Living the American Dream is a Nightmare

plato-cave

In Plato’s little-recognized prediction of the Age of Television, slaves chained to their couches watch reflections of events, while philosophers struggle up to the sunlight to see what’s really going on.

Plato asked us to imagine a group of people chained to a wall in a cave in such a way that they could not see what was going on around them, only reflections cast on the cave wall opposite them by firelight. He invited us to consider how skewed the prisoners’ understanding of the world would become over time, and to value the contributions of philosophers who go out into the sunlight and see things as they really are. It’s easy for us Americans of 2015 to grasp the first part of his allegory, because it’s a perfect description of us watching TV (remarkable that he nailed that prediction 2,000 years ago, don’t you think?). It’s the second part that mystifies: what would a philosopher, stumbling out of the cave of shadows on the wall, make of our realities? Continue reading

CNN: “Russia Headed for Crash.”

Russia, known for its long, hard winters, may be entering a very long, very hard one. (Photo by Elen Schurova)

Russia, known for its long, hard winters, may be entering a very long, very hard one. (Photo by Elen Schurova)

In the headlong rush toward the edge of the cliff at the end of the industrial age, Russia has suddenly pulled ahead by a nose(dive). The headline “Russia Headed for Crash” has appeared on the CNN Money website, although the news mavens in the Situation Room see no reason to go wall-to-wall with coverage when there are Cosby accusers to flush and another Bush is thinking about (!) running for president(!) in 20016! The lamestream media are trapped deep in the spurious narrative of the steely-eyed Putin resuming the Cold War as if it were 1950 and he were the Soviet Union, while Chinese tentacles slither across the globe projecting the power of the world’s largest (!) and weakest (!) and quite likely stupidest (!) economy. Continue reading

Conn’s Game: Subprime Loans, Subhuman Lenders

One of the stores built by a Conn’s game, based on junk bonds and subprime loans, in Houston Texas.  (Photo by Mather Rutledge/Flickr)

One of the stores built by a Conn’s game, based on junk bonds and subprime loans, in Houston Texas. (Photo by Mather Rutledge/Flickr)

After some rant or another about the combined greed and stupidity of the industrial Masters of the Universe, I frequently get this response: “Look, they couldn’t be that stupid or they wouldn’t be in charge. They know what they’re doing, and we just don’t understand it.” Seriously. I get that. If a quick refresher on the Enron Bubble and the Dot-com Bubble and the Housing Bubble are not enough to put this turkey of an argument into the deep fryer for once and for all, then consider the true story of Conn’s, a Texas-based 90-store retailer who came up with the Business Plan to End All Business Plans. And it did. Continue reading

Wall Street: “Quite measurably out of its mind.”

Forget the bull statue they have in the street in front of the stock exchange -- this is the guy who’s taking over in 2015. (Photo by Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr)

Forget the bull statue they have in the street in front of the stock exchange — this is the guy who’s taking over in 2015. (Photo by Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr)

John Hussman runs a very large mutual fund whose performance for the past five years has not been great. He is reviled by many of his fellow Masters of the Universe for saying of them, as he did in a recent client newsletter, that Wall Street, collectively, is “quite measurably out of its mind.” Others balance the scorn of the gamblers against the fact that Hussman was saying much the same thing just before the crashes of 2000 and 2008.  In a world whose collective memory maxes out at 90 days, in which logic and mathematics are optional belief systems, Hussman is an historian and number cruncher. What do the numbers tell him? To brace for impact. Continue reading

Insurance Companies On Climate Change: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Great, you lived through Hurricane Sandy, now just call your insurance company. What do you mean, it’s an unlisted number? (Photo by Wavlan/Flickr)

Great, you lived through Hurricane Sandy, now just call your insurance company. What do you mean, it’s an unlisted number? (Photo by Wavlan/Flickr)

Property-insurance companies are just like politicians in that they don’t want to talk about climate change, because if they did they would be expected to explain what they are doing about it, and they aren’t doing anything about it. Unlike politicians, who seem to be getting away with pretending ignorance, insurance companies are being presented with ever more claims, that are ever more expensive, for more and more losses. To stay in business, they are finding, they have to not only appear to be doing something, which is all we ask of politicians, they are going to have to actually stop the hemorrhaging. Tricky, when you can’t admit the patient has been injured.

In the best traditions of American Free Enterprise, the insurance companies are striding forward into the far distance, girding to protect their policyholders against any risk except those which actually exist. These are some of their favorite methods: Continue reading

Bulls Running: Frackers Getting Trampled

It's bulls v. bears on Wall Street, and the collateral damage is substantial.

It’s bulls v. bears on Wall Street, and the collateral damage is substantial.

Overtaken by arithmetic and logic, the Wall Street bulls are trying to find a place to hide their money, and while they don’t agree on where to put it, they are beginning to agree that it definitely should not be in the fracking patch. The stock of fracking operators has been in bear country for weeks now as the strain of trying to pretend everything is all right gets worse by the hour.

A Ponzi scheme requires the operator to get new suckers in the door fast enough to use their money to pay off the old suckers, so they don’t blow the whistle on the  con. Continue reading

Twin Peaks: Stock-Market Fear, Oil Panic

This is where stock and gas prices are going. To see the panic index, turn your screen upside down.

This is where stock and gas prices are going. To see the panic index, read from right to left.

Gasoline is below three dollars a gallon and the stock market is at an all-time high. Well, yes, that was last week but still. What could be wrong with this picture? Like a face that has had way too many plastic surgeries, this one is stretched a little thin, with eyes bugged out and droplets of sweat all over it. The market, which all concerned promised would go up and up and never come down (Does anybody remember them saying the same thing about real estate? Anybody?) has lost 7% of its value in a week and, yesterday at least, could not pull out of the nose dive. A 10 percent drop is a correction. Twenty percent is a crash. And the low gas prices are being celebrated by everyone but the frackers who brought them to us. For them, low oil prices mean almost-immediate ruin. Continue reading

I Hear America Rotting

The deadly collapse of an Interstate Highway bridge near Minneapolis in 2007 brought a horrified nation to its feet. Then the nation sat down again.  (Photo by mtellin/Flickr)

The deadly collapse of an Interstate Highway bridge near Minneapolis in 2007 brought a horrified nation to its feet. Then the nation sat down again. (Photo by mtellin/Flickr)

She was elderly, spry, energetic, and she lived alone in the remains of a genteel Southern plantation, with its Tara-like mansion and sprawling lawns. She was not without means, but she was entirely without staff.  She was telling me how she had recently paved with flagstones the banks of a fairly sizable pond near the mansion’s rear patio. Herself. Mightily impressed, I asked her what she did with her spare time. “Oh,” she sighed, “I like to get a glass of iced tea and just sit out here and listen to the house rot.”

Which is what we Americans have been doing since 1980, when we decided that taxes are evil and must never be raised again for any reason. We’ve been sitting around listening to the country rot. Continue reading

Miracle of the Loaves, Fishes and New Home Sales

If the housing market in the US were in fact recovering, it would be a miracle. Alas, (Wikipedia Photo)

If the housing market in the US were in fact recovering, it would be a miracle. Alas, (Wikipedia Photo)

To call it a miracle is to misunderestimate it by at least an order of magnitude: according to the US Commerce Department, sales of new single family homes in August surged 18% from July, and 33% from last year, “offering confirmation,” swooned CNBC, “that the housing recovery remains on course.”

Even while humming its charming little refrain of “Happy,” CNBC, like the many others who sang from the same sheet music, slipped in a few clunkers without elaborating or explaining: one, that new home sales account for only nine percent of the market, and thus (despite CNBC’s offered confirmation) are hardly determinative; and two, that despite the rise in sales, the stock of new houses still unsold hit its highest level in four years. Wait, what? You sell more than you have in six years, and end up with more unsold inventory than you’ve had in four years? Continue reading

More Warnings from Wall Street: The Party’s Over

On Wall Street the party's almost over, and the music is about to stop. Wall Street's response: dance harder. (Image by Stock Graphic Designs)

On Wall Street the party’s almost over, and the music is about to stop. Wall Street’s response: dance harder. (Image by Stock Graphic Designs)

The warnings are coming thick and fast now, from inside the redoubts of the Masters of the Universe, that their world is spinning out of control. I am especially interested in the warnings from the MOTUS themselves, not because they have demonstrated any special ability to forecast, but because they are making noises in a large herd of bulls, knowing that if they set off the stampede they will get hurt.

There is no bigger bull than UBS — it’s the largest asset manager in the world, with nearly two trillion dollars in assets. It told its clients in a newsletter last month that it no longer likes stocks, and it no longer likes bonds. Where you gonna put two billion dollars? Baseball cards? [Thanks to Wolf Richter on WolfStreet.com for bringing this to light.] Continue reading