(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)
L: Doug, a couple weeks ago we talked about mass riots spreading beyond the Middle East, and you were right. Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya – hundreds reported dead in Tripoli. But I see on Google News that some very brave individuals have organized protests in Moscow and Beijing. And now we have tens of thousands protesting in Madison, Wisconsin, citing the successful uprising in Egypt. There are counter-protesters in Wisconsin, fears of violence... talk of the governor calling up the National Guard. Is the spirit of revolution in the air?
Doug: On a deep level, there is a common thread running through these events. But, in bankrupt Wisconsin, the pro-union forces trying to hold on to artificially high wages and benefits have nothing in common with the hungry, oppressed, miserable people who took to the streets of Egypt. It's fashionable for all sorts of people with a grievance to call those Egyptians "freedom fighters" and identify themselves with them. I'm a freedom-fighter, you're a rebel, he's a terrorist. The semantics are used to muddy the distinctions, not to clarify.
To a fair degree the Egyptians really are freedom fighters – they actually did oust a tyrant – but they are just going to replace the old boss with a new boss. It's not been a radical revolution – at least not so far. The odds are that the new boss will be every bit as bad as, or worse, than the old boss, regardless of whatever window dressings of reform he uses to gain international acceptance for his regime.
Back in Wisconsin, it's completely disingenuous – actually ridiculous and shameful – for unionized state employees to label themselves freedom fighters. These are the people who most directly slop at the trough at the public's expense. They're minions of the ruling class. They're not trying to overthrow an unjust situation, they're rioting to maintain it.
L: So, what's the deeper, connecting thread?
Doug: Economic hardship. It seems to me that the driving factor behind these protests spreading in the Arab world – and what pushed them from inevitable to imminent – was rising commodity prices, especially food prices. Food prices are also rising rapidly in the U.S. Many fruits and vegetables have doubled, and bread is up 50% over the last year. Cotton has tripled over the last two years. That's going to make clothing more expensive. The difference is that most Americans don't live hand to mouth, not the way most Arabs do. But nonetheless they don't like to see their standard of living drop, and they'll strike out as well. As we just discussed in January, it would be most prudent to prepare for chaotic times ahead.
L: Oppressed Middle Easterners take to the streets out of hunger. Wisconsin union members take to the streets because their entitlements are threatened. Both relate to the rising costs of real things resulting from the global currency crisis, which is part of the larger train-wreck of the old economic world order.
Doug: Yes, and with modern communications, widespread public sentiment can be mobilized with speed never seen before. But you know, it's a bit similar to what happened back in the '60s – although for different reasons. We had simultaneous riots in Europe – mostly in France, but also in Germany and Italy. In Paris, they were tearing up the cobblestone streets to throw rocks at the cops. You had the race riots in Detroit, LA, and Washington, DC, among other U.S. cities, and later, anti-war protests. At exactly the same time, you had the Red Guard and a huge conflagration in China. Three major centers of world civilization erupted in civil unrest at once. But those riots were strictly political. Today's riots are economic, and that's much more serious. Political riots are generally for sport. Economic riots are the real thing.
I've no doubt that with the economic, social, and political forces at work in the world today, we'll see more unrest, lots more. But it's going to be much more violent, and much more dangerous than it was in the '60s, because the world is much less stable.
L: And more countries have nuclear weapons. If more U.S. puppets fall in the Middle East, that's going to be really bad for Israel, which is surrounded and outnumbered by foes who have no interest whatsoever in reaching a peaceful accommodation. If pressed hard enough, Israel could go nuclear, the threat of which has not stopped individuals from shooting rockets into their midst. I know you don't like making predictions, but does your guru-sense tell you that's likely to actually happen soon?
Doug: Nobody knows, of course, but the odds favor new leaders in most of the Arab countries – and most of the Muslim world. Israel is opposed to any change, because they have an accommodation with the old governments. The same is true with the U.S. Israel and the U.S. are like a nasty dog and his bad-tempered master – although I'm not sure which is which. Sometimes the master kicks the dog, sometimes the dog bites the master, but they still work together.
Anyway, now both the U.S. and Israel are going to have to cut new deals with new governments. I suspect the new governments will be less inclined to be U.S. stooges, and more likely to be actively anti-Israel.
Meanwhile, bankrupt state governments in the U.S. could precipitate chaos there, before the balloon goes up elsewhere. We are in uncharted waters, in which anything can happen – and probably will. The key is that most people in the world live on less than $3 a day, most of it goes to food, and food prices are exploding upwards. As is fuel.
L: I remember the terrible events in New Orleans when civil order broke down just a couple years ago. Most Americans seem to be ignoring that embarrassing event, and have long forgotten the Watts riots and Kent State. How do you get such people to consider the facts without sounding like Chicken Little?
Doug: Good question. When the going gets rough, it often turns out that civilization is really just a pretty veneer that lies on top of a fetid cesspool. The fact of the matter is that many – actually most – people suffer from serious psychological aberrations that rise to the surface if you push the right hot buttons. Losing what they have, and going hungry – especially when they see thieves like most politicians and their pals making billions – won't sit well with the masses. It's going to push a lot of hot buttons.
I don't like thinking about rioting and martial law and all of that unpleasantness either; people get hurt, property is destroyed, and so forth. But at this point, a good dose of that looks almost inevitable. What we've seen in Tunisia, Egypt, now Bahrain, and Libya – it's not just a flash in the pan. It's the start of something big.
L: It's a pity to see so much human energy being unleashed, creating powerful forces for change, at a time when it's unlikely that that power will be used for good. So few people have any grasp of basic economics – they have no idea where prosperity comes from. So few people understand that human rights are individual rights and that entitlements are not rights… These people are going to ask for Big Brother to take them in hand, and Big Brother is going to give them what they ask for, good and hard.
Doug: You're quite correct. The logical next step, as we mentioned before, is a new Robespierre – or a whole slew of them. But you know I always try to look at the bright side, and the good news is that a lot of despotic states are going to be overthrown. Others that are not overthrown will be discredited – also very good. This comes at a time when many of these states are on the ragged edge of collapse anyway – their days are numbered, even without this force precipitating their collapse.
Perhaps technology has advanced to the level that people will begin to see they can conduct their lives without the dead hand of the state trying to tell them what to do, and taking most of what they produce for the privilege.
L: Perhaps. The time may not be far off when the very idea of the nation-state itself will be discredited, and human society will evolve to a – hopefully – better form of organization.
Doug: I'd love to think so. I think that as technology continues to advance and liberate the individual, the disappearance of the state is inevitable, even if it's not imminent. But whether things get better after the crash or not, I'm increasingly convinced that what has long been inevitable for the whole world is now becoming imminent. We are in the early stages of a major upheaval. In other words, distortions in the way the world works have been built up to a level where the old order could easily collapse. I'm quite serious when I refer to the coming Greater Depression.
L: Just as we all knew the Soviet Union had to collapse from its internal problems – tyranny and economic stupidity – but weren't sure when. Now, decades of economic mismanagement and bad decision-making in the global arena must eventually be liquidated. But how do you know the bill is coming due?
Doug: Well, timing is always the problem. If you wait long enough, absolutely everything that is possible will happen. I suppose that's why we have time itself – to keep everything from happening at once [chuckles]. But we have to think about what's likely in the course of a single lifetime, so we can benefit from foresight – or be punished for guessing wrongly.
Consider that several other U.S. states are looking at "union-busting" legislation such as Wisconsin's. Unions can no longer pretend to be vehicles to protect the workers; they are really nothing but cartels that reward their members at the expense of everybody else. And, unlike the federal government, the states can't just print money. They have to tax people directly to pay for things. Now they have two choices: raise taxes or default on past promises.
Raising taxes is very hard to do during a depression. People who feel their standard of living is slipping just won't stand for it. Taxes were a major cause of the French Revolution and the American Revolution.
The riots in the '60s weren't about this type of thing – entitlements and taxes – but remember, in the '60s, few states had sales taxes, and where there was one, it was usually only one percent, or two, max. Now, sales taxes regularly run six, seven, eight, even ten percent. In addition, real estate taxes have gone up tremendously, as have state income taxes, of which there were also fewer back then. So these governments are already straining their ability to tax, and they know that if they raise taxes again, it will destroy much of what's left of their economies.
L: But they can't really default either – that would get the politicians thrown out of office just as quickly.
Doug: Default would hurt bondholders – generally older people who are very active voters. Also, pension funds, insurance companies, and banks would see a large chunk of their assets wiped out, which would be another body blow to struggling state economies. Not being able to print money, they won't be able to keep paying their debts, so they'll be forced to lay off more and more government employees. State and local governments are truly between a rock and a hard place, just like the U.S. government. But the U.S. has the option of destroying the currency to put off the hour of reckoning, and that's what they'll do.
L: Well, if the governments have to fire a bunch of employees, that's a good thing. But it will add to the unemployment burden, unless they scrap unemployment benefits too, which would also get the politicians tossed out of office.
Doug: Well, most government employees just push paper, and stop things from happening. It would be cheaper and better to pay them not to work, so they won't do actual damage – or give them unemployment compensation. Unfortunately, though, they'll just fire a few employees, or cut their wages and benefits a bit. What they need to do is totally abolish whole departments – each state has hundreds of them, making the lives of businessmen miserable and expensive. They won't do that, so the bureaucracy will just grow back if there is any recovery. Rather, the reduced number of employees will slow down approvals even more, slowing business even more. And that will further open the door to corruption.
Actually, it would be therapeutic to see some of them end up like Mussolini. It's certainly a good thing to see action toward recovering the money Mubarak stole. The same should be true in the U.S. Everybody in high office emerges very wealthy from a small salary – it's all stolen money.
But at this point, there is just no way out. It's like jumping off the top of a 100-story building – it's an exhilarating ride until you get to the bottom. That's exactly where, not just the U.S., but the whole global economy is.
L: I guess so... You could spread your arms and try to slow the fall, or if you were an experienced sky-diver, you could try to angle your descent toward one side or the other, but it's not going to change what happens when you hit the street.
Doug: That's exactly right. In the real world, actions have consequences. Economic causes have effects, and the piper can only be put off from payment for so long. I don't think he can be put off any longer.
L: When, exactly, do you think the bill – and its ever-accumulating interest – will come due?
Doug: I'm not going to put a date on it, but it's starting. The next ten years are going to be the most interesting decade in centuries. The events that are now under way – economic, financial, social, technological, political, and military – have the promise of being the biggest thing in a very, very long time.
L: Okay, but, with all due respect, you were full of doom and gloom back in 1980 – said we were going to tip over the edge, but we didn't.
Doug: I was, and I did say that – and we could indeed have gone over the edge back then. It was a very close thing. Fortunately – or unfortunately, if you consider the much, much larger bill now coming due – they papered it over. And things actually got better, due to two things: one, many individuals produced more than they consumed, and saved the difference; and, two, we got many improvements in technology. But financial and economic affairs are much worse now than they were then.
L: You don't believe it's possible to paper it over this time? Doesn't it make you uncomfortable to say, "It really is different this time!" – at least a bit?
Doug: Sure it does. Famous last words. But, in fact, it really is different this time, as anyone who searches the news for phrases such as "unprecedented," "record deficit," "record bank failures," etc., can see. It's a judgment call, obviously. But we have to make judgments if we're going to succeed, or even survive. Sometimes you have to call for a change in a major trend – which is risky. But not nearly as risky as getting trampled by the mob after it actually changes. I'm not afraid to leave the mainstream. In fact, I far prefer it, whether I'm right or wrong.
L: How can you be so sure there's no possible way to paper this over again? Mugabe trashed his currency and is still in power. Life goes on in Zimbabwe. Couldn't multi-trillion-dollar deficits become the new normal in the U.S.?
Doug: No, that's not possible. It would destroy the currency. It's bad enough when you do that in a nothing/nowhere country like Zimbabwe, where subsistence farmers can keep on scratching a living out of the dirt with sticks and stones, if they have to. But it wipes out most of the economy above the subsistence level, as just about everyone has their savings in the destroyed currency. If you do that to the Canadian dollar, say, it would be a disaster – but mainly for people who live in Canada. And plenty of Canadians have assets in other countries. But if you do it to the U.S. dollar, it wouldn't just be a disaster in the U.S. The U.S. dollar is the world reserve currency. Few Americans have assets outside of the U.S. Foreigners hold, maybe, eight trillion U.S. dollars. All the central banks of the world have mostly dollars. People all over the world have dollars in their pockets and bank accounts. When Bernanke destroys the dollar it will be a worldwide catastrophe. And that will happen all the faster if the feds bail out the states – which is a possibility with someone like Obama in charge.
Let me re-emphasize this. Almost everyone with net worth around the world tries to keep much of it in dollars. There are trillions of dollars outside the U.S. – far more than inside, and the people holding them are going to be impoverished. They won't be able to invest or to spend. A collapse of the dollar would lower the standard of living of a lot of people around the world, basically overnight.
This is really, really serious, and there's no way out. We are going to go through the meat grinder.
If we were to somehow stumble through this one – I would be fascinated to see how – and manage to move ahead in some semblance of the way things were pre-2008, I very much doubt it would last long. And I'm very sure it will just make the ultimate reckoning day that much more catastrophic.
I hate to say it, because I know the human cost will be enormous, but I think the odds greatly favor this being "it." I only hope to not be very adversely affected by it – and to have the right to say "I told you so"... although it will be unwise to draw that to anyone's attention after it happens. [Chuckles]
L: Hm. Well, even if there was some way to gain a reprieve for a few more years, it's still going to be ugly. The 70,000 people protesting in Wisconsin show that the so-called jobless recovery is a lie. Improving the bottom line by laying people off is not the same as increasing the top line, and increased government spending is not real GDP growth. Even if we manage to struggle on this way, the minimum payments now due the piper are going to keep things dicey. That means that the risk of social/political collapse remains, even if we avoid economic collapse.
Snow Crash could be starting right now.
Doug: Nothing we haven't said before: we're headed out of the eye of the storm, so you better rig for stormy weather – the worst you've ever seen.
Doug: Buy gold – lots of gold, even though it's no longer cheap. To capitalize on the likely next bubble, buy gold stocks. Given the trouble in the Middle East, the right energy stocks are also good to invest in. Short anything that won't do well in economic hard times, including the whole financial sector – and the retail, consumer, and construction sectors. Use those investments to build your cash position so you're ready to take advantage of the spectacular investment opportunities all of this turmoil is going to cause.
And do not – do not – forget to diversify yourself out of your country of residence. If you have the means, and have not done so yet, buy a "vacation" home. Make it in some nice remote place where you'd enjoy spending time in any event, but where the people live close to the earth and don't depend on the modern global economy. Also, make it in a place where hungry masses from unsustainable cities are unlikely to show up on your doorstep.
L: And if the sky is not falling?
Doug: Then you still make a bundle on the volatility ahead and end up with a nice vacation home you can sell if you decide you no longer need it for insurance.
But remember, nothing lasts forever. Few governments last as long as that of the U.S. has – and it's showing clear signs of terminal decay. Don't kid yourself, thinking, "It could never happen here." Europeans have an advantage over Americans; they remember fighting each other much more recently, and know full well it certainly can happen there.
L: Okay, Tatich. I guess I'll add the gun shop to my stops when I head down to my local coin shop to buy gold – time to load up on ammo again.
Doug: Sure, why not? You can always sell it later if you don't use it. Cigarettes too, even though I know you don't smoke. And alcohol, even though I know you don't drink.
L: I'll feel like a Y2K fanatic, but I guess there's room in the attic.
Doug: Sounds trite, but it's better safe than sorry, and it won't hurt to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
L: Sometimes old wisdom is the truest wisdom.
Doug: Indeed. We'll talk more next week. This business with the labor unions in Wisconsin is interesting – we should talk about labor unions.
L: Good topic. I look forward to our conversation.
Doug: 'Til next week then.
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