Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Dollar Falls, The Predators Awaken

Not terribly long ago, it was common to hear of people "taking money out" of their homes. It was as if those houses were equipped with magic ATM consoles through which some portion of their inflated market value could be transmuted into cash.

Many houses of that sort have since been repossessed and are the property of banks. (That is to say, they are now the acknowledged property of banks, since an occupant with an unpaid mortgage doesn't really own the house in which he lives.)

And now an increasing number of foreclosed houses aren't fit for resale because thieves have literally been taking money out of them by cannibalizing their copper plumbing and wiring, as well as any other metals that can be bundled together and sold to scrap metal dealers.

The phenomenon of what could be called "metal poaching" -- stealing copper from houses, building sites, and anywhere else it is found unattended -- first attracted my attention about two years ago. At the time it struck me as a leading indicator of the dollar's decline.*

In early 2006, as the price of copper and scrap iron started to climb, it became common for thieves to descend on construction sites and extract whatever they could find. In some cities, air conditioners accessible from outside homes or other buildings were frequently gutted. Some metal theft rings even stole manhole covers to be melted down for resale as pig iron.

Now, foreclosures pockmark the face of this severely over-leveraged land, and each tract of vacant, repossessed houses is a happy hunting ground for metal poachers.

"In areas hit hardest by foreclosures, such as the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, copper and other metals used in plumbing, heating systems and telephone lines are now more valuable than some homes," reports Reuters.

Real estate broker Marc Charney of Brockton, Massachusetts describes how thieves sacked one of his most promising properties:

"They cut it [the copper wiring] here and then pulled it right out of the wall.... I had this property under agreement. We negotiated. The offer was accepted. The buyer came back to the property three weeks later only to find they [the thieves] had gotten in and stolen the copper, so we had to go back to the bank and renegotiate."

As the collapsing real estate market pulls home prices downward, a property "distressed" by copper thieves can lose nearly all of its value. Cleveland city councilor Tony Brancatelli notes that "Houses are getting stripped pretty quickly once they go through the foreclosure process.... We're seeing houses sold for $100 that are distressed houses that should not be recycled."

Three years ago, scrap copper sold for about 70 cents a pound. The same quantity now commands about $3.50. As is the case with the dramatic price increase for other commodities, the copper price surge reflects the dollar's decline. Another factor is the insatiable demand for copper (and other non-ferrous metals) by Beijing.

So, in a sense, this could be one of those "circle of life" arrangements: Beijing bought the T-Bills that helped keep the U.S. consumer economy afloat; American consumers dutifully refinanced their mortgages to consolidate credit card bills, or to "take money out" to spend on more Chinese-manufactured amenities; they then lost those homes when the market went south, leaving their houses to be denuded of copper and other metals that are shipped back to Beijing (as well as Mumbai).

Collateral damage: This Friday night high school football game had to be moved to a different venue because copper thieves had stripped copper wiring from the stadium lights.

The wide-scale pilferage of copper is neither the only, nor the most ominous, example of predatory opportunism triggered by the unfolding economic debacle.

A headline from the March 28 issue of Canada's National Post conveys the odd news that "Grain is the new copper" -- that is, a commodity proving to be an irresistible target for thieves.

Once again, monetary inflation has combined with a dramatic increase in demand to drive the price of this commodity toward the ionosphere: "A bushel of spring wheat, which has historically traded between $3 and $7, has spiked as high as $24 in recent weeks," observes the Post. This creates potent incentives for "grain rustlers" to ply their trade.

"In January, Kansas police began investigating nearly a dozen reports of thieves driving their trucks up to farm bins and siphoning out tens of thousands of dollars worth of wheat," the paper continues. The same kind of crime has become quite common in Canada -- home of triticale, and a major producer of wheat and other grains. California almond farmers have recently been targeted by rustlers as well.

Repeat victim: Gary Barton, a walnut farmer in Ripon, California, inspects irrigation pumps from which copper wiring has been torn out twice. Chances are that his crop will be targeted next.

All that's necessary in order to anticipate future crime waves is to look at the trends in agricultural commodity prices: Barley futures are trading at twice what they did in 2006; soybean futures have tripled; the prices for oats and corn are similarly heading skyward, and rice is now at an all-time high. The Post exaggerates not one whit in reporting that "Farms have become treasure troves for looters."

The Urban Institute calculates that losses from agricultural theft across the United States amount to at least $5 billion annually. The actual amount may be as much as 10 times higher, owing to the fact that such thefts are generally unreported by uninsured farmers, and underreported by those yet to notice shortfalls in their inventories.

Market signals operate with complete indifference to morality, and can be read by honest producers and intelligent criminals alike. World-wide, grain supplies are at a 50-year low, and demand is growing relentlessly.

Food riots have taken place in Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. In Pakistan, a much-afflicted country, armed soldiers deployed to guard wheat and flour deliveries enforce government-imposed sales quotas. Taking a page from the common syllabus of economic errors, President Arroyo of the Philippines has begun a government crackdown on people accused of “hoarding” rice and other grain.

This turmoil is not just the product of harvest shortfalls. It also reflects Washington’s ability to export inflation world-wide, thanks to the role of the fiat "dollar" as the world's reserve currency. Price inflation is always severely regressive, hitting the poorest the hardest. So it's not surprising that people at the periphery of the global dollar empire are victims of the first big wave of food price inflation. But they won't be the last.

The soaring cost of staple foods is giving American consumers a small but thoroughly disagreeable taste of the same kind of desperation that drives food consumers in the developing world. This is one reason why more Americans are on Food Stamps than ever before. And here's where things promise to get exceptionally nasty: America, at one time the proverbial breadbasket to the world, is now a net importer of food, according to the estimable Bill Bonner, who advises his readers to "plant a garden" (which is sound advice under any circumstances).

Most Americans -- your sheepish servant, among them -- display an equatorial expanse attesting to a crisis of abundance, rather than scarcity, where food supplies are concerned. But there is reason to believe that the Fed, ever and always eager to make sure that Wall Street's uber-rich remain well-fed, will soon put the rest of us on the Hoover Diet -- and I'm not talking about liposuction.

"Belt-tightening" is a phrase indissolubly linked with the Great Depression, and an economic collapse would inevitably mean that most of us would soon be casting smaller shadows. This might be an ironically welcome development, since we're going to have to be fleet of foot** in order to stay ahead of the predators who are arising to exploit the unfolding economic catastrophe.

My new book, Liberty in Eclipse, is now available through Dr. Stanley Montieth's Radio Liberty bookstore!

Dum spiro, pugno!

*Unfortunately, it appears that my erstwhile colleagues have scrubbed my previous treatment of this subject from the Web.

**Not to mention armed to the teeth, as well.


Anonymous said...

"Metals poaching" is a replay of what happened in 1965, when U.S. silver coinage disappeared and was replaced by "sandwich coins" made of cheaper metals. The reason was that the silver in the coins was worth more than their face value, making it worthwhile to melt them down.

As one might guess, it's happening again -- this time to the non-sandwich U.S. nickel, made of 75% copper and 25% nickel. That much valuable copper content is a death sentence for the nickel as we know it. Wikipedia states that as of March 16, 2008, the metallic content of the 5-cent nickel is worth 7.31 cents.

You might think that government would "do something" to stop the inflation. But you would be wrong. Rather, the government is going to punish YOU if you engage in that easy abritrage: on Dec. 14, 2006, the United States Mint introduced new interim rules criminalizing the melting and export of cents and nickels. Violators of these rules can be punished with a fine of up to $10,000, five years imprisonment, or both.

An even more ludicrous situation has developed with the contemporary plated-zinc penny. Pre-1982 pennies, containing 95% copper, were worth 2.58 cents as of mid-March. But even the new pennies, consisting of 97.5% zinc with a thin plating of copper, have reached 68% of face value thanks to the run-up in base metals prices. Where do we go from here? Either demonetize the penny, or make it of even cheaper materials such as colored plastic, crapalloy, or tungsten cowhide.

The brilliant minds of the U.S. House of Representatives are ALREADY ON THE CASE: on Feb, 8, 2008, a bill was introduced to allow changing the metal components in U.S. coins due to the rising cost of commodities and the declining U.S. Dollar.

One thing you can be sure of: all of the news coverage will treat rising commodity prices as an "exogenous shock" -- an unfortunate event such as a hurricane or a drought, which comes out of nowhere. The simple fact that the "Creature From Jekyll Island" -- the Federal Reserve -- is entirely responsible for this debacle will be obscured by the controlled, government-mouthpiece media. The Fed was licensed in 1913 to counterfeit currency on an industrial scale, and they've performed beyond anyone's wildest expectations. Go, Benny, go!

Anonymous said...

First time I ever heard of "triticale," Will. Sounds too valuable to eat. One hopes the Canuckistanis will learn to make beer from it. Oh, wait ... "Tritic Ale" ... DUH!

"This turmoil [is not] just the product of harvest shortfalls." Indeed it's not. On the buy side, government has created artificial demand with its demented ethanol program.

Most ethanol does not even contain as much energy as went into making it -- it's a net loss. But even with the most efficient plants, making the most favorable assumptions, the ethanol might contain 11 calories for every 10 used in producing it.

Any reasonably numerate fourth-grader could discern that this process doesn't scale up. By the time you've made enough millions of barrels of ethanol to back out a substantial amount of imported fuel, the entire North American corn crop has gone into the gaping maw of these dark, satanic mills. In essence, the ethanol industry is a mechanism for burning the last six inches of midwestern topsoil in our gas tanks, in a monumental act of environmental vandalism.

But it gets worse. Diverting food into fuel means that people are going to starve -- if not here, then somewhere broke and poorer.

The four horsemen ride again, including the red horse of foreign wars, the pale horse of famine, and the white horse of the false political prophets who created the Ethanol Death Star. Process them into Soylent Green, say I. Eat "long pig" and corn; starve an ethanol plant while raising the national IQ.

Anonymous said...

Locally the food pantry for homeless and the worst poverty stricken had its air conditioner and refrigeration pipes and metals raided at night while closed. But the fundamentals of the economy is sound. Is our children learning? The increase of check out lane magazines for the soccer moms with "make do with less", "how to live frugally" is telling.

Anonymous said...

"you must make do with less so we can have more." The Elites

Anonymous said...

Great analysis of the falling dollar in light of recent news. The prices of food should just keep increasing, too, since the rising cost of oil will create a push towards using more crops for biofuels and ethanol. Feeding the poor and oneself will be subsumed to the need to feed the car culture, as the last inches of topsoil in American farmland are burned off on highways.

Anonymous said...

Today going home, listening to the radio, I heard an add for a company that says all you have to do is bring in your car title and they will pay you cash and you keep the car. Guess all the houses have been tapped out as piggy banks and so now you can use your car in the same way. Another sign. Don't pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.


Anonymous said...

I keep my rage in check by not listening to Party Hack radio. But on occasion, while driving, I'll peek in to hear their latest drivel. It takes less than a minute before I'm steaming mad at these buffons. These blatherskites (Thanks Will for letting me steal one of your trademark words.) keep spinning the perpetual propaganda. Michael Medvedev, possibly the most obnoxious female talk-show host on the air, says people are over reacting. The dollar is strong, and the economy is just fine says he. Most talk radio seat-moisteners (Nod to Will, again.) don't even talk about the economy all that much; the political race between the Power Elites' sock puppets is all that consumes them. I wish people would call these party toadies -Michelle Medved, Used Hewitt, Lard-Ass Larsen, Dennis Pricker, Lickspittle Levine, Krusty Limberger, Sean Lobotomy, Ann "the former man" Coulter and Whore-a Ingraham, and others- and insult them continuously to the point they become exhausted and their show becomes unbearable for them.

Here's an example:
You: Thanks for taking my call Dr. Shlessinger.
Medved: I'm not Dr. Laura.
You: Oh, I'm sorry Ma'am! I just wanted to.....
Medved: It's MR Medved.
You: You are not yet a woman? Oh, I'm sorry. Are you between the surgical procedures and the hormone injections? 'Cause you sound.....
Medved: (Hangs up)

Next Caller: I love your show, Laura! You sound hot!
Medved: (Hangs up)

You get the idea.

Anonymous said...

The plane loads of freshly printed Federal Reserve notes that pay for the "Idiot King's" senseless war are contributing to the dollar's rapid decline in value. As usual, Government is running the printing presses to plunder and transfer wealth by stealth rather than by raising taxes. McCain may desire perpetual war against an unseen enemy and tactic, but I doubt if destitute Americans will be able to afford his insane plan.

Anonymous said...

Rather, the government is going to punish YOU if you engage in that easy abritrage: on Dec. 14, 2006, the United States Mint introduced new interim rules criminalizing the melting and export of cents and nickels. Violators of these rules can be punished with a fine of up to $10,000, five years imprisonment, or both.

Is it just me, or does anybody else find it odd that the government presumes to tell you what you cannot do with your money? I mean- if you can't melt your nickels if you so desire, do you *really* own them?

Anonymous said...

"Is it just me, or does anybody else find it odd that the government presumes to tell you what you cannot do with your money? I mean- if you can't melt your nickels if you so desire, do you *really* own them?"

Ask a larger question -- do you really own ANYTHING? Government lays claim to your income, to taxes on your property, and increasingly to your personal details: your health history, your fingerprints, eventually your genetic code. With chattel slavery having been repealed, you can no longer sell or indenture yourself. That's government's sovereign privilege now. And they've already mortgaged all of your future earnings, as well as your children's and grandchildren's, to raise cash today.

Treasury securities monetize future labor, while gold and silver monetized past labor -- big difference.

However, there has been one breakthrough for freedom. The "Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law" tag on furniture now clarifies that it applies only to the original seller. Rip the tags off your furniture, torch 'em to smoking cinders, and tell me what you see. That's the flame of liberty burning, boy.

Anonymous said...

It may be argued that those who pulled money out of their houses to buy stuff are really renters at heart anyway.
They really should let the house go and rent. It would be much cheaper for them as the cost of real estate will be dropping and seven years from now, when their credit is viable again, the house they get should be a bargain.
Of course, they are also the same people who haven't been taking the GOOD advice.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:40,
Good points.

Anonymous said...

It is fun on many levels to bash chimperor shrub but alot of the selling out of the "little people" went into high gear during the clinton era. NAFTA, GATT, WTO, MAI (Multi-Lateral Agreement on Investment), telecom act of 96 were not designed by the clintons but they were on the fast track to getting passed. The Leo(Strauss)Cons, Keynesian free market cultists and the bush-clinton crime family (they don't deserve capital letters) have done so much damage to this formerly great republic that it may be too late to ever recover. Not being naive and knowing that any real "change" candidate will get the JFK/MLK/RFK treatment quicker than you can say stolen election no matter who gets in this years corporate figurehead selection it will be more of the same, business as usual.

Anonymous said...

"We're going to have to be fleet of foot in order to stay ahead of the predators who are arising to exploit the unfolding economic catastrophe." -- Will Grigg

Uh, which predators would those be? One concerns me more than others, when I read stuff like this:

"The Census Bureau has awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 computers, at a cost of more than $600 million. The devices, which look like high-tech cell phones, will be used to verify every residential street address in the country, using global positioning system software.

"But workers going door-to-door will not be able to use them to collect information from the residents who didn't return their census forms. About a third of U.S. residents are expected not to return the forms."


WHOA, wait a minute here! The USPS, as mandated by its charter, has already "verified" every deliverable address. What's the idea of attaching GPS coordinates to them?

All I can figure is that instead of mere addresses, Big Gov wants to link INDIVIDUAL NAMES (provided by the Census) to GPS coordinates. Then they can track down a wanted person just like a LoJacked vehicle. Nice! (for the State)

By the way, one reason a third of Census forms aren't returned is that they ask intrusive, unconstitutional questions such as how much money you make. One could reasonably decline to answer on Fifth Amendment grounds: if there's a discrepancy between what you tell the Census and what you reported to the IRS, it could incriminate you.

Doubtless the predators will not be deterred by anything as flimsy as the Fifth Amendment, already dismissed by our C-in-C as a "g.d. piece of paper." Which brings us back to the role of metals ...

Anonymous said...

By the way, the Fourth Amendment was secretly repealed seven years ago, the ACLU has learned:


NEW YORK – A newly disclosed secret memo authored by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in March 2003 that asserts President Bush has unlimited power to order brutal interrogations of detainees also reveals a radical interpretation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. The memo, declassified yesterday as the result of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, cites a still-secret DOJ memo from 2001 that found that the "Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations."

The October 2001 memo was almost certainly meant to provide a legal basis for the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, which President Bush launched the same month the memo was issued. As a component of the Department of Defense, the NSA is a military agency.

The Bush administration has never argued publicly that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to military operations within the nation's borders. The memo released yesterday publicizes this argument for the first time.



Unfortunately, it's probably a crime to reveal this secret information. For all we know, the rest of the Constitution may have been repealed by secret memos since then, under the Decidererprinzip.

Anonymous said...

to the last anon:

the prez never said the constitution was a GD piece of paper. the author of t piece said that was upset at bush so he made up the incident. he later apologized. even when you think about it, it made no sense that somebody from his staff leaked it, and then he not do anything about it.


Anonymous said...

No, Bush and 98% of those in power never said it was such a piece of paper. But all of their actions are saying it. As well they may: maybe now, people will learn that document does nothing but sit there. As long as people don't realize their rights are not dependent on that piece of parchment, their rights will be trampled. Forget the Constitution. It's gone. Nobody in power cares about it. The sheep don't care about it, let alone know what it originally meant. Let's work on educating people about human nature, and how their rights are based on human nature, not documents.

-Sans Authoritas

Anonymous said...

Sans Authoritas,
You offer sound wisdom. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Sans Authoritas:

As for your suggestion that we educate others on the difference between paper-based rights and God-given rights, I've tried to do just that for the past several years, every since reading all of Lysander Spooner's works. (You are likely aware of his views and know that, as early as the 1850s he argued, persuasively, that the Constitution was of "no authority.") But does anyone care or even listen, let alone understand? Of course not!
And I do speak from a position of knowledge on the topic, because I'm a lawyer who is paid to analyze constitutional issues! (Yes, the irony gets pretty heavy at times.) Maybe it's just me (after all, the fact I follow Will's blog might indicate my less-than-common views on political issues), but I fear that at least 99% of our fellow citizens don't care, which is why the Constitution has been so easily ignored by our elitist rulers.

Anonymous said...

You get paid to try to convince people in power that they should be restrained by words on a piece of paper?

I respect the good you're trying to accomplish, but truly, with all respect, that's like getting paid to give baths to skunks. Or to re-decorate a concentration camp.

-Sans Authoritas

Anonymous said...

You get paid to try to convince people in power that they should be restrained by words on a piece of paper? -- Sans Authoritas

Those who seek the meaning of the constitution are not the ones you must worry about. Those who prefer avoiding the restraints of the Constitution generally don't bother asking for legal advice.

Incidentally, at this stage of our governance, the actual words of the Constitution have become of far less importance than court precedents intrepreting and applying those words. (Think commerce clause.) Not that I would defend that practice, as most citizens prefer the words that govern them to have more meaning, but that's the way it is. Someday enough people will realize that fact that we, as a governed peoples, will advance to the next stage of governance.

Sadly, the next stage will most likely not be protective of personal freedoms. Instead, the advocation of "gold, guns and grub" will make one a criminal, even if only in thought. So be careful out there -- don't want to be portrayed as helping Emmanuel Goldstein!

Anonymous said...

I'm not worried about those who seek to understand the Constitution. They're not going to be heeded, anyway. That was the only point of my statement. It's pointless. As pointless as giving a bath to a skunk, or re-decorating a concentration camp.

Those who want to live according to the Constitution (with whom I do not agree) are going to be ignored and overruled by those who don't care what is written on the Constitution. Though I disagree more with the latter group, both groups cause damage. Some cause less.

-Sans Authoritas

Anonymous said...

The common rabble cares little, and knows even less, about the Constitution etc. For the majority any head knowledge is merely for answering questions at school and is promptly tossed from their cranial cargo carriers.

Can you blame them?

Why should they religiously fawn over a document that those in power, and who should be invoking and reciting such flowery rhetoric, never mention nor abide by it?

To say that it's dead is to do it too much justice. It would be more appropriate to picture it as the stinking corpse of dear departed relative. Better to remember it for what it was or pretended to be than to call its stench the sweet smell of freedom.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.