Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Dollar Is Finally Being Dethroned

unherd  |  In short, America is bankrupt. Our governments from the federal level down, our big corporations and a very large number of our well-off citizens have run up gargantuan debts, which can only be serviced given direct or indirect access to the flows of unearned wealth the US extracted from the rest of the planet. Those debts cannot be paid off, and many of them can’t even be serviced for much longer. The only options are defaulting on them or inflating them out of existence, and in either case, arrangements based on familiar levels of expenditure will no longer be possible. Since the arrangements in question include most of what counts as an ordinary lifestyle in today’s US, the impact of their dissolution will be severe.

In effect, the 5% of us in this country are going to have to go back to living the way we did before 1945. If we still had the factories, the trained workforce, the abundant natural resources and the thrifty habits we had back then, that would have been a wrenching transition but not a debacle. The difficulty, of course, is that we don’t have those things anymore. The factories were shut down in the offshoring craze of the Seventies and Eighties, when the imperial economy slammed into overdrive, and the trained workforce was handed over to malign neglect.

We’ve still got some of the natural resources, but nothing like what we once had. The thrifty habits? Those went whistling down the wind a long time ago. In the late stages of an empire, exploiting flows of unearned wealth from abroad is far more profitable than trying to produce wealth at home, and most people direct their efforts accordingly. That’s how you end up with the typical late-imperial economy, with a governing class that flaunts fantastic levels of paper wealth, a parasite class of hangers-on that thrive by catering to the very rich or staffing the baroque bureaucratic systems that permeate public and private life, and the vast majority of the population impoverished, sullen, and unwilling to lift a finger to save their soi-disant betters from the consequences of their own actions.

The good news is that there’s a solution to all this. The bad news is that it’s going to take a couple of decades of serious turmoil to get there. The solution is that the US economy will retool itself to produce earned wealth in the form of real goods and non-financial services. That’ll happen inevitably as the flows of unearned wealth falter, foreign goods become unaffordable to most Americans, and it becomes profitable to produce things here in the US again. The difficulty, of course, is that most of a century of economic and political choices meant to support our former imperial project are going to have to be undone.

The most obvious example? The metastatic bloat of government, corporate and non-profit managerial jobs in American life. That’s a sensible move in an age of empire, as it funnels money into the consumer economy, which provides what jobs exist for the impoverished classes. Public and private offices alike teem with legions of office workers whose labour contributes nothing to national prosperity but whose pay cheques prop up the consumer sector. That bubble is already losing air. It’s indicative that Elon Musk, after his takeover of Twitter, fired some 80% of that company’s staff; other huge internet combines are pruning their workforce in the same way, though not yet to the same degree.

The recent hullaballoo about artificial intelligence is helping to amplify the same trend. Behind the chatbots are programs called large language models (LLMs), which are very good at imitating the more predictable uses of human language. A very large number of office jobs these days spend most of their time producing texts that fall into that category: contracts, legal briefs, press releases, media stories and so on. Those jobs are going away. Computer coding is even more amenable to LLM production, so you can kiss a great many software jobs goodbye as well. Any other form of economic activity that involves assembling predictable sequences of symbols is facing the same crunch. A recent paper by Goldman Sachs estimates that something like 300 million jobs across the industrial world will be wholly or partly replaced by LLMs in the years immediately ahead.

Another technology with similar results is CGI image creation. Levi’s announced not long ago that all its future catalogues and advertising will use CGI images instead of highly-paid models and photographers. Expect the same thing to spread generally. Oh, and Hollywood’s next. We’re not too far from the point at which a program can harvest all the footage of Marilyn Monroe from her films, and use that to generate new Marilyn Monroe movies for a tiny fraction of what it costs to hire living actors, camera crews and the rest. The result will be a drastic decrease in high-paying jobs across a broad swathe of the economy.

The outcome of all this? Well, one lot of pundits will insist at the top of their lungs that nothing will change in any way that matters, and another lot will start shrieking that the apocalypse is upon us. Those are the only two options our collective imagination can process these days. Of course, neither of those things will actually happen.

What will happen instead is that the middle and upper-middle classes in the US, and in many other countries, will face the same kind of slow demolition that swept over the working classes of those same countries in the late 20th century. Layoffs, corporate bankruptcies, declining salaries and benefits, and the latest high-tech version of NO HELP WANTED signs will follow one another at irregular intervals. All the businesses that make money catering to these same classes will lose their incomes as well, a piece at a time. Communities will hollow out the way the factory towns of America’s Rust Belt and the English Midlands did half a century ago, but this time it will be the turn of upscale suburbs and fashionable urban neighbourhoods to collapse as the income streams that supported them disappear.

 

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