US Politics

US Democracy Under Threat

The global economy is set to start shrinking as the supply of oil goes into decline. Big business will fight ruthlessly to protect their share of the pie.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 06, 2006

I've long been concerned with developments south of the border, but in the past I consoled myself that America has flirted with domestic fascism before and eventually righted itself.

This time it may be different: for the first time, the long global trajectory of economic growth is on the cusp of a permanent reversal.

A Century of Progress

Even during the darkest days of WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War, the world was getting richer, the total global production and consumption of energy was increasing, and "Progress" (with a capital P) still seemed the order of the day. These crises were seen as the last great lurches of a dying imperial order that had run its course and grown unstable.

Even the Great Depression was seen mainly as a misguided overreaction to the bursting of a vast financial bubble that had not yet been subjected to the sophisticated regulatory tools that today allow people like US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to wield godlike powers.

Through all this, global economic output grew steadily as the net flow of usable energy increased at around two or three percent a year. It was easy to struggle for universal civil rights when there was enough energy to go around and you didn't need slaves, serfs, or sharecroppers anymore.

It was comparatively easy to struggle for social justice. For the first time in history, there was plenty to go around. Poor, unbearable shanties in the rural South suddenly became livable, thanks to air conditioners and motor vehicles, all powered by cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Rotting northern industrial cities emptied into their hinterlands, levelled and paved and bristling with new single houses.

The movement to universalize the basic trappings of modern life gained traction, and with the infrastructure of Roosevelt's New Deal in place, corporate America signed onto a bargain in which industry reluctantly accepted full employment policies and high wages in exchange for steady growth.

Backlash

Then, starting in the 1970s with the OPEC oil shocks, North American industries and their lobbying groups and think tank "institutes" went on the offensive, fighting back against egalitarianism and steadily clawing away at the gains the social justice movement had achieved.

Over the next three decades, big business pressure slashed corporate taxes, froze minimum wages, rolled back unionization, and cut budgets for education, health care, and public infrastructure.

In that period, nearly all the wealth increases have gone to the top ten percent of Americans, of whom the top one percent has taken the largest share. Executive salaries have soared, while the size of the poor underclass has grown, eating into the middle class while median incomes have stalled and declined.

Today, cities are crumbling, public schools struggle with inadequate resources, and in the US, some 47 million people have no comprehensive health care coverage. When the next big recession hits, the basic protections built up over half a century will no longer exist.

At the same time, elections have turned into hundred million dollar extravaganzas of public manipulation. What used to be considered influence peddling has been normalized in the US Congress, with "registered" lobbyists and overt corruption.

Illusory Growth

Since 2000, if you exclude the booming health care industry, the net change in employment in the private sector has been strongly negative.

The boom in home construction, fueled by the housing bubble that grew out of Alan Greenspan's rock-bottom interest rates early in the decade, has produced some low-skilled construction jobs. However, that has not been enough to counteract the net decline in manufacturing work.

Even the much-ballyhooed "information economy", which was supposed to replace manufacturing jobs with a new generation of high-skilled tech jobs, has generated almost zero net jobs since the tech bubble burst in 2000.

The US federal government is hemorrhaging around three hundred billion dollars a year, plus deficits at the state and municipal level. This year, the US economy will import close to $800 billion more in goods and services than it exports.

In an ominous echo of the 1998 collapse of Long Term Capital Management, another hedge fund has just failed. Amaranth Advisors, Inc. pulled the plug after a month-long collapse, losing $6 billion dollars. Banks are scrambling to insulate themselves from the fallout, but this is another sign of growing volatility.

Ironically, Amaranth collapsed because a trader bet that natural gas futures for March-April 2007 would continue to rise. Instead the futures share price dropped by four-fifths on the strength of a mild hurricane season and reports of a warm winter.

A Geological Date with Destiny

In the context of this volatile political milieu, consider the effects of peak oil, the period at which half the world's conventional petroleum reserves have been consumed. After the peak, total oil production goes into an inexorable decline.

Many geologists believe the peak is happening now, and point as early evidence to the fact that this year's total global oil production has fallen compared to last year's, for the first time since the 1970s.

While the earlier production declines were political - the first because OPEC cut production, and the second because Iran overthrew its government and stopped oil production - today's decline is geological.

When the total output of oil is growing, we can trust market forces to allocate that oil more or less fairly. When the total output is shrinking but the world's largest buyer refuses to pay the scarcity premium or consume less, then it must circumvent the market and secure a steady supply by force - and to hell with the rest of the world.

Oil Price Volatility

The price of oil has risen steadily since its 1999 low of $18 per barrel to a high of $75 per barrel in mid-2006 because demand has grown steadily but production could not increase to match it. Reserve margins in the oil industry fell to zero over this time, and even Saudi Arabia, the world's oil producing powerhouse, admits it has passed its production peak.

Lately, high prices have destroyed some of the demand for oil, particularly in poorer countries, and investors fear that the US will go into a recession next year, so the price has fallen near $60 per barrel, which feels like a break today but is still over three times higher than in 1999.

Cornucopian economists will point to today's falling prices as proof that there's no oil shortage and that the market works just fine, thank you very much. However, peak oil theory actually predicts several years of exactly this kind of price volatility as the production ceiling repeatedly destroys demand via high prices.

When the demand drops, the price falls; the lower price, in turn, restores a demand that the physical capacity of the oil industry cannot meet. Each time demand bounces off the global peak in production, the new baseline of wealth will be a little lower than before, the security of the middle class less certain, the desperation of the poor more acute.

Bad Times Ahead

This bodes very badly for struggling people the world over. If big business fought back fiercely against public spending when economic growth merely slowed, how fierce and unrelenting will they be once the economy actually starts to shrink in real terms?

How hard will they push the government to repress and resist the social justice movement when that pie starts shrinking?

We already face attempts to tie the social justice and environemental movements to the so-called War on Terrorism. If domestic resistance to US policy escalates beyond timid protests, apolitical unions, and "free speech zones", will the US government be able to resist characterizing protests as terrorist acts?

When there's plenty of food to go around, enough is left to toss some scraps to the hounds to keep them happy. But when there's not so much to go around and there are no scraps, you have to beat the dogs to keep them quiet. Once they become too desperate and unruly to silence with threats and repression, you have to kill them.

I fear we're in for ugly times ahead.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By ohioan (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2006 at 09:31:19

Ryan,
As an American peak oil obsessionist, I've been watching many of the great efforts some of you Candian citizens have been putting forth to address the coming changes in our world and have been both impressed and inspired. Your observations about problems in the USA are for the most part accurate. However, there is a growing number of us (which includes many politicians in Washington and environmental organizations - see 25x25.org) who are trying very hard to address the coming oil shortages in an egalitarian fashion. If you visit Relocalize.net you will see the the US has more groups than any other country in the world. The philosophies of the Post Carbon Institute's Relocalization effort (out of Canada) is to help communities adapt and adjust to living in a low-energy world with democratic principles in tact. Many of us are struggling very hard toward that goal. While we may still be in the minority, we do have our champions - Matt Simmons, Rep Roscoe Bartlett, Robert Hirsch, ASPO-USA team, Community Solution, Inc. team, and many many more. Perhaps I am naive, but some of us are hopeful that the loss of cheap energy will be the downfall of corporate globalization and a shift in power to regional/local business and government. As Michael Shuman (author of Going Local - Creating Self Reliant Communities in a Global Age) has observed - it's a lot easier to influence a corporation located in your back yard to "do the right thing" than it is to impact one who's home office moves from one country to another. Ya never know - but this struggle may actually unite us American citizens and we may actually learn to work together and help each other adjust to our changing world. At lease some of us are still willing to try!! One thing for sure - our Canadian neighbors are truly invaluable to us now (see Ottawa's effort - http://www.crudeawakening.net).

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By john (anonymous) | Posted October 26, 2006 at 22:26:37

Ryan Thank you for the excelent article.
Having seen Al Gores "An inconvenient truth"
I am more inclined to think that the serious social problems associated with global warming will come after the oil shock. We in New Zealand have people considering the loss of cheap oil by moving closer to towns. It is now harder to sell, for an inflated price,lifestyle blocks 45 minutes away from a town or city. The desire of Chinese people for the American way of life means that should they even get half way towards the goal we will need another world to supply the resources. Anyone driving two blocks to get a paper in an SUV is killing our grandchildren.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2006 at 15:10:29

Great article. The decline has already started, strangly just as China*mart is working hard to de-localize shopping, which represents the end-game in the making. People act like they don't see what is coming by supporting those kind of places, and don't see the threat to their own jobs through trickle-down by supporting the big-box efforts of global supremacy. And that's before you even toss the oil argument into the equation. It's likely nobody will notice the cliff until most of their weight is on the wrong foot. And one thing is for sure - nobody is going to stop the ridiculous levels of import consumption until it is way too late. The insanity can't stand exposed where there is of much of it.

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