Is This the Moment of Truth?

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by Jim Rickards, Daily Reckoning:

One of the most famous passages in American literature occurs in Chapter 13 of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It takes place in a café in Pamplona, Spain during the running of the bulls.

Bill Gorton, a friend of the protagonist, Jake Barnes, has just arrived from New York. Bill is in the café talking with Mike Campbell, an upper-crust Englishman, now fallen on hard times but keeping up appearances.

In the course of telling a story about his tailor, Mike casually mentions his bankruptcy. Here’s the dialogue:

How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

“What brought it on?”

“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”

Mike admits to his own helplessness; his descent into bankruptcy was apparently totally beyond his control. This reflects upon his lack of control with regards not only to his business matters, but to his life in general.

You’ve probably seen variations of the part of the passage that says, “Gradually and then suddenly.” It’s often paraphrased or misquoted as, “slowly at first, and then quickly.”

The short version of the quote is offered as a warning that a slow, steady accumulation of debt with no particular plan for repayment can continue longer than expected, and then suddenly descend into a full-blown financial distress scenario and a rapid end-state of collapse.

Ernest Hemingway was not only a Nobel-Prize winning author, but was an astute observer of human nature and a fine armchair economist. His description of going bankrupt in Chapter 13 of The Sun Also Rises is a pitch-perfect narrative of how the United States is now barreling toward a crisis of confidence in the dollar.

I selected the longer version to give the short quote some context. The debtor, Mike, didn’t just go bankrupt. He had a lot of “friends” who relied on him for his generosity and support, with no willingness to pay him back or help him in distress.

He also had a general “lack of control” with regard to his financial situation. Most debtors can see problems coming and either cut back spending or take other steps to deal with the debt. Either course will bring the situation to a head sooner than later.

It’s the lack of control that allows the debtor to reach the point of non-sustainable debt, the “gradually” part, and then have a crisis thrust on him all at once, the “suddenly” part. This is how the inevitable becomes a surprise.

Sound familiar? It should. This is exactly the situation in which the U.S. now finds itself. The U.S. national debt has been accumulating slowly for decades. There is no plan to make it sustainable; just a vague wish that the creditors will keep expanding the debt or rolling it over.

The U.S. has a lot of “friends,” both at home and abroad, who expect benefits whether in the form of entitlements, foreign aid, government contracts, or tax breaks. Clearly the U.S. Congress and White House each exhibit a complete lack of control. The café scene is complete.

The question is whether the U.S. is now at the point of “suddenly” going bankrupt. Of course, the U.S. won’t actually go bankrupt. It can print all the money it needs to pay off its debts in nominal terms. The issue then is a matter of when that kind of money printing becomes necessary, and under what conditions.

The dynamic of “gradually, and then suddenly” is well-known to physicists and applied mathematicians. In physics, it is known as a phase transition. A good example is a pot of water being boiled and then turning to steam. The flame can be applied to the pot for quite a while and absolutely nothing happens to the naked eye. Of course, the temperature is rising, but hot water looks just like cold water.

Suddenly the surface of the water becomes turbulent and quickly after that the bubbly surface bursts into steam. The water has been transformed. If nothing is done, the entire pot will evaporate.

In mathematics, the same dynamics are known as hypersynchronicity. That’s a fancy word for a lot of people suddenly all doing the same thing at the same time. A run on the bank is a perfect example.

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