Economic recovery aborted in June

Democrats want more government, Republicans want less. The Tea Party answers with an angry hammer-smash at the reset button.

| Sep 18, 2010

In this last week of summer, the financial-political world is still in the suspended animation in which it began summer. Recovery aborted by June, the US economy is flying just above stall speed; options for European sovereign debt and currency, and for China trade, are narrowing, but not yet closed. We’ll have an election in six weeks but are short of leaders.

August retail sales rose a thin .4%, and industrial production .3%, but July was revised down by .4%. Capacity in use was supposed to crawl up to 75% from 74.8% (80% is the border of health) but fell to 74.6%. The spike in unemployment-insurance claims has fallen from near 500,000 weekly, but settled at 450,000 where it’s been since last year. Today’s University of Michigan confidence index was expected to rise from 68.9 to 70, and instead dumped to 66.6, the lowest in 13 months.

Kids in the ‘50s raised Out West practiced the eye-squint necessary for proper delivery of this picture-show cowboy line: “It’s quiet out there… too quiet.”

So, time out for history.

This odd election is a mask for the public mind, which silently asks, What has happened to us, what should we do and expect, and who are we, anyway? The Democrats answer with more government, the Republicans with less government, and the Tea Party with an angry hammer-smash at the reset button.

All three appeal to the American myth: adopt our ideas, squash the others, and we will unleash America the Anointed, back to its predestined dominance and wealth!

A pinnacle beyond Rome

The American economic miracle was underway before the time-out for the Civil War, and had eclipsed all other powers long before 1900, a triumph of fantastic natural resources, social mobility, rule of law, and protection by oceans. We rose from there to a pinnacle beyond Rome in largest part because our economic competitors — all of them — blew themselves to pieces twice in the first half of the Bloody Twentieth.

After WW I, America held in its vaults 75% of the gold in the world, and IOUs from all European competitors for billions more, in gold. Even suppressed by Depression, America’s wealth was so great in 1941 that we could self-finance WW II, printing no money, and maintain stable prices — unmatched by any victor of any big war before or since. After WW II, there were no competitors standing: Europe, Russia, China, and Japan in smoking ruin, and the rest of the world more in barter than economy.

The great good that America had done, with an unselfishness never found in prior empires, and the good she would do to help the world rebuild — those things fully justified a sense of triumph, and it was real, no myth at all.

That was a long time ago. From 1945 on, we poured out gold and almighty dollars in trade deficits that allowed the world to recover. We began ceaselessly to borrow from ourselves and the world way back in 1963, and in 1971 had to stop the gold flow.

When did the empire flip?

There is no way to identify an instant, or even a decade, in which an empire flips from borrowing as good business to borrowing to support a standard of living no longer justified by its productive effort. In retrospect we crossed the threshold sometime between 1970 and 1990. The markers: “jobless recovery” after the 1991 recession; the jobless escape from 2001 recession only by engineered housing bubble (yes, it was partly on purpose); and escape from this one uncertain on any terms.

Somewhere in there we forgot the need to compete, and to live within our means. We still have the great advantages of enforceable contract, transparency, and mobility-opportunity, but natural resources overcome by consumption and oceans carrying imports will not support high lifestyle in global commerce by electron.

I think the people are way ahead of the three parties, fully aware that the thirty-year era of free lunch is done. Thus I hope that this uniquely American, chaotic election will have greater result than it looks right now. The risk, of course: the decadent refusal of all prior empires to pull up their suspenders, face reality, and adapt. 

Commentary by Louis S. Barnes on mortgage, credit and business trends will appear periodically in Boulder Reporter. Lou is our credit-market oracle and will offer updates Fridays, written in the voice of a bond trader overdue for his martini. No fluff, no blue-sky predictions, afflicting partisans of all affiliations, real-time right-now news. Learn more about Lou at Premier Mortgage Group.