Friday, April 3, 2009

The Crisis at the End of Gravity's Rainbow

          Virgina Postrel argues in "Macroegonomics" that the relative, economic stability American's have enjoyed from the mid-80's to last year, "emerged not from deliberate government policy but from changes in business practices that occurred for competitive reasons having nothing to do with macroeconomic goals" (April Atlantic). Although the Fed would credit innovative policy, Postrel asserts that the Great Moderation, or the relative stability of business cycle fluctuations and GDP since 1983, was caused not by fiscal policy, but by the increased efficiency of manufacturing operations.
          Furthermore, she argues, the current economic recession caused by the collapse of the housing market is due to the bloated ego of policy makers. "And in trying to achieve the dream of permanent stabilization," she writes, "overly ambitious macroeconomists instituted policies that once again led to unintended consequences—not inflation this time, but a real-estate bubble." While Postrel suggests that the solution for the current crisis is a restructuring and recapitalization of banks, I find a broader significance about her argument—that economic instability is natural to the economic system, and that this cannot be controlled.
          So, while everyone else diddles with macroeconomic policy, consider these fluctuations while holding different expectations for how markets should behave. While it is nice to have a stable economy, a dependable job, and affordable goods and services, we cannot view the Great Moderation as the economic status-quo (despite how uncomfortable our tighter budgets make us), and cannot let "crisis" make toadies of us all. If the brand is crisis, then we are all subject to the "Recession Mazda Event! Get your Crisis Car, Today!"
Thomas Pynchon asserts in the novel, Gravity's Rainbow:
A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself—its own logic, momentum, style, from inside. Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had happened—that you had dispersed with God. But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control.
Not just an accurate description for the birth of the securities nightmare, Pynchon reminds us that, like many things, attempting to control the market is to commit hubris. The self-directed V-2 rocket figured in the novel is an apt metaphor for the market: created by us and completely out of our control. "Gravity's rainbow," the arc made in the sky as this rocket inevitably falls.
          The relationship suggested between war and the market continues to be historically relevant. Pynchon argues that war is continuous, and that the concept of "peace" is an illusion, created by the Theatre of War—with its death, bombs, destruction, and fear-inducing nature; we are properly distracted by a distinction between war and peace. The mundane and banal ways in which wars are waged are then properly disguised. The theatre that is the global marketplace is the natural counterpart to war, where the military-industrial complex continues into the 21st century, just with a face-lift. Technology goes on, transactions continue. "Don't forget the real business of War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals," Pynchon writes, "The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War…The true war is a celebration of markets."
          The good news is that when the rocket explodes—when the power structures implode—opportunity arises in the vacuum. In response to the dismantling of corporate power networks, a space is created for a moment where no one is in control of the economic system. Pynchon used the Zone (a war torn area in Germany) to show how potential rises from the muck of annihilation. The Ahab complexes of the men in power, whose irrational pursuits in the market of war, ironically, created the chance for a more rational, connected, and free populous to form. War creates the potential, the chance, and the open space for new approaches, for new ways of experiencing our humanity and our place in it. That's what the Zone can be.
          But, we shouldn't forget in the meantime that market warfare continues, and that most of us have, as Roger Mexico regards, "no place in the rationalized power-ritual that will be the coming peace." Slothrop (the main character) takes on the identity of Ian Scuffling, "war (peace?) correspondent" to investigate his ties to the rocket. Through transaction records between a scientist, and one Lyle Bland (a name banal enough to suggest a contemporary evil), and the Stinnes Operation, he uncovers the industrial, military, and financial hydra grown out of the opportunities of war. Pynchon depicts a Rockefeller-like, plugged in and powerful, Hugo Stinnes, who created horizontal and vertical "super-cartels," crossing energy with manufacturing sectors, and markets with media, during the World War:

[And in the] meantime also speculating in currency, buying foreign money with marks borrowed from the Reichsbank, driving the mark down and then paying off the loans at a fraction of the original figure. More than any one financier he was blamed for the Inflation. Those were the days when you carried marks around in wheelbarrows to your daily shopping and used them for toilet paper, assuming you had anything to shit. Stinnes's foreign connections went all over the world—Brazil, the East Indies, the United States—businessmen like Lyle Bland found this growth rate irresistible. The theory going around at the time was that Stinnes was conspiring with Krupp, Thyssen, and others to ruin the mark and so get Germany out of paying her war debts.
Here, with slight dismay, I have to raise the question: Has the Theatre of War distracted us from the Theatre of the Market—the men behind the curtain, in the Wall Street War Room, who still find the "growth rate irresistible"? When will we stop expecting the market rocket to keep climbing?
          Timothy Geithner stated at the CFR:
Now, the imbalances that caused this crisis built up over a long period of time, and they will take a long time to work through. The absence of a serious recession over the past two decades bred a degree of confidence in the future and a stable future that was just fundamentally unjustified.
Relatively accommodative monetary policy and high foreign demand for U.S financial assets pushed down rates, encouraged borrowing, pushed up asset prices, not just in housing and not just in the United States. Financial innovation produced products whose complexity escaped, went well beyond the capacity of the checks and balances in the system. Compensation practices overwhelmed the basic disciplines of risk management, leaving our financial system too fragile and too unstable.
While I agree that confidence in a stable future was unjustified, I would like to know exactly if the War on Terror caused the high demand for U.S assets, who wished to push down the rates, and who stands to gain from our cheap dollars, growing cheaper by the minute. Perhaps dollars taste good when boiled with cabbage and lentils.
          Nevertheless, the globe is an open zone, now. Jonathan Schwarz, in response, writes:
There's been a common phenomenon in the third world over the past three decades or so. A country's financial sector, in collaboration with the larger financial world, would create some type of gigantic economic fuck up. The IMF would then (in collaboration with the local financial elites) step in and provide loans in return for what was called "structural adjustment." Structural adjustment involved getting rid of any kind of social spending that made life bearable for everyone else.
In other words, the country's financial elites would use the catastrophes they'd created themselves in order to do what they'd always wanted to but couldn't get away with in normal times. They took the profit, and then imposed all the costs on everyone else.

The transnational economic structures developed during war pertain afterwards. Structures, such as the IMF, and World Bank, that developed to alleviate European debt after WWII, will continue to regulate the economies of indebted countries, thereby pushing the burden onto the already impoverished people (whose welfare and imperial treatment is another concern of Pynchon's).
          As some have suggested, America is subject to the same monetary trickery as third-world countries are, subject to the same lurches and pulls by the powerful few.
As economists puddle over policy and energizing the banks, as Virginia Postrel and others debate over bank restructuring and capitalization, I leave you with Pynchon's take, as communicated safely from the other-side through a medium:

All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth—I know I presume—you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules—it is they that dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers…
You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?