He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind — Proverbs 11:29
Are you a Christian? Or do you subscribe to Islam, or Judaism, or Ba’Hai, or Buddhism, or Shinto, or Zoroastrianism, or Jainism, or Taoism or Hinduism?
Maybe you’re a Wiccan, or an Animist, or an Agnostic or an Atheist. Welcome one and all! Welcome to the church to which you’ve always belonged! Yes, it might seem a little ragged around the edges these days, but the Universal and Triumphant Church of Eventual Positive Returns is still in business!
I’m pleased to report that our church’s high priest, Warren Buffett, (before whose vast returns on investment all must quail!) has spoken. As is his wont, His holiness has addressed a missive to His elect (aka the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway), and has graciously condescended to share it with us, the poor but pious, to whom the ownership of even a single share in the Great One’s company is a distant dream, akin to the ownership of a mortgage-free home or a black American Express Card.
Thus spake the Great One.
“Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past. In the 20th century alone, we dealt with two great wars (one of which we initially appeared to be losing); a dozen or so panics and recessions; virulent inflation that led to a 21 1/2 percent prime rate in 1980; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment ranged between 15 percent and 25 percent for many years. America has had no shortage of challenges.
“Without fail, however, we’ve overcome them. In the face of those obstacles — and many others — the real standard of living for Americans improved nearly seven-fold during the 1900s, while the Dow Jones Industrials rose from 66 to 11,497. Compare the record of this period with the dozens of centuries during which humans secured only tiny gains, if any, in how they lived. Though the path has not been smooth, our economic system has worked extraordinarily well over time. It has unleashed human potential as no other system has, and it will continue to do so. America’s best days lie ahead.”
Those inspiring, and hopefully accurate, words perfectly express our secular religion. Our present economic travails will come to an end, no matter how difficult, intractable or deep-rooted they might presently seem. It has always been thus … hasn’t it?
Yes — for most of the last century. But suppose that this era’s vast prosperity, a time in which the usufructs of the entire world flowed to America’s shores, is coming to an end? Suppose that time has run out?
If it has, we won’t know until after the fact. But imagine a Depression that never ends, a time of incessant war, of diminishing resources, of a society unraveling. We’ve never experienced such a time — but peace, prosperity, and ever-increasing standards of living are, as Buffett points out, historical anomalies.
During 1960, Herman Kahn, a 38-year-old military strategist/futurist employed by the Rand Corp., published a book entitled “On Thermonuclear War.”
Kahn, now more famous as the first of the neocons, argued that the United States could survive an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and even thrive during the war’s aftermath. His tome is dense with statistics-assumed postwar GNP, the percentage of manufacturing facilities that would survive the war, projected survivor mortality, etc., etc.
Today, such arguments seem ludicrous. Two buildings fell in New York City, and the country was shaken to its foundations. Most of us now know — or think that we know — what a post-conflict America would look like. It would be ruined and desolate, a place of death and unspeakable cruelty.
It would be the grim dystopia of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Civil society would end.
But decline, if it comes, might be less dramatic. Consider the distant history of our own state.
Thirteen thousand years before Kahn published his book, hunters of the Clovis people buried a cache of tools and weapons in the lush, Pleistocene landscape of ancient Colorado. That cache, one of a dozen similar troves discovered in America during the last century, was found last May two feet below the surface of a Boulder back yard.
The Clovis people have long since disappeared. They left no descendants. Anthropologists believe that modern Native Americans trace their ancestry to more recent migrants.
The Clovis came to an American Eden, populated by slow-moving herbivores which had no defense against the remorseless newcomers. Clovis spear points, patiently crafted from obsidian, quartz or flint, are weapons of unearthly beauty and lethality.
Within a few hundred years, the mammoths, mastodons, tapirs, giant sloths, camels, four-horned antelopes and peccaries that once populated North America were extinct — as were their predators, dire wolves, sabre-toothed tigers, giant jaguars and Clovis hunters.
To the Clovis, the bountiful world of the Pleistocene must have seemed as fixed, as predictable and as self-renewing as … the S&P 500?
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.