As the election campaign ground on like a 3000-mile race between a greyhound and an armadillo, the media kept harping on Barack Obama’s vague promises of “change.” We now know what the main promise was: regime change, right here in the USA, not in some place where the natives wear strange headgear. Mr. Obama’s victory was a moment of epochal exhilaration, not least because he appears to be a decent and intelligent person self-made from a humble background — someone who has personally bought tube socks in the K-mart, worried about money, and made many trips in a subway car.
The current occupant of the White House, however, has sedulously prepared for his successor the biggest shit sandwich the world has ever seen, and there is naturally some concern that Mr. Obama might choke on it. The dilemma is essentially this: the consumer economy we all knew and loved has died. There will be pressure from nearly every quarter to keep it hooked up to the costly life support machines even though it is dead. A different economy is waiting to be born, but it is nothing like the one that has died. The economy-to-come is one of rigor and austerity. It is not the kind of thing that a nation of overfed clowns is used to. Do we even have a prayer of getting to it, or are we going to squander our dwindling resources on life support for something that is already dead?
A case in point: the car industry. The Big Three, all functionally bankrupt, are now lined up for bail-outs from the treasury’s bottomless checking account. Personally, I believe the age of Happy Motoring is over. Many Americans have already bought their last car — they just don’t it yet. The current low-ish price of oil is a total fake-out, having to do much more with asset-dumping in the paper markets than the true resource supply-demand equation. Most of the world (the media for sure) has ignored preliminary leaks from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) forthcoming report which forecasts global oil depletion to be 9.1 percent in 2009. This is a staggering figure, very likely to offset whatever slack we see in global demand from the worldwide economic crisis. In fact, the global oil markets are poised for the most severe dislocations ever seen, meaning it’s a toss-up what happens first in the USA: a major leg back up in oil prices, or shortages, hoarding, and rationing.
For my money (literally) there are only two main reasons that any portion of the car industry should be rescued at the present time: one, because we need somebody to manufacture engines for military vehicles, and two, because we need somebody to manufacture rolling stock for the revival in passenger railroad service that will have to be a centerpiece of the future economy if we want to remain a civilized nation.
Even the progressive factions of the public may be in for much more “change” than they bargained for. The global economy as we knew it is finished (despite British PM Gordon Brown’s fatuous suggestion that we are ready to formalize it). The world is about to lose its “flatness” (sorry Tom Friedman) and get much rounder. For one thing, the racket of American “consumers” gobbling up the output of Asian factories in exchange for paper promises is over. For the moment, the Chinese are struggling with epic factory closures with the sudden prospect of a restive lumpenproletariet. The situation there is bound to get worse. Before long, these broke-and-hungry masses may actually challenge the present government. In the meantime, there’s no telling what the (unelected) Chinese government might do either to keep itself in power, or genuinely defend its country’s perceived economic interests. One thing is self-evident: we are not returning to the old racket of toys-for-treasury-bills. One thing China might do in economic self-defense is shed whatever US dollar-denominated paper is moldering in their vaults before it becomes valueless altogether.
As global trade relations wither, and they will, the US will be thrust back on its own devices, at the same time that oil resources grow punishingly scarce. Mr. Obama will have to contend with the necessary radical reform of all the activities necessary for daily life here. Near the top of the list — invisible to most of the public so far — will be the question of how we produce the food we need. Industrial farming is done, just as suburbia is toast. Mr. Obama will have to apply plenty of ass-time to the first stages of negotiating this bottleneck. I don’t even know what he can do policy-wise, though he can certainly make it plain to the public that we have to grow more of our food close to home and do it with fewer engines and fewer oil-based soil supplements. It is a problem of such surpassing difficulty that it was not even close to being in the election arena. The transition will probably occur by means of “emergence.” Self-evident necessity will prompt different behavior and different ways of doing things. Sooner or later, the new arrangements will self-organize — if we don’t squander resources defending an unsustainable status quo. One thing we can certainly predict is that growing our food will require more human labor and attention — meaning there will be plenty of work for people currently losing their jobs at The Footlocker and Arby’s, but it’s far from certain whether they will be happy in their new vocations.
We’re going to have to resume making things in the USA again, too, probably at a more modest scale, and probably fewer things than we are used to. We have no idea yet how this is going to happen. Like agriculture, manufacturing culture may have to return, if at all, emergently, as individuals and communities see opportunity in advantages like proximity to water-power and water transport. My guess is that corporate enterprise as we have known it — at the continental and global scale — is done for. I would not bet on any of the Fortune 500 carrying on the manufacturing work of the future using the plants-and-equipment that are familiar to them. The manufacturing of the future may be more like cottage industry than Proctor and Gamble. Yet, obviously, there will be tremendous efforts to prop up failing corporate enterprise and prevent natural bankruptcies from occurring.
Similarly, the retail part of the economy. Many observers think that Wal-Mart and its clones are immune to the larger forces swirling around us. Just because many cash-strapped people are hunting for bargains at WalMart these days does not insure the survival of the Big Box model very far into the future. In fact, in every trend we can see — from the oil markets to events in China to the impoverishment of the US working class to the coming crisis in truck transport — you can easily discern fatal weaknesses in this model. Local retail (and its support structures) is coming back. We just don’t know how, yet, and we don’t know how much capital and effort will be squandered trying to rescue WalMart, when the time comes. But the imperative re-scaling of commerce in America also represents huge opportunities for young people to get into their own businesses.
Mr. Obama will preside over the potential restructuring of all our systems, some of them in ways he and his supporters have not imagined. We haven’t begun to see where fate will take higher education, but my guess is that it will no longer be a “consumer” activity, and that the hypertrophied land-grant diploma mills will have to to shrink or die as state financial support withers away, and all sorts of unnecessary professions from “public relations” to “marketing” cease to require certified graduates. The luxurious central high schools, utterly addicted to their yellow school bus fleets, will be left as a problem for the states and municipalities. I don’t believe they can be rescued, and they are already failing in many other ways, not least, educating and properly socializing young humans.
In the months just ahead, Mr. Obama will certainly be swamped with straight-ahead cash problems in every area of American life, from the foundering pension funds to the bankrupt state treasuries to the beggaring corporations to the starkly dispossessed and hungry masses of the jobless and re-poed. I wasn’t kidding when I came up with the label, “the long emergency,” to describe the storm that we are heading into, along with Mr. Obama. Of course, the current president — and Mr. Obama has been shrewd to point out there is only one president in office at a time –has more than two months to wreak additional havoc in the financial system. Right now, he’s asking Mr. O, “…do you want fries with that sandwich I made for you?”
My new novel of the post-oil future, “World Made By Hand,” is available at all booksellers.