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Interlocking Traps (Or Why This Recession May Not Be So Temporary)

OOYR Preface: Proper understanding of the big picture is the first, best strategy for preparing and rearranging your life to prosper in the future. In order to prepare effectively for the future—in regard to careers, spending, saving or investing—we must first have a realistic assessment of the situation at hand and where it can reasonably be expected to lead. In the current economic environment, an optimist isn’t one who expects a quick return to the prosperity of yesterday, but rather the person who considers the economy in realistic–though perhaps dismal—terms, and prepares his life, finances and occupation in a proactive manner. The post below, which provides that necessary perspective, is an article written by Charles Hugh Smith at OfTwoMinds.com, and reprinted here by permission. His blog is perhaps the most concise and easy to understand analysis of the state of the economy and the forces driving it as you will find anywhere. Charles is also the author of the e-book Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation. Both the blog and the ebook are highly recommended.

 

A number of lethal traps hobble structural reforms to the failing Status Quo.

While I often refer here to cycles, trends and feedback loops, there is another class of forces called traps which are self-explanatory: once entered, traps are difficult or impossible to escape due to their inherent (ontological) nature. While all the traps have conceptual elements, each is very much grounded in the real world.

For example: once a nation misallocates its capital into unneeded malls, office towers and exurban housing which now sit vacant and decaying, that capital can never be recovered.

Here are few such traps:

1. Stagnation Trap. A pernicious positive feedback loop is at work as the Plutocracy and State continually increase their share of the national income: their power and influence increase proportionately, which then enables even more wealth acquisition and ever greater influence.

The primary consequence of this widening gap between the ever-poorer middle class taxpayers and the ever wealthier State and Plutocracy is a structural divergence between the interests of the Plutocracy and the State and those of the middle class. This widening structural imbalance of power and share of the national wealth creates an ontological (inherent) cynicism and profound political disunity which is reflected in the blocking of any structural solution by the State and Plutocracy.

Since the structural problem is State and Plutocracy over-reach, any real solution will necessarily reduce their shares of the national income and limit their joint powers. Loathe to accept even the smallest reduction in their income and power, both the Plutocracy and the State (including all those dependent on its various fiefdoms) resist all structural change with every force at their command.

The inevitable consequence is a profound structural stagnation in which real reform is betrayed in the name of compromise, the same simulacrum “solutions” which leave the powers and income of the State and Plutocracy fully intact are trotted out under new Orwellian names (“Save the American Homeowner Act,” etc.) and all discussions of truly structural solutions are ruthlessly eliminated from the mass media or belittled/undermined in classic propaganda manner.

Thus the State and Plutocracy prefer stagnation and eventual collapse to any present-day reduction in their income and power. This is the stagnation trap: in resisting structural change, the State and Plutocracy guarantee a stagnation which inevitably leads to collapse of the very system of privileges and powers they seek to maintain.

2. Scalability Trap. This is a way of describing the inevitability of job losses in any industry as it scales up to technologically optimum (automated) production. Oftwominds.com correspondent K.D. (who coined the term Scalability Trap, as far as I can tell) termed this process a “modernity tax,” or the cost of modern productivity.

It might be also be considered a “technology/trade tax on employment.” That is, if an economy refused technological production then it could not trade such expensively produced products profitably. Even the lowest-cost labor is more expensive than machines because machinery does not get sick, does not need to be trained, does not spoil production with errors, does not riot when idled, etc.

Just as the agricultural workforce of the U.S. has fallen to 2% from 50% as mechanization scaled up, any work which can be largely automated (not just manufacturing, but software coding, tax preparation, etc.) will fall into a scalability trap once the technology is available to automate production.

3. Capital Trap. In my lexicon, there are three distinct applications of this term:

A. Banking/finance capital trap. As bank assets fall in value (mortgages on foreclosed homes and commercial real estate, credit-default derivatives, mortgage-backed securities, etc.) then banks’ capital requirements increase dramatically. Additional reserves are simply trapped capital as the capital constraint will lead to a downward spiral of higher interest rates for borrowers (as banks try to “earn their way out of insolvency”), a slowdown in borrowing (due to higher risk management/qualification standards), more loan defaults (as those who planned to roll over old debt find they no longer qualify to do so), and thus more erosion of bank capital as bad-debt/impaired loan losses keep mounting.

B. National investment trap. The U.S. as a nation has poured staggering sums of its national wealth into speculatively built, rapidly depreciating real estate: malls nobody wants to rent or own, roads to weedy subdivisions, 20 million empty homes, office towers with 90% vacancy rates, empty storefronts, etc. The capital in all this unnecessary real estate is trapped because it cannot be sold–it is illiquid except at fire-sale prices, at which point the remaining shards of capital are finally freed but the owners have to book catastrophic losses in the capital.

Rather than be declared insolvent, the owners (often the banks holding foreclosed properties) leave the capital trapped, hoping for some magical rescue via a new real estate bubble.

This misallocated capital hurts the owner and the nation in another way: trapped in impaired and unneeded real estate, it cannot be invested elsewhere where it might earn a real return. Unfortunately, America’s suburbs, malls and office parks are now “capital traps” of national savings.

To read the rest of this very insightful post please go to Interlocking Traps.

Charles Hugh Smith is the host of the website OfTwoMinds.com and author of the ebook
Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation. Check out both his website and the e-book, which is available without cost on the website.


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