Monday, March 31, 2008

The Airlines Are Dying, Says Kunstler

March 31, 2008

The airlines are dying.It was not a good week to be at the mercy of America's floundering air travel program. The price of aviation fuel is killing them. They can't fire any more employees or shed anymore pension obligations. There is no elasticity left in the system. Coming back from Denver yesterday, the chaos at the concourse gates was impressive. Nobody knew when or if a given flight would board, and they certainly didn't post any realistic information on the high-def screens at every gate. When asked for updates, the harried gate agents could offer none. So much for computer wizardry. It is interesting to see how passively the public accepts this. For now, they slump like war refugees in the blow-molded plastic seats, numb with fatigue, anxiety, and disappointment. But I wonder if there will be riots in the concourses sometime later this year.
Aloha Airlines (est. 1946) will cease its passenger services after today.

Update: But the Zeppelins are coming!

3 April update: ATA Airlines comes in for a permanent landing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

World Made by Hand

I've been reading James Kunstler's novel World Made by Hand. I plan to review it here soon, perhaps in tandem with another new purchase of mine, Brink Lindsey's The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture (New York: Collins, 2007).

For now, I can say it's a very good read, but not quite what I had pictured. I'd intentionally avoided reading any reviews of the book before buying it so that any surprises wouldn't be spoiled.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Have Cars Outlived Their Usefulness?

Today's Counterpunch has a commentary by Adam Federman on the automobile

From Autopia to Autogeddon: Cars Reach the End of the Road
Like the horse and buggy one hundred years ago, the automobile is no longer viewed so favorably as a means of getting around. It is regarded as nearly as foul and smelly as the horses that at the turn of the century deposited some 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets of New York. In addition to their own waste, horses died and had to be disposed of, posing a significant public health risk. Approximately 15,000 dead horses were removed from the streets of New York each year.

Thus when the car was developed and Henry Ford figured out how to mass- produce them so that more and more Americans could have one, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing. (That is not to say it was embraced immediately or without skepticism. There was, in fact, much resistance to the automobile initially and according to Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, “Equestrians, pedestrians, and carriage riders alike complained that the foul-smelling, noisy cars frightened horses, disrupted the decorum of the carriage parade, and ruined their own retreat to nature.”) We would all be masters of our own universe. No more manure, no more urine, and no more dead horses. But like many improvements, technological or otherwise the automobile has outlived its golden age and is now viewed as a menace, a destructive force responsible for our polluted skies, our crowded streets, and our dystopian suburban landscape, ever widening into mega-regions that connect cities and suburbs in a kind of galactic sprawl.

Just as it was once hailed as a symbol of freedom, mobility, and the future the car is now a symbol of excess (the SUV), entrapment (as embodied by the hours long commute or traffic jam), and the past. Today we criticize India and China for their own auto craze as if they’re living through a historical period that has already passed. And in the enlightened West we’re buying green cars and trying to reconcile our lifestyles with a desire to drive guilt free.

We live in a world dominated by the automobile. The Texas Transportation Institute’s 2007 Urban Mobility Report, which notes that the nationwide cost of traffic congestion is $78 billion, opens ominously with the observation that congestion is “getting worse in regions of all sizes.” And not only in the first world. Although the number of cars per capita in India and China remains far smaller than that of America, it is growing. According to Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, “Assuming that incomes continue to rise, in a few years tens of millions of families [in India and China] will be buying their first cars, and eventually hundreds of millions.” It is projected that by 2020 nearly half of the world’s 1.3 billion cars will clog the streets of poorer countries.
Adam Federman can be reached at:

I'll have more on this later.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Kunstler Takes on Krugman

March 10, 2008
Going Going....

The feigned cluelessness in Paul Krugman's Sunday New York Times column ("The Face-Slap Theory") about the meltdown in finance is a good index of the cringing mendacity now emanating from those in service to the centers of power. I doubt an editor, or the publisher, Mr. Sulzberger, had to whisper in his ear to soft-pedal the situation. I don't even believe anything like his job depends on it. Krugman's glossing-over the truth is just social cowardice. He doesn't want to be called out dissing fellow members of his club.

Krugman avers to the Federal Reserve's two previous big efforts since August to bail out the insolvent banks, insurers, and hedge funds with cheap loans as "slaps in the faces" of these wobbling corporations -- "yo, wake the fuck up!" -- as if narcolepsy was their only problem. (Try that with a wino on the sidewalk outside the Port Authority bus terminal and see if he immediately signs up for rehab and a high school equivalency program.) Krugman calls the club's latest plan -- for the Fed to just suck up their impaired and worthless collateral in exchange for more cheap loans -- as a "third slap," saying, with all the panache of a midwestern Rotary Club secretary, that "the third time could be the charm." Had the monkeys already flown out of his butt as he wrote that, I wonder.

The line in Krugman's column I love best, though is this one: "Last month another market you’ve never heard of, the $300 billion market for auction-rate securities (don’t ask), suffered the equivalent of a bank run." His presumes that his readers go along with his pretense of innocence. We've never heard of the municipal bond market and it's too complicated to explain so "don't ask." Is he writing for the "newspaper of record" or Highlights For Children? Maybe it would be a good thing if readers of The New York Times asked what the fuck was going on in these markets so they could yank their depreciating dollars out and deploy them elsewhere or convert them into something of value.

Well it was a bad week on the money scene in what is sure to be a worsening year. Paul Krugman and his fellow club members can pretend that the hallucinated finance economy is not really flying to pieces. After all, he / they are trying to avert panic. But, as noted previously in this space, the only thing we have to fear is not fear itself. We have to fear the consequences of actions by a banking leadership that has shown the grossest irresponsibility (and an American public that has been conditioned to expect a steady diet of getting something for nothing). The US faces a pretty stark choice right now: it can let the losers take their losses -- both the big institutions who created and traded in fraudulent securities, and all the "little guys" who borrowed too much money trying to get rich quick, or trying to live like the millionaires they see on TV. We can let them go down, and suffer the consequences of their bad choices (and maybe prosecute some of the culpable bankers and corporate executives), OR, in an effort to let these losers off the hook we can wreck the whole machinery of capital by making our medium-of-exchange worthless.

The people in charge -- both in and out of government -- can't face the losses, so for now they've apparently decided to wreck the currency. The dollar has lost two percent of its value against the Euro just in recent weeks, as cheap loans from the Fed pour into the black hole on Wall Street (never to be seen again). Other soft-pedalers in the media claim that the financial markets have "already priced in" yet another expected .75-point interest rate drop by the Fed this week, but I'm confident that such a move will only accelerate the dollar's vanishing act.

I'll admit, it's hard to believe what's going on in the American finance sector. But incredulity in the face of a rare catastrophe isn't the same as pretending that it's not happening. A whole flock of black swans is flying in front of the sun. Don't expect to work on your tan this month.