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The long heist!

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Suddenly, it all makes sense!

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” -Paulo Freire

Dear neighbours, Dordie and Bill, lent us a documentary video to watch on Sunday night.  It was called “HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream?

As the film’s website explains:

HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream? is stunning audiences across the globe as it traces the worldwide economic collapse to a 1971 secret memo entitled Attack on American Free Enterprise System. Written over 40 years ago by the future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, at the behest of the US Chamber of Commerce, the 6-page memo, a free-market utopian treatise, called for a money fueled big business makeover of government through corporate control of the media, academia, the pulpit, arts and sciences and destruction of organized labor and consumer protection groups.

But Powell’s real “end game” was business control of law and politics. HEIST’s step by step detail exposes the systemic implementation of Powell’s memo by BOTH U.S. political parties culminating in the deregulation of industry, outsourcing of jobs and regressive taxation. All of which led us to the global financial crisis of 2008 and the continued dismantling of the American middle class. Today, politics is the playground of the rich and powerful, with no thought given to the hopes and dreams of ordinary Americans. No other film goes as deeply as HEIST in explaining the greatest wealth transfer of our time. Moving beyond the white noise of today’s polarizing media, HEIST provides viewers with a clear, concise and fact- based explanation of how we got into this mess, and what we need to do to restore our representative democracy.

It’s an incredibly interesting film, but more of that later.  For me, what was stunningly enlightening was at last understanding the powerful forces at work since Lewis Powell published ‘the memo’ back on August 23, 1971.  Because for me over in Britain, the era of the ’70s’ and ’80s’ were incredibly fulfilling.  First, as a salesman for IBM UK – Office Products Division, from 1970 through to 1978, and then forming and managing my own company through to 1986 when I succumbed to an attractive purchase offer.  Then, when my company was sold, taking a few years off cruising a sailboat in the Mediterranean; based out of Larnaca, Cyprus.

Thus I was immune to the global money and power plays, albeit enjoying rising house prices!  Only Lady Luck protected me from the collapse of 2008 in that I had sold my Devon home in early 2007 and was renting.  Then Lady Luck arranging for me to meet Jean in Mexico, Christmas 2007 (we were born 23 miles apart in London) and subsequently moving out to Mexico with Pharaoh in September, 2008, to be with Jean and all her dogs.  Lady Luck’s magic continued in that we came to Merlin, Oregon because we were able to take advantage of a bank-owned property; moving there in October, 2012.

Of course, the scale of the downturn was obvious and there were many instances of people that I knew losing jobs or homes, or both, and generally having a very rough time.

So back to the film.  Here’s the official trailer.

Uploaded on Feb 17, 2012

Please watch the newly updated trailer for “Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?,” the new, explosive documentary from Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher exposing the roots of the American economic crisis and the destruction of the American dream. Visit www.Heist-TheMovie.com for more information on how to see the feature film and how to Take Action in restoring democracy and economic justice in the United States.

But here’s another thing that now makes sense: The legitimate anger of so many people, especially those who have some insight into what had been taking place.  No, amend that!  What is still taking place!

Just one example of that legitimate anger, that of Patrice Ayme. Just go across and read his blog post of two days ago: American Circus.

My strong recommendation is that you take an evening off and watch the film. Here’s another preview:

Frances Causey, Co-producer & co-director-Heist & Donald Goldmacher, Co-producer & co-director-Heist join Thom Hartmann. Corporate America is the biggest Welfare reciepient in the country – but that wasn’t always the case. The makers of Heist will tell you how organized money has been able to pull off the biggest “Heist” of the American Dream!

The film also concludes by offering many ways in which individuals can take back control of their lives, reinvigorate local communities, actively show that people-power is unstoppable. As it always has been and always will be.

This post started with a quote and I’m going to close with another.

The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” -Mahatma Gandhi

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The influence of climate

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Changing climate is changing us and the world in significant and fundamental ways.

I wrote this around noon on the 7th September.  That day we awoke to the sky, normally clear blue, covered totally in grey stratus cloud.  Shortly after 9am it started to rain and some three hours later that rain was still steadily falling from the sky.  Don’t get me wrong, the steady rain was vital to the area.

The precipitation statistics for Payson, AZ up to yesterday (6th at the time of writing) are:

Precipitation year to date (ergo to the 6th September) = 8.02 inch (20.37 cms)

Precipitation 30-year average to the end of September = 16.25 inch (41.28 cms)

Year to date as a percentage of 30-year average = 49.4%

The annual 30-year average precipitation for the year for Payson is 21.5 inch. (54.6 cms)

So despite a moderately effective monsoon, there is no way that Payson, Arizona will be even close to the 30-year average for precipitation.

That’s why a recent essay by Chris Martenson, he of Peak Prosperity fame, is so critically worth reading.  I’m very grateful to Adam Taggart, Chris’s business partner, for giving me permission to republish the essay.  (Note that the essay was published before Hurricane Isaac arrived.)

Also note that this is Part One of Chris’s very detailed report and that to read the concluding Part Two you will need to enrol over at Peak Prosperity.  However, Part One is very detailed and covers much. Thus even without Part Two there is much here to ‘exercise the mind’.

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The U.S. Drought Is Hitting Harder Than Most Realize

Repercussions are everywhere.  By Chris Martenson, Wednesday, August 29, 2012, 8:02 PM

This is an important update on the U.S. drought of 2012, the combined record-setting July land temperatures, and their impact on food prices, water availability, energy, and even U.S. GDP.

Even though the mainstream media seems to have lost some interest in the drought, we should keep it front and center in our minds, as it has already led to sharply higher grain prices, increased gasoline costs (via the pass-through of higher ethanol costs), impeded oil and gas drilling activity in some areas (due to a lack of water), caused the shutdown of a few operating electricity plants, temporarily reduced red meat prices (but will also make them climb sharply later) as cattle are dumped in response to feed- and pasture-management concerns, and blocked and/or reduced shipping on the Mississippi River. All this and there’s also a strong chance that today’s drought will negatively impact next year’s Winter wheat harvest, unless a lot of rain starts falling soon.

The good news from Hurricane Isaac is that he’s traveling on a perfect path to deliver relief to one of the most heavily drought-impacted areas:

There are steps that everyone can and should take to become more food- and fuel-resilient in case the drought persists – as some experts think is quite possible – into next year and perhaps a few more. We’ll get to those steps shortly.

Further, there will be a definite impact to U.S. GDP, which could add to pressures (excuses?) that the Fed may use to justify additional quantitative easing (QE) measures (otherwise known as ‘printing more money’).

U.S. Drought Intensifies

The drought in the U.S. has intensified in the recent weeks, even though it has somewhat dropped from the front pages of mainstream media, possibly because the story is stale or possibly because it’s just too serious to dwell on for long:

Extreme drought in the U.S. intensifies
Aug 17, 2012

The drought in the United States is continuing to intensify, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The latest Drought Monitor says 61 percent of the contiguous United States faces moderate or worse drought conditions this week.

Nearly 30 percent is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought, exceptional being the most severe category.

Officials say the amount of land that’s currently affected across the U.S. is larger than the entire state of California.

In this next image, it is notable that the areas of the highest drought classification — ‘exceptional’ — have dramatically expanded from the prior week (the August 7, 2012 report).

(Source)

Much of the drought is centered squarely over the U.S. ‘breadbasket’ region and has really dented this year’s harvests in a big way.

Crop Losses

Certainly the number one story around the U.S. drought centers on its impact on grain production, specifically corn and soybeans. In a minute we’ll discuss the other impacts, but we’ll start with the one that has the greatest potential to cause both suffering and strife over the coming months (and possibly years), especially for those on limited budgets.

In 2011, the U.S. reaped a corn harvest of some 314 million tons. In 2012, the USDA has estimated a harvest of 274 million tons – a shortfall of 40 million tons – despite record acreage being planted.

While the USDA has been steadily reducing their crop estimates, practically with every passing week, it seems likely that the USDA remains behind the curve today, as it has been every step of the way. A different source for information comes from the Pro Farmer Midwest Crops Tour, which is coming in slightly under the current USDA estimates:

Crop Tour Points to Sharper Drought Impact on Soy, Corn
Aug 21, 2012

Initial reports from the closely watched Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour suggested more crop damage than expected from the drought, raising the potential for diminished soybean production this fall and sending futures sharply higher.

The disappointing crop reports from scouts touring fields on the Pro Farmer crop tour in states such as Ohio and South Dakota make it hard to believe soybean yields will reach current U.S. government crop projections, said Don Roose, president of advisory and brokerage firm U.S. Commodities in West Des Moines, Iowa.

The market is in the “watch and worry” mode on all fronts as shrinking crop forecasts will further tighten supplies already projected to dwindle to precariously tight levels in 2013, Mr. Roose said.

On the annual Pro Farmer tour, analysts and investors walk corn and soybean fields in seven Midwestern states over four days to assess prospects prior to the fall harvest. Pro Farmer is an agricultural advisory firm. The Pro Farmer tour, which wraps up Thursday, reported diminished potential for the soybean crop in both Ohio and South Dakota.

The crop tour doesn’t estimate soybean yields, but it reported an average 584.9 pods per 3-foot-by-3-foot square area in South Dakota, down 47% from a year ago. In Ohio, scouts reported soybean counts at an average of 1,033.72 pods per 3-foot-by-3-foot square area, down from 1,253.2 pods a year ago.

Soybeans entered their critical growing phases in recent weeks, and the crop has benefited in some regions from recent rains across the eastern Farm Belt.

Meanwhile, scouts with the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour on Monday reported an average estimated corn yield in Ohio of 110.5 bushels per acre, down from the tour’s estimate of 156.3 bushels a year ago. In South Dakota, tour scouts reported an average yield estimate of just 74.3 bushels per acre, down from 141.1 bushels a year ago.

While commodities traders and agronomists have braced for weeks for the prospect of a crop decimated by drought, the estimates were lower than many had expected.

The summary here is that the Pro Farmer Tour is reporting crop yields to be 2% – 3% lower than current USDA forecasts, which is a big deal when it comes to food. We’re talking a few tens-of-millions-of-bushels’ difference.

The somewhat sour note in this unfolding drama is the fact that 40% of the nation’s corn crop goes to ethanol producers, which means that food will be burned in the nation’s auto fleet instead of helping to keep prices down for consumers and animal feed. Another 40% goes to animal feed (chicken, cattle, hogs, etc.), and the remaining balance goes to direct human consumption.

However, the ethanol mandate is a congressional requirement for our fuel blenders, so they do not have a choice in the matter. It would literally take an act of Congress to even temporarily suspend the ethanol requirement – and in an election year, that’s just not going to happen, given the powerful constituencies invested in preserving that mandate.

Of course, higher input costs will ripple through the entire chain, so perhaps Bernanke will get the inflation he seeks, although it won’t be the one he wants. The inflation he wants is simple monetary-driven inflation. The inflation he will get is nothing more than a supply/demand mismatch.

Still, the USDA has a handy calculation for estimating the future impacts:

U.S.’s inferior corn crop has supply-chain ramifications
Aug 13. 2012

The USDA has provided considerable information about how the drought’s effects were likely to percolate through the economy. Because of a smaller-than-expected corn crop, the USDA said it can make the general prediction that “we will see impacts within two months for beef, pork, poultry and dairy (especially fluid milk). The full effects of the increase in corn prices for packaged and processed foods (cereal, corn flour, etc.) will likely take 10-12 months to move through to retail food prices.

The USDA has a formula for predicting changes in the rate of inflation caused by gains in prices at the commodity level: if the farm price of corn rises 50%, retail food prices rise by 0.5% to 1% as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

The price of September corn futures from mid-June until early August advanced 55%, meeting the USDA’s criterion for a measurable increase in the CPI Lapp presented a more extreme scenario than the USDA. He predicted that the damage to the 2012 corn crop will translate into a food inflation rate of 4% to 5% in 2013. In his view, the dollar cost of the drought already was $30 billion, which accrued rapidly over the summer.

“This is a cost that somebody has to bear,” Lapp said. “Some price hikes are fairly quick and others take a while.”

He said high feed costs will have to be absorbed by producers, who will likely liquidate part of their cattle and swine herds and poultry populations. At the retail level, the drought’s effects will translate into narrower margins — and expected higher prices — for processed food and soft drink manufacturers among others.

Lapp offered his opinion that legislation that has effectively required 40% of the corn crop be used in making biofuels has made everything worse.

“The situation has been aided and abetted in a negative way by the biofuels mandates,” he said. “Shame on us for having mandated so much to corn ethanol” without creating contingencies for a bad crop year.

Because corn is the base unit for so many things (especially in the form of high-fructose corn sweetener), and because it’s a primary feed component for finishing cattle and raising chickens and hogs, it tends to have a pretty decent impact on food prices.

However, it takes time for those price hikes to work through the system. So it will not be until 2013 sometime that we really begin to feel it in the U.S. And for the rest of the world that lives more directly on grains? They’re not as lucky. The price hikes hit them almost immediately.

It looks like the harvest in Russia will be below expectations as well:

Russia harvest forecasts cut as drought hits crop in east
Aug 20, 2012

(Reuters) – Two leading Russian agricultural analysts cut their forecasts for Russia’s grain harvest on Monday after harvest data from two drought-stricken eastern growing regions reduced the outlook for the overall crop.

SovEcon narrowed their grain forecast to 71-72.5 million metric tonnes (…)

The government’s official grain harvest forecast is 75-80 million tonnes, of which 45 million tonnes could be wheat. The government has put this season’s exportable surplus at 10-12 million tonnes, a level seen by traders as an informal cap on exports.

The government has tried to reassure markets there will be no repeat of August 2010, when Russia’s government shocked markets with a snap decision to ban grain exports when the scale of losses from major drought became clear.

The government has indicated that protective tariffs could be an option, though only after the end of the calendar year.

But traders widely expect limits to be imposed in some form, perhaps as early as November, after heavy exports in the early months of the season showed Russia could hit the 10-12 million tonne mark sooner than January.

Russia is still officially projecting 75-80 million tonnes but may only get 71 tonnes. If the projected exportable surplus is 10-12 million tonnes, but Russia actually harvests 9 million tonnes less than their hoped-for projection, then its exports will have to decrease to plug that gap.

Here’s the kicker: Russia has already exported a good deal of that amount. That is, the prospect of another Russian export ban this year is quite realistic. If we get one, then we can expect a repeat of the turmoil in the grain markets that we saw in 2010.

But there’s another much more fundamental reason why we can expect higher prices going forward.

Need for Even Higher Prices

The good news is that there’s still plenty of supply to carry us through to the next harvest. However, demand is going to have to go down some, and the way we accomplish that is through the price mechanism.

Right now, physical grain traders are saying that prices are too low and that unless they rise, we’re going to run out of grain before the next harvest. Obviously, that’s not truly going to happen – increasing scarcity will cause prices to rise until current demand levels are reduced.

Fall in corn price disguises real picture (Financial Times)
Aug 20, 2012

Corn prices surged this month to an all-time high of $8.4375 a bushel on the back of the worst drought in the US in nearly half a century. But prices have since fallen roughly 5 per cent. The impression is the rally has run out of steam.

This is far from the real picture. Prices need to rise again – probably setting all-time highs – to dampen consumption that is running ahead of supply.

If demand does not slow down, silos will be all but empty before the next harvest arrives in late 2013.

On paper, the balance sheet for corn supply and demand published by the US Department of Agriculture seems good enough. But in practice, the numbers look a bit shaky. The agency, whose figures are closely watched by the market, first estimates supply and, after that, adjusts the demand data to maintain a minimum level of inventories.

This time the USDA is asking for monumental rationing on the demand side. For example, US corn feed and export demand will need to drop to their lowest levels in nearly 20 years.

The USDA is also forecasting lower ethanol production – and thus corn demand. Ethanol output has fallen, but not nearly enough. Worse, the rise in wholesale petrol prices back above $3 a gallon means that ethanol producers are profitable again, even when paying record corn prices.

Corn is now trading just above $8 a bushel – but traders in the physical market say that prices need to rise to $9-$10 to force demand down enough to meet the consumption levels anticipated by the USDA.

The retreat in corn prices over the past couple of weeks has given inflation watchers a false sense of security. The market should not relax, however. More food inflation is just waiting around the corner.

The idea here is that the cash market will have to lead the futures market higher, an odd situation because it is usually the other way around. With so many hedge funds now playing in the commodity space, one explanation is that they are simply playing paper games with each other – those playing the short side will get a lesson in the importance of keeping one eye on reality.

A truly shocking event would be if the U.S. ever gets to the position of limiting exports of corn or even soybeans. That is a very unlikely proposition to consider, but if the silos get drained because we have dysfunctional markets that saw fit to keep prices bizarrely low while our free trade agreements allow the too-low grains to be exported, threatening domestic supplies, then that possibility notches up a little bit.

Dairy, Meat, and Even Higher Gasoline Costs

While it is clear that basic grain prices are heading higher, the knock-on effects into other soft commodities are a little less clear, but are definitely still important to consider.

The most obvious of these are higher grain feed costs that will hit both livestock and dairy producers especially hard:

The withering crops are translating into higher feed costs for livestock producers. “This is different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Kent Pruismann, who raises cattle and hogs on a farm in Sioux County, Iowa, and saw his costs for feed jump by 20% in July.

The higher corn, soybean and wheat prices will reach food makers, exporters and eventually consumers. Drivers already have seen fuel costs climb because of higher prices for ethanol, a corn-based fuel that is blended into gas. The drought also has reignited the debate over whether ethanol production is a drain on global food supplies.

(Source)

Some are already turning to, shall we say, other means to keep their herds fed:

Kentucky cows eat candy instead of corn

Aug 14, 2012

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – When you think of cattle feed, you probably don’t think of candy, but due to the drought that’s exactly what one farmer chose to do.

At Mayfield’s United Livestock in Western Kentucky, owner Joseph Watson feeds his herd second-hand candy.

Watson started feeding his cattle the candy because corn prices were so high.

He mixes the candy with an ethanol by-product and a mineral nutrient. He monitors the daily intake and said the cows have had no real health issues.

Yes, the higher grain costs are going to hit everything from big cattle feedlot operations to my own two-bags-a-month chicken-feed usage.

However, it will be the cost of and even lack of hay that will really create some big problems later this year. The drought not only harmed the range and pasture lands, forcing greater use of stored hay to offset the decline in forage, but it put a huge crimp in this year’s hay production:

Drought Cripples Hay Feed Industry

Aug 19, 2012

Widespread drought has scorched much of the pastureland and hay fields needed to sustain cattle herds in the U.S., forcing many ranchers to find feed alternatives or sell their animals early into what has become a soft beef market.

The shortage has led to higher hay prices, with some farmers saying they have to pay two to three times last year’s rates.

Despite farmers setting aside more land to grow hay this year, they are still producing a lot less because of the drought, according to a recent Department of Agriculture estimate.

The harvest of alfalfa, generally considered to make the best hay because of its high nutrient levels, is forecast to be the worst since 1953, according to the USDA.

Pasture grass and hay are what most cattle are fed for the roughly two years they live before being slaughtered, but the drought is threatening to starve the animals.

Illinois rancher Steve Foglesong said that most years he could graze his cattle from spring through November on verdant fields that are now brown, buying them hay bales only in the winter. This year, he and his animals have their eyes on withered corn plants.

“It may not have any ears on it, but it makes pretty good cow feed,” he said.

John Erwin, who owns 20 acres of land in Shelbyville, Ill., said he is having trouble growing alfalfa hay, but demand is strong for what he can produce.

I’m getting calls from ranchers as far away as Wyoming,” Mr. Erwin said. “They’re desperate.”

He said he has been offered $250 a ton for his hay, nearly double the $130 a ton in a non-drought year. His fields didn’t produce any hay in July.

A doubling of hay prices is obviously going to create quite a bit of economic hardship for many farming operations, which tend to be marginal profit businesses even when everything is going well.

Here’s another view on the hay situation:

I spoke with Caldwell [of Indiana horse rescue] and a number of other horse-rescue organizations around the country by telephone this week. The relentlessly hot dry weather, amplified in many areas by wildfire, has been devastating to farmers, ranchers and other horse owners.

Everybody is using their winter hay now. The pastures are destroyed and they probably won’t recover before winter,” said Caldwell. “The price of hay has doubled, and the availability is down by 75 percent.”

Caldwell is somewhat sanguine about his own lot, but not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Today the problem is not nearly as bad as it’s going to be,” he told me. “It’s terribly bad today, but it is going to get a lot worse.”

(Source)

The drought has done some very serious harm to the nation’s hay supply that goes beyond the economics of higher hay costs. First there’s the supply of the hay, and then there’s the relatively poor quality of hay that was taken from non-irrigated, drought-stricken fields. All in all, it’s not a good situation.

To add a bit more difficulty into the situation, it turns out that drought-stricken silage and even the corn itself can be harmful to animals:

Drought makes corn dangerous for livestock

Aug 16, 2012

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI, U.S. — Tim Evans, an associate professor of veterinary pathobiology and toxicology section head at the Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, Columbia, Missouri, U.S., warns U.S. farmers and livestock producers that drought-damaged corn plants can pose a risk to animal health.

During severe drought conditions, corn plants, especially those heavily fertilized with nitrogen, can accumulate a chemical called ‘nitrate’,” Evans said.

This chemical can be very harmful to animals, especially cattle, if they eat corn plants or other vegetation containing too much nitrate. Eating plants with too much nitrate can cause damage to red blood cells, resulting in lethargy, miscarriage, and even sudden death.”

Evans says that in normal conditions, corn crops typically absorb nitrate into only the lower 12-18 inches of the stalk, which does not have to be fed to animals. However, during severe drought conditions, high concentrations of nitrate can accumulate in the upper portions of the stalk, which cattle and other livestock often eat.

Evans also says that many naturally growing plants and weeds in grazing pastures can accumulate nitrate during drought conditions, as well. These plants include many types of grasses and some weeds, which animals might be forced to eat because of limited pasture or hay available as forage for livestock.

The key here is that nitrates are safe below 2,000 ppm but toxic above 15,000 ppm, and the levels found in the stalks and how high it travels are a function of whether enough rain fell to allow the plant to take it up. Much of the corn crop was so desiccated that the plants could not even manage to draw up this nutrient, and therefore it is safe as a feed product.

While it’s hard to get a read on at this early stage, there are enough warning signs here pointing to much, much higher grain, food, and meat prices in the future. The worry is whether there will even be enough feed to sustain the animal populations through the Winter and Spring. Given the damage to the harvestable corn, a lot of it is going to be turned into silage

Many ranchers and farmers are faced with a horrible choice here. Saving their herds may be economically unsound or even impossible where hay and safe silage are not available, and so they are selling their herds, one of the most heart-wrenching decisions anyone could have to make.

So many are doing this that recently the price for cattle has dropped, as everyone is selling into an increasingly soft market. My advice is to enjoy these low meat prices while they last, because the next stage of this story involves much higher meat prices.

The problem with understanding just how bad the hay situation might (or might not) be is that there are no national statistics collected that could tell us whether or not there’s even enough hay available to sustain the current commercial and recreational livestock populations.

The Importance of Positioning Yourself

So, with all of these repercussions building during the current drought – to which there’s yet no end in sight – what can you do today to minimize their impact on your budget and lifestyle?

Part II: Positioning for the Drought’s Aftermath looks at the likeliest outcomes in food prices, food availability, energy prices, and macroeconomic consequences (of which there will no doubt be many from this drought). We have a national food distribution system that runs significantly on a just-in-time basis, which leaves it vulnerable to price and inventory shocks when there are supply disruptions. The reduced water levels caused by the drought are handicapping electrical power generation in growing regions in the country; electrical thermal plants are the number one biggest user of water in the U.S.  The global financial markets are similarly tenuous these days, as resources are already taxed in trying to stimulate the moribund U.S. economy and dig Europe out of its massive credit woes.

This is one of those moments where taking simple, prudent steps now can have an outsized effect on preserving your quality of life.

Click here to read Part II of this report (free executive summary; paid enrollment required for full access)

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It’s not pleasant reading, is it!  But unless we all fully understand the implications of what we are doing to the planet by continuing to pollute the atmosphere, how can we embrace change!

The Greatest Crash – footnote

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The story that could run for an awfully long time!

I rather revealed my newness as a US resident by posting my review of David Kauders’ book The Greatest Crash over 2 days last week,  one of them being Thanksgiving Day.  Despite that 1,895 people viewed my review which was entitled The end of an era.

A week has now passed since that review.  I was curious to see what sorts of headlines had been making the news in the last 7 days.  It’s just a random trawl through those items that have captured my attention.

Let’s start with the Financial Times, November 27th,

The eurozone really has only days to avoid collapse

By Wolfgang Münchau

In virtually all the debates about the eurozone I have been engaged in, someone usually makes the point that it is only when things get bad enough, the politicians finally act – eurobond, debt monetisation, quantitative easing, whatever. I am not so sure. The argument ignores the problem of acute collective action.

Last week, the crisis reached a new qualitative stage. With the spectacular flop of the German bond auction and the alarming rise in short-term rates in Spain and Italy, the government bond market across the eurozone has ceased to function.

Wolfgang concludes his article thus,

Italy’s disastrous bond auction on Friday tells us time is running out. The eurozone has 10 days at most.

Then my print copy of The Economist that arrived on the 26th had this lurid cover page,

Unless Germany and the ECB move quickly, the single currency’s collapse is looming

The leader article contains this paragraph,

Past financial crises show that this downward spiral can be arrested only by bold policies to regain market confidence. But Europe’s policymakers seem unable or unwilling to be bold enough. The much-ballyhooed leveraging of the euro-zone rescue fund agreed on in October is going nowhere. Euro-zone leaders have become adept at talking up grand long-term plans to safeguard their currency—more intrusive fiscal supervision, new treaties to advance political integration. But they offer almost no ideas for containing today’s conflagration.

and a few paragraphs later, this,

This cannot go on for much longer. Without a dramatic change of heart by the ECB and by European leaders, the single currency could break up within weeks. Any number of events, from the failure of a big bank to the collapse of a government to more dud bond auctions, could cause its demise. In the last week of January, Italy must refinance more than €30 billion ($40 billion) of bonds. If the markets balk, and the ECB refuses to blink, the world’s third-biggest sovereign borrower could be pushed into default.

Then on Sunday, 27th, MISH’s Trend Analysis blogsite reveals,

ICAP Plc, the world’s largest inter-dealer broker (one that carries out transactions for financial institutions rather than private individuals), is now Testing Trades In Greek Drachma Against Dollar, Euro

ICAP Plc is preparing its electronic trading platforms for Greece’s potential exit from the euro and a return to the drachma, senior executives at the inter-dealer broker said Sunday.

ICAP is the latest firm to disclose such preparations, joining the growing ranks of banks, governments and other key players in the global financial system whose officials are worried enough about the stability of the common currency to be making contingency plans for a possible break-up.

Then Bloomberg published an article by Peter Boone and Simon Johnson, the latter of Baseline Scenario fame, that opened as follows,

Investors sent Europe’s politicians a painful message last week whenGermany had a seriously disappointing government bond auction. It was unable to sell more than a third of the benchmark 10-year bonds it had sought to auction off on Nov. 23, and interest rates on 30-year German debt rose from 2.61 percent to 2.83 percent. The message? Germany is no longer a safe haven.

and concluded,

Ultimately, an integrated currency area may remain in Europe, albeit with fewer countries and more fiscal centralization. The Germans will force the weaker countries out of the euro area or, more likely, Germany and some others will leave the euro to form their own currency. The euro zone could be expanded again later, but only after much deeper political, economic and fiscal integration.

Tragedy awaits. European politicians are likely to stall until markets force a chaotic end upon them. Let’s hope they are planning quietly to keep disorder from turning into chaos.

Finally, on the 29th the BBC News website carried details of the Autumn Statement made by British Chancellor, George Osborne, to Parliament.

Osborne confirms pay and jobs pain as growth slows

Chancellor George Osborne has said public sector pay rises will be capped at 1% for two years, as he lowered growth forecasts for the UK economy.

The number of public sector jobs set to be lost by 2017 has also been revised up from 400,000 to 710,000.

Borrowing and unemployment are set to be higher than forecast and spending cuts to carry on to 2017, he admitted.

Just look at that figure of public sector job losses – 710,000!

Well that’s more than enough from me but it does surely endorse the opening views that David Kauders expounded in his book, as carried in my review, and reproduced here,

Starting with the first sentence, David sets out the core problem;

This book argues that it is impossible to expand the financial system much further.

expanding this a few paragraphs later,

This is the financial system limit: lack of new borrowing plus excessive weight of debt obligations from past borrowing combine to slow economies down. This is the barrier whichever way policy makers turn. It is like the lid on a boiling kettle. Enough steam can lift it for a while but it always snaps back into place. The financial system limit is a roadblock preventing growth.

A few pages later in this opening chapter ‘The roadblock preventing growth‘ this limit is explained thus,

Policy contradictions also show us that the financial system has reached a roadblock. The glaring conflict between bailout and austerity is at the core. Each bailout or stimulus requires creation of more credit, leading to false financial speculation, and for a short while markets recover their poise. The threat of inflation returns. Later, bad debts rise, the markets tumble again and a new crisis emerges. Austerity, the alternative policy, cuts spending thereby cutting the immediate level of economic activity and bringing economic decline more quickly than the stimulus alternative. Whichever way they turn, the authorities are damned.

You can understand why I called this Post a ‘footnote’ not an endnote.

The end of an era, part two.

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A review of David Kauder’s recently published book, The Greatest Crash.

Details of the availability of the book are included at the end of the review.

Extracts from the book included are with grateful thanks to Sparkling Books.

Part One of this review was published yesterday which needs to be read before Part Two.

——————-

Chapter 5 continues by examining the over-bearing consequences of excessive public spending, excessive Government regulations, substitute taxation, weakness of Treasury forecasts, and so on. While these are UK issues, there is no doubt that similar restraints of free enterprise exist in many other western nations.

In Chapter 6, ‘Group Think‘, David looks at the strange ways in which we form opinions.  It’s a topic that has been discussed and written about widely but the point behind this chapter is that people have in great part lost the ability to discern truth from fiction, with terrible implications when it comes to understanding how individuals are affected by government and bureaucratic institutions.

The chapter closes;

One of the remarkable points that I have found in writing this book is that many of the detailed errors, incorrect policies et al, have already been amply documented by others. But we never learn. The delegated society, the strength of lobby groups and vulnerability of our political system to pressure, the sheer volume of noise in the media and on the Internet, the immediacy of the demands of daily life, all combine to make our collective memory rather short.

Amen to that!

Chapter 7, ‘Academic differences of opinion‘, was surprisingly short at just 6 1/2 pages. One would have thought the subject worthy of a much longer review especially as David was exploring the fundamental differences between Keynesian and Ricardian economic theories and opportunities for alternative theories. Must say that that I laughed out loud (David’s book is a little short on humour!) at the sentence on p.127 that ran, “One correspondent writing to the Financial Times proposed that economics should be declared a failing discipline, economists as not fit for purpose, and a physicist put in charge of sorting their theories out.

Chapter 8, ‘The dark side of capital markets‘, is the penultimate chapter and quite a technical one at that. But David manages to trip through esoteric aspects, well esoteric to the lay reader, in a manner that keeps one involved.   Here’s an example from early on in the chapter.

Capital markets follow a long cycle beyond the experience of most practitioners, detectable only by understanding history and then applying this understanding to contemporary conditions.

It didn’t mean much to me. Then the next sentence;

The principles are identical for any market where prices depend on the supply of credit: equities, bonds, property and commodities are all markets where the prices must relate to the availability of credit.

That, at least, was understood but still the penny hadn’t dropped. Then came;

Bond prices prosper when credit is lacking while the other three prosper when credit is abundant.

That then made sense to me but still only at some academic level. David then followed those sentences with these two paragraphs;

The whole market cycle consists of bull market followed by bear market, as surely as night follows day. The bull market in assets is driven by an increasing supply of credit and economic expansion, since more credit leads to higher prices. The bear market in assets is driven by less credit and economic contraction; there is no purchasing power to keep asset prices high. Only fixed interest bonds are contra-cyclical, declining in price as credit expands and rising in price as credit sinks.

There are two useful theories for analysing the whole market cycle: conversion flow and Dow theory.

So in half-a-page of text, the book effectively educated me and then showed the relevance of that learning to the world I was living in. Cleverly done!

Chapter 9, ‘The attitude change‘, is, without doubt, a clincher of a close to this fascinating book. The sentiments conveyed in this chapter are so unexpected that, forgive me, it would be wrong to explicitly refer to them.  Buy the book!

Let me just say that the last chapter fully endorsed me calling this review The End of an Era.

Overall conclusions

This is an important book from a writer who has both the academic and professional experience to enable him to form the views that he expresses. Only time will tell if the whole scenario that is envisaged by Mr. Kauders will play out as he expects. My personal view is that it will.

For individuals and business alike, reading The Greatest Crash will inform you in a manner that I would argue is critical when one notes the precarious and potentially unstable period we are living through. The decisions readers make after reading the book are beyond the remit of this review and, of course, David Kauders, but, at least, read the book!

Prof. Myddelton in the book’s introduction wrote, “But one of the things we need now is new thinking on the fundamentals.” Perhaps not new thinking on fundamentals, as the Prof. puts it, but a reinstatement of core fundamental values.

I am not alone from sensing that the world, especially the western world, is transitioning from an era of greed and materialism, seeing a world of unlimited resources, to a different societal relationship with planet Earth, the only planet we have. A transition across all layers of society towards the values of truth, integrity and compassion; values whose day has come.

The Greatest Crash reinforces immensely my notion that this truly is the end of an era.

——————

Want to buy The Greatest Crash?  The ebook was published in October worldwide, the  paperback published in the UK on the 1st November UK, the hardcover being released any day now in the UK.  For North America both the paperback and hardcover versions are being published on 1st February, 2012.

Full details from the Sparkling Books webpage here.

Copyright © 2011 Paul Handover

The end of an era, part one.

with one comment

A review of David Kauder’s recently published book, The Greatest Crash.

Details of the availability of the book are included at the end of both parts of my review, part two is published tomorrow.

Extracts from the book included are with grateful thanks to Sparkling Books.

Personal introduction.

Back in the late 90s, when I was living in England, I attempted to bolster my self-employed income by investing and trading in equities. It was a frustrating game, game being the right word! One day I was lamenting this to a close friend and he gave me the name of David Kauders at Kauders Portfolio Management and suggested I might like to contact him.

I followed my friend’s recommendation and met with David. What he outlined at that meeting all those years ago was mind-blowing, no other way of putting it. Essentially, David predicted a financial and economic crisis of huge proportions. He convinced me of the likelihood of that crisis and in November 2001 I became a fee-paying client. As the world now knows that prediction came to fruition. My anticipated residency in the USA meant continuing to be a client was not possible, and I ceased being a client of Kauders Portfolio Management in June 2010.

Thus not only am I deeply indebted to my friend for referring me to David but also unable to write this review from an unprejudiced point of view.

The Greatest Crash

The book, released in paperback in England in October 2011, published by Sparkling Books, is subtitled ‘How contradictory policies are sinking the global economy‘. Frankly, that subtitle doesn’t do much for me. A clearer message that comes from the book is this: the economic world has reached a ‘systems limit’. Indeed, the term systems limit is used widely throughout the book.

In his introduction to the book, Professor D. R. Myddelton, Chairman of the Institute of Economic Affairs, writes,

Adam Smith said ‘There’s a deal of ruin in a nation’, and it would be a mistake to despair. But one of the things we need now is new thinking on the fundamentals. That is what David Kauders provides in his book ‘The Greatest Crash’.

Without doubt, David achieves that.

Starting with the first sentence, David sets out the core problem;

This book argues that it is impossible to expand the financial system much further.

expanding this a few paragraphs later,

This is the financial system limit: lack of new borrowing plus excessive weight of debt obligations from past borrowing combine to slow economies down. This is the barrier whichever way policy makers turn. It is like the lid on a boiling kettle. Enough steam can lift it for a while but it always snaps back into place. The financial system limit is a roadblock preventing growth.

A few pages later in this opening chapter ‘The roadblock preventing growth‘ this limit is explained thus,

Policy contradictions also show us that the financial system has reached a roadblock. The glaring conflict between bailout and austerity is at the core. Each bailout or stimulus requires creation of more credit, leading to false financial speculation, and for a short while markets recover their poise. The threat of inflation returns. Later, bad debts rise, the markets tumble again and a new crisis emerges. Austerity, the alternative policy, cuts spending thereby cutting the immediate level of economic activity and bringing economic decline more quickly than the stimulus alternative. Whichever way they turn, the authorities are damned.

In the next chapter, ‘Evolution by trial and error‘, David writes about economic cycles and reminds his readers that the long economic cycle is often “beyond the practical experiences of our working lifetimes“.  Then later suggesting that because we have seen the greatest period of inflation ever since the end of World War Two, ergo “the unwelcome lesson from history is that the greatest deflation should follow.

In Chapter 4, ‘An Era of Wishful Thinking‘, the spotlight is put on the horrific policy errors that have been made for decades, try these three examples (there is a longer list in the book),

  • Policy makers believed that debt could expand indefinitely, at no cost.
  • Nobody realised that interest rate rises would make existing borrowing unaffordable and cause a wave of defaults.
  • The world was swamped with so many detailed requirements and standards that nobody could understand how they all fitted together. It was assumed that ‘transparency’, i.e. extensive detail, would solve the inability to comprehend how the parts made the whole.

Part Two of the review, continuing with Chapter 5 is tomorrow.

Want to buy The Greatest Crash?  The ebook was published in October worldwide, the  paperback published in the UK on the 1st November UK, the hardcover being released any day now in the UK.  For North America both the paperback and hardcover versions are being published on 1st February, 2012.

Full details from the Sparkling Books webpage here.

Copyright © 2011 Paul Handover

Hearing clearly?

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Perhaps intuition is all we have to hear clearly.

John O’Donohue, in yesterday’s post, touched on the essence of today’s theme, “The greatest philosophers admit that to a large degree all knowledge comes through the senses. The senses are our bridge to the world.

Dogs, of course, demonstrate powerfully how their senses provide a ‘bridge to the world’.

This odd collection of writings (ramblings?)  that comprise Learning from Dogs is based around the ‘i’ word – Integrity.  The banner on the home page proclaims Dogs are integrous animals. We have much to learn from them. Ergo, dogs offer a powerful metaphor for the pressing need for integrity among those that ‘manage’ our societies.

Thus my senses are more tuned, than otherwise, to the conversations in the world out there that support the premise that unless we, as in modern man, radically amend our attitudes and behaviours, then the species homo sapiens is going to hell in a hand-basket!

End of preamble!

Professor Bill Mitchell is one person who recently touched my senses.  As his Blog outlines he is an interesting fellow,

(Photo taken in August 2011 in Melbourne, Australia)

Bill Mitchell is the Research Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW Australia.

He is also a professional musician and plays guitar with the Melbourne Reggae-Dub band – Pressure Drop. The band was popular around the live music scene in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band reformed in late 2010.

He also plays with a Newcastle swing blues band – The Blues Box. You can find music and other things on his Home Page.

Professor Mitchell’s Blog is not for the faint-hearted, it can be pretty technical at times.  Nevertheless, I have been a daily subscriber for a couple of months now.

On the 24th, Prof. Bill wrote a long article under the heading of ‘What if economists were personally liable for their advice‘.  I want to quote a little from that article.  Starting with,

Economists have a strange way of writing up briefing documents. There is an advanced capacity to dehumanise economic advice and ignore the most important economic and social problems (unemployment and poverty) in favour of promoting non-issues (like public debt ratios). It reminds me sometimes of how the Nazis who were brutal in the extreme in the execution of their ideology sat around getting portraits of themselves taken with their loving families etc. The training of economists creates an advanced state of separation from human issues and an absence of empathy.

In a sense, we all understand this, this use of language to separate us from our collective humanity.  A random Google search came up with this.  A statement by British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to Parliament on the 24th regarding Europe, as in,

Mr Speaker, let me turn to yesterday’s European Council.

This European Council was about three things.

Sorting out the problems of the Eurozone.

Promoting growth in the EU.

And ensuring that as the Eurozone develops new arrangements for governance, the interests of those outside the Eurozone are protected.

This latter point touches directly on the debate in this House later today, and I will say a word on this later in my statement.

Resolving the problems in the Eurozone is the urgent and over-riding priority facing not only the Eurozone members, but the EU as a whole – and indeed the rest of the world economy.

Britain is playing a positive role proposing the three vital steps needed to deal with this crisis – the establishment of a financial firewall big enough to contain any contagion; the credible recapitalisation of European banks; and a decisive solution to the problems in Greece.

Read the last paragraph.  Wonderful words that seem to make sense to the casual listener but picking up on Prof. Bill, an utter ‘separation from human issues and an absence of empathy‘.  There is no humanity in those words from the British Prime Minister.  We all know there are hundreds of other examples from mouthpieces all across our global society.  Back to Bill Mitchell’s article,

Linkiesta say:

Greece has failed. To say this is not another report of investment banks or research centers, but directly Troika officials who have just completed their review on Hellenic public finance. Linkiesta is in possession of the entire report of the troika, composed of officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB) and European Commission.

I have a rule of thumb that I use when considering documents such as these. The rule is to assess how strong the concern for unemployment is. How often is unemployment mentioned? The answer is zero. The document never mentions the word or concept.

So obsessed are the Troika and their bean counters about public debt stabilisation that they have completely lost sight of one of the worst problems an economy can encounter – the failure to generate work for all.

Read those last words again, “completely lost sight of one of the worst problems an economy can encounter – the failure to generate work for all“.  One last extract from the article,

There is absolutely no historical evidence which shows that when all nations are contracting or stagnant and private spending is flat (or contracting) that cutting public spending will create growth.

So why did these economists think that a nation would grow when all components of spending were strongly indicated to fall or were being actually cut? The answer lies in acknowledging that they operate in an ideologically blinkered world and are never taken to account for their policy mistakes. They are unaccountable and do not suffer income losses when the nations they dispense advice to and impose policies on behave contrary to the “expectation” which results in millions being unemployed.

In my view, my profession should be liable for the advice it gives and economists should be held personally liable for damages if their advice causes harm to other individuals. If the economists in the IMF and elsewhere were held personally responsible then the advice would quickly change because they would be “playing” with their own fortunes and not the fortunes of an amorphous group of Greeks that they have never met.

Very powerful words that strike at the heart of the matter, that of integrity. (If you want to read it in full, then the article is here.)

Let me move on a little.  The 24th also saw a powerful essay on Yves Smith’s Blog Naked Capitalism, from Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer living in Dublin, Ireland.  Here’s a taste of what Mr. Pilkington wrote.

Every now and then a terrible thought enters my mind. It runs like this: what if the theatre of the Eurocrisis is really and truly a political power-game being cynically played by politicians from the core while the periphery burns?

Yes, of course, we can engage in polemic and say that such is the case. But in doing so we are trying to stoke emotion and generally allowing our rhetorical flourish to carry the argument. At least, that is what I thought. I had heard this rhetoric; I had engaged in it to some extent myself; but I had never really believed it. Only once or twice, in my nightmares, I had thought that, maybe, just maybe, it might have some truth.

Can you see the parallels between Prof. Mitchell and Philip Pilkington?  The latter wrote, “a political power-game being cynically played by politicians from the core while the periphery burns“, the former wrote, “If the economists in the IMF and elsewhere were held personally responsible then the advice would quickly change because they would be “playing” with their own fortunes and not the fortunes of an amorphous group of Greeks that they have never met.”

It’s clearly obvious to all those that have commented to both the Bill Mitchell and Philip Pilkington items.  That is, in my words, a complete lack of integrity, truth and a commitment to serve the people, from so many in places of influence and power.

We all sense this, hear it so clearly, a separation from human issues and an absence of empathy.

We have so much to learn, so much sense to learn, from dogs!

————–

Footnote.  Had just completed the above when I came across a piece by Patrick Cockburn in last Sunday’s Independent newspaper, that starts thus,

World View: A sense of injustice is growing. Elite politicians and notorious wrongdoers appear immune as ordinary Greeks reel from wage and job cuts

Up close, the most striking feature of the reforms being forced on Greece by its international creditors is their destructiveness and futility. The pay cuts, tax rises, cuts and job losses agreed to by parliament in Athens last week will serve only to send the economy into a steeper tailspin, even if it extracted a much-needed €8bn in bailout money from the EU leaders. “Nothing but a lost war could be worse than this situation,” one left-wing ex-minister tells me. “What is worse, no party or political group in Greece is offering real solutions to our crisis.

Say no more!

The Winston Churchill effect?

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Forgive me for making this a much shorter contribution but the efforts of the previous two posts took rather a long time!

This is about the debt situation in the United States of America and, as always, Learning from Dogs trying to get to the underlying truth.

It’s from the BBC and it’s a radio programme that is included in this Post.

But why the headline referring to Churchill?  Well in the programme Justin Webb, of the BBC, reminds the world of a characteristic of the American Nation noted by Sir Winston Churchill, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”  (But caution about the precise wording of that quote – see here!)

Here’s the article that accompanied the BBC broadcast, the radio programme is after this article,

Is the US in denial over its $14tn debt?

Is America in denial about the extent of its financial problems, and therefore incapable of dealing with the gravest crisis the country has ever faced?

This is a story of debt, delusion and – potentially – disaster. For America and, if you happen to think that American influence is broadly a good thing, for the world.

The debt and the delusion are both all-American: $14 trillion (£8.75tn) of debt has been amassed and there is no cogent plan to reduce it.

The figure is impossible to comprehend: easier to focus on the fact that it grows at $40,000 (£25,000) a second. Getting out of Afghanistan will help but actually only at the margins. The problem is much bigger than any one area of expenditure.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is no rabid fiscal conservative but on the debt he is a hawk: “I’m worried. The debt is large. It should be brought under control. The longer we wait, the longer we suffer this kind of paralysis; the more America boxes itself into a corner and the more America’s constructive leadership in the world diminishes.”

The author and economist Diane Coyle agrees. And she makes the rather alarming point that the acknowledged deficit is not the whole story.

The current $14tn debt is bad enough, she argues, but the future commitments to the baby boomers, commitments for health care and for pensions, suggest that the debt burden is part of the fabric of society:

“You have promises implicit in the structure of welfare states and aging populations that mean there is an unacknowledged debt that will have to be paid for by future taxpayers, and that could double the published figures.”

Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges that this structural commitment to future debt is not unique to the United States.  All advanced democracies have more or less the same problem, he says, “but in the case of the States the figures are absolutely enormous”.

Mr Haass, a former senior US diplomat, is leading an academic push for America’s debt to be taken seriously by Americans and noticed as well by the rest of the world.

He uses the analogy of Suez and the pressure that was put on the UK by the US to withdraw from that adventure. The pressure was not, of course, military. It was economic.

Britain needed US economic help. In the future, if China chooses to flex its muscles abroad, it may not be Chinese admirals who pose the real threat, Mr Haass tells us. “Chinese bankers could do the job.”

Because of course Chinese bankers, if they withdrew their support for the US economy and their willingness to finance America’s spending, could have an almost overnight impact on every American life, forcing interest rates to sky high levels and torpedoing the world’s largest economy.

Not everyone accepts the debt-as-disaster thesis.

David Frum is a Republican intellectual and a former speech writer to President George W Bush.

He told me the problem, and the solution, were actually rather simple: “If I tell you you have a disease that will absolutely prostrate you and it could be prevented by taking a couple of aspirin and going for a walk, well I guess the situation isn’t apocalyptic is it?

“The things that America has to do to put its fiscal house in order are not anywhere near as extreme as what Europe has to do. The debt is not a financial problem, it is a political problem.”

Mr Frum believes that a future agreement to cut spending – he thinks America spends much too big a proportion of its GDP on health – and raise taxes, could very quickly bring the debt problem down to the level of quotidian normality.

‘Organised hypocrisy’

I am not so sure. What is the root cause of America’s failure to get to grips with its debt? It can be argued that the problem is not really economic or even political; it is a cultural inability to face up to hard choices, even to acknowledge that the choices are there.

I should make it clear that my reporting of the United States, in the years I was based there for the BBC, was governed by a sense that too much foreign media coverage of America is negative and jaundiced.

The nation is staggeringly successful and gloriously attractive. But it is also deeply dysfunctional in some respects.

Take Alaska. The author and serious student of America, Anne Applebaum makes the point that, as she puts it, “Alaska is a myth!”

People who live in Alaska – and people who aspire to live in Alaska – imagine it is the last frontier, she says, “the place where rugged individuals go out and dig for oil and shoot caribou, and make money the way people did 100 years ago”.

But in reality, Alaska is the most heavily subsidised state in the union. There is more social spending in Alaska than anywhere else.

To make it a place where decent lives can be lived, there is a huge transfer of money to Alaska from the US federal government which means of course from taxpayers in New York and Los Angeles and other places where less rugged folk live. Alaska is an organised hypocrisy.

Too many Americans behave like the Alaskans: they think of themselves as rugged individualists in no need of state help, but they take the money anyway in health care and pensions and all the other areas of American life where the federal government spends its cash.

The Tea Party movement talks of cuts in spending but when it comes to it, Americans always seem to be talking about cuts in spending that affect someone else, not them – and taxes that are levied on others too.

And nobody talks about raising taxes. Jeffrey Sachs has a theory about why this is.

America’s two main political parties are so desperate to raise money for the nation’s constant elections – remember the House of Representatives is elected every two years – that they can do nothing that upsets wealthy people and wealthy companies.

So they cannot touch taxes.

In all honesty, I am torn about the conclusions to be drawn. I find it difficult to believe that a nation historically so nimble and clever and open could succumb to disaster in this way.

But America, as well as being a place of hard work and ingenuity, is also no stranger to eating competitions in which gluttony is celebrated, and wilful ignorance, for instance regarding (as many Americans do) evolution as controversial.

The debt crisis is a fascinating crisis because it is about so much more than money. It is a test of a culture.

It is about waking up, as the Americans say, and smelling the coffee. And – I am thinking Texas here – saddling up too, and riding out with purpose.

NB: Copyright BBC © 2011 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

Here’s the 30 minute broadcast under the Analysis series from Radio 4 on the BBC.(Just click on this link) analysis_20110628-1024a

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