Things You Don’t Hope For

Good moroning gang, and good luck keeping your sanity during today’s second iteration of the opening day of the mad holiday shopping season. Hi to all who participated in the liveblog thingie :) and apologies for the way the connections kept dropping. This is what I get for using “municipal wifi”, err, borrowing bandwidth from whatever neighbor forgot to secure it that day.

By now you will have probably heard about the Wal*Mart temp worker who was trampled to death in a Long Island store, on Black Friday, as he attempted to secure the doors.

As expected, there’s no dearth of internet commentary about this event.

The comment that felt the most poignant to me was one from the Housing Bubble Blog, and it went something like this:

If this is what folks do for $300 laptops, and in full view of the security cameras, what does it say about how they’ll behave when they’re broke and unable to buy food?”

Even worse, this was on Long Island, where people pay big money to live so that they supposedly don’t have to deal with the face-to-face brutality and crime of living in Brooklyn or one of the boroughs. Did any of the first 200 people through the door ride there on public transit? Did any of them not have single-family homes, mortgages, and personal automobiles?

There is this strange perception, on the part of new visitors to CFN & sometimes ZK, that just because we discuss various aspects of doom here we must secretly be wishing for said doom to manifest in real life. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we’re doing, instead, is discussing the likelihood of unwished-for events to take place.

For example I would only be too happy to ascribe good characteristics to everyone else and to think that, no, mob behavior such as the Black Friday trampling cannot take place in this sleepy, quiet little bedroom community outside Boston. But I can’t realistically do that, not after having already seen here manifestations of similar behaviors in different settings.

A friend recently told me about an encounter he had with a woman I suppose we’d call a stereotypical crazed soccer mom in an SUV. The friend was traveling on foot through an urban area. The soccer mom blew through a stop sign, and would have hit the guy if he’d been in the crosswalk. As fate would have it, her destination was nearby and his route took him there around the time she was getting out of the truck. When he told her there was a stop sign back there, she shrugged and ignored him.

My own local experience was safer but not much different. In the morning, here, the soccer moms make the streets a downright dangerous place to be as they form angry rolling flash mobs, each trying to deliver her precious little Bratleigh to school on time.

Whatever love these SUV drivers may be capable of feeling seems directed only to themselves and to their kids. The predominant attitude seems to be something like, “Fcuk everyone else – get out of my way!” And it’s by no means limited to SUV drivers either. Thus do these ostensibly “loving moms” (or dads) make the public streets hellishly dangerous to all others during certain hours.

There is a lesson here for us, only the lesson seems almost as invisible to most as were the simplest rules of common sense during the era of the dot-bomb stock bubble and the real estate bubble that followed. One of the most common of these rules is something like, “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.” There ya go, words to live by. Another one, less commonly-known in the present era, is to limit one’s rent or mortgage payment to no more than 1/3 of the household income. Accompanying that one is the old dictum about not purchasing property costing more than 2.5x~3x household income, and if you can do that, put 20% down and get the lowest fixed rate you can bargain out of them .. with its part2 being something about how if you can’t save the 20% down within 5 years, you’ve probably got no business buying property anyway.

On the good days, I like to think I could get active in local politics and perhaps campaign for some use of the otherwise excellent unused space here, in and around town, as community gardening space. Of course I would try to refrain from telling them about how our industrial way of life is fast approaching an end, and with it the cheap and easy access to distantly-grown staple foods, and with it the whole industrial-scale farming scheme, but then they’d probably just label me a kook of sorts. (Well, that’s not much harm, as folks around here certainly have no problem getting eccentric.) In fact there is some excellent open land right in the center of town, where a 100m-wide east-west boulevard-like space has excellent sun/rain exposure and only a few roads going through it or parking lots along it. Such would be a fantastic place for community gardens.

But then I stop and wonder how badly the Zombie Virus has infected the folks living here or passing through here on the way to homes further west. If the infection is already bad enough that the ostensibly “loving parent” types driving their kids to school act murderously to everyone else, and if folks out here engage in the same sort of mad shopping riots-in-all-but-name that took the life of that LI temp worker, who’s to say that community gardening is even an option here? What’s to stop any of the infected ones from climbing out of their cars, helping themselves to a hatful of tomatoes or a few ears of corn or that lovely squash, and motoring back home for supper? Even if there was anyone local on hand to witness the crime, would the perp even care?

I don’t want to fall into the consumerist trap of thinking that I’ve somehow “got” to purchase a private property large enough for my own gardening projects. It wouldn’t happen anyway at my income level, especially relative to the still-very-high cost of land around here. I’ve seen the stats on “home moanership”. Put it this way: in 1910 the home ownership rate was around 20%. Most people rented, while the well-to-do owned. Due to a series of unfortunately ill-conceived social programs, the home ownership rate has been vastly increased beyond any reasonable sustainability. But fine, even if we’re going back to lower home ownership rates and higher renting rates, how will most of us do our gardening? (I’m not against moving in with the right friends/relatives or into a co-op mobile home part or into an intentional community or whatever. It’s all good.)

I’ve got good friends who tell me weekly that the Mad Max future (aka Children of Men future for you younger folks) is bearing down on us with all the savage intensity of the Humongous and his legion of headbangers. Seeing as how the future hasn’t happened yet and is still subject to change, I can’t say they’re seeing things wrong or that they lack an appreciation for the cruder aspects of mob behavior under desperate circumstances. Again, if all it takes is the prospect of $300 laptops to trample a man to death, what’s going to happen when motor fuel is unavailable, paper money has become worthless, and the supermarkets can’t get regular food deliveries anymore?

We ain’t seen nothing yet.

But if you think anyone here actually wants this to happen, you’re deeply deluded.


20 Replies to “Things You Don’t Hope For”

  1. Nice post.

    Iceland seems to be civilized about their government’s failure so far. Here is a blog in English my hubby found for me.

    Not a lot to it but things could get waaaay interesting today as they gave the fuckers one week to step down. Some are predicting serious violence.

    What we need to get into our skulls is that while the shit got invented here, and then exported, Americans did not invent greed. There is nowhere that is not going to feel what is coming. There is no one who “just said no.” We are all in the shit. All of us.

    Catton’s overshoot thesis is the real problem and until that sinks in, we will be like chickens with our heads cut off.

  2. Thanks MOU :)

    Love that Icelandic blog. Good comments there. One of the ones that pushed me over the edge was that little-step-towards-fascism mentioned by the contractor. There was some change in the rules that made it possible for the business environment to be stacked in the favor of the largest companies.

    We have that here too and it may well be one of those types of (mis)steps that dooms every system. Just look at the way GM, AIG, Microsoft, and others of that scale are able to have the deck stacked in their favor .. to say nothing about big agribusiness.

    Something like 80% of the businesses in our country employ 20 people or fewer each .. yet look who funds all the lobbying and who warps the whole playing field in its favor: the largest and richest corporations. Maybe when we get around to establishing Government 2.0 here we’ll change that? Make lobbying a crime? Tax the biggest businesses at the highest rates? Enforce a maximum top-to-bottom pay differential? Tax rates of 100% beyond a certain amount?

  3. “Make lobbying a crime?”

    Open season on lobbyists 24x7x365, no bag limit and no cover charge, anytime. Bow, shotgun, rifle, axe, stones, hemp neck-tie, SUV, railroad crossing. third-rail – the possibilities are endless.

    Beats trampling WalMart employees and running gun battles in the Toys-Я-Us. And think of all the money you’ll save!

    Makes me wanna break out in song – ♫God Bless America, land that I love… ♪

  4. MOU, thank you for the video link. Wow. Some observations in no particular order:

    Iceland deserves a whole thread or more of its own. Would you care to write one? No one here doubts your eloquence :)

    So many large and/or US-made vehicles there .. they really went wild on the SUV/minivan purchases.

    Toward the end of the video they mentioned expecting the worst later, when winter is at its darkest and unemployment is reaching an estimated 10%. The comments from the police were not very encouraging. Might they be a coal-mine canary for us to watch, in the same way Florida / California / Michigan / Ohio are places to watch for what the leading edge of the downturn looks like?

    Between the blog and the video, there were several mentions of the “Wannabe Rich’s”. Presumably this was a characterization of an attitude and not some actual family of that name. It certainly fits the bubble-era mentality. Might it be the “Mister Twister” of our times?

    OK, UR, open season on corporate crooks, no bag limits.

  5. Nudge, there is a study from say five years ago that actually outlines the psychological profile of SUV owners. They tend to love their children at the expense of others. Value their safety at the expense of others. And, not be the sharing kind. They sound like nice freedom loving Americans!

    It will be interesting to see what happens if Switzerland goes down. I imagine that it would be very much like Iceland.

  6. Nicholas, I am more familiar with the SUV study mentioned in “Big and Bad”:

    In the history of the automotive industry, few things have been quite as unexpected as the rise of the S.U.V. Detroit is a town of engineers, and engineers like to believe that there is some connection between the success of a vehicle and its technical merits.   But the S.U.V. boom was like Apple’s bringing back the Macintosh, dressing it up in colorful plastic, and suddenly creating a new market.   It made no sense to them.   Consumers said they liked four-wheel drive.   But the overwhelming majority of consumers don’t need four-wheel drive.   S.U.V. buyers said they liked the elevated driving position.   But when, in focus groups, industry marketers probed further, they heard things that left them rolling their eyes.   As Keith Bradsher writes in “High and Mighty”—perhaps the most important book about Detroit since Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed”—what consumers said was “If the vehicle is up high, it’s easier to see if something is hiding underneath or lurking behind it.  ” Bradsher brilliantly captures the mixture of bafflement and contempt that many auto executives feel toward the customers who buy their S.U.V.s.   Fred J.   Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, says, “Sport-utility owners tend to be more like ‘I wonder how people view me,’ and are more willing to trade off flexibility or functionality to get that.  ” According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills.   Ford’s S.U.V. designers took their cues from seeing “fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls.  ” Toyota’s top marketing executive in the United States, Bradsher writes, loves to tell the story of how at a focus group in Los Angeles “an elegant woman in the group said that she needed her full-sized Lexus LX 470 to drive up over the curb and onto lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills.  ” One of Ford’s senior marketing executives was even blunter: “The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.  m.  ”

    Or as JR put it, the only time those things ever off-road is when the driver is texting behind the wheel.

  7. That whole Iceland thing is morbidly fascinating. No doubt the more Hollywood-obsessed of us (JR?) could think up several “30 Days of Night”-like outcomes to the prospect of Iceland going dark during a time of high unemployment and massive loss-of-wealth. The thing that’s hitting them especially hard, of course, is the way their debt obligations seem to be mostly serviced out-of-country, so the exchange rate slippage has instantly crippled anyone still making loan payments.

    I guess by the time China buys up Citi, JP Morgan, and BoA, it will be too late to do anything about it.

    From what I read, though, Iceland is able to get a tremendous amount of electricity and home heating energy out of its geothermal springs. Good for them. They may still have electricity into the far future even when the fossil-fuel-dependent places (like us) do not.

  8. The thing about Iceland is it is looking a lot like a canary in the global coal mine. Watch what happens there, because similar events may not be very far behind elsewhere, like in the rest of Europe and the US.

    And note that these are not black or hispanic peoples so often racially and/or culturally slurred as having no civilized backbone, so what did you expect. These are mostly nordic white folks, you know, with supposidly superior intelligence and a long history of cultural evolution and stability–ha ha ha, ho ho ho. Well, their women are good a math, or so I hear.

    I’ll tell you what. I predict it’s going to go very badly there. If you always wondered what it was like in those last days of the Greenland settlements, well, maybe we’ll get a ringside seat over the next few months, and a lesson on what to expect elsewhere.

    Recall, those Vikings were eating their diary cattle and hunting dogs near the end.

  9. Ya Nudge, I was thinking similar thoughts. If I was the manager at that WalMart store, I would have called the riot police, frozen the registers, and had every customer in the store at that time arrested, booked on suspicion of manslaughter. Let the suspected criminals all spend a few weeks behind some KBR barbed wire holding stockage out in the snow until the store cameras sort out the guilty for serious prosecution.

    But that’s me, no brainwashed, profit-motivated WalMart associate, and they would have fired me on the spot, for standing in the way of economic progress over the life of some hapless employee, temp hire type.

  10. Regarding the wal-mart incident: The area that it occurred in is very close to the Queens border and is largely a shopping mecca for people NOT from Long Island. And Doom, the employees did try to get the customers out of the store and subsequently it was closed by police for a few hours I believe.

  11. Tipping, the inner Gestapo officier in me would have tried to keep the customers in the store for questioning and booking.

  12. Doom, I’m with you on this. Those fookers just killed a man, dead, in order to hasten by minutes their purchases of low-priced sale items. That’s when you roll down the night security barrier and detain the bunch of them and see who’s got blood on their shoes.

  13. Doom, if I am reading the CIA factbook correctly (wonder if JR contributes to it?) Iceland has no proven oil reserves and no coal reserves:

    They import all their oil, to the tune of 18.5kbbl/day. Huh, that was surely all those SUVs seen in the video that MOU linked above. And the police chief cruises around town in a freaking Econoline full-sized van. Uggh, those things gulp fuel like crazy. (Parents had one in the 70s and regretted it big time.) Maybe it was a new age paddy wagon.

    Even though oil is now around 1/3 of its bubble-time price, in US dollars anyway, the value of the ISK relative to the USD has gone from 80:1 to 143:1 .. so .. their price of oil has not quite halved over the same time, due to their currency collapse and full dependence on oil imports. That’s gotta hurt.

    This subject almost deserves a sticky thread of its own.

    Doom, it’s time to start drinking. What’ll you have?

  14. “…I can’t say they’re seeing things wrong or that they lack an appreciation for the cruder aspects of mob behavior under desperate circumstances….”

    On the larger picture of the financial meltdown and how some people are wring their hands and saying “it was All so Unpredictable”:

    From Stoneleigh at TAE about this piece – “Inevitable and disgraceful, but still unpredictable”

    Stoneleigh :

    “At the end of this essay, Bonner quotes Nassim Taleb expressing the opinion that market blow ups are inevitable, but unpredictable, and too rare to be modeled or predicted statistically. To this I would say that perhaps Mr Taleb hasn’t been looking at the right models. Mechanistic models will fail for the reason that Bonner points out here – the market doesn’t operate on mechanistic principles. The efficient market hypothesis is simply bunk. There are, however, models based on the human herding behaviour that are far more successful because they do reflect real market drivers. This credit crunch is not a Black Swan event. It did not come out of nowhere, and should not have been a surprise to anyone who had been watching the development of the largest credit boom in history. Credit booms always deflate….”

  15. If one chart could sum up to date the maddest of America’s latest looting spree of the public treasury for the historic record, here it is:

    WWII didn’t even cost this much (even in inflation adjusted dollars)

  16. Thanks for that link, OTT. I’m forwarding to my economist friends, one’s a retired semi-truck driver, one’s a recently out of work construction plumber, one’s a retired factory worker who did OK in the market run-up, and one’s a working stiff educator like myself, who’s an artist on the side. He’s the only one that went to college.

  17. Again, if all it takes is the prospect of $300 laptops to trample a man to death, what’s going to happen when motor fuel is unavailable, paper money has become worthless, and the supermarkets can’t get regular food deliveries anymore?

    Hell knows Nudge, but you’re right on the button as usual – it just shows how disconnected many have become from reality. If nothing else collapse may engender better treatment of others once people get that being co-operative and unselfish might just save their lives.

    I remember a teacher in high school saying when the Depression first hit a lot of people were grasping, but as time went on they were less so because they never knew when they might need to borrow some food or clothing. Apparently during WWII the same greedy attitudes changed over time as well.

    OTT, I add my thanks for your graphs link.

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