Originally published in Clusterfuck Nation on December 13, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author.
by James Howard Kunstler
I overheard a conversation between two employees over at the Price Chopper supermarket last week. (The Price Chopper logo is a picture of a Mercury dime with an ax cleaving into Mercury’s head; in other words, an ax murder.) The supermarket employees were both middle-aged women.
First: “I’m going home to a cold house.”
Second: “Why don’t you turn up the heat?”
First: “I don’t have no money for fuel.”
Meanwhile, 175 miles south in Manhattan somewhere, Lloyd Blankfein’s personal shopper is trying to figure out whether to buy Lloyd’s favorite niece a Fabergé egg themed Memories of Azov or a Jaguar XK convertible.
Maybe the catch here is that the anonymous supermarket workers are only freezing this Christmas season. If they were freezing and hungry, it might be a different story. But, working in a supermarket, a person might find a way to cadge a few tidbits here and there (whoops, we broke a bag of Cheetos on the loading dock) – the catch there being you could get fired for stealing the merchandise. O sorry nation!
But don’t fear! The president and congress are looking out for you, O nation of freezing supermarket employees (and flummoxed personal shoppers, and wily mega-bank CEOs)! They have fashioned a deal that we might call Stim-u-rama. Everybody gets a tax cut! Everybody! Not just Lloyd B but all you toiling and moiling shelf-stockers and check-out cashiers. Plus, you will get a reduction of several percentage points in your payroll deductions – a redoo in the dedoo! – which must be good for at least one Justin Bieber action figure (if there are any left!) in these waning days of the Yuletide consumer frenzy.
Meanwhile moreover, CBS 60-Minutes showed a segment Sunday night on the rip-roaring economic miracle of Brazil – “a little bit bigger than the USA geographically and loaded with natural resources” – as if to rub it in that we have become a sorry nation of losers to a bunch of no-account beach layabouts. As usual, the 60-Minutes reportage was full of lies and misrepresentations, for instance, that Brazil’s offshore oil discoveries are so huge and so easy to extract that they will save industrial civilization.
The sights and smells of Christmas usually put me in a mellow frame of mind. But this year there’s an acid edge in the mulled wine, an off-taste in the plum pudding, a disconcerting odor of rot in the piped-in holiday potpourri.
Obviously, the government tax deal along with the Federal Reserve’s recent QE announcements represent a mighty effort to stuff some spendable lucre into this shuddering, doddering beast of the American economy. The people running things don’t know what else to do. We find ourselves in a decelerating system, hopelessly over-complex (and scheming, even, to add additional layers of complexity!), with money-making activity shifted from producing things of value into a runaway Wall Street machine dedicated to something-for-nothing rentier exploitation of interest rate differentials, arbitrages, short-sales, outright swindles, and other activities based on no creation of value whatsoever. While capital piles up in the salons of Central Park West and the cigar cellars of the Hamptons, social capital hemorrhages every day as masses of formerly-working Americans forego the acquisition of any useful skills, or forget old ones, or opt to lose themselves in the transports of methadrine, “reality” TV, and tattoo art. To put it perhaps a bit indelicately, our shit is falling apart.
It’s fascinating that in the background of all this the price of oil is fibrillating around $90-a-barrel – and nobody is paying any attention to that. We seem to have forgotten the lesson from back in 2008 that when oil gets above the $80 mark, things in this land of Happy Motoring and the Warehouse-on-wheels don’t work so well. No wonder President Obama and congress are trying to stuff the country full of sugar plums just to get past the horror of a Christmas holiday when not a few working people will be freezing in their homes, if they have homes.
And in not too many days ahead we’ll get a peek at those Christmas bonuses landing in the laps of Lloyd Blankfein’s minions at Goldman Sachs and the rest of the geniuses in the engine room of prosperity.
When I was already a grown-up young newspaper reporter thirty-odd years ago, I never dreamed I’d see a revolutionary moment here in the USA – even with old Nixie pulling one fast one after another, before heading off to that helicopter for his last wave to the people who elected him. Now, I’m not so sure.
James Howard Kunstler (Wikipedia Citation): Born in 1948, New York City, New York, James Kunstler is an American author, social critic, public speaker, and blogger. He is best known for his books The Geography of Nowhere (1994), a history of American suburbia and urban development, and the more recent The Long Emergency (2005), where he argues that declining oil production is likely to result in the end of industrialized society as we know it and force Americans to live in smaller-scale, localized, agrarian (or semi-agrarian) communities. He has written a science fiction novel conjecturing such a culture in the future, World Made by Hand in 2008. He also gives lectures on topics related to suburbia, urban development, and the challenges of what he calls “the global oil predicament” and a resultant change in the “American Way of Life.” He is also a leading proponent of the movement known as “New Urbanism.”