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Sounding an alarm on economic dysfunction by practicing sustainable living

January 15, 2014 at 6:36 PM EDT
Economics correspondent Paul Solman profiles Chris Martenson, a former science professional who gave up his large home and high-status job for life in rural Massachusetts. From there he began expressing his deep dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. economy works and garnered a growing following on his website, Peak Prosperity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the week that Congress appears to be ready to pass a new budget.

While there’s relief among many to see some kind of agreement, the size of the country’s debt and deficit remains a major concern.

And that brings us to our closing story tonight, a profile of a popular economic forecaster whose concerns about those issues and the direction of the economy has inspired him to change his life.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman has a report, part of his ongoing series Making Sense of financial news.

CHRIS MARTENSON, Welcome to the Peak Prosperity podcast.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meet Chris Martenson, author, speaker and consultant to organizations ranging from the U.N., to corporations, investment funds and foundations.

With his video “Crash Course” on the economy pulling more than three million views on YouTube, he’s become a popular symbol of deep economic discontent.

CHRIS MARTENSON: If you want to know where the global economy is headed…

PAUL SOLMAN: In 2003, Martenson, a Ph.D. neuroscientist with an MBA, was a high-level big pharma executive with all the perks, big salary, big boat, big house in Connecticut. But, increasingly, he worried about the cost of big government, paid for by America’s annual deficits, hiking our cumulative national debt.

CHRIS MARTENSON: We are growing our debts at somewhere between 8 and 9 percent per year, and the underlying economy is about half that. If the whole nation does that, how does the nation not get in trouble?

PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, this is the Republican refrain of the moment, insisting it’s why the debt ceiling shouldn’t be automatically raised.

But a decade ago, Martenson was already taking action, selling everything, easing out of his job, moving his family to rural Massachusetts, where and he his wife, Becca, would homeschool their children, all based on Chris’s own dire economic forecast.

CHRIS MARTENSON: I’m absolutely mathematically certain about this, that if we do not willingly, on our own terms as a nation, get our debt levels under control, eventually, those chickens will come home to roost.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the decade that Chris and Becca have been tending their flock, though, debt-bedeviled America has paid an effective interest rate of less than zero, if you subtract inflation and the usual cost of borrowing money.

So, after all these years, those worried about the risk of a debt collapse are sounding like, well, Chicken Little.

Didn’t you think that was already going to have happened?

CHRIS MARTENSON: I think it has happened. I think it’s happened in Detroit. I think it’s happened in Stockton. When you look at the number of houses on food stamps, when you look at the mean duration of unemployment hovering between 30 and 40 weeks, which is hiding all the people at 99 weeks who got popped off the rolls, did I think it might happen a little faster? Yes, absolutely.

You take me from 10 years ago, drop me in this chair, and tell me what the Federal Reserve has done in the last two years, my hair would catch on fire and I would run out the door, right?

PAUL SOLMAN: Martenson means the Fed’s creation of more than $2 trillion.

But it hasn’t just been the growth of government debt and dollars that spooked Chris Martenson. What differentiates him from the chorus of complaint we have been hearing lately is his rejection of economic growth itself.

CHRIS MARTENSON: We have an economy that’s based on growth. We want jobs to grow. We would like to see more auto sales next year. We want more houses sold. And it’s always on a percentage basis.

So even if our economy is growing at just 3 percent a year, we are going to be doubling it every 24 hour years, right? So, how many more times can the world be twice as big?

PAUL SOLMAN: And when growth stops?

Anticipating the financial turmoil that might follow, Martenson paid off all his debts, bought gold, and built a business Web site, book, speaking engagements, sounding an alarm that rejects most of how America has been going about its business.

CHRIS MARTENSON: What is wealth? When I say wealth, sometimes, people think money, but money is not wealth. It is a way to store wealth. Primary sources of wealth, that would be rich soils, a thick stand of trees, rich fishing waters. That is primary wealth.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, yes, the preacher puts his secular sermons into practice, with a vegetable garden and orchard for food — Chris has lost some 30 pounds in the process — solar panels for comfort.

CHRIS MARTENSON: These are the kinds of investments that make a lot of sense to me, because they’re tangible, I understand them. It’s different than sending my money off to Wall Street and crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

BECCA MARTENSON, wife:The hardest thing about the transition was explaining to people in my family and my community what we were doing, because they really thought we were crazy.

PAUL SOLMAN: At first, his wife thought Chris was crazy, too, but Becca Martenson began to study.

What did you read that most impressed you or had the biggest impact on you?

BECCA MARTENSON: The book called “The Creature from Jekyll Island,” which describes our money system and how money is created. That was just such an eye-opener for me.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you hadn’t realized that money was just created out of thin air?

BECCA MARTENSON: No. That is not something that is commonly known, really, in our culture. It’s certainly not taught. It’s not talked about. And it’s true.

PAUL SOLMAN: It is true, but, to many a conventional economist, kind of trivial. But, of course, to skeptics, the Fed is the so-called creature from Jekyll Island.

And, yes, money creation without anything to restrain it can run riot, Germany in the 1920s, Zimbabwe more recently. And so, even though U.S. inflation has remained but a blip for decades, it’s easy to picture the worst.

ACTOR: They are going to print a ton of money.

PAUL SOLMAN: Which may explain why this viral video mocking the Fed’s policy has become perhaps the most popular economic explainer ever.

ACTRESS: Why do they call it the quantitative easing? Why don’t they just call it the printing money?

ACTOR: Because the printing money is the last refuge of failed economic empires and banana republics, and the Fed doesn’t want to admit this is their only idea.

PAUL SOLMAN: The mass appeal of such skepticism may help explain right-wing budget intransigence today.

But Chris and Becca Martenson are not simply austerity scolds or Fed-aphobes. When it comes to what we should do, they sound like the small-is-beautiful crowd that flourished on the left in the 1970s.

CHRIS MARTENSON: Whoa, that was heavy.

PAUL SOLMAN: So the evangelist of hard money and small government also proselytizes for renewable energy.

CHRIS MARTENSON: And, if we deployed it, we would be burning less fossil fuels by a lot. We would be putting less carbon into the atmosphere. All of it could be domestically manufactured.

PAUL SOLMAN: When you talk to conservative audiences, and you start talking about national investment in alternative energy, don’t they at the very least look at you funny, if not start hissing?

CHRIS MARTENSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

But this is not a left-right issue. I don’t take left-right positions. If it saves money, it creates jobs, it enhances national security, it’s good for the environment, who could be against that?

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, people who think that government shouldn’t be so involved in making decisions for us.

CHRIS MARTENSON: But if — if the choice was, listen, we were going to print up $2.4 trillion, and we were either going give it to the banks or we were going to do something else with it, I think this would be something else.

We will muddle through, but one thing we’re not going to muddle through with is an exponential economy that needs more, more, more all the time.

PAUL SOLMAN: Suppose you are wrong about the debt. What evidence would you then offer to suggest that we’re not on the right track?

CHRIS MARTENSON: If I had to give just a one-word summary, it’s unsustainable.

In my own life, I have cut my standard of living in half. I have doubled my quality of life. I’m not saying everybody should do that or I’m admirable because of it. But I have learned that we can do things far more he efficiently and effectively and have better outcomes. And why wouldn’t we do that?

PAUL SOLMAN: In the end, Chris Martenson may be just another economic doomsayer with an enthusiastic online following.

But his popularity and his voicing of the disaffections of Americans right and left alike suggest he may instead be a wishful throwback to the American tradition of simple self-reliance in the face of an ever more complex, impersonal global economy, an economy that could turn out to be unsustainable.