The next American Revolution will not be an event, it will be a process. We naturally turn to the past for templates of the future, but history has a way of remaining remarkably unpredictable. Indeed, all the conventional long-range forecasts made in 1900, 1928, 1958, 1988 and 2000 missed virtually every key development--not just in the distant future, but just a few years out. The point is that extrapolating the present into the future fails to capture sea changes and developments that completely disrupt the supposedly unchanging, permanent Status Quo. The idea that the next revolution will take a new form does not occur to conventional forecasters, who readily assume the next transition will follow past critical junctures: armed insurrection against the central authority (The first American Revolution, 1781), civil war (1861) or global war (1941). We submit that the next American Revolution circa 2021-23 will not repeat or even echo these past transitions. What seems likely to me is the entire project of centralization that characterized the era 1941-2013 will slip into irrelevance as centralization increasingly yields diminishing returns.
There are two problems with the vast, sprawling legacy systems we've inherited from the past: they're dysfunctional and cannot be fixed/reformed. America's legacy systems are like stars about to go super-nova. They have increased in size to the point where their stupendous mass guarantees that once their energy source (as measured in fossil fuels and money) falls below a certain threshold, the institution will collapse inward on itself.
The wheels have come off the endless growth via expanding debt machine. Rising interest rates are the final blow to this agenda, and the political and financial classes have no Plan B. They are floundering, clueless, bereft of historical context, creativity and courage. Their failure of imagination is total, complete and catastrophic.
In the final section of this five-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) on the dismal reality behind the non-recovery, David Stockman explains what lies ahead. He details in his new book 'The Great Deformation', that the mainstream notion that there is a choice between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus is wishful thinking. It does not recognize that owing to the triumph of crony capitalism and printing-press money America has become a failed state fiscally. What lies ahead is a continuous, mad-cap cycling back and forth - virtually on an odd-even day basis - between deficit cutting and fiscal stimulus to the GDP. As Stockman notes, the proximate cause of this recession waiting to happen is the federal government’s unfolding encounter with Peak Debt. The latter is not a magical statistical point such as a federal debt ratio of 100 percent of GDP, but a condition of permanent crisis - "no viable economy can survive on chronic fiscal deficits nor can it fail to save at a sufficient rate to fund a healthy level of investment in productive capital assets. The blithe assumption to the contrary which animates current policy rests on self-serving clichés such as “deficits don’t matter” and the Chinese savings glut." So the American economy faces a long twilight of no growth, rising taxes, and brutally intensifying fiscal conflict. These are the wages of five decades of Keynesian sin - the price of abandoning financial discipline.
Eventually the money runs out. Much of America was shocked when the city of Detroit defaulted on a $39.7 million debt payment and announced that it was suspending payments on $2.5 billion of unsecured deb. Anyone with half a brain and a calculator could see this coming from a mile away. But people kept foolishly lending money to the city of Detroit, and now many of them are going to get hit really hard. But what Detroit is facing is not really that unique. In fact, Detroit is a perfect example of what the future of America is going to look like. We live in a nation that is rotting, decaying, drowning in debt and racing toward insolvency. Just like Detroit, a day is rapidly approaching when America will not be able to kick the can down the road anymore. Sadly, our politicians don't seem inclined to do anything about it and most of the population seems to think that our exploding national debt is not a significant problem. By the time it becomes clear how wrong they were, it will be far too late to do anything about it.
Almost three years ago we first highlighted the real math behind the surging entitlement class that America has become. So why does a large portion of the population choose not to work when there are many jobs available? The answer is simple. If you can receive 2-3 times as much money from unemployment, disability, and/or welfare benefits (subsidized housing, food stamps, free cellphones, etc.) as you can from a temporary or part-time job, and live a life of leisure, why work? This is the ugly reality we illustrated just six months ago and the situation - amid what is apparently called a 'recovery' remains a depressingly real sign of the times. The political allure of free is so strong that an alarming number of people choose to become wards of the entitlement/welfare state rather than captain their own destiny. Indeed, while many are 'proud', 49% of American households now receive one or more government transfer benefits amounting to 18% of all personal income and a burden of $7,400 for every American - seemingly threatening the supposed self-reliance that has long characterized the American national psyche.
If Obamacare's stated goal was to broaden the health insurance market, give more options to consumers, and generally lower the cost of health insurance, courtesy of the IRS' flawless execution of yet another unprecedented government expansion, it may be in for a tough time. Because while on paper every statist plan of centrally-planned ambitions looks good, in reality things usually don't work out quite as expected. Case in point the news that Aetna will stop selling health insurance to individual consumers in California at the end of 2013, in advance of Obamacare's complete transformation of the insurance market: a transformation which just incidentally may see most private health insurance firms follow in Aetna's steps and the emergence of a single-payer system along the lines of the British National Health Service. A government-mandated and funded system which, needless to say, crushes private enterprise, and ends up costing far more for all involved than an efficient market based on individual wants, needs and capabilities constantly in flux. But that's ok - there is an administration which is smarter than the entire market, and a Federal Reserve which will monetize any deficit funding, and the only trade off is making the already ridiculous US federal debt ridiculouser.
And so the next casualty of the inevitable municipal collapse appears, which is, as expected, that one-time symbol of all that was right with a (once upon a time) manufacturing America, having since been replaced with the anti-symbol of all that is broken: Detroit. DETROIT BEGINS MORATORIUM ON ALL DEBT SERVICE PAYMENTS FOR UNSECURED FUNDED DEBT; DETROIT TO DEFAULT ON CERTIFICATES OF PARTICIPATION DUE TODAY. And, true to from in the New Normal America, where the "fairness doctrine" rules supreme under Big Brother's watchful eye, the premise of the upcoming glorious recovery is a well-known one: "the shared-sacrifice." To wit: "The City currently faces approximately $17 billion in total liabilities. Detroit is insolvent and cannot meet its financial obligations without a significant restructuring. Mr. Orr's plan provides for shared sacrifice among all creditor groups – from Wall Street and Main Street consistent with their legal rights – in order to return Detroit to a sustainable financial foundation and to permit much-needed reinvestment in the City." The punchline: "Detroit's road to recovery begins today"... By defaulting.
"I'm terrified about what will happen to interest rates once financial markets wake up to the implications of skyrocketing budget deficits.... The accident -- the fiscal train wreck -- is already under way.... How will the train wreck play itself out? Maybe a future administration will use butterfly ballots to disenfranchise retirees, making it possible to slash Social Security and Medicare. Or maybe a repentant Rush Limbaugh will lead the drive to raise taxes on the rich. But my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt.... And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar. It won't happen right away. With the economy stalling and the stock market plunging, short-term rates are probably headed down, not up, in the next few months, and mortgage rates may not have hit bottom yet. But unless we slide into Japanese-style deflation, there are much higher interest rates in our future.... I think that the main thing keeping long-term interest rates low right now is cognitive dissonance."
The New Deal social insurance philosophers thus struck a Faustian bargain... To get government funded pensions and unemployment benefits for the most needy, they eschewed a means test and, instead, agreed to generous wage replacement on a universal basis. To fund the massive cost of these universal benefits they agreed to a regressive payroll tax by disguising it as an insurance premium. Yet the long run results could not have been more perverse. The payroll tax has become an anti-jobs monster, but under the banner of a universal entitlement organized labor tenaciously defends what should be its nemesis. The puzzling thing is that 75 years later - with all the terrible facts fully known - the doctrinaire conviction abides on the Left that social insurance is the New Deal’s crowning achievement. In fact, it is its costliest mistake.
Here's the challenge the Status Quo monetary and fiscal authorities faced in the 2008 global financial meltdown: how do we maintain the power structure and keep the masses passive while masking the fact that the Status Quo is broken? The solution: sell bonds to fund benefits to the masses, lower interest rates to zero to keep the explosive rise in fiscal deficits affordable, and rapidly inflate new bubbles in assets that painlessly enrich the top 25% of households who then increase their borrowing and spending, i.e. the "wealth effect." The political calculus is simple: the bottom half of households don't vote, don't contribute to political campaigns and don't have enough income to borrow huge sums of money to enrich the banks. They are thus non-entities in the fiscal-monetary project of maintaining the power structure of the Status Quo. All the Status Quo needs to do is borrow enough money to fund social programs that keep the masses passive and silent: food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, SSI permanent disability, unemployment, etc. Unfortunately for the Powers That Be, the cost of placating the rapidly increasing marginalized populace is rising much faster than tax revenues.
In the 15th century, the highest standard of living in the world belonged to China. Places like Nanjing had reached the pinnacle of civilization with incredibly modern infrastructure, robust economies, substantial international trade, great healthcare, and a rising middle class. If you had told a Chinese merchant at the time that, over the course of the next several hundred years, global primacy would shift to Europe (and a relatively unknown American continent), you would have been laughed at. It was simply unthinkable given how advanced China was over the west. And yet, it happened. Ironically, the tables are turning yet again; in total objectivity, the patient is beyond cure at this point… and the math is quite simple. Nations typically enter this vicious cycle once they start having to borrow money just to pay interest on what they already owe. The US is already way past this point.
When you step back and look at the long-term trends, it is undeniable what is happening to us. We are in the midst of a horrifying economic decline that is the result of decades of very bad decisions. 30 years ago, the U.S. national debt was about one trillion dollars. Today, it is almost 17 trillion dollars. 40 years ago, the total amount of debt in the United States was about 2 trillion dollars. Today, it is more than 56 trillion dollars. At the same time that we have been running up all of this debt, our economic infrastructure and our ability to produce wealth has been absolutely gutted. Since 2001, the United States has lost more than 56,000 manufacturing facilities and millions of good jobs have been shipped overseas. Our share of global GDP declined from 31.8 percent in 2001 to 21.6 percent in 2011. The percentage of Americans that are self-employed is at a record low, and the percentage of Americans that are dependent on the government is at a record high. The U.S. economy is a complete and total mess, and it is time that we faced the truth.
A data-based look at the financial context of the past 30 years from the perspective of Gen X.