April 07, 2012

A Higgs Boson Walks Into A Bar...

and the bartender says, "Hey, you know there were some guys looking for you."

Saturday morning essay, brought to you by Peet's Major Kong Blend...

I'm sure that I read the Zerohedge.com site more often than is strictly necessary or beneficial for one's mental health. Among the econoblogs, I think Zerohedge occupies something of a unique place. While it is a roosting place for many conspiracy theorists and Apocalyptics (not to mention anti-Semites, global warming deniers and other assorted cranks), there is also no doubt that Zerohedge really does its homework. It's gotten better and better at it over the years, in fact, and no longer makes some of the obvious errors it made concerning federal finances, for example, during the site's early days.

Half the fun is reading the comment threads at the end of the posts, placed there by the Comment Cowboys (h/t: Dan) who follow "Tyler Durden," the pseudonymous head of Zerohedge, around like the posse in "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid." Indeed, I often wonder: who are those guys? My guess is that many of the Cowboys are pissed-off day traders who have seen what used to be a fun and occasionally lucrative pastime hijacked by the manipulations of the "Central Planners" (the Fed, headed up by "Chairsatan" Ben Bernanke) and by the algo-driven programs of the High Frequency Traders (the "Quants"). Unless you have an HFT platform parked a few feet from the main servers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (close enough to take advantage of the milli-micro-nanosecond you might pick up even at speed of light transaction velocity), you can't really compete with the Big Boys. You're along for the ride. Thus, the devolution into the resigned acronym, "just BTFD" - Buy the Fucking Dip in stock prices, go long, follow the Fed's lead, and hope you time it right.

The Comment Cowboys make many references to the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, even to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, not to mention Building 7, JFK's assassination, the FEMA detention camps, the IMF plot to impose One World Government, you name it. Many of the commenters assume an attitude of utter infallibility, of a Higher Knowledge that is characteristic of the complete paranoid, since paranoia is closely aligned psychologically with grandiosity.

I often wonder why I am personally drawn to such stuff. I think, in part, it's just fun. Plus, there's the old joke, "just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean everyone isn't out to get me." A blogger is by nature somewhat grandiose; I mean, I actually think it's worthwhile for me to do this. I suppose this is a form of what Freud would call "projective grandiosity," and it is the flipside of a heightened native fear of the world at large.

What makes the present times so bedeviling, however, is that it's difficult to miss the signs that this a unique era in certain ominous ways. TJR and I read Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society way back in undergraduate days, shortly after the book was first published, and Jacques had this to say about the world of 1964:

"In spite of all the worthy persons who reassure themselves by saying all historical epochs are alike, that the crises of the fourth century resembled those of the ninth, and so on, the fact is that no one ever before saw world economies or world wars, or world and national populations which, on the average, doubled every forty-five years."
When I read that (if I read that; it was on page 271, and you know how it is in undergrad classes, particularly in Mick courses like sociology), I was young, stupid and without an intellectual context, problems I have somewhat corrected with the passing years. I didn't know then why we were reading this French guy and his dreary book. But Jacques was right, he was visionary, and he saw what was truly unique about modern times: Us. So many of us, armed with the "Extensions of Man" (technology) which make possible such utter destruction of the natural habitat, which place such enormous pressure on resources, on other species, on arable land and available freshwater.

Now ordinary "textbook economics" (a term the Keynesian Paul Krugman likes to use, falling into the trap that Ellul describes, that all epochs are like other epochs and the same economic rules apply now as in the days of David Ricardo and John Maynard Keyenes himself) finds itself up against the finite limits of Earth, and the old rules of business and commerce don't seem to work. The United States was particularly ill-prepared for this shuddering halt to "progress," to economic growth, because in reality our economy had stopped growing somewhere around 1980, and everything "accomplished" since then has been done on credit, building up huge public and private debts to maintain a lifestyle that we haven't been able to afford in actuality for a long time, and now all the chickens (which look a lot like vultures) are coming home to roost at once: Peak Oil production (the economists are having a hard time explaining why the price of oil stays so relentlessly high in the face of sharply dropping American demand), world food shortages, climate change disruption, droughts, melting glaciers threatening the freshwater supply of large fractions of the world's humans, dying fisheries, species extinctions, all the things that come in train with the world Jacques Ellul was describing (damn, I wish I'd studied more).

Henry David Thoreau, in retrospect, was one of those visionaries whose impulse to study simplicity in living, as a practical experiment, was not just coincidental with his times. Think about it: it was around 1840, Thoreau was nearly thirty years old, and he could see, with his immense intelligence, the changes that this Last Turning, the Industrial Revolution, were bringing to America. The hyper-specialization, the urban sprawl, the ghetto-ization of an industrial workforce, the habitat destruction, the destructive "progress" all around him, and he wrote a long jeremiad called Walden, in which he simply said: Don't do this, it leads to a cramped and unsatisfying life, where "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

The old rules of economics really do not apply anymore, but academics who have built their reputations on certain ideas cannot give them up without admitting they are involved in an irrelevant distraction. So they promulgate ideas for "growth," because we have to "grow" our economy or the laws of exponential functions (which still do apply) mean that there will never be a way to get out of these crushing debt burdens, with their compounding interest rates and yearly mounting deficits, and all the absurdly unfunded loads of the pensions and entitlements which we have no earthly way of ever paying.

The Posse back at Zerohedge are not fond of talking about environmentalism or anything "hippie" like that, because they tend to be right wing money grubbers (environmental concerns are equated with "Fascist" control over others). So all that Zerohedge can ever provide is a description of the problems, and not any proposed solutions. If there are any, in truth. I'm not sure, but then again, I tend to be a little paranoid.

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