I’ve commented before in these essays that one of the least constructive habits of contemporary thought is its insistence on the uniqueness of the modern experience. It’s true, of course, that fossil fuels have allowed the world’s industrial societies to pursue their follies on a more grandiose scale than any past empire has managed, but the follies themselves closely parallel those of previous societies, and tracking the trajectories of these past examples is one of our few useful sources of guidance if we want to know where the current versions are headed.
The metastasis of money through every aspect of life in the modern industrial world is a good example. While no past society, as far as we know, took this process as far as we have, the replacement of wealth with its own abstract representations is no new thing. As Giambattista Vico pointed out back in the 18th century, complex societies move from the concrete to the abstract over their life cycles, and this influences economic life as much as anything else. Just as political power begins with raw violence and evolves toward progressively more subtle means of suasion, economic activity begins with the direct exchange of real wealth and evolves through a similar process of abstraction: first, one prized commodity becomes the standard measure for all other kinds of wealth; then, receipts that can be exchanged for some fixed sum of that commodity become a unit of exchange; finally, promises to pay some amount of these receipts on demand, or at a fixed point in the future, enter into circulation, and these may end up largely replacing the receipts themselves.
This movement toward abstraction has important advantages for complex societies, because abstractions can be deployed with a much smaller investment of resources than it takes to mobilize the concrete realities that back them up. We could have resolved last year’s debate about who should rule the United States the old-fashioned way, by having McCain and Obama call their supporters to arms, march to war, and settle the matter in battle amid a hail of bullets and cannon shot on a fine September day on some Iowa prairie. Still, the cost in lives, money, and collateral damage would have been far in excess of those involved in an election. In much the same way, the complexities involved in paying office workers in kind, or even in cash, make an economy of abstractions much less cumbersome for all concerned.
At the same time, there’s a trap hidden in the convenience of abstractions: the further you get from the concrete realities, the larger the chance becomes that the concrete realities may not actually be there when needed. History is littered with the corpses of regimes that let their power become so abstract that they could no longer counter a challenge on the fundamental level of raw violence; it’s been said of Chinese history, and could be said of any other civilization, that its basic rhythm is the tramp of hobnailed boots going up stairs, followed by the whisper of silk slippers going back down. In the same way, economic abstractions keep functioning only so long as actual goods and services exist to be bought and sold, and it’s only in the pipe dreams of economists that the abstractions guarantee the presence of the goods and services. Vico argued that this trap is a central driving force behind the decline and fall of civilizations; the movement toward abstraction goes so far that the concrete realities are neglected. In the end the realities trickle away unnoticed, until a shock of some kind strikes the tower of abstractions built atop the void the realities once filled, and the whole structure tumbles to the ground.
We are uncomfortably close to such a possibility just now, especially in our economic affairs. Over the last century, with the assistance of the economic hypercomplexity made possible by fossil fuels, the world’s industrial nations have taken the process of economic abstraction further than any previous civilization. On top of the usual levels of abstraction – a commodity used to measure value (gold), receipts that could be exchanged for that commodity (paper money), and promises to pay the receipts (checks and other financial paper) – contemporary societies have built an extraordinary pyramid of additional abstractions. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, furthermore, this one has its narrow end on the ground, in the realm of actual goods and services, and widens as it goes up.
The consequence of all this pyramid building is that there are not enough goods and services on Earth to equal, at current prices, more than a small percentage of the face value of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other fiscal exotica now in circulation. The vast majority of economic activity in today’s world consists purely of exchanges among these representations of representations of representations of wealth. This is why the real economy of goods and services can go into a freefall like the one now under way, without having more than a modest impact so far on an increasingly hallucinatory economy of fiscal abstractions.
Yet an impact it will have, if the freefall proceeds far enough. This is Vico’s point, and it’s a possibility that has been taken far too lightly both by the political classes of today’s industrial societies and by their critics on either end of the political spectrum. An economy of hallucinated wealth depends utterly on the willingness of all participants to pretend that the hallucinations have real value. When that willingness slackens, the pretense can evaporate in record time. This is how financial bubbles turn into financial panics: the collective fantasy of value that surrounds tulip bulbs, or stocks, or suburban tract housing, or any other speculative vehicle, dissolves into a mad rush for the exits. That rush has been peaceful to date; but it need not always be.
I’ve argued in previous posts here that the industrial age is in some sense the ultimate speculative bubble, a three-century-long binge driven by the fantasy of infinite economic growth on a finite planet with even more finite supplies of cheap abundant energy. Still, I am coming to think that this megabubble has spawned a second bubble on nearly the same scale. The vehicle for this secondary megabubble is money – meaning here the entire contents of what I’ve called the tertiary economy, the profusion of abstract representations of wealth that dominate our economic life and have all but smothered the real economy of goods and services, to say nothing of the primary economy of natural systems that keeps all of us alive.
Speculative bubbles are defined in various ways, but classic examples – the 1929 stock binge, say, or the late housing bubble – have certain standard features in common. First, the value of whatever item is at the center of the bubble shows a sustained rise in price not justified by changes in the wider economy, or in any concrete value the item might have. A speculative bubble in money functions a bit differently than other bubbles, because the speculative vehicle is also the measure of value; instead of one dollar increasing in value until it’s worth two, one dollar becomes two. Where stocks or tract houses go zooming up in price when a bubble focuses on them, then, what climbs in a money bubble is the total amount of paper wealth in circulation. That’s certainly happened in recent decades.
A second standard feature of speculative bubbles is that they absorb most of the fictive value they create, rather than spilling it back into the rest of the economy. In a stock bubble, for example, a majority of the money that comes from stock sales goes right back into the market; without this feedback loop, a bubble can’t sustain itself for long. In a money bubble, this same rule holds good; most of the paper earnings generated by the bubble end up being reinvested in some other form of paper wealth. Here again, this has certainly happened; the only reason we haven’t see thousand-percent inflation as a result of the vast manufacture of paper wealth in recent decades is that most of it has been used solely to buy even more newly manufactured paper wealth.
A third standard feature of speculative bubbles is that the number of people involved in them climbs steadily as the bubble proceeds. In 1929, the stock market was deluged by amateur investors who had never before bought a share of anything; in 2006, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who previously thought of houses only as something to live in came to think of them as a ticket to overnight wealth, and sank their net worth in real estate as a result. The metastasis of the money economy discussed in previous posts here is another example of the same process at work.
Finally, of course, bubbles always pop. When that happens, the speculative vehicle du jour comes crashing back to earth, losing the great majority of its assumed value, and the mass of amateur investors, having lost anything they made and usually a great deal more, trickle away from the market. This has not yet happened to the current money bubble. It might be a good idea to start thinking about what might happen if it does so.
The effects of a money panic would be focused uncomfortably close to home, I suspect, because the bulk of the hyperexpansion of money in recent decades has focused on a single currency, the US dollar. That bomb might have been defused if last year’s collapse of the housing bubble had been allowed to run its course, because this would have eliminated no small amount of the dollar-denominated abstractions generated by the excesses of recent years. Unfortunately the US government chose instead to try to reinflate the bubble economy by spending money it doesn’t have through an orgy of borrowing and some very dubious fiscal gimmickry. A great many foreign governments are accordingly becoming reluctant to lend the US more money, and at least one rising power – China – has been quietly cashing in its dollar reserves for commodities and other forms of far less abstract wealth.
Up until now, it has been in the best interests of other industrial nations to prop up the United States with a steady stream of credit, so that it can bankrupt itself filling its self-imposed role as global policeman. It’s been a very comfortable arrangement, since other nations haven’t had to shoulder more than a tiny fraction of the costs of dealing with rogue states, keeping the Middle East divided against itself, or maintaining economic hegemony over an increasingly restive Third World, while receiving the benefits of all these policies. The end of the age of cheap fossil fuel, however, has thrown a wild card into the game. As world petroleum production falters, it must have occurred to the leaders of other nations that if the United States no longer consumed roughly a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel supply, there would be a great deal more for everyone else to share out. The possibility that other nations might decide that this potential gain outweighs the advantages of keeping the United States solvent may make the next decade or so interesting, in the sense of the famous Chinese curse.
Over the longer term, on the other hand, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of paper assets now in circulation, whatever the currency in which they’re denominated, will lose essentially all their value. This might happen quickly, or it might unfold over decades, but the world’s supply of abstract representations of wealth is so much vaster than its supply of concrete wealth that something has to give sooner or later. Future economic growth won’t make up the difference; the end of the age of cheap fossil fuel makes growth in the real economy of goods and services a thing of the past, outside of rare and self-limiting situations. As the limits to growth tighten, and become first barriers to growth and then drivers of contraction, shrinkage in the real economy will become the rule, heightening the mismatch between money and wealth and increasing the pressure toward depreciation of the real value of paper assets.
Once again, though, all this has happened before. Just as increasing economic abstraction is a common feature of the history of complex societies, the unraveling of that abstraction is a common feature of their decline and fall. The desperate expedients now being pursued to expand the American money supply in a rapidly contracting economy have exact equivalents in, say, the equally desperate measures taken by the Roman Empire in its last years to expand its own money supply by debasing its coinage. The Roman economy achieved very high levels of complexity and an international reach; its moneylenders – we would call them financiers today – were a major economic force, and credit played a sizeable role in everyday economic life. In the decline and fall of the empire, all this went away. The farmers who pastured their sheep in the ruins of Rome’s forum during the Dark Ages lived in an economy of barter and feudal custom, in which coins were rare items more often used as jewelry than as a medium of exchange.
A similar trajectory almost certainly waits in the future of our own economic system, though what use the shepherds who pasture their flocks on the Mall in the ruins of a future Washington DC will find for vast stacks of Treasury bills is not exactly clear. How the trajectory will unfold is anyone’s guess, but the possibility that we may soon see sharp declines in the value of the dollar, and of dollar-denominated paper assets, probably should not be ignored, and cashing in abstract representations of wealth for things of more enduring value might well belong high on the list of sensible preparations for the future.