Signs and Wonders

How To Tell When Hard Times Are Here

Why a signpost for hard times?

Throughout history, the inclination of all leaders everywhere is not to tell you the bad news. You know how it is: the folks who guaranteed you of a chicken in every pot, a war to end all wars, a land of plenty, a war to make democracy safe, a global war on terror, a thousand points of light, no child left behind, a kinder gentler nation, family values, compassionate conservatism, a new prosperity, a new American Empire, or an old stinky empire… these gentlemen do not like it when the facts fail to line up with the rhetoric. Or, to be more accurate, they do not like it when, due to the importune intrusion of reality, those who rent life by their labor start to notice the difference between promise and propaganda.

Bad news leads to bad views, and bad views lead to a surliness in the general population that eventually undermines the legitimacy of the status quo. Leaders do not like that.

So whether it’s global climate chaos, peak oil, the meltdown of a nuclear power reactor core, currency collapse or the fact that the Titanic Ship of State has struck an iceberg and is sinking, the economy and steerage class passengers will always be the last to be told. This, then, is your guidebook to the Signs and Wonders that will confirm what you suspect when everyone denies it.

Diving for Euros. Remember those old Hollywood films that showed Pacific Islanders diving for coins tossed by American tourists from their tour ships? Now that the US dollar has swooned, look for kids in New York, San Diego and Boston diving in their underwear for euros thrown into the harbor by wealthy Europeans enjoying a cheap holiday cruise to the United States. Got Loonies? No longer will shops refuse to take Canadian money when you buy something; in fact, you might get a discount. Better look inside that coin jar you were going to break open to buy groceries; there might be some very valuable Canadian pennies inside!

A Glut of Used Ferraris. When the “good times” rolled it was not uncommon for Wall Streeters to award themselves humongous cash bonuses that, in turn, were converted into modest transportation conveyances like Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. You know that something is up (or, rather, down) when you start to see large numbers of these pricey gas-guzzlers listed for sale, cheap, at Joe’s “Qaulity” Used Car Lot (Bad Credit? No Credit? Like Sub-prime Mortgages, We Finance Everyone!). Check out the sticker prices; it is a portent of bad times when a used six-speed Ferrari costs less than a used single-speed “fixie” bicycle.

Nose Prints on Office Windows. It might be an urban legend that during the 1929 Stock Market Crash investors committed suicide by throwing themselves out their office windows. Whether it happened that way or not, stock market investors will definitely NOT be jumping out the windows these days. That is because most office windows in the 21st Century do not open. Instead of stock brokers falling from the sky, look for nose prints on high rise office windows as financially ruined investors throw themselves at the non-opening, shatterproof glass and bounce off leaving the mark of their proboscises posted like no-slip bathtub appliques.

First Class Postage Rises. The Federal Reserve Bank, the Departments of Labor, Commerce and the Treasury repeatedly tell us that “core inflation” is practically non-existent. “Core inflation,” of course, excludes everything absolutely necessary for living, like housing, food and energy. “Core inflation” does take into account the falling cost of computer peripherals manufactured abroad as well as the “hedonic” value of, say, automobiles, that have more gadgets and luxury features than did a Model T Ford. Therefore, according to the economists’ scam, retirees’ Social Security payments that are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) can be kept low commensurate with the “core inflation” rate. Economists assume that even if seniors cannot afford to eat, have a roof over their heads or pay for heat or electricity, they can always eat their computer digits and sleep in their cars.

On the other hand, we are simultaneously told that rising oil prices are not that serious because (in a classic case of “double think”) when oil is adjusted for inflation (which we were just told is practically non-existent), the price of gasoline is actually less than it was thirty years ago. Therefore, when you pay US$50 for a tankful of gasoline, you are really paying only US$20 in inflation-adjusted dollars; but when you pay US$50 for a bag of groceries that cost US$35 the year before, that is merely an illusion because, according to economists, you could have substituted dog food for hamburger and substituted lawn clippings for lettuce, thereby keeping the cost of groceries the same as in 1987.

Could we be heading for stagflation — an economy where growth stagnates but prices rise? Or, put in more realistic terms, are we in for a “stagflated” economy where everything like apartment rent, medical insurance, national park user fees, gasoline, electricity, bread, clothing, bicycle tires, a cup of coffee and shoes cost a whole lot more, but your salary stays the same?

One of the better indicators of inflation is the ordinary first class postage stamp. As any philatelist knows, in 2002 the cost to mail a one ounce letter was 37¢. In 2006, 39¢. 2007, 41¢. That is a more than 5% increase just between 2006 and 2007, far higher than the official “core inflation” rate described by “economists”.

Watch the postage stamps for signs of where your world is headed. When, for example, the price of first class postage increases exponentially, then we are in a hyper-inflationary period such as existed during the early years of the Weimar Republic in post-World War I Germany.

No One Wants To Be President. What would it mean if no one wanted to be President? No one, not even Michael Bloomberg. I mean, what normal, non-psychopath actually wants to inherit today’s mess? Al Gore, his Nobel Prize money in pocket, has just joined a major venture capital company, Kleiner Perkins, to help greenwash its business enterprises. What if Hilary just chucks it all to re-join the Board of Directors of Walmart? What if Rudy Giuliani’s endless campaign dissimulations cause him to grow such a huge Pinocchio nose that he drops out of the race to work for TSA as a drug sniffer at the airport? What if Obama, packing his bag for Sweden, says that Kucinich and Edwards really are the better candidates… but both of them have abandoned their campaigns so they can emigrate to Cuba for the sake of a half-way intelligent health care system? What if Ron Paul figures out that he doesn’t belong in the Republican Party and moves to China to experience a real laissez faire economy? What if Mitt Romney decides that celibacy is the ticket, drops out of the race and becomes a Catholic Trappist monk? What if Ralph Nader, Elaine Brown and Al Sharpton just throw up their hands and admit that even with a Congress packed with Socialists, Black Panthers, Anarchists and (twinkling) Greens they could not straighten things out? Would it be time to pack your own suitcase if the only candidates who would be nominated for President by Democratic and Republican power brokers are … Pat Robertson or Blackwater’s CEO Erik Prince? Come to think of it, are we — virtually — already there?

The Price of Oil Plunges to More Than $100 a Barrel. When the price of oil rises, it rarely makes the headline news. After rising to a new high, however, the media are quick to proclaim that petroleum has “plunged” to a few cents lower than the record high it set earlier in the day. In 2003, a barrel of the benchmark light sweet crude cost US$25. By 2005, it had it “plunged” to US$60. The price has been “plunging” higher ever since. When petroleum “plunges” to over US$100/barrel, it could be time to be on the look-out for desperate SUV owners prowling the parked cars in your neighborhood with v e r y l o n g soda straws and plastic bottles.

People Give “Practical” Gifts for Xmas. What people give one another for the holidays can be a leading indicator of what is to come. For example, if there is a rise in the sale of flint and steel, bows and arrows, it could mean that a lot of people are anticipating a return to significantly more basic life styles. It means something if people get potatoes in their Xmas stockings this year and are truly grateful because they can plant them to grow their own food. Look for increased seasonal sales of practical gifts like rain barrels in the Southeast, fire extinguishers in California, cans of rust inhibitor in the Mid-West’s “rust belt”, perfume-sized bottles of water in the South-West and coconut tree seedlings in Alaska.

Productivity Increases. The surface media always trumpets the latest increases in worker productivity, as though this is good news for anyone other than big business. For most ordinary people, increased productivity simply means that they have been working harder and longer for the same amount of money. Looking at it another way, increased productivity means that your real wages are dropping.

Proof of the negative in “productivity increases” is that it is usually accompanied by increases in the number of homeless people and people without health care. Obviously, more people would be employed if the other workers were not so damn “productive” by doing the jobs of two people for the price of one! Thus, until and unless the United States ever provides for adequate affordable housing and adopts socialized health care (rather than just “affordable health insurance”) increases in “productivity” can only mean that workers’ real wages have dropped.

Mexico Builds A Wall. As US public schools are privatized, as K-12 curricula are turned into blueprints for the manufacture of sheep and consumers, and as a college education is priced out of the reach of most citizens, Mexico builds a wall along its border to keep out poor Blancos illegally sneaking in from the United States to find unskilled assembly line, construction, garden and domestic work. Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo’s anti-immigration campaign falls apart because no one from any economic class chooses to move to the emerging third world that now is the United States. Could it mean that the US economy is in trouble when Canada passes “Canadian English Only” laws to bar US citizens from seeking employment north of the 48th parallel, eh?

China Moves Its Factories to the United States. If current trends continue, China could soon move its manufacturing plants to the United States to take advantage of the cheap, non-union labor and large reserves of unemployed workers. Take special notice if North American labor unions like the UAW (as contrasted with French and Italian unions that will stage powerful national strikes to preserve their rights) begin to lacerate themselves by cutting their own salaries and benefits and absorbing their own health care costs – all in the name of preserving profits for the owners and maintaining a ‘collaborative’ relationship between labor and capital.

Everyday Is A ‘Buying Opportunity!’ The world’s stock markets are now totally interlocked and the major players are not individuals, but hedge funds loaded up with ethereal assets compromised of collateralized debt obligations of dubious value. The markets rise and fall precipitously as computer programs of one player trigger instantaneous responses by another’s computer program, until the markets lurch and heave like drunkards. Furthermore, a behind-the-scenes “plunge protection team“, aka the “President’s Working Group on Financial Markets”, has artificially managed many late afternoon “rallies” that prop up the illusion of prosperity in a time of collapse. Smarmy stock brokers touting easy roads to riches are a sign of imminent decay. Is it a ‘buying opportunity’ when the markets drop, or a ‘selling opportunity’ when the markets rise? For most hedge funds, the President’s Working Group’s engineered rallies serve to pump up equity prices so the Big Boys can quickly dump them, thus effectively bailing out the private financial sector with public money.

Profusion of End Times Societies. Societies tend to polarize when they are stressed. When people feel less financially secure, their cultural moorings become unmoored. They tend to gravitate toward extreme forms of “community” like race supremacy, religious supremacy or patriotism. Some people yearn for the mythical simplicity of a Stone Age Garden of Eden. Some wait to be raptured bodily into heaven like dust bunnies sucked up by a celestial vacuum cleaner. Many simply go into “shock.” In Germany in the late 1930s, as democracy was undermined by world wide economic depression, the nation spiraled rapidly down into totalitarianism. In the United States, economic desperation launched the populist demagoguery of Huey Long and the hate-spewing ministry of the “family values”, anti-communist, Christian Front radio host, Father Charles Coughlin. The Dust Bowl of 1933-1939 decimated the American heartland as global warming might do again in spades. The Nazis prophesied a thousand year Reich at the end of the Second World War. Neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the End of History at the end the Cold War.

Of course, in our own time there are absolutely no populist demagogue wannabes, and no bloviating “family values,” anti-communist, Christian Front radio hosts spewing hatred on the air. Therefore, any resemblance between the early 21st Century and the 1930s surely must be coincidental.

New Reality TV Shows. During the Great Depression, people did funny things to make a buck or to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of their lives. They joined dance marathons. Just before the Great Depression, they sat on flag poles for weeks on end. It was a time when people would undertake extremes of physical endurance for the sake of filling the emptiness within. Today, we have “reality TV,” which is, more or less, the same idea. Instead of dance marathons, we have Dancing With The Stars, American Idol, Donald Trump, torture festivals like 24, and various mind-numbing “survival” telecasts. In our own day, as contrasted with the days of the Great Depression, the acts of extreme physical endurance are not the shows themselves, but watching them. The fact that many people actually do watch them is another “wonder” and a sign of impending collapse.

Iguanas at Iditarod. You should take note when the annual Iditarod sled race is canceled for lack of snow and the new motive power in the Yukon is not mushing Siberian Huskies, but teams of iguanas. Are crocodiles sunning themselves in the St. Lawrence Seaway? Are piranha fish swimming in Lake Superior? Pink flamingos taking up residence in the Pribilof Islands? Saguaro cactus growing in the dessicated corn belt of Middle America? Do bananas grow in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula? Is all of Manhattan submerged under two feet of salt water? All of these are very subtle indicators that the unrelenting use of hydro-carbon fuels may have caused irreversible climate change and it’s time to think about… to think about …. uh, to think about… hmmmmm.

* * * * *

Come to think about it, there really is no life raft to get off the sinking ship once it has begun to list, especially when it lists sharply to starboard. Were there a way off the sinking ship, where would you go, anyway? Where would you emigrate to… and do they want you there? Maybe you could try Mars or Venus or the Moon, but not now, and never in your lifetime. And if we could not solve the problems on this planet, what would give any earthling the right to plop down and redo the same old mistakes in an extraterrestrial environment any more than a Conquistador or a Pilgrim or a colonial land grabber had the right to re-pot Europe into Africa, Asia or the Americas?

There are a lot of people sailing blind in the economy and steerage class bowels of the ship of state. Some wring their hands waiting for the inevitable catastrophe. Most sail on without a clue; some blissfully, most not.

There are only a few people running things on the bridge. Those in the bowels can, and ought to take control before the signs of a shipwreck. The wonder is that they have not yet done so.

Zbignew Zingh is a writer whose articles are CopyLeft, free to distribute, copy, reprint or repost in full with proper author citation and with the "Copyleft" designation. Read other articles by Zbignew, or visit Zbignew's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Clifford J. Wirth said on November 26th, 2007 at 8:02am #

    Yes, hard times are here. Now The Wall Street Journal admits to Peak Oil and thus t admits to climbing oil prices. And in a recent WSJ article
    an economist is quoted as saying that when oil goes above $150 a barrel, we go into recession. That is the beginning of the end that is laid out in this research:

  2. Michael Hureaux said on November 26th, 2007 at 10:33am #

    Dude, you are too funny. I loved the section about flint and steel and bows and arrows. The potato piece struck a little too close to home, however, my wife and I have been turning our entire yard into a garden for the last two or three years and started readying the ground for raised beds to grow- you know it- potatoes. We’ll want to avoid Yukon golds, of course, talk too loose about growing something called “yukon gold” in the current economy could result in squatters and prospectors trying to move in on us. You know how it is.

    As it is, we’ll probably need bows and arrows to defend ourselves from the people who will periodically be raiding the garden and carting off the squirrels (who are always raiding the birdfeeders) for protein. The food chain acted out before our eyes.

    Only in Amurrika!

  3. Eco avila said on November 26th, 2007 at 2:42pm #

    HardTimes@since the ‘Promise’ of 4oacres&a BMW was broken,shaddered and away to the dustbin of his-story.
    The emancipator was assassinated,the word broken,and rule of Jimcrowiism for a spell.
    HardTimes from 1885 to 1971,then complex conspiracy freak want after Albert Einstein ,transformed the face of the american Jew to absent minded professor magoo and the BlackPantherParty to ther face of the BlackLiberationMovement[BLA]assassin, mayhem ,bloodshed,chaos and imprisonment for some.
    From 1971@ New York State of Mind,to 2008,California Dreaming of executing 8 Americans@SanFrancisco, a long way from reparations..
    More like hard Century upon another hard 21thcentury4 the american black bloodline@Mason/Dixon Line 1865.
    We Built This City and hard times,like Jazz will be around the corner,just before the dawn and morning light.
    Jalil&herman ‘know’hard times,37years and counting.
    ecoavila go your own way.
    CWpDetectionRule@the entrance UScOurthouse.
    Need not take your shoes off anymore!

  4. Diane said on November 28th, 2007 at 5:51pm #

    All is not doom and gloom
    Here is Australia we have have just thrown out of office our Bushite Prime Minister, and his sycophantic party.
    Like the Munchkins, we have not come fully out into the open, we wait, we wait and see, but there is still a swell of optimism and the terrible terrible feeling of dread that the last 11 years held is blowing away like the danelions flowers.
    Sure the new government has sold its soul to neo liberalism and will still support the USA but not in the same mad bad evil way, and more to the point it showed the Australian people that we can if we so determine change the tide, and bring about a gentler way of living.
    Believe me it was the Australian people who did this, finally saw through the fear and loathing generated by the conservatives, and collectively said, there has to be a better way of doing it!!!

  5. anthony said on November 29th, 2007 at 6:36am #

    Diane please believe me when i say i was thrilled to see howards defeat and the demise of our neocon clones.However Labour victory can easily turn out like blair in the uk or pelosi and her demorats.Lets wait and see before we get all smug.The MSM and the financial end of town with all the political class have now to hose down the impact the bankstas have created worlwide with the USA’s dollar bubble.I do not think so.Worldwide ecocollapse,tighter oil and religion once again rearing its ugly head………its a big ask.Whether the “progressives ” step up to the task depends largely on Impeaching the shrub and his ilk and a return to a rule of law.Spin is not going to cut it.Transparency and accountability with some serious attention to corporate governance either becomes the new world order or its going to be war as usual and the devastation of the fragile pockets of ecosystem we have left.Right,Left and Centre we are going to have to lift our game higher than these termites who have been our so called leaders.Nations who allow the destruction of their currency by profligate warmongering antiecological policies and other infantile pursuits will lose sovereignty to make these decisions.Certainly management models which CEO’s keep huge amounts of investor’s money for failed ventures and the wink wink nudge nudge offshoring that has allowed major criminal behaviour has to be challenged.Pederphiles are small game compared to the rorters of sane fiscal management and just as repugnant.The damage done to the poor worldwide is sickening proof
    this should be what we arm the police to pursue not the bogey man created by fear.A government seen in action against real problemns like water,health, education and real farm/energy policies will not have spend its time in office just plotting for its next election.We will see.