Nicole Foss looks like she might be your grandmother coming to reassure you about something. But instead of milk and cookies you are served a cold dose of reality. According to Foss, one of the writers on the popular finance-oriented blog The Automatic Earth, the global economy is locked into an inexorable deflationary decline that cannot be stopped by governments or central banks. And, the world is headed for a depression worse than that of the 1930s.
Believe it or not, that’s the good news. The bad news is that the problems we face in the emerging depression will be aggravated by fossil fuel depletion, in particular, the onset of world peak oil production. When one questioner asked Foss when she thought we might return to even the tepid economic activity we see today, she had a one-word answer: “Never.”
Her explanation is that the interaction between the ongoing collapse of contemporary finance and the development of new oil and gas fields will leave us desperately short of these critical fuels over time. The weakness in the economy will lead to low investment in exploration for new oil and gas reservoirs which will, in turn, lead ultimately to a supply collapse. The supply collapse will lead to high prices which will depress economic activity and lead to recurrent economic contractions. When the new Great Depression is done, Foss claims that the world will be a completely different place with our current institutions swept into the dustbin of history.
Foss is remarkably good at delivering her message. She delivered it in person recently in a high school auditorium near where I live. Steady and clear, she methodically lays out her case for the scenario above with such logical precision and compelling analogies that you wonder just how one would go about making even the slightest dent in it. Of course, no one knows the future. Some people make lucky guesses–sometimes called “informed” predictions. But in the end it’s never clear how to tell ahead of time whom to believe during the next round of predictions.
Nicole Foss does, however, seem remarkably informed. She is at ease talking about the necessity of acquiring your own tools and growing own your food. In the next breathe she’s just as much at ease explaining with stunning clarity and brevity why the current chairman of the U. S. Federal Reserve Board is an even bigger fool that you thought he was. But she does this without any sign of personal animus. Ben Bernanke isn’t a bad person. He’s just confused and misinformed.
And, that leads us directly to Foss’s mission: To inform people so that they will have the understanding and tools to weather the coming storm and to build a community that can survive and thrive through it. She also demystifies the world of finance with unusual pithiness. The most recent financial bubble was not the result of some impenetrable, new-fangled financial instruments. Rather its roots were the same as all financial bubbles: the rediscovery of leverage. Translation: If you borrow money from someone else and speculate with it, you can make a lot more money than if you just use your own. It’s a tactic that works until it doesn’t. And, when it stops working, the economy goes crash.
The post-Depression generation had learned that too much borrowing leads to tears, and so they were very careful not to take on too much debt. Eventually, the people who experienced these tears died, and others took their place in the economy. The success of those who took on debt for speculative purposes attracted more people who took on debt to do the same in every field of investment. Eventually, too many people borrowed too much, and many of them were unable even to meet their interest payments. That is where we are today. According to Foss, it will be years until that excess debt is either paid or defaulted on. And, that means deflation for several years to come at least.
Is she right? No one can know until we travel some years hence. But so far, I’m having a hard time cracking her logic.