Titanic Myths and the End of Consumer Capitalism

Next month marks the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic’s star-crossed demise into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  To commemorate the occasion, the April edition of National Geographic features a cover story on the grand ocean liner and its untimely end.

Here at the Economic Prism we’re always on the lookout for allegories that can help explain the world we live in…particularly, the post-2008 dollar standard era of U.S. consumer capitalism.  Clearly, the sinking of the Titanic is a rich source of metaphors.  Consider the following offered by National Geographic…

“Something else, beyond human lives, went down with the Titanic: An illusion of orderliness, a faith in technological progress, a yearning for the future that, as Europe drifted toward full-scale war, was soon replaced by fears and dreads all too familiar to our modern world.

‘“The Titanic disaster was the bursting of a bubble,”’ said Titanic film writer, director, and producer, James Cameron.  ‘“There was such a sense of bounty in the first decade of the 20th century.Elevators!  Automobiles!  Airplanes!  Wireless radio!  Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral.  Then it all came crashing down.”’

Surely, for the thinking man, the Titanic provides ample instruction.  More on this in just a moment.  But first, a review of the present…

Oil Price Yo-Yo

Over the weekend we paid $4.37 per gallon for low octane gas.  Does that seem a tad steep to you?  It does to us…and a whole lot of others…

According to the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index released last Friday, confidence among U.S. consumers declined in March for the first time in seven months.  The sharp rise in gas prices appears to be the main cause for the sudden change of heart.  Following publication of the sentiment data stocks went limp.  In fact, for the first time in seven days the DOW didn’t go up, it went down.

No doubt, gas prices are painful.  The AAA Fuel Gauge Report notes that they’ve jumped a whopping 18 percent since December…bringing the national average for a gallon of regular to $3.83.  But that’s nothing…  In California gas is now $4.35 a gallon.  In Alaska it’s $4.24.  And in Hawaii it’s $4.48.

Also last Friday, the Labor Department reported the consumer price index – the main inflation gauge – rose 0.4 percent.  This marks the largest increase in consumer prices in 10 months and clocks inflation at 4.8 percent on an annualized basis.  The main culprit for the jump in prices, of course, is gas, which accounted for more than 80 percent of the rise.  Unfortunately, rising gas prices are a nasty occurrence…

Everyone loves it when the index funds in their 401K go up.  Similarly, everyone loves it when their house’s value goes up.  But no one loves it when gas prices go up.

Rising gas prices act as a secondary tax on the economy.  The higher prices withdraw money from other consumer goods and services.  When gas prices inflate enough, they ultimately crash the economy…driving down demand and resetting gas prices lower.

If you remember, in July 2008, just before the global financial system imploded, oil prices hit a record peak of $145 per barrel.  By the end of the year oil prices collapsed to just $30 per barrel.  Now, like a yo-yo, oil has run back up to $107 per barrel.

Titanic Myths and the End of Consumer Capitalism

Obviously, the boom and bust cycle of oil prices is remarkably destructive to the economy.  Yet it is perpetuated by the Fed’s efforts to preserve the myth of U.S. consumer capitalism…that economic growth supported by endless debt growth can both increase forever.  Here’s what we mean…

The U.S. Government, like most governments, has been running budget deficits practically nonstop for nearly 50 years.  In fact, they’ve been spending more than they tax for so long they’ve managed to run the national debt up to over $15.5 trillion.  Throw unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Prescription Drugs, and Medicare into the mix and the debt balloons up over $118 trillion.

Since the early 1980s U.S. consumers took the exemplar of their government – and the seemingly endless supply of cheap credit from the Federal Reserve – and racked up debts all over town.  Economists cheered the consumer’s abundant contribution to GDP growth.  Yet no one paused to consider the consumers were spending themselves broke…

Why save money when you can spend it?  Why squirrel away some nuts for a rainy day when the sun always shines?  Why accumulate wealth when you can spend your way to riches?  Why just have your cake when you can both have it and eat it too?

“Myths and legends die hard in America,” observed Hunter S. Thompson.

Alas, whether we like it or not, all good things must come to an end.  Following the financial crisis of 2008, government debt skyrocketed in earnest while the economy sagged.  This parting of ways between debt and economic growth cannot be overcome.  In other words, a trend that could not last forever has come to an end.

Like the Titanic after it struck the iceberg, the dollar standard era of U.S. consumer capitalism is doomed.  The myth that an economy can borrow and spend its way to prosperity is resisting its hard death.  But sooner or later the stern will snap and the whole giant edifice will tumble and corkscrew down until it collides with the seafloor.


MN Gordon
for Economic Prism

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