Texas Governor Rick Perry recently lead a three-day prayer marathon, asking for God to make it rain on Texas. God’s answer? Tropical Storm Lee skipped the state, and even more wildfires have broken out. No reports yet of any brimstone, but a volcanic eruption in Texas would put quite a cap on the summer disaster season, wouldn’t it? Where are all the Evangelicals who have framed other natural disasters as God’s wrathful judgment on the sinners of New Orleans, New York, or wherever? If God is all-powerful and on their side, how come he’s burning up the home state of his self-proclaimed most devoted servant? Do I blaspheme?
Speaking of God’s wrath, today is the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. I’m starting to suspect we will never know the real story of what happened, despite the many obvious contradictions and peculiar decisions contained in the official version. For instance: cell phones didn’t work on airplanes in 2001–how was someone allegedly on one of the hijacked flights able to make cell phone calls? How could an airliner hit a building at ground level (the Pentagon), and disintegrate so thoroughly that virtually no trace of the airliner was left? How could somebody with virtually no experience flying an airliner do such a good job of flying it so close to the ground? Why was no attempt made to shoot the plane down before it hit? And if, as some claim, it was a missile and not an airplane that hit the Pentagon, thus explaining the lack of debris, what happened to the missing airplane?
And that’s just the Pentagon–moving to the main event, in New York, we don’t know how a kerosene (aka jet fuel) fire could get hot enough to melt structural steel–there are videos that seem to show molten metal pouring out of the stricken floors of the World Trade Center, and plenty of eyewitness reports of molten metal in the collapsed ruins. Why were the remains of the buildings hastily recycled, rather than carefully examined for evidence of why they collapsed? Why were traces of high explosives found in World Trade Center structure samples that were independently analyzed? Why did Building 7, which was not hit by an airplane, and contained the security camera records for the towers, collapse and burn hours after the main event?
On the other hand, if it was, as many allege, a controlled demolition, how could the enormous amount of material needed have been spirited into the building and put in place without attracting notice? Such a task would require so many hands that it is hard to believe that everyone’s lips would remain sealed after ten years.
I haven’t even touched on the larger questions–who knew what, and when. Perhaps that is why our government took such great care to seal Mr. Bin Laden’s lips and confiscate his records. We may never know if the attack occurred without the knowledge of our government, or whether it occurred with the collusion or outright participation of our government. After all, the neoconservative “Project for a New American Century” had, only the year before, proclaimed a need for “a new Pearl Harbor” to galvanize Americans into supporting a war that, they believed, would result in American dominance of the Middle East and its oil. And Pearl Harbor, let us not forget, was an attack that upper echelons of U.S. intelligence may have known about, and allowed to happen, in order to…galvanize Americans into supporting a war. Maybe that’s what happened. As I said, there’s a lot we just don’t know.
But, in a way, it doesn’t matter whether Dick Cheney was in on the 9-11 plot or not. It doesn’t even matter that the country, or at least the media, has largely lost interest in these questions. What the attack really succeeded in doing was provoking a massive increase in U.S. government spending–and borrowing. Our national debt nearly doubled during the Cheney administration, largely due to increased war and “homeland security” spending. This was all part of a mindset that saw no need to regulate or rein in government spending on big business , or in any way question the basic assumption on which our economy runs: economic growth is the ultimate good thing.
And that is where this country has run into trouble, because our commitment to unrestrained economic growth at any cost was bound to create a crash, sooner or later, and increased government spending and borrowing–not to mention private sector spending and borrowing, as in the consumer credit boom–just brought the contradictions to a head that much faster.
Here’s the key: a financial system based on loaning money at interest presumes that the economy can somehow grow indefinitely. There is no way to pay off an interest-bearing loan other than to somehow create more wealth than the original loan represents. But oops! That presumes infinite growth on this small and extremely finite–not to mention fragile–planet.
In the prescient climactic scene from the 1983 Monty Python movie “The Meaning of Life,” the Chairman of the Very Big Corporation of America says
… which brings us once again to the urgent realisation of just how much there is still left to own.
In 1983, it seemed that there was still a lot left to own, but, just a few years later, the field had narrowed considerably. By the early 90’s, the planet’s material resources were pretty much accounted for or tapped out, and bankers started resorting to what you could call ‘creative financing”–Collateralized Debt Obligations, Collateralized Bond Obligations, and so forth, even a second generation of essentially artificial financial instruments based on CDO’s, etc., which catapulted high finance into a realm of such huge amounts of–ultimately–imaginary money that the only “collateral” for these abstract investment opportunities was more abstract money, because there just wasn’t enough actual stuff to do the job. The world of finance had run out of things to own, and yet banksters made billions in a market that resembled nothing so much as an off-track betting parlor for an imaginary horse race. They made enough money to buy the U.S. government, with the result that, when their schemes blew up in their faces, they were able to manipulate that government into bailing them out instead of prosecuting them for theft and fraud.
The rest of us are not so well-connected. Debt also became overwhelming at the family/individual level, resulting in a flood of bankruptcies and foreclosures that has decimated the American middle class and shoved the poor even farther down the storm drain. Oh, and did I mention that part of the corporate Ponzi scheme involved moving as much manufacturing out of the US as possible, to places where they wouldn’t have to pay their workers as well, or observe expensive environmental safeguards?
Here’s some numbers: real wages for the average person have declined by about 14% since the early 1970’s, while the cost of living, as measured by the consumer price index, has risen by a factor of five. The cost of living increase is partly due to price increases, but also involves using television to hypnotize people into believing they need things that they do not, in fact, need, thus inflating demand.
A more concrete example: the average home price in 1972 was $27.000. Adjusted for inflation to 2007 prices, that’s about $134,000. But, in 2007, the average home price in the U.S. was around $300,000, and the median was in the neighborhood of $250,000. So, for the average American, income–down 14%, while the price for keeping a roof over our head is up nearly 100%. That has opened up a big hole between our expectations and our ability to fulfill them, a hole known as a “debt trap.” The total amount of individual debt in the U.S. is about 2.4 trillion dollars, about a third of it credit card debt, the rest mostly home and college loans. In 2009, the average household debt was only about $16K, but the average household debt of households with credit card debt was $54K. The good news is, both these figures were about half of what they had been a year earlier.
The bad news is that a fair amount of this debt disappeared when banks gave up on collecting it, because the debtors went bankrupt. Foreclosure, of course, technically transfers the asset to the bank, but unoccupied, unsaleable homes have a funny tendency to lose value rather rapidly. Too bad for the banks. My heart bleeds.
The other bad news is that, since our economy is based on credit, the fact that people are borrowing and spending less is ‘bad for the economy.”
But the good news is, our unsustainable, growth-dependent economy needs to wither and die, to keep the planet from withering and dying. I’m not too hung up in the “either/or” of this, because it looks like the planet is going to wither and die enough to shake the cancer of our civilization, and possibly our entire species. As one who appreciates what is valuable in humanity–our self-awareness, our ability to understand large concepts, and our ability to be compassionate with each other–I hope it doesn’t come to that. But unless several million mostly rich, white, mostly Americans ( who are overall somewhat deficient in self-awareness, understanding, and compassion) don’t get a clue pretty quick, it could, indeed, be curtains for us. These are interesting times, indeed.
music: Eliza Gilkyson, “2153“