We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hoover Presidency and Obama

Hoover, a capable technocrat dealt with a deepening depression by trying to improve status quo fundamentals rather than trying to bring new fundamentals into being. Obama, a year into his presidency, does the same but worse.

Timing is everything. When a Republican held on to the presidency during 1929-1933 period of deepening international depression, half a century of Democratic party governance followed (with last vocal remnants arguably stamped out in 1994). Population's psychological association of Herbert Hoover's GOP with worst financial catastrophe in memory and inability to substantially remedy anything (during a 4 year downward spiral) was total.

These days, Hoover's name lives in infamy even though he was a brilliant and very capable micromanaging technocrat. Just like Carter, he was overseeing macro scale global decline and similarly to Carter, did not have the will to radically break from the status quo establishment modes of thinking. The reason for them not breaking with the past too rapidly is that grand declines happen over a period of years with a number of positive reversals. The gradual nature of decline allows the psyche of the political leadership to adjust to increasingly worsening reality (which would otherwise be intolerable if decline occurred in say, 2 weeks instead of 2 years). For example, after Great Crash decline of 50% from 381 to 198, the Dow recovered 33% of the losses by summer of 1930. That was the first of the great sucker rallies that continued until the ultimate bottom and socioeconomic emergency in 1933.

Hoover's administration did not have as many data metrics as exist now (concerning homelessness, hunger, etc) concerning true economic situation on main street. For guidance, they thus overly relied on the casino gambling chart for the rich (that is Dow Jones) even more than Obama administration today.

Here's how that chart looks today:

The current sucker's rally got the gambling chart up to almost 60% in 2009 from its post crash lows. Internet trading advances allow more players with better communication to participate. This means even greater potential for volatility in general (large negative and positive reversals) than in 1930s. When Hoover was in office well into the year following the collapse, his chart looked like this:

Does not look all bad right? Perhaps it looks as if some nuts and bolts need to be tightened by a gifted team of technocrats and the great bubble machine will be up and running again? Although the time for relatively radical measures (FDR style attempts to preserve capitalism) was perfect, these measures would have been politically impossible and were not seen as needed. The rest is history. As tax revenue for government to do anything increasingly dried up, Hoover had less and less tools at his disposal. His administration was in the classic gambler's dilemma of hoping for a reversal while riding an incredible wave all the way down.

The current economic depression may be even worse for United States than the last one in a number of key respects.

1) There is a lot less industrial capacity to fill up than there was in 1929

2) Unemployment after 2008 crash rose a lot quicker than after 1929 crash. By same unemployment calculation standards used in 1929, we are approaching 25% real unemployment already whereas it took 4 years in 1930s for it to get that bad then. If we mimic the Hoover era descent as well as we did the crash (half the gains gone bringing Dow back to 1996 level within months), we'll reach real unemployment of over 50% by 2012. Argentina, with half of its population below poverty line is a good recent example of what we can expect once the dollar default occurs (regardless of the form it takes).

3) Other great powers DO have often greater and often newer industrial capacity to outcompete us even if there is a political decision in Washington to use state capitalism to climb out of the depression using China-esque mercantilist system and industrial exports.

4) The government debt and budget expenditures (proportional to the size of the economy) are greater than in 1929

5) Ethnic divisions are a lot greater than in 1930s due to the number of white Americans being below 70% of population versus being over 90% in 1930s. This may hinder government acquiring enough political will to engage in real nationalist safety net provisions.

6) Modern American oligarchs are internationalists and have better means and will to move their wealth and themselves abroad if needed

My full article outlining the historical context of diminished means to climb out of the hole compared to before and some means left to Obama administration's disposal can be found here.

Obviously 80 years of technological progress means that welfare provisions will be a lot more tangible once social mindset turns towards providing them. This depression will be a lot more physically comfortable than the old one just because gadgets and developments in social sciences advanced greatly. This however does not eliminate the psychological pain born out of comparisons, thwarted expectations, interpersonal alienation (due to better communication technologies versus in person contact), and collapsing national morale of people who fancy themselves as citizens in a "superpower".

History would have been neatly repeated politically if McCain got elected. The resentment based oligarchic GOP socioeconomic structure (that Nixon first hinted on and that Reagan entrenched) collapsed under its weight in 2008 under GOP president. McCain's poor neural circuits and inability to generally surround himself with prudent people (although he did use Romney for financial advice in Sep and Oct 08) means that he would have dealt with the downward spiral even worse than Obama.

(sidenote: Of course it's possible he would be too old to care about politics as usual and would have started emulating his hero Teddy Roosevelt by turning on Wall Street. Such speculation about the "real" McCain or "real" Obama coming out when in power is useless. It's enough to keep in mind that crisis would continue deepening under the watch of another GOP leader).

It may sound ridiculous to think McCain would have accomplished even less than Obama by now but we must remember that even Hoover, the technocratic wonder boy, couldn't do much. McCain's sheer presence and belligerent posture would cause greater capital flight out of the country and quicker movement from dollar as a world reserve. Bailout to first class passengers (Wall Street) leaving the slowly sinking ship would have continued.

So now we have a rather interesting situation that just when the GOP has totally burned itself out and is in the process of disintegration, the people are associating their tangibly felt decline in living standards with the newly ascendant democratic party. Although this does not mean the democratic party will not keep winning in next elections (due to GOP infighting and shrinking economic pie with which to reward supportive factions), its potential to emerge as a monolithic long term juggernaut is greatly diminished.

Exasperation with both political wings of the oligarchy leaves people without a scapegoat for their psyche and opens the door to radicalism and rise of regional (rather than national) power centers. It remains to be seen if the key members of the international community will find it worth their resources to step in to bail United States out (to prevent potential long term geopolitical headaches stemming from social unrest in a state with many nuclear warheads and to profitably pick the bones of the country in the process). Although the bailout infusion has delayed the dollar default, it just made its consequences worse once it arrives.

On a more cheerful note, here's a political cartoon from 1930s.

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