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Monday, February 25, 2008


vanguard of social unrest

there's been plenty of talk in the financial community about the unfolding disaster in real estate -- first residential, now increasingly commercial -- but very little talk about what it means. the problems of bank balance sheets and government interventionism have been dissected endlessly, to be sure, but i'm referring to the social impact of our economic problems.

periods of true economic duress are often accompanied by social unrest as shaken faith in social institutions as protectors and guarantors of social good often translates in one of two ways: increased militarism by the subordinate of society, and increased anarchism by the deviant. the subordinate are often the ingratiated, as one would suspect -- proponents of the virtue of social order are invariably those who currently control and derive disproportionate benefit from that order.

this cycle may be more violent than any we've seen in some time. the reasons i say so are not complex, but i should lay them out explicitly.

real wages as a percentage of gdp have been in decline since 2000, and indeed since 1972, falling some 15% in that time. (please note that this decline is significantly understated, as inflation is indexed to CPI, which is itself significantly understated in an effort to reduce the real obligation of government entitlement payouts.) this has manifested in a middle class that, to meet expenses, no longer saves any money at all -- where personal savings peaked at nearly 15% in 1974, the current rate is approximately zero. further, the death of savings has been accompanied by massive household liability growth, meaning that household debt service costs have grown immense in spite of prevailing record low interest rates.

these are trends that have an endpoint. americans can not forever go on living beyond means which are, year after year, continually diminishing. the pressure being placed on median-income people to reconcile the consumer excess continually reinforced by advertising regimes such as television with declining incomes and massive debt costs will force a change -- and with that change will inevitably come some chaos.

the housing bust -- which may be the most significant socioeconomic event in the united states since at least the oil crisis of the 1970s -- seems initially to have the mass and power to force these trends to a possible reversal and the accompanying lawlessness. to wit:

calculated risk highlights the robbery of a georgia bank motivated by a foreclosed homeowner. this sort of robber populism is as old as robin hood, and has made cyclical appearances in the national consciousness with every severe economic downturn. the most famous recent examples were the depression-era gangsters -- bonnie and clyde, john dillinger, et al.

the american mythology typically plays down the extent to which lawlessness pervaded the american midwest during the period. but a more interested reading of the history of the period reveals that integral elements of the society were agitating even for revolution. foreclosures were periodically suspended in many midwestern states during the height of the hardship as much to prevent open rural revolt as any other reason. the roosevelt administration incited anti-juridical sentiment for populist political purposes from 1932 onward, in part to get constitutionally-questionable aspects of the new deal passed; this had the effect of reinforcing the prejudices of many afflicted people against the entire financial and legal establishment which had arranged the preconditions of the depression in the first place. eventually, those trying to enforce bank contracts were taking their lives in their hands. military police were often needed at foreclosure auctions to avoid violence. martial law was intermittently enforced by the national guard. fear in the end drove worker against worker -- the iowa farmers strike of 1932, perhaps inevitably, turned brutally violent.

further, some more ideological anarchism was recently evidenced in bremerton, washington, last week in vandalising some banks. the origin of ideological anarchism can be traced to proudhon writing his seminal treatise in 1840 paris -- a city wracked with financial hardship stemming from the 1837-41 global depression. the change in socioeconomic currents culminated in the railroad boom-bust financial crisis in 1846-47 and finally the revolution of 1848, whereupon proudhon proposed democratizing credit by transferring ownership of the financial sector to the workingman. moreover, anarchism became a major social force in western civility in the periods of sporadic financial tumult that broadly characterized europe between 1868 to 1896, sometimes called the long depression.

the sort of incidents aforementioned will merit and demand ever more attention over the coming decade, i suspect. these incidents are small beer, i think everyone would concede, and the financial condition of the american middle class has not (at least not yet, if it sometime will) reached a point that has them broadly questioning their faith in capitalism and its institutions.

but -- if the crisis continues to deepen -- a change in social attitude about banking and lending may well be underway now, one which could (if history is any guide) lead to populist social violence on the one disenfranchised hand and increased authoritarianism on the other entrenched hand. as government policies and bailouts proceed, as the problems of negative equity and foreclosure multiply, and as some banks begin to fail, the impetus of these trend changes in attitude will grow.

conversely, this is transpiring at a time when the dominant minority in the american society is near a new highwatermark of paranoia regarding the security of their elevated role. this is amply demonstrated in my view by the sustained militant reaction following the 2001 world trade center attack. since that day, the elements of power which attempt to sway public opinion have relentlessly reinforced a culture of fear which, it must be supposed, is seen as necessitating allegiance to the established political order. living in the united states today means in part being constantly reminded that you are about to die horribly at the hands of some faceless terrorist. this has been associated with a reckless expansion of the domestic police state, from increased funding for all manner of law enforcement however absurd to the establishment of widespread domestic surveillance and wiretapping. though spartanism has been on the move in america since the first world war or earlier, the recent acceleration highlights the increased tension.

accompanying this has been a belligerence in foreign policy that, whatever its mundane goals are, represents a further manifestation of the insecurity of the leadership class as a whole with respect to its empire. it is typical of powerful and secure states to exercise the quiet control of diplomacy through coercion (often economic but also cultural) to attain desired ends; the exercise of expensive (and often ineffective) military power is best viewed on this perspective as either an admission of actually insufficient coercive power or evidence of a fearful perception of powerlessness among american leadership. i frankly suspect the perception of american powerlessness is more operative than the actual condition, and where the actual might be focused on certain problem areas the perception is very likely omnidirectional, i.e. felt inwardly as well as outwardly. as the perception has grown, a sort of madness has taken hold of the highest offices of american power -- a commitment to lawlessness in the face of a perceived or even contrived threat of lawlessness, the rise of the rule of heroism.

a leadership demonstrating these signals of deep and universal insecurity could react to outbreaks of domestic lawlessness in any number of ways. this is, after all, a complex situation. but the example of the resuscitated "war on drugs" that dates back to the nixon administration of 1969 -- a watershed period in establishing postmodern fears of the american leadership class for their privileged status -- bodes ill for those hoping to avoid civil confrontation in the face of any serious challenge to order. the recent synonymous situation of france reinforces a glum outlook.

the confluence of these two socioeconomic trends leads me to believe that we may be faced with a prominent period of civil violence in coming years in the united states. this needn't mean the end of the society, of course -- 1968 changed the west but did not kill it, and as much can be said of the 1930s or the 1890s as well. but it is something to monitor as the debt crisis unfolds.

a further consideration would be something like the opposite of violence -- a deep-seated desire to move beyond the physical world entirely, to disengage from reality and delve into the transcendent idealism of religion. i originally discussed the rise of heroism in the context of christian cultism, and one might see correlation between past "great awakenings" in america and periods of economic crisis. the first began around 1731, intensified in the 1740s and continued through the 1750s; the second in 1800 through the 1820s; the third from 1850 to 1900; the contentiously-designated fourth from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

i doubt it is a coincidence that these are also periods encompassing significant financial strife. the first blossomed dring the trade-depressing global war of the austrian succession (1740-48) and died out shortly thereafter. the second emerged alongside the napoleonic wars and the massive shocks that accompanied the first decades of american independence, including the continental hyperinflation, the war of 1812 and the depression of 1819-24. the third is roughly contemporaneous with the american civil war and long depression. the fourth aligned with vietnam, watergate and the inflationary depression of 1965-82. it should be further noted that religious fundamentalism experienced a lesser revival in the great depression as well. obviously, not all periods of economic or military strife were also periods of religious intensification; but it might be suggested that economic strife is an accelerant to conditions predisposed of world despairing.

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Excellent commentary, weaving together many interrelated factors.

I've given this considerable thought and concluded, at least for the time being, that due to the lack of political consciousness in the US, a progressive populist movement is doubtful.

Another aspect worthy of consideration is the likelihood of the search for scapegoats. As I see it, there exists a lack of adequate targets for this, except possibly the 'threat' posed by immigrants (especially of the illegal variety), which may fit the bill. Laced with this would be a degree of racism. However, I doubt here too that immigrants as scapegoats will be sufficient to meet the task of identifying and mobilizing the necessary hatred.

Time will tell.

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