Economic Outlook: The High Cost of Consumer Goods

The U.S. economy as of December 1977, the world economy stalls while the U.S. grapples with the high cost of consumer goods.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
November/December 1977
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The U.S. economy and the high cost of consumer goods.
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MOTHER's analysis of the U.S. economy as of December 1977 includes information on the high cost of consumer goods.

This column first appeared back in MOTHER NO. 34 (July-August 1975). And the feature was started because a lot of little people (you and me, for instance) had been and were still being hurt.

Hurt by addled politicians and Keynesian economists who placidly told us that all was well . . . while we squandered our national wealth on a futile war . . . while we watched the high cost of consumer goods nearly double and the value of our dollars shrink almost by half . . . while we plunged into the biggest financial depression since the 30's . . . while taxes were piled on us until our knees buckled . . . while the gold backing was officially removed from the last of the world's major currencies, leaving the value of everyone's money resting only on the slim foundation of political expediency . . . while the planet's supplies of fuel and food and other raw materials were turned completely up-side down . . . while the stock market plunged, climbed, and then plunged again . . . while . . . but then, of course, you know what we've all been through.

Nor were the economic storms we passed through during the past 10 years the last ones we're likely to see before we sail into clear weather once again. Far from it.

Western Europe's economic recovery has stalled. As has Japan's. As has Canada's. As ours will shortly (according to most leading indicators, the very few rational and honest economists among us, plain ole common sense, and the most rudimentary and provable facts about the life spans of business cycles).

The world's less industrialized "free" nations, of course, are in even worse straits. Straits so bad, in fact, that most of them would be thankful if they had just an economic recovery to stall. But they don't. Instead, they're largely in one stage or another of a permanent, ever-deepening, and perhaps fatal financial depression. They already owe the banks of the developed countries 190 billion dollars that they have virtually no way of (and, in some cases, no real interest in) repaying. Furthermore, their birthrates are almost universally so high that merely to maintain their generally wretched current standards of living-they must switch their import/export balance of payments from massive deficits to massive credits and at least double their real gross national products during the next 25 or so years. And — thanks to the escalating prices they're now paying for food, fuel, and manufactured goods combined with the plunging prices that they receive for their raw materials and commodities — there is flatly and absolutely no way that can be done.

This already precarious situation is further compounded by the erratic gyrations of the various and sundry Communist countries. Which — in general — can't even feed themselves, are forced to buy large quantities of their most advanced technology from the Western world . . . and have financed the construction of a tremendous war machine during the past few years by borrowing over $40 billion from the softheaded bankers and governments of the Western nations.

"Ah, but the OPEC countries," you say . . . at least the oil-exporting countries are doing all right. They're building up stupendous financial reserves and, surely, that's a stabilizing influence on an otherwise deteriorating situation."

No, it isn't. There are already signs that some Organization of Petroleum Exporting Country leaders are growing unhappy with the idea of pumping their real wealth (oil and natural gas) out of the ground . . . only to trade it for the paper promises (U.S. dollars and treasury notes, British pounds, etc.) of other governments. Especially when that oil and gas becomes worth more and more the longer it's left in the ground . . . while those paper promises constantly seem to lose their value.

So the Arabs are growing restless. And they're looking around for better investments . . . a few tons of gold here, a three-million-dollar house in Beverly Hills there, a heavy interest in this or that major German or Italian industry, 100,000-acre ranches in the U.S., million-acre tracts in South America, castles in England and Ireland, whole blocks of expensive downtown real estate in a dozen countries, you name it.

The only trouble is that many nations in the Western world don't like the idea of the Arabs — those "furriners" — buying up their land and their industries and their other real wealth. And not only don't like it . . . but are passing laws and restrictions and other sanctions against such actions. Which explains why so many Arab dollars are now piling up "short" (the Arabs can pull the money out on extremely short notice) in U.S., British, French, etc., banks. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that those same banks have loaned that same money out "long" (the banks can't, they got it back quickly).

And guess where that leaves us all, in the very likely event that two or three of the big OPEC countries suddenly decide they want to withdraw all their funds from Western banks . . . in cash? Have you ever heard the expression "banking crisis"? Or "financial collapse"? Or "major, catastrophic depression"? If you haven't, it's only a matter of time until you will.

Of course, the preceding gloomy paragraphs merely sketch in the larger picture . . . and in very, very broad brush strokes at that. It says nothing about Little Jimmy Carter's "solution" to the energy "crisis" . . . you know, the "solution" that's going to cost us all $10.6 billion in additional taxes just for starters, while actively discouraging the further exploration for gas and oil. It says nothing about the havoc wreaked in the commodity and the stock markets by various and sundry profit-hungry "insiders" during the past few years (the Hunt Brothers alone — just one mini-cartel — are suspected of reaping tens of millions of dollars of profit by manipulating sugar, silver, and soybeans). It says nothing about the disruptions we all suffer from the thousands of capricious "on again, off again" actions of our elected and appointed officials (Earl Butz told U.S. farmers to "plant the fence rows" . .. and now Bob Bergland says they'll be allowed to go bankrupt because they did). It says nothing about the fact that another nation (South Africa is the latest) joins the "nuclear club" (learns to manufacture atomic weapons) on the average of about once every eight months now . . . which throws a blanket of ever-increasing uncertainty over everything. It says nothing about a lot of things.

But it does say enough to explain a sudden change in tone among the economists of the world. To be sure, most of them still blindly babble on in endless discussions about whether the rate of (growth, inflation, unemployment) in (the country of your choice) will be only (insert low figure here) or as much as (insert high figure here). Most of them (the ones on the fattest government and multi-national salaries and grants), it's true, are still playing out their parts in that particular fantasyland.

A few economists, however (mostly independents, but even a scant sprinkling of the fat cats too), are starting to sing a far different and, perhaps, decidedly more realistic-tune.

Irving Kristol (resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, co-editor of The Public Interest, and a member of The Wall Street Journal's Board of Contributors), for instance, wrote-in the September 19, 1977 Wall Street Journal-that " . . . In the months ahead the prospect of calamity will become more real . . . (and) by calamity I mean a worldwide economic recession . . . or worse".

Tom Holt, who heads a highly respected (because he's right far more often than he's wrong) advisory and investment service, says that he considers "a depression starting in 1978 to be highly probable".

Julian Snyder, publisher of the economic newsletter International Moneyline, says, "it seems likely that the forces of deflation will predominate in the period Immediately ahead. This would mean further declines in commodity prices, the stock market, and general business activity . . . the odds (also) favor a deep rather than a shallow recession." Mr. Snyder further points out that our government and many other governments of the world will try to "cure" this slump with a new flood tide of printing press money . . . leading to a fresh (and probably much bigger) dose of the stagflation (simultaneous business depression and double-digit inflation) which knocked so many family budgets for a loop in 1974 and 1975.

Thierry de Montbrial, of the Centre d'Analyse at de Provision at the French Foreign Ministry said — in a talk delivered at the May 1977 Paris meeting of the Trilateral Commission — "We will have a major shock."

And then, of course, there's C.V. Myers. Myers is the author of The Coming Deflation (Arlington House) and has published a newsletter which is now called Myers' Finance & Energy for over 10 years. He's a colorful, levelheaded old cuss who only over the past decade [1] got his readers out of the stock market when they should be out, [2] put them into silver when they should be in, [3] put them into gold when they should be in, [4] took them out of gold when they should have gotten out, and — as of late January 1977 — [5] put them back into gold . . . and some silver and treasury bills and cash.

In August, Myers predicted "a stock market debacle within the next few months . . . probably this fall". As of this writing (late September), an awfully large number of stockholders have the queasy feeling that just such a debacle has begun.

Myers also predicted (in his August 19 issue) "a bust in the real estate market" leading to "heavy casualties among the creditors of real estate as the collateral is automatically devalued" leading to "the night of terror among the banks" leading us into "the jaws of the worst depression in the history of the world".

Now whether Vern Myers is right or wrong with this prediction, he's sure as hell been right far more than he's been wrong on every major prediction he's laid down during the past 10 years. Which Is a great deal more than Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter combined can say . . . with all their kowtowing "house" economists thrown in for good measure. And, right or wrong, it's certainly nice — when you're being fed a steady diet of mushy, sweet "we've got it all under control" economic news that always turns out to be at least partly and usually 100% false — to have ole Vern uncloy your taste buds with a dash or two of his (usually 100% correct) vinegar. Even at $135 a year, his semi-monthly newsletter (Myers' Finance & Energy, 642 Peyton Building, Spokane, Washington 99201) is worth it.


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