Stop and Assess

America has become Alzheimer Nation. Nothing is remembered for more than a few minutes. The news media, which used to function as a sort of collective brain, is a memory hole that events are shoved down and extinguished in. An attack in Syria, you ask? What was that about? Facebook stole your…what? Four lives snuffed out in a… a what? Something about waffles? Trump said… what? Let’s pause today and make an assessment of where things stand in this country as winter finally coils into Spring.

As you might expect, a nation overrun with lawyers has litigated itself into a cul-de-sac of charges, arrests, suits, countersuits, and allegations that will rack up billable hours until the Rockies tumble. The best outcome may be that half the lawyers in this land will put the other half in jail, and then, finally, there will be space for the rest of us to re-connect with reality.

What does that reality consist of? Troublingly, an economy that can’t go on as we would like it to: a machine that spews out ever more stuff for ever more people. We really have reached limits for an industrial economy based on cheap, potent energy supplies. The energy, oil especially, isn’t cheap anymore. The fantasy that we can easily replace it with wind turbines, solar panels, and as-yet-unseen science projects is going to leave a lot of people not just disappointed but bereft, floundering, and probably dead, unless we make some pretty severe readjustments in daily life.

We’ve been papering this problem over by borrowing so much money from the future to cover costs today that eventually it will lose its meaning as money — that is, faith that it is worth anything. That’s what happens when money is just a representation of debt that can’t be paid back. This habit of heedless borrowing has enabled the country to pretend that it is functioning effectively. Lately, this game of pretend has sent the financial corps into a rapture of jubilation. The market speed bumps of February are behind us and the road ahead looks like the highway to Vegas at dawn on a summer’s day.

Tesla is the perfect metaphor for where the US economy is at: a company stuffed with debt plus government subsidies, unable to deliver the wished-for miracle product — affordable electric cars — whirling around the drain into bankruptcy. Tesla has been feeding one of the chief fantasies of the day: that we can banish climate problems caused by excessive CO2, while giving a new lease on life to the (actually) futureless suburban living arrangement that we foolishly invested so much of our earlier capital building. In other words, pounding sand a rat hole.

Because none of that is going to happen. The true message of income inequality is that the nation as a whole is becoming incrementally impoverished and eventually even the massive “wealth” of the one-percenters will prove to be fictitious, as the things it is represented in — stocks, bonds, currencies, Manhattan apartments — hemorrhage their supposed value. The very wealthy will be a lot less wealthy while everybody else is in a life-and-death struggle to remain fed, housed, and warm. And, of course, that only increases the chance that some violent social revolution will take away even that remaining residue of wealth, and destroy the people who held it.

What lies ahead is contraction. Of everything. Activity, population. The industrial economy is not going to be replaced by a super high tech utopia, because that wished-for utopia needs an industrial economy underneath to support it. This is true, by the way, for all the other “advanced” nations. China has a few more years of dependable oil supply left and then they will discover that they can no longer manufacture solar panels or perhaps not even run the magnificent electronic surveillance system they are so artfully building. Their political system will prove to be at least as fragile as our own.

The time may even come when the young people, of the USA especially, have to put aside their boundary-smashing frolics of the day and adjust the pre-cooked expectations they’ve been handed to the actual contraction at hand, and what it means for making a life under severely different conditions. It means, better learn how to do something really practical and not necessarily high tech. Better figure out a part of the country that will be safe to live in. Better plan on hunkering down there when the people stuck in the less favorable places make a real mess of things.


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New Paintings by JHK 2016 — 2017


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