Sunday, November 21, 2010

What’s Worse Than a Depression?

"Is the crisis over?"
"Is the economy recovering?"
These are questions I'm often asked. People who ask such questions are praying for a "V-shaped" recovery, hoping that the worst is over and that we're on our way to economic recovery.
Some experts say that we're in a "U-shaped" recovery, meaning the recovery will take longer, maybe another two to three years. Others fear a "W-shaped recovery," a double dip, which could result in another crash before full recovery. Some experts are calling for a zombie recovery similar to the Japanese economy's 20-year stagnation.
There's also a growing chorus of experts who are warning of our greatest fear, a depression either in the form of hyperinflation like the German Weimar Republic experienced in the 1920s, or a deflationary depression like the Great Depression.
A depression would be devastating, but could there be something worse than a depression?
The answer is, "Yes." There could be an economic collapse.
Near Miss
In 2008 my friend and author of The Dollar Crisis and The Corruption of Capitalism, Richard Duncan, called me and said, "The global credit card system almost shut down. Can you imagine what would've happened to the world economy if the credit card system failed? We came very close."
Richard is not an alarmist. He's a classically trained economist, a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Babson College, and a former advisor to both the IMF and the World Bank. He has access to information most of us don't. He's a reserved, clear-thinking, soft-spoken person. For over a year now, Richard's words have been ringing in my ears.
For me, the key word is system. For something to collapse, not all systems have to shut down. In most cases, just one system is enough. For example, the human body is a system of systems. If just one system, such as the cardiovascular system, shuts down, death follows. The same is true for an automobile. If the fuel system shuts down, the car is inoperable even though the other systems may all be in good order.
Many of us go about our days in blissful ignorance that an economic collapse could happen at any moment should one of our financial systems -- like the credit card system -- collapse. Our global economy is much more fragile than many of us realize.
The world is made up of systems, systems often competing against one another. For instance, BP's latest gusher in the Gulf brought home the fragile relationship between the world's eco and economic systems. The environmentalists say capitalism is killing our oceans, air, land, and forests. Capitalists argue that they provide food, fuel, and building materials for a growing world.
Because the world is made up of systems in conflict, it's not only uncommon (but, rather, normal) to see systems collapse.
History is full of economic collapses from the Roman Empire to Weimar Germany to, most recently, Iceland. Economic collapses most often precede the collapse of empires.
In families, if the breadwinners lose their jobs, the family economy often collapses.
We should not be surprised when collapses happen. Rather, we should be surprised they don't happen more often.
As you may have already guessed, a minor collapse can create a ripple effect that may cause a domino effect of bigger crashes. This is why Greece was such a hot issue. If Greece failed, it might have taken the mighty German and French economies down. This would have caused an economic tsunami and collapsed the world economy.
Jared Diamond's Collapse is a great book for history buffs of collapses. Diamond traces the causes that led to the fall of civilizations such as the Maya, Easter Island, the Anasazi Indian tribe of Arizona and Utah, the environmental and economic collapse going on in Montana today, and more. The book reads like a murder mystery. It's easy to read, disturbing, frightening -- and hard to put down. Looking into the history of collapses, we see many parallels to today.
And, it seems to me, we know this intuitively. Our pop culture is becoming obsessed with apocalyptic stories. There are more and more movies about what would happen to our world after a collapse. The latest are 2012, The Road, and The Book of Eli. There is a new TV series titled The Colony that is created on the same theme. Even TV commercials are picking up on the post-apocalyptic world. Bridgestone tires runs a commercial about a rogue gang of dark and dangerous looking thugs stopping a car on a steep mountain road demanding, "Your Bridgestones or your life." The driver throws out a gorgeous, sexy, long-legged young woman, turns around and drives off with the thugs screaming, "Your life, not your wife!"
Judging History
So the question becomes, if the world's economic systems are so fragile, and if collapses are common in a world of competing systems, why are we not talking more about the possibility of collapse? Obviously our leaders don't want us talking or thinking about that. And they try hard to frame the discussion so we don't.
Most people would agree (including many historians) that the best way to anticipate the future is to study the past. But what if our version of history is wrong? What if our history is distorted to sell an agenda? After all, the word "history" is made up of two words: his and story.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Princeton University scholar of the Great Depression, often says that the depression could have been averted if only the government had printed more money. That's his story, but that's not what history says.
After the crash of 1929, FDR was elected in 1933. He immediately took the U.S. off the gold standard through the Emergency Banking Act and introduced his New Deal. This allowed him to print more money and rack up huge amounts of national debt. At first it seemed that FDR's plan was working.
Yet in 1938 there was a "depression within the depression." Economic output collapsed and the unemployment rate rose from 14.3% to 19%, in the face of a year-over-year decline from the peak of 24.9% in 1933.
History proves Bernanke's claim (that FDR didn't print enough money) to be wrong. This is what Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, wrote in his diary in May 1939: "We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and now if I am wrong, somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosper. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this administration, we have just as much unemployment as when we started. And enormous debt to boot."
World War II broke out in 1939 and many people credit that war with saving the economy. While the war did boost the recovery, it was the Bretton Woods Agreement, signed in 1944, that put the world back on the gold standard, which stabilized the global economy.
Back to the Future
In 1971 President Richard Nixon took the world off the gold standard. Here we are again on the edge of a new depression. After the last depression, America emerged as the richest creditor nation in the world. Because our homeland wasn't bombed like the European countries, we had factories exporting products to a world rebuilding from the war.
Today leaders like Ben Bernanke want to rewrite history. They want us to believe that spending and debt are the solution. They want us to buy their version of history and continue to get deeper and deeper into debt. They want us to trust that printing more money will pull us out of our great recession.
True history speaks a different story. It speaks of collapse when a nation or empire overextends itself. The true fear should not be a depression or a double-dip recession. It should be an economic collapse. You can only tip the system so many times before it falls completely apart.
Today America is the biggest debtor nation in the world. Our factories have moved overseas. Now we're net importers paying our bills and fighting two wars with counterfeit money as our leaders use the same accounting rules WorldCom and Enron used -- and as you know, those companies no longer exist.

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