Suspended Animation (Part 3)

The dead hand of the state

I wish I was saying it’s going to happen soon… this is the longest running crisis in which people have been giving false dates, people turning up for summits saying it has to be resolved, nothing happens and people go away and the sky doesn’t fall in… sooner or later the sky will fall in, I’m just not clever enough to know when it’s going to be.
— Anthony Fry, UK Chairman of Espirito Santo Investment Bank (to CNBC)

Europe will adopt the American solution. The ECB will not allow large banks to default. It will inflate to buy the bad assets or else buy the bonds of the governments, so they can make payments. Then the bankers will put this money into excess reserves. New lending to businesses will cease. The West will go into permanent recession or no-growth stasis. The governments will absorb an ever-larger percentage of the region’s capital: bond sales. Private firms will not be able to borrow at low rates. Capital development will crease.
— Gary North (here)

The new millennium is teaching us vastly more about zombies than anybody could have anticipated. Long gone are the virile, predatory vampires that once populated horror stories about capitalism, sucking out the vital essence of the proletariat in gothic fortresses of ‘dead labor’. Instead, shambling worm-eaten wrecks mill about aimlessly, whilst augmenting their numbers in obscure cannibalistic circuits that defy rational comprehension and which are, in any case, too hideous to steadily contemplate. Fiends have degenerated into ghouls, who do not hunt and feed to strengthen themselves, but only to carry on, prolonging their putrescent decrepitude.

A 2002 Guardian story about “Japan’s zombie economy” prefigures a number of later, and more general, revelations. In particular, it identifies the spreading zombie apocalypse with the slow-motion collapse of Keynesianism, as ‘stimulative’ monetary and fiscal policies (zero interest rates combined with massive government deficit spending) lose their magical powers of revitalization, and instead merely perpetuate an interminable state of undeath. Hyper-stimulation is required just to hang on to the flatline.

Of course, being the Guardian, the solution is obvious: “what the economy needs now is a good dose of inflation.” For undead Keynesians, there’s no malaise too deep for an invigorating wave of currency destruction to solve. This is where the zombie metabolism really gets interesting. By the end of the decade, America had gone full zombie itself, and begun to realize that this wasn’t just some weird Japanese thing it didn’t understand, but an altogether more general and radically mysterious phenomenon. Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve pushed US interest rates to the floor (ZIRP) and began to incontinently monetize public debt (QE) whilst nationalizing private debt (TARP), using every available policy instrument to direct the economy in an inflationary direction, at maximum velocity. Nothing much happened. Zombies don’t do fever.

At this point, the questions come flooding in. For instance: why is anybody still buying Japanese or American government bonds? Isn’t it obvious that this paper represents nothing except a slice of unredeemable debt, promising an insulting return, ‘guaranteed’ by a structurally insolvent entity, and associated with policies more-or-less explicitly oriented towards deliberate currency destruction? What are people thinking? To answer that, it’s necessary to venture a little deeper into the zombie world.

The idea of the US Dollar (or Japanese Yen) as a ‘safe haven’ might sound like a joke, and you’ve probably heard it before:

Joe Dollar and Jacques Euro are camping in the woods, when they suddenly hear the terrifying snuffles of a famished carnivore, getting closer. Joe begins hastily pulling on his running shoes. “What are you doing?” asks Jacques. “You can’t out-run a bear market.”

“I don’t need to outrun the market,” Joe replies. “I just need to outrun you.”

At Asia Times Online, Martin Hutchinson envisages a financial crisis endgame that “eliminat[es] the government debt markets that have formed the centerpiece of the last three centuries,” returning the world to the market-based money and free banking regime of 1693, before the creation of the Bank of England. Paradoxically, however, the prospect of collapse raises the financial potency of the state to an unprecedented level, as the ‘safety’ it promises disconnects from questions of economic competence and reverts to something far more atavistic and Hobbesian. Once everything starts to buckle, credibility attaches to the biggest, meanest, and most ruthless provider of mafia-style ‘protection’. Relativistic (zero- or negative-sum) power politics takes center stage.

A pedestrian but informative financial report from Bloomberg sets it out clearly:

Jim Chanos, founder of the Kynikos Associates Ltd. hedge fund, said that while the chances of a recession may be increasing, the U.S. economy is the “best house in a bad neighborhood”

The US Dollar might be nothing more than the “best looking horse in the glue factory,” but once the financial logic of zombie apocalypse takes over, the implications can be far-reaching. Bloomberg continues:

Ten-year Treasuries erased losses after the U.S. sold $29 billion of seven-year securities at a record low yield of 1.415 percent, wrapping up $99 billion of note sales this week. Ten- year yields fell four basis points to 1.88 percent after climbing as much as four points earlier. The rate is up from a record low of 1.67 percent on Sept. 23.

U.S. Treasuries maturing in seven to 10-years have returned 14 percent this year, outperforming a 9.3 percent return for the broader Treasury market, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes, as of yesterday [Nov. 23]. 

It’s worth taking a moment to digest these numbers. Nobody expects average US inflation over the next seven years to come in under 1.415% p.a., or under 1.88% over the next ten, so the yield is sheer racketeering. Yet this blatant assault on the lower colon of savers has been compatible with a one-year return of 14% (!) — they’re begging for it. Seriously, who cares if Bernanke is lighting up a fat Cuban with a large bill lifted straight out of their pocket? It just makes him look badder, and that’s what they’re paying for. Gold sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t come with its own attached gangster organization, so hanging onto it through the zombie interlude could be difficult. It’s safer, by far, to invest in the alpha state.

Because this Hobbesian zombinomics is political and relativisitic, there are epsilon states at the other end of the trade, as well as a beta state caught in the middle. Europe isn’t a state at all, of course, which is how the (interminable) final phase of zombinomics got started. Before it changed, however, the EU conjuring act seemed to be going pretty well. Every Eurozone member state issuing government debt in the common currency paid yields that were broadly harmonized, as if Europe was a financially sovereign entity, standing united behind its paper. The realization that economic sovereignty remained national, even after the alienation of monetary sovereignty to the European Central Bank, came as something of a shock, and bond spreads gaped accordingly.

The hallucination of ‘Europe’ as a united, honorary alpha state, rapidly degenerated to reality, recoding government bonds as zombie apocalypse security scrip. Suddenly, Greek bonds stopped having anything much to do with the ECB, and started to mumble promises in Greek – ultimately, that the Greek state would do whatever it took to secure redemption, whilst mobilizing its Olympian powers to maintain social discipline if necessary. A flight for the exits immediately ensued. Ditto, with variations of speed and intensity, for all the epsilons (= PIIGS).

Where to flee? That’s the zombinomic question par excellence (searching for the best looking horse in the glue factory). First choice, for the keenest Hobbes readers, was to head straight to Mr. Big, a.k.a. Benny the Yank, wait politely whilst he finished smoking a mirved nuke, and then beg for protection (that’s your 14% one year jump in the value of a 10-year US Treasury bond, right there). The second choice — more appealing to old-fashioned types who thought economics still counted for something – was to look for comparative financial responsibility closer to home.

Briefly, this route led to genuine quality, but zombinomics quickly resumed its grip:

Switzerland sparked fears of a new currency war on Tuesday [Sept. 6] after it pegged the Swiss franc against the euro in an attempt to protect its economy from the European debt crisis.

The Swiss National Bank in effect devalued the franc, pledging to buy “unlimited quantities” of foreign currencies to force down its value. The SNB warned that it would no longer allow one Swiss franc to be worth more than €0.83 – equivalent to SFr1.20 to the euro – having watched the two currencies move closer to parity as Switzerland became a “safe haven” from the ravages of the eurozone crisis.

… which brings us to Germany, and the latest chapter in the zombie saga — comic or tragic, and probably both, ironic to the point of absurdity in any case. Ruined, shrunken, divided, and traumatized by guilt, post-war Germany sought above all to bury its nationalistic aspirations in Europe. What became the EU was for Germany – as Algeria was for the French foreign legionnaires – a place in which to forget. Now the bond ‘market’, in its increasingly desperate search for a big, tough, disciplinary state (a global beta will do fine), is determined to dig the Teutonic Leviathan from its grave.

With twin memories of Weimar hyper-inflation and statist hyper-assertion still vivid, Germany is stubbornly holding out against the full-zombie option of (monetary and fiscal) financial debauchery counter-balanced by Hobbesian security politics. This reluctance to throw itself into the spirit of the age has, naturally enough, exposed it to relentless international vilification, and the pressure will only increase. It could all get unpleasantly interesting.

[Tomb]

Suspended Animation (Part 2)

Whatever happened to hell?

“It can’t carry on like this … but how many weeks have we said that for?”
— Justin Urquhart Stewart, director at Seven Investment Management (via James Pethokoukis here)

To make a protracted topic out of this phenomenon is to offer a hostage to fortune. Everything could go over the cliff tomorrow. Perhaps it already has (and we’re just waiting, like Wile E. Coyote, for the consummating splatter).

Greens have been dealing with exactly this question, for a while. After Paul Ehrlich had his credibility torched by Julian Simon, in the most intellectually consequential wager in history, he responded in frustration: “The bet doesn’t mean anything. Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far as he passes the 10th floor.”

If environmental catastrophe is structured like this, according to a pattern of durable unsustainability, or disconcerting postponement, there is no obvious theory to account for the fact. With economics, things are different, to such an extent that the entire political economy of the world, along with the overwhelming preponderance of professionalized economic ‘science’, has been geared over the course of a little under a century to crisis postponement as a dominant objective. If the New World Order follows a master plan, this is it.

For ideological purists on the free-market right, laissez-faire capitalism is the ‘unknown ideal’ (although early 20th century Shanghai approached it, as did its student, Hong Kong, in later decades), but it requires no purism whatsoever to acknowledge that the Great Depression effectively buried it as an organizing principle of the world, and that the system which replaced it found political and intellectual expression in the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Commercial self-organization, which built industrial capitalism before anyone had even the sketchiest understanding of what was happening, gave way to the technocracy of macroeconomics, guided by the radically original belief that governments had a responsibility to manage the oscillations of economic fortune.

In the words of Peter Thiel (drawn straight from the free-market id):

… the trend has been going the wrong way for a long time. To return to finance, the last economic depression in the United States that did not result in massive government intervention was the collapse of 1920–21. It was sharp but short, and entailed the sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” that could lead to a real boom. The decade that followed — the roaring 1920s — was so strong that historians have forgotten the depression that started it. The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

As Cato’s Daniel J. Mitchell puts it, more narrowly:

A vibrant and dynamic economy requires the possibility of big profits, but also the discipline of failure. Indeed, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

Because hell’s a hard sell, political and economic rationality have been heading in different directions for 80 years. Even the tropical latitudes of purgatory have proven to be socially combustible, and popularly sensitized politics – which need not be formally ‘democratic’ – tend (strongly) to flee Molotov cocktails in the direction of macroeconomic management. The crucial Keynesian maxim, “In the long run we are all dead,” is especially pertinent to regimes. Who’s going to regenerate deep economic recovery, if the route to it lies through gulfs of fire and brimstone that are fundamentally incompatible with political survival? History, redundantly, provides the obvious answer: nobody is.

The accursed path not taken, across the infernal abyss, has become so neglected and overgrown with weeds that it is rarely noticed, but it is still graphically marked by the advice that Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon gave to Herbert Hoover as the way to navigate the Great Depression (advice that was, of course, dismissed):

… liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.

In recalling this recommendation, as an unacceptable option, Hoover commemorates the precise moment that capitalism ceased to exist as a politically credible social possibility. The alternative – which has many names, although ‘corporatism’ will do – was defined by its systematic refusal of the ‘liquidationist’ path. Coming out stronger on the other side meant nothing, because the passage would probably kill us – it would certainly destroy our political careers. In any case, it was a long run solution to a short term problem, scheduled by volatile popular irritability and election cycles, and in the long run we are all dead. Better, by far, to use ‘macroeconomic policy’ (monetary mind-control) to artificially prolong unsustainable economic euphoria – or even its jaded, hung-over simulation – than to plunge into a catastrophe that might imaginably have been delayed.

It doesn’t take a Schumpeterian fanatic to suspect that such ‘creative destruction (but without the destruction)’ is unlikely to provide a sustainable recipe for economic vitality. When evaluated realistically, it is a formula that programs a trend to perpetual stagnation. Stagnation as a choice.

Because money serves as a general equivalent, and thus as a neutral, non-specific, purely quantitative medium of exchange, it is very supportive of certain highly-consequential economic illusions, of a kind that macroeconomics has been especially prone to. It can easily seem as if ‘the economy’ consists essentially of undifferentiated, quantitative aggregates, such as ‘demand’, ‘gross domestic product’, ‘money supply’, ‘land’, ‘labor’, and ‘capital’. In fact, none of these things exist, except as high-level abstractions, precipitated by the monetary function of general exchangeability.

An understanding of Schumpeterian creative destruction requires, as a preliminary, the recognition that capital is heterogeneous. When expressed in a monetary form, it can appear as a homogeneous quantity, susceptible to simple accumulation, but in its productive social reality it consists of technological apparatus – tools, machines, infrastructures, and installations – representing irretrievable investments, of qualitatively distinctive kinds. The monetary equivalent of such industrial capital is derived from the market values attributed its various components, and these are extremely dynamic, virtual, and speculative. Since the value retrievable from liquidation (and ultimately from scrap) is generally a small fraction, or lower bound, of capital asset value, the ‘capital stock’ is estimated with reference to its productive usage, rather than its intrinsic worth. Schumpeter was careful to break this down into two very different aspects.

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, industrial capital is a resource that depreciates at a regular and broadly predictable rate as a function of output. It is consumed in the process of production, like any other material input, but at a slower rate. Creative destruction, however, refers to a second, far more drastic type of capital depreciation, resulting from technological obsolescence. In this case, capital stock is ‘destroyed’ – suddenly and unpredictably – by an innovation, taking place elsewhere in the economy, which renders its anticipated use unprofitable. In this way, large ‘quantities’ of ‘accumulated’ capital can be depreciated overnight to scrap values, and the investments they represent are annihilated. The hallucination of homogeneous capital is instantaneously vaporized, as painstakingly built fortunes are written down to nothing.

Several points suggest themselves:

1. The violence of creative destruction is directly proportional to its fecundity. The greater, deeper, and more far-reaching the innovation, the more colossal is the resulting capital destruction. At the extreme, profound technological revolutions lay waste not only to specific machines and skills, but to entire infrastructures, industries, occupational categories, and financial systems.

2. The cultural implication of creative destruction far exceeds issues of ‘moral hazard’ and ‘time preference’. The victims of industrial change waves – whether businesses, workers, or financiers – are not being punished by the market for imprudence, slackness, or short-sightedness. They are ruined by pure hazard, as the reciprocal of the absolutely unanticipated nature of technological invention (occurring elsewhere). Neither the creation, nor the destruction, is remotely ‘fair’ – or ever could be. (Although Dawinian ‘virtue’ lies in flexible adaptability — Hong Kong always does OK.)

3. Massive capital destruction expresses technological revolution. Macroeconomic analysis (measuring homogeneous aggregates) will always miss the most significant episodes in industrial evolution, since these do not register primarily as growth, but rather the opposite. Hell is a hothouse.

4. A policy environment designed to preserve macroeconomic aggregates (e.g. ‘wealth’ or ’employment’) necessarily opposes itself to the basic historical process of industrial revolution, because destruction of the existing economy is strictly indistinguishable from industrial renewal. For that old stuff to be worth anything (beyond scrap) we have to keep using it, which means that we’re not switching over. To cross the gulf, we have to enter the gulf. (Like most things in this universe: harsh but true.)

5. Real historical advance is now politically unacceptable. Either politics wins (eternal stagnation) or history does (political collapse). Interesting times (or not).

The world couldn’t take the heat, so it got out of the kitchen. There’s cold porridge for dinner, and it’s going to be cold porridge for breakfast. Eventually the porridge will run out, but that could take a while …

… and here’s Ben Bernanke on topic: “I’m not a believer in the Old Testament theory of business cycles. I think that if we can help people, we need to help people.” (via Mike Krieger at ZH)

Cold porridge politics forever. Yum!

[Tomb]

Suspended Animation

Limbo starts to feel like home

According to Herbert Stein’s Law, the signature warning of our age, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The question is: When?

The central concerns of environmentalists and radical market economists are easy to distinguish – when not straightforwardly opposed – yet both groups face a common mental and historical predicament, which might even be considered the outstanding social discovery of recent times: the extraordinary durability of the unsustainable. A pattern of mass behavior is observed that leads transparently to crisis, based on explosive (exponential) trends that are acknowledged without controversy, yet consensus on matters of fact coexists with paralyzing policy disagreements, seemingly interminable procrastination, and irresolution. The looming crisis continues to swell, close, horribly close, but in no way that is persuasively measurable closer, like some grating Godot purgatory: “You must go on; I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”

Urban Future doesn’t do green anguish as well as teeth-grinding Austrolibertarian irritation, so it won’t really try. Suffice to say that being green is about to become almost unimaginably maddening, if it isn’t already. Just as the standard ‘green house’ model insinuates itself, near-universally, into the structure of common sense, the world temperature record has locked into a flatline, with surging CO2 production showing up everywhere except as warming. Worse still, a new wave of energy resources – stubbornly based on satanic hydrocarbons, and of truly stupefying magnitude – is rolling out inertially, with barely a hint of effective obstruction. Tar sands, fracking, and sub-salt deep sea oil deposits are all coming on-stream already, with methane clathrates just up the road. The world’s on a burn, and it can’t go on (but it carries on).

Financial unsustainability is no less blatant, or bizarrely enduring. Since the beginning of the 20th century, once (classically) liberal Western economies have seen government expenditure rise from under 5% to over 40% of total income, with much of Europe crossing the 50% redline (after which nothing remotely familiar as ‘capitalism’ any longer exists). Public debt levels are tracing geometrically elegant exponential curves, chronic dependency is replacing productive social participation, and generalized sovereign insolvency is now a matter of simple and obvious fact. The only thing clearer than the inevitability of systemic bankruptcy is the political impossibility of doing anything about it, so things carry on, even though they really have to stop. Unintelligible multi-trillion magnitudes of impending calamity stack up, and up, and up in a near future which never quite arrives.

The frozen limbo-state of durable unsustainability is the new normal (which will last until it doesn’t). The pop cultural expression is zombie apocalypse, a shambling, undying state of endlessly prolonged decomposition. When translated into economic analysis, the result is epitomized by Tyler Cowen’s influential e-book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. (Yes, Urban Future is arriving incredibly late to this party, but in a frozen limbo that doesn’t matter.)

In a nutshell, Cowen argues that the exhaustion of three principal sources of ‘low-hanging fruit’ has brought the secular trend of American growth to a state of stagnation that high-frequency business cycles have partially obscured. With the consumption of America’s frontier surplus (free land), educational surplus (smart but educationally-unserved population), and — most importantly — technological surplus, from major breakthroughs opening broad avenues of commercial exploitation, growth rates have shriveled to a level that the country’s people are psychologically unprepared to accept as normal.

It fell to Cowen’s GMU colleague Peter Boettke to clearly make the pro-market case for stagnationism that Cowen seems to think he had already persuasively articulated. In an overtly supportive post, Boettke transforms Cowens’ rather elusive argument into a far more pointed anti-government polemic — the discovery of a new depressive equilibrium, in which relentless socio-political degeneration absorbs and neutralizes a decaying trend of techno-economic advance.

An accumulated economic surplus was created by the age of innovation, which the age of economic illusion spent down. We are now coming to the end of that accumulated surplus and thus the full weight of government inefficiencies are starting to be felt throughout the economy.

Perhaps surprisingly, the general tenor of response on the libertarian right was quite different. Rather than celebrating Cowen’s exposure of the statist ruin visited upon Western societies, most of this commentary concentrated upon the stagnationist thesis itself, attacking it from a variety of interlocking angles. David R. Henderson’s Cato review makes stinging economic arguments against Cowen’s claims about land and education. Russ Roberts (at Cafe Hayek) shows how Cowen’s dismal story about stagnant median family incomes draws upon data distorted by historical changes in US family structure and residential patterns. The most common line of resistance, however, instantiated by Don Boudreaux, John Hagel, Steven Horwitz, Bryan Caplan, and Ronald Bailey, among others, rallies in defense of actually existing consumer capitalism. Bailey, for example, notes:

In 1970, a 23-inch color television cost $368 ($2,000 in 2009 dollars). Today, a 22-inch Phillips LCD flat panel TV costs $190. In 1978, an 8-track tape player cost $169 ($550). Today, an iPod Touch with 8 gigabytes of memory costs $204. In 1970, an Olympia adding machine cost $80 ($437 in 2009 dollars). Today, a Canon office calculator costs $6.65. In 1978, a Radio Shack TRS80 computer with 16K of RAM cost $399 ($1300 in 2009 dollars). Today, Costco will sell you an ASUS netbook with 1 gigabyte of RAM for $270. The average car cost $3,900 in 1970 ($21,300 in today’s dollars). A mid-sized 2011 vehicle would cost somewhere around $20,000 and last twice as long.

Another very crude way to look at it is that Americans are four times richer in terms of refrigerators, 10 times richer in terms of TVs, 2.5 times richer when it comes to listening to music on the go, 3,000 times richer in calculators, about 400,000 times richer when it comes to price per kilobyte of computer memory, and two times richer in cars. Cowen dismisses this kind of progress as mere “quality improvements,” but in this case quality becomes it own kind of quantity when it comes to improved living standards.

What seems pretty clear from most of this (and already in Cowen’s account) is that nothing much has been moving forward in the world’s ‘developed’ economies for four decades except for the information technology revolution and its Moore’s Law dynamics. Abstract out the microprocessor, and even the most determinedly optimistic vision of recent trends is gutted to the point of expiration. Without computers, there’s nothing happening, or at least nothing good.

[… still crawling …]

[Tomb]

Calendric Dominion (Part 6)

Countdown

At the beginning of the 21st century, global cultural hegemony is on the move. For roughly 500 years, Western — and later more specifically Anglophone — societies and agencies have predominantly guided the development of the current world system. As their economic pre-eminence wanes, their cultural and political influence can be expected to undergo a comparable decline. In the early stages of the coming transition, however, the terminal form of active Western cultural hegemony – multicultural political correctness (MPC) – is well-positioned to manage the terms of the retreat. By reconfiguring basic Western religious and political themes as a systematic sensitization to unwarranted privilege, MPC is able to distance itself from its own heritage and to live on, in the resentment of ‘the other’, as if it were the neutral adjudicator of disputes it had no part in.

When MPC turns its attention to the Gregorian (or Western Christian) Calendar it is, of course, appalled. But it is also stuck. What could be more insensitive to cultural diversity than an ecumenical date-counting system, rooted in the ethnic peculiarities of Greek-phase Abrahamic religion, which unapologetically celebrates its triumph in the uncompromising words Anno Domini? Yet global convergence demands a standard, no alternative calendar has superior claims to neutrality, and, in any case, the inertial juggernaut of large-scale complex systems – ‘lock-in’ or ‘path-dependency’ – pose barriers to switching that seem effectively insuperable. The solution proposed by MPC to this conundrum is so feeble that it amounts to the completion of Gregorian Calendric Dominion, which is to be simultaneously rephrased (politely) and acknowledged in its irresistible universality as the articulation of a ‘Common Era’.

MPC supplants problems of cultural power with obfuscatory etiquette, and in absolute terms, its smug dishonesty is difficult to like. As a relative phenomenon, however, its appeal is more obvious, since radical ‘solutions’ to Gregorian Calendric Dominion, re-beginning at Year Zero, have generally reverted to mass murder. Lacking persuasive claims to a new, fundamental, and universally acknowledged historical break, they have substituted terror for true global singularity, as if fate could be blotted out in blood.

Since resentment gets nowhere, whether in its mild (MPC) or harsh (killing fields) variants, it is worth entertaining alternative possibilities. These begin with attention to real cultural differences, rather than mere ‘cultural diversity’ as it presents itself to the vacuously MPC-processed mind. Soon after Shanghai had been selected as host city for World Expo 2010 (in December 2002), countdowns started. For Westerners, these probably had space-age associations, triggering memories of the countdowns to ‘blast off’ that were popularized by the Apollo Program, and subsequent science fiction media. It is far from impossible that Chinese shared in these evocations, although they were also able to access a far deeper – which is to say civilizationally fundamental – reservoir of reference. That is because Chinese time typically counts down, modeled, as it is, on the workings of water clocks. The Chinese language systematically describes previous as ‘above’ (shang) and next as ‘beneath’ (xia), conforming to an intuition of time as descent. Time is counted down as it runs out, from an elevated hydraulic body into the sunken future that receives it.

Duration not only flows, it drips. Perhaps, then, an ‘orientalization’ of calendric perception and organization is something that significantly exceeds a simple (or even exceedingly difficult) renegotiation of beginnings. Re-beginning might be considered largely irrelevant to the problem, at least when compared to the re-orientation from an original to a terminal Year Zero. Whilst not exactly a transition in the direction of time, such a change would involve a transition in the direction of time intuition, simultaneously surpassing the wildest ambitions of calendrical re-origination and subtly organizing itself ‘within the pores’ of the established order of time. As modeled by the 2010 Expo, and previously by Y2K, the switch to countdown time does not frontally challenge, or seek to straightforwardly replace, the calendric order in being. Rather than counting in the same way, from a different place, it counts in a different way, within the framework of time already in place. It is a revolution with ‘Chinese characteristics’, which is to say: a surreptitious insurgency, changing what something already was, rather than replacing it with something else.

Both the 2010 Expo and Y2K also reveal the extreme difficulty of any such transition, since a futural Year Zero, or countdown calendar, must navigate the arrow of time and its cognitive asymmetry (between knowledge of the past and of the future), presupposing exact, confident, and consensual prediction.

That is why it approximates so closely to conservative acceptance. If the countdown is to be sure of arriving at the scheduled terminus, the destination ‘event’ must already be a date (rather than an empirical ‘happening’). Nothing will suffice except a strictly arithmetical, rigorously certain inevitability, as inescapably pre-destined as the year 2000, or 2010, which cannot but come. From the perspective of the countdown calendar, that is what (Gregorian) Calendric Dominion will have been for. It is an opportunity to program an inevitable arrival.

But when? The sheer passage (fall) of time has assured that the opportunity for calendric revolution presented by the Y2K ‘millennium bug’ has been irretrievably missed (so that AD 1900 ≠ 0). The same is true of World Expo 2010, an event without pretense to be anything beyond a miniature ‘practice’ model of global-temporal singularity. As for the real (techno-commercial) Singularity – that is an imprecise historical prediction, at once controversial and incapable of supporting exact prediction.

A more appropriate prospect is suggested by the science fiction writer Greg Bear, in his novel Queen of Angels, set in anticipation of the mid-21st century ‘binary millennium’ (2048 = 2¹¹). This is a formally suitable, purely calendric ‘event’, deriving its significance from arithmetic rather than ideology or uncertain prophecy. He even envisages it as a moment of insurgent revolution, when artificial intelligence arises surreptitiously, and unnoticed. Yet arbitrariness impairs this date (why the 11th power of 2?), and no serious attempt is made to explain its rise to exceptional cultural prominence.

If an adjusted global culture is to converge upon a countdown date, it must be obvious, intrinsically compelling, and ideologically uncontroversial, in other words, spontaneously plausible. The target that World Expo 2010 suggests (anagrammatically) is AD 2100, a date that performs the final stages of a countdown (2, 1, 0 …). Reinforcing this indication, the Y2K ‘millennium bug’ threatened to re-set the date of AD 2000 to AD 1900, which would have tacitly reiterated itself at the exact end of the 21st century. If it continues to chatter about the calendar, perhaps this is how.

The impending Mayan Apocalypse, scheduled for 21 / 12 / 2012, offers a preliminary chance to indulge in a festival of countdown numbers – like 2010, it looks a lot like another digital singularity simulation. If the morning of December 22nd, 2012, leaves the world with nothing worse than a hangover, it could gradually settle into a new sense of the Years Remaining (to the end of all the time that counts, or the 21st century).

AD 2100 = 0 YR

AD 2099 = 1 YR

AD 2098 = 2 YR

AD 2096 = 4 YR

AD 2092 = 8 YR

AD 2084 = 16 YR

AD 2068 = 32 YR

AD 2036 = 64 YR

AD 1972 = 128 YR

AD 1844 = 256 YR

AD 1588 = 512 YR

AD 1076 = 1024 YR

AD 52 = 2048 YR

It’s difficult to anticipate what it looks like from the other side.

[No actual tomb, but retrieved from this]