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Fishtailing into the Future

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Published : October 05th, 2018
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Category : Editorials

The opening chapters of Michael Lewis’s new book, The Fifth Risk, detail the carelessness of the Trump transition team in the months leading up to his swearing-in as president. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie led the team, with its binders full of possible agency chiefs, before he was summarily canned by Steve Bannon, who would be dumped soon himself by the ascending Golden Golem of Greatness. There was, in fact, a set of rigorous protocols for managing the transition of power based on decades of cumulative practice — and anxiety over the frightening nuclear demons at the core of US power — and they were disdained, to the horror of the permanent bureaucracy waiting in place for leadership.

In those months after the election, Mr. Trump was apparently dazed and confused by his unexpected victory, and completely unprepared to actually run the country. His super-sized “stable genius” brain surveyed the scene and his field-of-view saw nothing but swamp from sea to shining sea, populated by lizards, snakes, raptors, and poisonous insects, with higher-order mammalian predators in the C-suites. When he finally caught on to the game being played, Mr. Trump rounded up his own menagerie of crispy critters and sent them forth to run operations like the Department of Energy — in that case, former Texas governor Rick Perry, who knew next-to-nothing about the department’s responsibilities, and had sworn to abolish it in the primary elections (when he remembered it existed).

The politics around these deadly serious matters are interesting enough, and Michael Lewis, as always, excels at unpacking the fraught mysteries of highly complicated systems run by comically limited humans. But something else emerges from this story, perhaps unintentionally: that the complexities of government are now hopelessly unmanageable, no matter who is in charge of them, and that the actual path of this still-growing complexity leads to criticality and collapse. If Lewis catches onto this later in the book, which I doubt, if only for his cavalier references to the dodgy business of shale oil, there’s no sign of it in the early chapters.

But this is not intended to be a book review based on a so-far partial reading. It is to say that even some of the best analytical minds of our time are missing the main thread of the story: that human affairs in the 21st century have entered a hazardous period of disorderly change largely due to that age-old pitfall of making ever-increasing investments in complexity with diminishing returns. That is exactly how societies collapse and that is where things stand in the Time of Trump. One might even theorize that Mr. Trump’s simplemindedness is a kind of virtue in the face of runaway complexity. His instinct, at least, is to repel it.

But at the macro level, this system and its subsystems are out-of-control and shaking themselves loose. Government has attempted to prop them up by schemes that amount to racketeering of one kind or another — the dishonest manipulation and representation of money — and now money itself is in revolt, as can be seen in the sudden rise of interest rates, especially the ten-year US Treasury Bond above 3.2 percent just before today’s market open

The US government can’t handle interest rates at this level, after decades of debt accumulation. Other nations can’t pay back their dollar-denominated loans either, and that has produced havoc at the so-called margins of the global economy — as currencies crash, and companies go under, and sovereign debt instruments melt down. You can be sure that this disorder will eventually spread from the margins to the center, which is the USA. It’s already up-and-running in our politics, which might be considered the early warning system of the larger picture. In my long life of three-score and ten, I’ve never seen a political fiasco as demented as the Kavanaugh confirmation process, with its harking back to Medieval social hysterias and stunning exercises in bad faith.

This riveting horror show has also distracted the nation — and a media fully invested in compounding the psychodrama — from the momentous tectonic movements in the world’s money system, now shaking apart. Among other things, it will blow up the fantasy that Mr. Trump has magically orchestrated a new miracle economy. But it will also bring to an abrupt close the pornographic machinations of his adversaries in Swamptown. And then we will get on in earnest with the true business of the long emergency — making new arrangements, however difficult — to escape the deadly clutter of our own constructed hyper-complex hyper-reality.

This blog is sponsored this week by McAlvany ICA. To learn more visit:

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James Howard Kunstler has worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis. His nonfiction book, "The Long Emergency," describes the changes that American society faces in the 21st century. Discerning an imminent future of protracted socioeconomic crisis, Kunstler foresees the progressive dilapidation of subdivisions and strip malls, the depopulation of the American Southwest, and, amid a world at war over oil, military invasions of the West Coast; when the convulsion subsides, Americans will live in smaller places and eat locally grown food.
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