Monday, September 30, 2013

Kunstler: "Then What?"

We end the month with Kunstler's latest, an overview of things written in his inimitable style. Next month, I plan to gather more information on aviation, climate change, Colorado, and sprawl in Hilo, then write a coherent overview.

Then What?

A theme in my 2005 book, The Long Emergency, was the counter-intuitive idea that the federal government, rather than becoming the omnipotent Big Brother Moloch so many feared, would instead spiral into impotence and become too incompetent and ineffectual to run everybody’s life. Another theme was that the USA was entering a political impasse comparable to the years that preceded the civil war, with many of the same old grudges playing out in disguise. What we’re seeing is an empire that had grown too quickly to even acknowledge it had become an empire, enter, just as quickly, the throes of contraction.

Hence, the great unacknowledged task before the leadership class is managing contraction. The radical Republicans, even in their Jeezus-driven transports of Dixieland retribution and John Bircher paranoia, come a little closer to recognizing the situation than the Democrats with their Leviathan problem — their nanny-state grandiosity. So, those red state radicals are gonna run that ole ‘possum up a gum stump now and see what happens.

What will happen is whole lot of uncertainty that will further undermine a faith-based economic system lurching on the fumes of legitimacy, especially where money and banking are concerned. The trouble with this kind of brinksmanship is that it is bound to produce unanticipated consequences. When the Carolina secessionists bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, they didn’t have in mind the carnage-to-come of Spotsylvania and Chancellorsville. Similarly, the genteel spectators who rode carriages out of Washington to observe the doings at Bull Run as if it were the NFL season opener. In short, neither the Union or the Confederacy had a clue that they were entering upon the world’s first extravaganza of industrial mass slaughter. So, one wonders if their descendents today realize that are toying with the financial suicide of an advanced technocratic society.

The merits of the case for or against Obamacare are almost impossible for even well-informed and educated citizens to parse. You start with a law roughly 2,000 pages long, cobbled together largely by lobbyists for the insurance and medical industries, both of them hideous rackets, and move to a labyrinth of 50 different state’s systems for administering the darn thing, and then consider the supposed beneficiaries, namely young people so burdened by college loans in an economy that only offers minimum wage scut-jobs that, from one day to the next, they probably don’t know whether to shit or go blind. They don’t even have the scratch to pay the opt-out tax, let alone purchase an insurance policy.

Beyond that kind of uncertainty is the certainty that a whole lot of things are primed to shake loose. One that deserves the anxiety it is generating is the question of US debt, which translates directly into the question of US currency, i.e., the fate of the dollar. Does the legislative branch want to play games with the only thing that supports the market for US Treasury paper — the dollar’s proxy — which is the generally-held notion that the full faith and credit of the nation stands behind promises to pay? 200 measly basis points in the ten-year note is all that stands between the pretense of economic stability and some pretty serious chaos in the government/banking matrix. The one-two punch of the continuing resolution for appropriations and the imminent debt ceiling crunch may rip the fabric of our constructed financial reality and open a black hole into which the wealth of nations disappears forever.

Some observers think a government shutdown would be salutary, the beginning of a wholesale house-cleaning of federal agencies and pain-in-the-ass public employees who get paid too much, enjoy too many benefits, and work strenuously to impede honest enterprise. There may be something to that. But the current actions in congress are more likely to produce a kind of epileptic seizure of all economic activity, public and private.

If congress is really hot to de-fund something, I suggest they start with defunding suburban sprawl, which enjoys more direct government subsidy than even the medical racket. I bet that would not go over so well in the big red Nascar states of Dixie, where driving in a car to do anything has been more-or-less mandatory for decades. This is the kind behavior that is truly killing American civilization, but it’s the last thing we will pay attention to.

Update to Post on George Zimmerman in Hiding

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Update to "All Aboard the MLK Bandwagon"

I added a link to my post "All Aboard the MLK Bandwagon."

Monday, September 23, 2013

George Zimmerman in Hiding

George Zimmerman in Hiding: Trying to Avoid Being Served Divorce Papers.

(26 September update) He was pulled over in August for excessively-tinted car windows.

Shellie Zimmerman Speaks to the Today Show.

Kunstler: "Taper (Not)"

In his weekly column, Kunstler alternates between peak oil and its effects on society and the precarious situation of the economy and financial system.--P.Z.

Taper (Not)
Remember, the doleful, lonesome figure of Ben Bernanke stands (or slumps) at the top of a pyramid of obfuscation so high, broad, and massive that all the debt serfs in a history of the future will not avail to reconstruct its hypothecated contours. When the world picks itself up from the smoldering ruins of the financial landscape currently being rigged to blow, nobody will be able to explain how the modern world collateralized itself out of existence.

What a set up. Bernanke gave the financial markets five months of the heebie-jeebies punctuated by a big fake-out and so the consensus finally perceives a giant green-light for resumed asset inflation. That’s why I like standing outside the consensus. Assets can inflate all they like on their way to the biggest train wreck of organized money ever recorded. Dow 20,000 is accelerating on a parallel track with the complete loss of confidence in paper representations of wealth. Enjoy your Facebook shares, or at least the digital ghost of them on your iPhone screen, while they’re fluorescing.

It was perfectly obvious all spring and summer that the Federal Reserve could not neck down its purchases of US Treasury debt paper and bundled mortgage swindles without causing the equivalent of the 1942 Boston Coconut Grove nightclub fire in the financial markets. But not pretending to contemplate the “taper” would have entailed an admission that the so-called economy was on artificial life support juice. That would have suited neither the politicians and their political economists, who clung to their “recovery” story, nor the 1 percenters who were the direct beneficiaries of the wealth transfer activated by the life support liquidity juice injections.

The net result is a return to the grand theme of pretend, with an increasingly dark outlook for the consequences, which will be the repudiation of what is officially called “money.” Meanwhile, congress now convenes to debate the question of extend, which can only add a frisson to the spectacle of pretend. The problem with these best laid plans of mouse-like creatures is that shit happens.

Those distant rumbles of thunder are the audible traces of the destruction at the margins, certainly out of earshot of those at the very center. The margins is the place where nations, towns, institutions, families, and individual lives are ground down into a fine entropic powder of broken dreams. From the standpoint of the blogger-journalist, the story has been about how the destruction travels from the margins to the center. The center has been able to protect itself so far with one swindle after another, at the expense of the poor schnooks at the margins. The swindles are so abstruse and impenetrable that the schnooks don’t have a clue what is hitting them. At least so far.

Faced with such a quandary, the schnooks may opt for political suicide, which is apparently the program of both major parties. Out of this sort of tragic muddle, Great Men emerge to galvanize the potential energy of the swindled multitudes. Recent models of this archetype are not so reassuring: Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Ayatollah Khomeini. What history has in store for the USA is probably something that could only be cooked up on TV. One can hope that it turns out to be comedy, not something breaking bad.

Of course the inverse of the idiotic American exceptionalism story lies beyond the fact that were not as special as we think. There is a whole vast world beyond the podium of Ben Bernanke and in that big world other mouse-like creatures are working sedulously to take advantage of our exceptional fecklessness. Distracted by everything from same-sex marriage to Monday Night Football, we don’t pay attention to the attrition. They’ve got our gold now, and despite the theory that gold has no more intrinsic value than $100 Federal Reserve notes, you can bet that before this is all over it will buy whatever food and fuel remains in the ground.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Colorado Flooding and Hilo Sprawl: A Potential Essay

This morning I left a comment at Hattie's post about the Colorado flood and the words just flowed. I may develop the comment into a short essay here. The popular image of global warming, of melting ice caps and the subsequent flooding of coastal areas, enables complacency among those who live inland, especially in mountainous regions like Colorado. But the effects of climate change are not yet fully known, and some, like more severe snowstorms, appear to discredit its very existence in the eyes of deniers and skeptics.

I noted the inland movement of Hilo, not as a precaution against rising sea levels, but as a result of two tsunamis that destroyed swaths of coastal Hilo. Post-1960 development in particular occurred after the advent of mass motoring. Wide, multilane highways and vast parking lots discourage walking.

In my comment, I mentioned this piece by Alain de Botton, on a world without planes. My plan is to research the effect of mass aviation on the environment.

And here's a not-too-recent but still informative article on aviation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Wikipedia has an excellent
article on the environmental impact of aviation.

20 September update: There's much to write about. I'll post some more on Hilo's development and its tendency toward sprawl, and maybe on the Hilo airport, and what happened when the Kona International Airport opened. This will all take a while, but it should clarify the recent history of Hilo. For one thing, why is the Waiakea Villas all run down, when in the early eighties, it was thriving? Did you know Hilo had direct flights from the mainland? This post is basically writing things down, before I organize it into something coherent.

29 September update: Statistics on airplane emissions.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Don't Know Much About History

David Barton Takes a Lickin' and Keeps on Tickin'.

The people who believe in him will keep believing in him no matter how discredited he is among academic historians. If I found his books at the library book sale, where one can load up a box for a few dollars, I might buy them (as I have Tom DeLay's autobiography). Otherwise, no.

Popular American history books tend to focus on the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, and the Civil War. These periods are not my interest, partly because they follow the same basic narrative or try to set an agenda, as Barton's books do. I have an abiding interest in German history, particularly the Wilhelmine and Nazi eras; American history of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (the recent scholarship on the `60s, `70s, and `80s is fascinating); and Asian history (Japan and India).

Kunstler: Commotion

Now that Lawrence Summers has removed himself from consideration as Federal Reserve chairman, President Obama is free to launch him into Syria as the first human rehypothecation weapon of mass destruction, where he can sow enough confusion between Assad’s Alawites and the Qaeda opposition to collateralize both factions into contingent convertible capital instruments buried in the back pages of Goldman Sachs’s balance sheet so that the world will never hear of them again — and then the Toll Brothers can be brought in to develop Syria into a casino / assisted living complex that will bring hundreds of good jobs to US contractors in the region.

No doubt the stock markets will fly like eagles today. Nobody knew what monkeyshines Mr. Summers might have pulled over at the Fed and it was making investors nervous, as well as the big banks who employed Mr. Summers occasionally as some kind of policy bagman. So a big sigh of relief blew over the Northeast Region of the nation like the gusts of autumn air that swept away a fetid hump of stale, wet tropical weather that ruined all the ladies’ party hair in the Hamptons this month.

Now that Syria has been disposed of — that is, indefinitely consigned to failed state purgatory — the world can focus its remaining attention on the almighty taper. I’m with those who think we’ll get a taper test. That is, the Fed will cut back ten or fifteen percent on its treasury bond purchases to see what happens. What happens is perfectly predictable: interest rates shoot above 3 percent on the ten-year and holders of US paper all the world round fling them away like bales of smallpox blankets and… Houston, we’ve got a problem. After a month (or less) of havoc in the bond market, and the housing market, Mr. Bernanke will issue an advisory saying (in more words than these) “just kidding.” Then it will be back to business as usual, which is to say QE Forever, which might as well be saying “game over.”

One must feel for poor Mr. Bernanke. He’s tried to run a long-distance foot-race against reality and now it’s breathing down his neck near finish line. The idea was to pump enough artificial “money” into the economy to give it the appearance of motion, but all he accomplished in the words of my recent podcast guest, Eric Zencey, was a commotion of money, and the commotion was pretty much limited to a few blocks of lower Manhattan, two ribbons of real estate running up the East Side and Central Park West, and a subsidiary disturbance out on the South Fork of Long Island. Everybody else in the country was left to stew in a tattoo-and-malt-liquor torpor at the SNAP Card application office.

The Fed can only pretend to try to get out of this self-created hell-hole. The stock market is a proxy for the economy and a handful of giant banks are proxies for the American public, and all they’ve really got going is a hideous high-frequency churn of trades in conjectural debentures that pretend to represent something hidden in the caboose of a choo-choo train of wished-for value — and hardly anyone in the nation, including those with multiple graduate degrees in abstruse crypto-sciences, can even pretend to understand it all.

When reality crosses the finish line ahead of poor, exhausted Mr. Bernanke, havoc must ensue. All the artificial props fall away and the so-called American economy is revealed for what it is: a surreal landscape of ruin with nothing left but salvage value. Very few people will get a living off of the salvage operations, and there will be fights and skirmishes everywhere by one gang or another for control of the pickings. The utility of money itself may be bygone, along with the legitimacy of anyone or anything claiming institutional authority. This is what comes of all attempts to get something for nothing.

By the way, for those of you still watching the charts, notice that gold and silver may bob up and down week-by-week, but the price of oil remains stubbornly above $105-a-barrel no matter what happens. That is the only number you need to know to predict the fate of industrial economies. [Emphasis mine.--P.Z.]

Sunday, September 15, 2013

George Zimmerman an Incident Waiting to Happen

I have a staunchly rw friend who thinks the Zimmerman verdict was the end of the story. Of course he supported the verdict. But this is not the end of the story. In fact, the story won't end well.

George Zimmerman an Incident Waiting to Happen.

18 September update: Field Negro highlights the medical examiner's allegation that Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the back, which would mean Trayvon wasn't even struggling with him.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Resisting Education Privatization in Mexico

For Hattie:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Monday, September 09, 2013

Kunstler: Gassy Politics

In which he replies to the elite's oil cornucopianism and general Panglossism.

First: Paul Sabin’s stupid op-ed in The New York Times Saturday shows how intellectually bankrupt and pusillanimous the “newspaper of record” has become, in step with the depraved and decadent empire whose record-keeper it supposedly pretends to be. Sabin is flame-keeper for the theories of the late cornucopian demi-god Julian Simon, a business school professor whose great idea stokes the wishful thinking that has overtaken a class of American leaders who ought to know better, and spread through the public they serve like a fungal infection of the brain. The core of Julian Simon’s great idea is that material resources don’t matter; human ingenuity will overcome all limits.

Maybe that’s a temporarily comforting thought for leaders in business, media, and politics, who don’t want to face the realities of peak resources and climate change, but it guarantees a harsher economic outcome since the wishful public will do nothing to prepare for the very different terms of daily living that are already shoving them into hardship and desperation.

Julian Simon, who died in 1998, is best remembered now for a bet he made in 1980 with biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. The bet was supposed to determine whether the converging difficulties of our time should be taken seriously. The two men picked a menu of commodity metals and bet whether the price would rise or fall by 1990. Ehrlich bet that scarcity would drive the price up; Simon bet that they would go down. Simon won the bet only for temporary circumstantial reasons, namely that the last great discoveries of cheap, easy-to-get oil ramped into full production by the mid-1980s and pushed a final orgy of global industrial development until 2008, when things really started falling apart. By then, Julian Simon has been dead for a decade.

Simon’s idea lives on in the wishful thinking around shale oil and gas, which have led the American public and their leaders to believe that we’re in an “energy renaissance” that will lead to “energy independence.” Just the other day, Senator John McCain made the inexcusably dumb remark that the US is now a net oil exporter. This is a man who ran for president five years ago, talking completely out of his ass.

Now oil is well over $100 a barrel, a price that the American economy, as currently configured, cannot endure. That price is crushing the kind of activity we have depended on lately: the house-building and lending rackets associated with the creation of suburban sprawl. $100 oil is especially corrosive to the problems of capital formation, because without more racket-driven “growth,” we can neither generate new credit, nor pay the interest on old credit. We’ve used accounting fraud in banking and government to cover up this failed equation. But it has only led to greater deformities in markets and a general fiasco in the management of money all around the world, and it is spinning out of control right now. If these conditions were to crash the global economy and the price of everything fell in a deflationary depression, with oil back under $60 a barrel — then it would not pay enough to frack the shale rock, or drill miles under the ocean, or do any of the very expensive operations of what’s called unconventional oil recovery.

For The New York Times to keep hauling out the sorry-ass figure of Julian Simon to “prove” a specious and dangerous point surely shows the limits of one thing: intelligence in the media. Because of that and other related failures in the transmission of ideas, this is now a nation that cannot construct a coherent narrative about what is happening to it.

Now, second: Syria. The world has pretty much lined up against President Obama’s proposal to issue a cruise missile spanking to Syria for supposedly gassing its own citizens. Nobody thinks this is a good idea, some for reasons of tactical advantage and some on the idea’s basic merit, or lack of. Mr. Obama pulled his punch over a week ago by standing down and taking the issue to congress for approval. I’m convinced he did that because he would have been impeached for launching an overt act of war — despite similar actions by his recent predecessors. The proposed spanking was a bad idea from the start. There was no visible threat to the national interest from Syria’s bad behavior within its own borders. The gas attack was a terrible act of depravity, but firing missiles into Syria wasn’t going to bring back the dead. It was only going to cause more death. There’s no advantage to the US for supporting either side in the Syrian civil war. The spread or deepening of any kind of disorder in that region will threaten a critical portion of America’s oil imports.

In the background of this, things are becoming unstuck in the seriously ill and constipated realm of international banking. The aforementioned deformities caused by central bank interventions, market manipulations, Too Big To Fail carry-trade rackets, and misreporting of financial data have begun to shred currencies in nations at the margin (India, Brazil, Indonesia) and that illness may prove contagious. The global economy depends on some basic faith that major financial institutions are sound, and that they trade in sound instruments that represent real wealth. That is all being called into question now, and how long will it be before a general paralysis freezes the entire letters-of-credit system that underlies global commerce?

The Syria soap opera has also managed to upstage the imminent mud-wrestling match between congress and the executive branch over the national debt limit and related matters of government spending. These problems appear for now to be completely intractable. If the government overcomes the latest version of this recurring dilemma, it will only be due to generating even more layers of accounting fraud to an already well-papered piƱata that is just waiting to be smashed. While this goes on, the American public gets pushed deeper and deeper into a financial abyss, haunted by re-po men, lying bank officers, verminous lawyers, and chiseling hospital administrators.

All this is a recipe for a political explosion. What happens if the US Government starts gassing its own citizens? It happened in 1967. That one only made people cry. Maybe next time, they’ll use a different kind of gas.

Friday, September 06, 2013

George Zimmerman's Wife Shellie Files for Divorce

George Zimmerman's Wife Shellie Files for Divorce.

9 September update: Zimmerman briefly taken into custody after allegedly threatening his estranged wife and her father with a gun. He got his gun back.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

2013: A Bad Year for Movies

I don't know if it's the worst year for American movies, but we've had some really lousy ones. The movies I've seen that I like the most: The Heat, Monsters University, and Turbo.

9 September update: We saw Lee Daniels' The Butler yesterday. It's not a perfect movie (I see you, Field Negro) but full of superb performances (Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Oyelewo) and inspired cameos (especially James Marsden as JFK and John Cusack as Nixon). And would you have recognized Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan? The direction is subtle for Daniels, and the music... is that a long-lost Gladys Knight song, or a new one?

"Ghetto Tracker"

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


I'm continuing to update my post "The Story of Trayvon Martin is Not Over" with news of George Zimmerman's misdeeds, most recently speeding.

Thanks to Hattie for linking to Monday's post on Kunstler.

The Beloit College Mindset List

Monday, September 02, 2013

Kunstler: "Between a Rock and a Laugh Track"

Kunstler's column is on Syria.

After the British parliament put the kibosh on following the American punishment brigade to Syria, and then NATO, and the UN wrinkled their noses at the project, well, that pretty much left President Obama to twist slowly, slowly in the wind — washed, rinsed, and hung out to dry. It looks like a watershed moment in the USA’s increasingly klutzy career as the world’s hall monitor. International power relations are suddenly in flux. A phase change has occurred causing all that was solid a few days ago to melt into liquid.

The Iranians are having a good laugh, for now. Mr. Assad of Syria responded with a beaming smirk. However, any sentient observer can see this region of the world for what it is, a political demolition derby which, left to its own blundering devices, would blow up the whole arena when the last player sputters to a standstill.

First of all, it seems to me that extremists in the Republican-dominated US House of Representatives have been quietly searching for a pretext to impeach President Obama. Committing an overt act of war without congressional approval would have been a good case, legally, despite the fact that executive branch war-making has been absolutely the rule for decades in Washington. The British parliamentary move against the avid David Cameron pretty much begged the question for American legislators. The foggy part is whether they would actually come back to Washington from the fried dough alleys of their state fairs and mount a “debate” about whether it would be a good or bad thing to whack Syria for gassing more than a thousand of its own citizens.

Lately when America mounts a high moral horse about how other nations behave, we have gone into these places and smashed things up, bringing much more death and destruction than we anticipated. The hope is always that some surgical military operation can correct a political illness, but a cruise missile is not exactly a scalpel and once the patient is blown to pieces it is rather hard to patch up the body politic again. You’re just left, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a lot of bloody fragments fought over by political rats and cockroaches.

Syria is a real crossroads both for America’s policy in the region and for its position on the world stage. The region is in a state of destructive turmoil that is likely to lead to the further fall of regimes and the breakup of states. Many of these states are figment nations anyway, with boundaries drawn in the 20th century by the winners of the two world wars. The discovery of oil from North Africa to Iran and beyond has been catastrophic for everybody in the world, but most vividly for the exploding populations of these mostly desert states, which could not have supported so many people without the artificial support of petro-money. Now, faced with the specter of peak oil production, the whole region is flying apart from the stress of population overshoot, including countries like Syria which never produced much oil itself.

But the drama over the trade in the oil remaining only becomes more intense. For instance, the position of Saudi Arabia, pretending to sit quietly on the sidelines through all this, is curious. There are rumors, unverified, that the gas incident in Syria happened because Saudi Arabia sent canisters of Sarin to the Syrian rebels, who then mishandled them and gassed their own neighborhood. The world’s recent experience with so-called “intel reports” about weapons has made everybody skeptical of claims made by politicians that a particular country poses a danger to others.

Otherwise, there is a whole other strategic realm of concerns around the petro trade and its financing that is totally off the radar screen of the mainstream media. For instance, the sometimes erratic but brilliant blogger Jim Willie describes the larger struggle of Russia, Iran, China, and other interested parties to displace the US dollar dominance in oil trade — in particular a dollar based on increasingly sketchy US Treasury bonds, which has deformed global banking, roiled currencies, and made the settling of international accounts problematical for everybody else in the world. The opposition to the US, and its client / partner Saudi Arabia, the story goes, would replace the dollar with gold-backed oil trade and a logistical work-around based on a growing pipeline system from Iran and beyond, in Asia, to desperate customers in Europe. The implications are a collapse of the dollar (and the US bond market), a wedge between European and American interests, and a dominant partnership of oil-and-gas rich Russia with China — that is, a major power shift from west-to-east.

Who knows how much of this has informed President Obama’s decision process. The stall in the American whack-attack against Syria may itself be a symptom of the swirling new conditions in world finance and power relations. In any case, a great empire — which we have been — can’t afford to make idle threats. The outcome of the Syria melodrama may be that the US has been knocked down a big step in its ability to project power without terrible consequences to itself.