January 24, 2008

Let's Face It, It Will Be Fun

"The American people already know that Bill Clinton is a bad boy, a naughty boy. I'm going to speak out for the citizens of my state, who in the majority think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy." Senator Larry Craig, speaking to Tim Russert about William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States, circa 1999.

Okay, Senator Craig, you're batting .500 while playing Truth In Politics. You whiffed with the "I never have been gay" stuff a few months back (that misplaced adverb is a tell), which statement, in its studied and manifestly fraudulent vehemence, matched Bill's "I never had sex with that woman, that Ms. Lewinsky..." a decade or so ago. Remember Bill's face, as he pointed at the camera in self-righteous indignation? What man, who dares call himself a man, hasn't played that game? Richard Pryor summed it up with his deathless, "Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes?"

Of course, we realize now that Senator Craig's conjoined adjectives were simply intended to titillate himself. He was picturing President Clinton one stall over in a Union Station men's room. The esteemed senator from the Land of Potatoes (memo to Dan Quayle: the "e" goes only with the plural) was in the throes of a reverie: granted he's bad, most assuredly he's naughty, but could he even be nasty? How his heart must have thumped!

So now Bill is that close to being back in the general vicinity of the White House. He's overplaying his hand these days, of course, but that's simply a measure of how bad he wants it. I think Bill doesn't quite exist to himself if he's not in the limelight. If the Baby Boom's vast legions represent the Culture of Narcissism, then Bill Clinton is our patron saint, the personality around whom the cult coalesced. We can't hate him without hating ourselves, and to love him is to affirm ourselves, to authenticate our image-obsessed, amoral, ethically irresponsible dedication to our self-aggrandizement. He's so American. L'etat, c'est lui.

I think he's coming back to the center ring, where he belongs. And you know what that means: bimbos on parade. Seriously, gentle readers, whaddya think Bill's been up to between about January 20, 2001 and the present moment? The differences between the Bill Clinton of his presidential days and the Bill of Billary are these: now he's very rich, very independent, free-spirited, less scrutinized, and far less careful about what he says and does. In short, he's even more attractive, and not just to the Republican Senatorial caucus, although that's a gimme. He's been traveling all over the world since he left office. While Hillary is often in Washington D.C. , Bill has been based in New York, Southern California, anywhere he wants. Thus, the question: what kinda numbers do you think we're talking here?

Now it's true he had the multiple bypass surgery not so long ago, and he probably takes cardio medication which could slow him down some; but since 2001, medical science has also made great progress on what you could call compensatory pharmacology. Net result: no great loss of potential. So you take a lady's-catnip guy, give him a hip new wardrobe and millions and millions of dollars from speaking fees, fly him around in private jets to exotic spots all over the world in the company of female volunteers who share his passion for eradicating hunger, AIDS, poverty, the heartbreak of psoriasis, maybe even erectile dysfunction -- who share all his passions, in fact. Get out your calculators, folks.

We are, of course, going to hear all about it. What fun that will be compared to these dreary tales of waterboarding and wiretapping and subprime and all the rest of the dreary litany of tired subjects the present dibbick in the White House burdens us with in his sour, dyspeptic, buzzkill way. We're going to have a good time again! Dirty talk, the kind that made Ken Starr glad he was raised in a fundamentalist church just so he could savor the delicious feel of moral outrage (and excruciatingly tantalizing images that troubled his sweaty dreams) that another guy, much sexier than he could ever be, was playing around with the luscious...oh never mind. Moralists, fasten those seat belts. The front car has just reached the top of the roller coaster...

January 22, 2008

Economics, Definitively Explained

I know there's a lot of confusion out there right now about the American economy. Has it reached its bottom, as measured by the stock market indices? (No.) Will the U.S. economy collapse? (No.) Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? (Not in January.)

I base my analysis not on the smug explanations of a bunch of guys wearing pastel ties on the business cable channels, as so many people do, but on the work of the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, circa 1927. To wit, Sir Arthur gave us the elucidating phrase "time's arrow" to describe that curious temporal asymmetry in macroscopic phenomena that can only be explained by means of statistical probability. Time's arrow, in any complex system, tends always towards greater entropy, which we call the future, subject to the fluctuation theorem, which holds "after the discovery of statistical mechanics physicists realized that the second law [of thermodynamics] is only a statistical one, so that there should always be some nonzero probability that the entropy of an isolated system will spontaneously decrease; the fluctuation theorem precisely quantifies this probability."

Look, I'm not going to take a lot of time to explain why these ideas, as applied to the American economy, clear everything up. You're either with me to this point or you're not; however, the resistance to entropic anomalies implied by massive and complicated phenomena (like a big economy) certainly teaches us that the egg is not going to reassemble itself on the floor and leap up onto the counter from which it recently rolled. Agreed? Of course. By the same token, Chicken Little guys like Jim Kunstler, with his collapse ideas and sudden reversion of America to the Stone Age, proceed at their own peril and in defiance of clear and settled laws of physics. I mean, geez...the idea I actually have to spell this out. Sometimes for fun I read their stuff, but it's just for the colorful language. If the reassembling of the American economy has a statistical probability approaching (but not reaching) zero, by a parity of reasoning a sudden acceleration in entropy in defiance of the system's inertia and tendency toward modulated and highly interdependent processes is also (although not as) unlikely, providing the limiting criteria are held constant over the period in question (availability of resources, productivity, steady-state workforce, etc.). Again, I realize I'm being obvious, but these points are important.

I believe in rigor and in the laws of thermodynamics, wherever they may lead me. So let me tell you where the bottom of the Dow Jones Averages will be (other prognosticators shy away from such predictions; not me, I relish the opportunity to be precise). The Dow will move to 9,100, or a drop of about another 20% from its high of approx. 14,000. I know you know how I got there, but for the sake of those new to the class, look: the American economy = 70% consumer spending. The source of the money for spending was, during the period about 2001-2006 the sum of x (employment earnings) + y (MEW, or mortgage equity withdrawals); thus, x + y = .7(G), where G = gross domestic product. (Why do I have to crunch these equations all by myself while the guys making $500,000 per year on CNBC get by with all this blather about "market exuberance" and its opposite number?) During this period x ='ed y, approximately; thus, simplifying, 2x = .7(G). .3(G) came from somewhere else (Bill Gates's money market account interest, probably). 2x/2= x, (reflecting the fizzling out of MEW, or y), thus leaving only .35(G) as the contribution of consumer spending to GDP, or a reduction of 35%.

14,000 x .35% = 4,900. Subtracting this number from 14,000 = 9,100.

There will be another kegger in the quad Friday at noon. Please liquidate your Schwab accounts and plan to be there.

January 21, 2008

365 Days to Go

Various pieces here and there on the Internet have noted, with a great exhalation of relief, that George W. Bush has one year left to finish up his impersonation of a president. Some of them were a trifle premature in precisely noting "365 days to go," perhaps forgetting that American presidential elections happen during leap years, and that February 29 occurs between January 20, 2008 and its counterpart in 2009. Today, however, we can actually make that statement.

In our fevered times, the learned analysts and commentators are impatient with the actual transpiration of history and yearn to write it before it happens. Thus, we see in these "prehistories" an anticipatory description of what life will be like in America after Bush returns to Crawford or Dallas or Asuncion, or wherever he winds up. Most depict a country trying to haul itself up out of a morass of problems and quagmires caused by Bush's reign of incompetence and cupidity. These efforts are all versions of chewing gum with the mind, in my opinion. We just don't know at this point, any more than we know what will happen over these last 365 days.

With all that in mind, however, we can reliably predict that Bush's vaunted "sprint to the finish" (a signal characteristic of Bush's thinking is that his self-image is wildly incongruent with his lived reality) won't produce any great breakthroughs. Bush starts things and doesn't finish them. That's true across the board. Can we recall his "Road Map" which was going to lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff? Anthony Zinni as the envoy, way back when, Colin Powell leading the way to peace in our time? If that seems like ancient history it's because it is. Bush didn't want the United States to participate in the Kyoto Protocol; he was going to propose a different regime "based on science." He never came up with anything. He let the United States languish in the obstructionism of inertia.

His counterpart in the White House, Dick Cheney, is very different. He made his bones as a career apparatchik by always finishing his tasks. With the assistance of his Man Friday, David Addington, Cheney installed his torture regime in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and at all the black sites in the CIA's gulag of illegal prisons. Cheney was determined to work the "dark side," as he put it, and he delivered. The Executive Branch's obsessive secrecy and utter contempt for Congressional oversight are other hallmarks of Cheney's influence. These two features of the Bush/Cheney years, the sullied reputation of the United States as a moral force and a broken balance of powers, will linger far into the future after Bush leaves office.

On the economic front, we could say that Bush has no head for business and Cheney is indifferent to the national prosperity, although the VP is intensely interested in his own net worth. I don't think either one of them realized how much the global economy was changing while they were in office because their focus was always on wars of aggression and investing in the military-industrial complex. America's dependence on foreign sources of oil is as great (and ruinous) as ever, and the balance of trade issue remains a looming disaster. By staking his reputation on a single failed project, the Iraq war, Bush diverted vast national resources to something which cannot possibly yield a decent return on investment. Had the one trillion dollars been invested in domestic uses (alternative energy and rebuilding infrastructure), the United States would have made progress during his tenure. It is the cardinal sign of a lousy businessman that he can't figure out how to allocate his money to bring about optimal results. In this sense, Bush has simply replicated his brief failed career in the oil business.

You might say that when January 20, 2009 rolls around, the new president will face a situation where all the problems which existed in January, 2001, have been exacerbated, and many very serious dilemmas have been added to the mix -- America's economic competitiveness, the insolvency of the entitlement programs, the unmanageable national debt, the unaffordability of energy supplies such as oil. Eight years will have passed with nothing but depreciation and deferred maintenance to show for it. A truly patriotic gesture on Bush and Cheney's part would be to resign now and to allow successors to get started on the salvage operation. Consistent with their attitudes to date, however, we can be sure they won't.