The Automatic Earth
by Raúl Ilargi Meijer
Central bankers have never done more damage to the world economy than in the past 10 years. One may argue this is because they never had the power to do that. If their predecessors had had that power, who knows? Still, the global economy has never been more interconnected than it is today, due mostly to the advance of globalism, neoliberalism and perhaps even more, technology.
Ironically, all three of these factors are unremittingly praised as forces for good.
But living standards for many millions of people in the west have come down and/or are laden with uncertainty, while millions of Chinese now have higher living standards. People in the west have been told to see this as a positive development; after all, it allows them to buy products cheaper than if they had been made in domestic industries.
But along with their manufacturing jobs, their entire way of life has mostly disappeared as well. Or, rather, it is being hidden behind a veil of debt. Still, we can no longer credibly deny that some three-quarters of Americans have a hard time paying their bills, and that is very different from the 1950s and 60s. In western Europe, this is somewhat less pronounced, or perhaps it’s just lagging, but with globalism and neoliberalism still the ruling economic religions, there’s no going back.
What happened? Well, we don’t make stuff anymore. That’s what. We have to buy our stuff from others. Increasingly, we lack the skills to make stuff too. We have become dependent on nations half a planet away just to survive. Nations that are only interested in selling their stuff to us if we can pay for it. And who see their domestic wage demands go up, and will -have to- charge ever higher prices for their products.
And we have no choice but to pay. But we can only pay with what we can borrow. As nations, as companies, and as individuals. We need to borrow because as nations, as companies, and as individuals we don’t make stuff anymore. It’s a vicious circle that globalization has blessed us with. And from which, we are told, we can escape only if we achieve growth. Which we can’t, because we don’t make anything.
So we rely on central bankers to manage the crisis. Because we’re told they know how to manage it. They don’t. But they do pretend to know. Still, if you read between the lines, they do admit to their ignorance. Janet Yellen a few weeks ago fessed up to the fact that she has no idea why inflation is weak. Mario Draghi has said more or less the same. Why don’t they know? Because the models don’t fit. And the models are all they have.
Economic models are more important in central banking than common sense. The Fed has some 1000 PhDs under contract. But Yellen, their boss, still claims that ‘perhaps’ the models are wrong, with it comes to inflation, and to wage growth. They have no idea why wages don’t grow. Because the models say they should. Because everybody has a job. 1000 very well paid PhDs. And that’s all they have. They say the lack of wage growth is a mystery.
I say that those for whom this is a mystery are not fit for their jobs. If you export millions of jobs to Asia, take workers’ negotiating powers away and push them into crappy jobs with no benefits, only one outcome is possible. And that doesn’t include inflation or wage growth. Instead, the only possible outcome is continuing erosion of economies.
The globalist mantra says we will fill up the lost space in our economies with ‘better’ jobs, service sector, knowledge sector. But reality does not follow the mantra. Most new jobs are definitely not ‘better’. And as we wait tables or greet customers at Wal-Mart, we see robots take over what production capacity is left, and delivery services erase what’s left of our brick and mortar stores. Yes, that means even less ‘quality’ jobs.
Meanwhile, the Chinese who now have taken over our jobs, have only been able to do that amidst insane amounts of pollution. And as if that’s not bad enough, they have recently, just to keep their magical new production paradise running, been forced to borrow as much as we have been -and are-, at state level, at local government level, and now as individuals as well.
In China, credit functions like opioids do in America. Millions of people who had never been in touch with the stuff would have been fine if they never had, but now they are hooked. The local governments were already, which has created a shadow banking system that will threaten Beijing soon, but for the citizens it’s a relatively new phenomenon.
And if you see them saying things like: “if you don’t buy a flat today, you will never be able to afford it” and “..a person without a flat has no future in Shenzhen.”, you know they have it bad. These are people who’ve only ever seen property prices go up, and who’ve never thought of any place as a ghost city, and who have few other ways to park what money they make working the jobs imported from the US and Europe.
They undoubtedly think their wages will keep growing too, just like the ‘value’ of their flats. They’ve never seen either go down. But if we need to borrow in order to afford the products they make in order to pay off what they borrowed in order to buy their flats, everyone’s in trouble.
And then globalization itself is in trouble. The very beneficiaries, the owners of globalization will be. Though not before they have taken away most of the fruits of our labor. What are you going to do with your billions when the societies you knew when you grew up are eradicated by the very process that allowed you to make those billions? It stops somewhere. If those 1000 PhDs want to study a model, they should try that one.
Globalization causes many problems. Jobs disappearing from societies just so their citizens can buy the same products a few pennies cheaper when they come from China is a big one. But the main problem with globalization is financial: money continually vanishes from societies, who have to get ever deeper in debt just to stand still. Globalization, like any type of centralization, does that: it takes money away from the ‘periphery’.
The Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Starbucks model has already taken away untold jobs, stores and money from our societies, but we ain’t seen nothing yet. The advent of the internet will put that model on steroids. But why would you let a bunch of Silicon Valley venture capitalists run things like Uber or Airbnb in your location, when you can do it yourself just as well, and use the profits to enhance your community instead of letting them make you poorer?
I see UK’s Jeremy Corbyn had that same thought, and good on him. Britain may become the first major victim of the dark side of centralization, by leaving the organization that enables it -the EU-, and Corbyn’s idea of a local cooperative to replace Uber is the kind of thinking it will need. Because how can you make up for all that money, and all that production capacity, leaving where you live? You can’t run fast enough, and you don’t have to.
This is the Roman Empire’s centralization conundrum all over. Though the Romans never pushed their peripheries to stop producing essentials; they instead demanded a share of them. Their problem was, towards the end of the empire, the share they demanded -forcefully- became ever larger. Until the periphery turned on them -also forcefully-.
The world’s central bankers’ club is set to get new leadership soon. Yellen may well be gone, so will Japan’s Kuroda and China’s Zhou; the ECB’s -and Goldman’s- Mario Draghi will go a bit later. But there is no sign that the economic religions they adhere to will be replaced, it’ll be centralization all the way, and if that fails, more centralization.
The endgame of that process is painfully obvious way in advance. Centralization feeds central forces, be they governmental, military or commercial, with the fruits of labor of local populations. That is a process that will always, inevitably, run into a wall, because too much of those fruits are taken out. Too much of it will flow to the center, be it Silicon Valley or Wall Street or Rome. Same difference.
There are things that you can safely centralize (peace negotiations), but they don’t include essentials like food, housing, transport, water, clothing. They are too costly at the local level to allow them to be centralized. Or everybody everywhere will end up paying through the nose just to survive.
It’s very easy. Maybe that’s why nobody notices.