are a big bank or financial
institution, you're no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers'
deposits. You're required to write out a "living will" that details
exactly how you'll pay the bills if you fail -- because the rest of us are
not bailing you out ever again.
Has Obama checked with the Federal Reserve to assure
they are on board with the new 'no bail out' policy? Because last I checked,
they were the ones mainly involved in bailing out the big banks and providing
swap lines and free credit to anyone and everyone that needed help, US or
To be fair, Obama can make no statement or claim
about what the Federal Reserve can or can't or will or won't do. It is not
under executive nor even legislative control. If, or I should say when,
the Federal Reserve bails out the next bank or country or whomever, it's
"the rest of us" who will be paying the bill -- in the form of
with our military leaders, I've proposed a new defense strategy that ensures
we maintain the finest military in the world, while saving nearly half a
trillion dollars in our budget.
Let's review the proposals for military spending then.
The language above is nearly impossible to decode. What is really being said
is that proposed defense increases have been scaled back, and that
this is what is being called savings.
In 2000, Defense spending was $312 billion dollars.
In 2012, the proposed budget calls for $703 billion, a 125% increase in 12
What the plan he mentions really calls for is
spending increases in 5 out of the next 6 years. The lone holdout is 2013,
when the plan calls for cutting spending by a whopping $6 billion less than
the amount already approved for 2012.
Somehow that all translates into rhetoric that
implies cuts of "nearly half a trillion dollars."
As Lily Tomlin used to say, "As cynical as I
am, I find it hard to keep up."
“The routes back to an America
of promise, and to a solvent America that can pay its bills and protect its
vulnerable, start in the same place. The only way up for those suffering
tonight, and the only way out of the dead end of debt into which we have
driven, is a private economy that begins to grow and create jobs, real jobs,
at a much faster rate than today."
This platitude-laden set of ideas is blissfully
blind to the role of energy in the story, the amount of debt in the system,
and the fact that both parties have contributed equally over the years to the
predicament at hand.
How exactly is it that the private economy is
supposed to flourish here, with the Federal government borrowing more than a
trillion dollars a year and oil at $100 per barrel? The simple truth is that
the US government needs to begin borrowing at a rate lower than the previous
year's economic growth. If GDP grows at 2%, then the total debt pile must not
grow by anything more than 2%. That is the only way that the official debts
can shrink relative to the economy.
“We will advance our positive
suggestions with confidence, because we know that Americans are still a
people born to liberty. There is nothing wrong with the state of our
Union that the American people, addressed as free-born, mature citizens,
cannot set right."
Last I checked, the original vote tally in the
Senate on the National Defense Authorization Act, which empowered the armed
forces to engage in civilian law enforcement activities and selectively
suspended the habeas corpus and due process rights (as guaranteed by the
5th and 6th amendments to the Constitution), passed by a voice vote of 93 to
7 in the Senate.
It's kind of hard to swallow the idea that the GOP
stands with Americans as "a people born to liberty" when their
members are in perfect lock-step with the Democrats, chipping away at the
most basic and cherished freedoms. There's no difference between the parties
when both seem intent on limiting individual freedom and increasing the power
of the government to reach into and examine our daily lives.
When Words Hurt
The above examples are not meant to pick on any one
person or party or set of ideas, but to illuminate the profound gap that
exists between what we are telling ourselves at the national level and the
actions we are undertaking.
Again, it is the gap between what we tell
ourselves and what we do that creates
a sense of unease, anxiety, and oftentimes fear. When we hear words
"X" but see actions "Y" over and over again, it is hard
not to come to the conclusion that the words are meaningless; empty rhetoric
designed with polls and focus groups in mind, but little else.
It is the blind obedience to the status quo that
worries me the most, as it raises the likelihood that nothing of any
substance will be done until forced by circumstances, at which point, like
Greece, we will discover that the remaining menu of options ranges from bad
Left Unsaid - Our
In neither Obama's address nor the GOP response do
we hear anything about Peak Oil, a stock market that has gone nowhere in ten
years, or the fact that with two wars winding down there ought to be massive
savings from defense cuts that we can capture. There's lip service to the
idea of using more natural gas to begin weaning us off our imported oil
dependence, but no commensurate trillion-dollar program offered to rapidly
build out the infrastructure necessary to utilize that gas in a meaningful
A more honest set of messages would note that
mistakes were made, opportunities squandered, and priorities misplaced. It
would note that the US is on an unsustainable course with respect to
spending, debts, and liabilities. There would be an explicit admission that
having your central bank print trillions in "thin air" money in
order to enable runaway deficit spending is a dangerous and foolish thing to
Most obviously missing is a national narrative that
is coherent and comports with the facts. Both parties basically imply that if
we elect a few more of their type, do a little of this and then tweak a
little of that, then we will get our nation back on track.
There is no call to a shared sacrifice for something
greater. There is nothing to rally around except a laundry list of
disconnected programs; a little something for everyone. There is no
overarching theme under which everything else can be hung, such as a space
race, a civil rights movement, or a massive upgrading of our national
A good narrative is one that inspires people and is
based in reality but also asks something larger of us that we can share in.
What is our vision for this country? Where do we want to be in ten years? How
about twenty? How will we get there, and what will be required? What should
we stop doing, what should we start doing, and what
should we continue doing?
None of these things are on display, and all are
badly needed if we are going to make the most of the next twenty years.
The Troubling Facts
Of all the facts that got skimmed over or avoided in
the State of the Union extravaganza, the fiscal nightmare in DC was probably
the most glaring. Yes, both parties have decided to talk about the deficit,
but neither is giving the appropriate context.
For FY 2012, the federal government is projected to
run a $1.1 trillion deficit. Let's
compare that number to
the projected revenues:
The $1.1 trillion deficit is 42% of total revenues
and 73% of all income taxes. That is, in order to spend what the US currently
spends without going further into debt (i.e., to have no deficit), income
taxes must immediately increase by 73%(!).
This is the sort of territory that, were the US any
other country, would have already landed its debt markets -- and likely its
currency, too -- in very hot water.
Historically, countries that have run deficits 40%
greater than revenue for more than two years have experienced profound
financial and political crises. The US is now in its fourth year of inhabiting
this rare territory.
How can it keep doing this when every other country
that has tried has gotten into trouble? Simple. The Federal Reserve has
enabled such egregious deficit spending by buying up mind-boggling amounts of
government debt. This has both kept rates low and created a lot of additional
buying demand for Treasuries.
Exactly how much US debt is the Fed buying? Under
Operation Twist, the Fed has bought anywhere from 51% to 91% of all gross
issuance of bonds dated six years or longer in maturity.
It is quite obvious that the Fed has been a major
participant in the bond markets and a major reason why Treasurys
are priced so high and offer so low a yield.
It seems that it is well past time to speak directly
to the enormous fiscal deficits in a credible way, not merely bemoaning them
being too high. And we're also overdue for an adult national conversation
that it's unwise and unsustainable for a country to lean on its central bank
to print up the difference between receipts and outlays.
Oil and Recoveries
There is a clear relationship between high oil
prices and recessions, confirming the idea that the price of oil has the same
impact on the economy as higher interest rates (perhaps even more so
nowadays). Both are a source of friction. With higher interest rates, less
lending and less consuming happens. With a higher price of oil, more money
gets spent on energy, much of it sent to foreign producers of oil, and thus
less money is available for other consumption.
Both higher oil prices and higher interest rates
cause people to think a bit more before pulling the trigger on either
ordinary spending or a big capital project.
Note that all of the six prior recessions were
preceded by a spike in oil prices. In the case of the double-dip 1980's twin
recessions, oil remained elevated after the first recession was (allegedly)
over. Don't be fooled by the logarithmic nature of the chart below -- note
that the typical decline in oil prices between the recession-inducing peak
(blue lines) and the recovery-enabling trough (green lines) was a substantial
Also note in the most recent data that oil prices
happen to be at roughly the same level that triggered the first recession in
2008 (the purple dotted line).
If we needed one simple chart to help us understand
why trillions of dollars of stimulus and handouts are not causing the economy
to soar, this is the chart that explains the most. High oil prices and
recessions are highly correlated, and it's not too much of a stretch to
postulate that economic recoveries and high oil prices are inversely
Note also that the above chart is not
inflation-adjusted. If it were, it would show that there have been exactly zero
recoveries when oil prices are near or over $100 per barrel.
For those counting on an economic recovery here to
lift all boats and assist the bailout efforts, the burden of history is upon
them to explain why this time we should ignore the price of oil.
I say we cannot. Policy planners and citizens alike
should be ready for disappointing market and economic activity in response to
the usual bag of printing, borrowing and delaying tricks.
Dead Ahead: A Currency
The State of the Union speech and GOP response
neither accurately portray the true fiscal condition of the US, nor present a
compelling narrative that speaks either to the realities of today or a future
we might like to head towards.
The US is simply on a fiscally ruinous path, and
neither party seems up to the task of laying out the story in a way that is
mature, clear, and direct.
No recovery has ever been possible from oil prices
this high, nor with debt levels this extreme, and it
is quite improbable to think that both conditions could be overcome with
anything less than a completely clear-eyed view of the true nature of the
Decades ago, Ludwig Von Mises
captured everything discussed here elegantly:
There is no means of avoiding the
final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion.
The alternative is only whether the
crisis should come sooner as a result of a voluntary abandonment of further
credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency
Our current dire fiscal condition, our leaders'
dysfunctional unwillingness to address the flawed behavior that caused it,
plus many other recent events both in the US and in Europe, point to the idea
that a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion is just not on the
That leaves us with some final and total catastrophe
of the involved currency system(s) as the inevitable outcome.
In Part II: Surviving a Currency Crisis, we
explain what a currency is, what happens when a currency collapses, and, most
importantly, how to position yourself prudently in
At this point, time to prepare
is your greatest asset. But as we can see from the precarious global economic
situation described above, time is running out. Use what remains wisely.
Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).