December 05, 2008

Mr. Bush's Neighborhood

Yes, I agree that there is something beyond obscene about the recent news that President Nero and his wife Laura have just announced their happy news: they've bought a new home in Preston Hollow, North Dallas, for about $2.2 million.  A specimen of the kind of McMansion they'll inhabit is featured to the left, the sort of energy-wasting, self-aggrandizing, ostentatious joint you'd exactly expect the Bushes to move into after leaving the White House. And leaving the United States, for the rest of us, a smoking ruin.  They'll spend their weekdays there and then "weekend" at Prairie Chapel "Ranch," or at least George & Barney will.  I suppose the consolation story is that Laura will finally achieve her breakaway.  I shudder to think about the logistics involved in getting W, every single weekend, from Dallas to Crawford, if that's really how it's going to happen.  The spoiled little scion is going to demand a helicopter ride, of course; he can't take any chances, not given his "popularity" ratings and the mobs of angry dispossessed he will leave in his ruinous wake.  But if there's one thing we know about W at this point, it's that his new jolly life among the nouveaux riches of North Dallas will be entirely unperturbed by the collapsing American economy.  Deep into his stupid, dreamless sleep he will fall every night, confident that History will judge him a magnificent leader.  As my own personal hero Bugs Bunny used to say, "What a maroon."

At the same time we hear about the Bushes new start in life, the Department of Labor announces that 533,000 more Americans became unemployed in November.  Rest assured that this is a tentative number; the numbers for September and October were revised way, way up at the same time this dismal stat was divulged.  The Department admits at this point that 1.9 million have lost their jobs in 2008, but of course the number is higher than that.  By the end of December, we can have every confidence that Bush's Economy will have delivered over 2.5 million jobs lost.  And since the economy needs to produce about 150,000 new jobs per month to keep pace with population growth, you can see that we're about 4.3 million jobs away from where we need to be.  The "jobs" we're talking about, of course, are the crap jobs of the service economy, but even those are tanking mightily.  

“We have gone from recession into something that looks more like collapse,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief domestic economist at High Frequency Economics, referring to the accelerating job losses in recent months.  New York Times, December 5, 2008.

There's that word again: collapse.  Shades of Dmitry Orlov and his cheery prognostications about the Soviet-style implosion currently underway here in the Homeland.  Realistically speaking (and what other way is there to speak at this point), there is nothing that can really be done to keep things from getting considerably worse for quite a long time.  Even as I, the humble Pond Dweller, mused months ago, the subtraction of the re-fi and LOC (line of credit) money as "income" available to the stuff-buying citizenry (an insight provided in the first instance by the brilliant Kevin Phillips) portended just this rolling-up of the American works.  Nothing else really could happen.  If 70% of your economic activity depends on people buying stuff, and you take away half their money, the first thing that will happen is that consumer spending will come to a shuddering halt.  The second thing that will happen is that all of those crap-job employees will start getting the axe as people stop coming into the stores to buy stuff.  What we have here, in other words (W's favorite throat-clearer), is a classic vicious circle.  As people get laid off, they lose even the real income part of their "income," subtracting them from the Stuff-Buying Horde. So what starts out as, say, a 35% contraction in the economy brought about immediately by the cessation of re-fi and LOC "income," eventually becomes much worse.  Great Depression style contraction, in other words

The Maroon of Preston Hollow was advised this was coming in 2007, so he and his fellow croupiers devised a scheme of sending tax money back to the taxpayers so they could spend some more.  The sole purpose of this plan was to buy time.  Isn't that obvious now? How could it possibly work in the long run? Six hundred bucks?  Bush simply wanted to get to the gated confines of North Dallas without this very "collapse" we're now experiencing.

So that is the one, dismal consolation (along with Laura's liberation) that we get out of this fiasco: Bush didn't make it out unscathed.  It all happened on his watch.  The Democratic "Leadership," in their neverending idiocy, are demanding that Obama "take the lead" now.  Huh?  They want him to own this thing without any real power to do anything about it?  Just how fricking dumb are Barney Frank and Harry Reid and Christopher Dodd?

Nah, this is Bush's Baby.  That stimulus plan should have been directed toward the conversion of the American economy toward a sustainable future.  That was $160 billion down a rat hole, a rat hole already jammed with wasted bucks from the Iraq War and the rest of Bush's nightmare initiatives.  In a vain attempt to stave off the collapse, Bush simply inflicted more damage on a writhing body politic.  And then headed off to settle in with Mark Cuban and T. Boone Pickens in the opulent acreage of Preston Hollow.

December 04, 2008

Working on the Waldenswimmer Brand

I now see the key to success: development of my Brand.  I have heard this word over and over recently in public discourse; for example, watching "60 Minutes" on Sunday, and its segment on Olympics swimmer Michael Phelps.  Phelps has an agent devoted to promoting the Michael Phelps Brand.  As an aside, I can offer Michael, who seems like an honest-to-goodness nice guy, a leg up on the whole brand thing.  A blogsite name:  OlympicSwimmer.  What will I think of next?

Arianna Huffington appeared on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart and talked a lot about blogging.  She has a book out now called just that: Blogging.  She noted that 50,000 new blogs are launched each day.  A stat like that gives me a headache.  Arianna also suggested that a blogger write about "private passions" and matters of public interest, not necessarily the same thing, of course.  Arianna's MegaBlog, the HuffingtonPost, is a mishmash of mostly pro-Democrat hype and offbeat humor.  The quality of the writing and the writers has been in steady decline for about a year now.  The Post openly takes sides, naturally, which is the beauty of internet news reporting and commentary.  There is no need to pretend to any kind of "journalistic" neutrality.  The Republicans are bad news and the Democrats are somewhat better news: that seems to be the overriding message.  Liberal talk radio uses the same approach.  Semi-hysterics like Randi Rhodes and Mike Malloy attack Republicans mercilessly, are generally much more supportive of Democrats, but manage to convey their essential "radicalism" by trashing the institutions of government in a more generic way.  You know, by talking about the failures of "Congress" without specifying which Reps or Senators they're actually referring to.  

That's all part of their Brand strategy, I guess.  The HuffPost's Brand is progressive liberal Democrat.  Randi & Mike are leftist Democrats, unless that's a contradiction in terms.  The identification with a Brand is essential, I think, in order to command a broad audience.  If, for example, Randi or Mike or the HuffingtonPost were to take the position that the entire Congress, indeed the entire federal government, was in some sense merely a conspiracy of like-minded careerists who play at attacking each other but were all devoted to one purpose, and one purpose only, the getting and keeping of powerful jobs, then their Brand would become tarnished and they would lose their listenership, if that's a word (Blogspot apparently thinks it is - no wavy red line).  You can't just complain; you also have to have a rooting interest, a group you champion as the answer.  The world of politics and the political commentariat have, in my view (my Brand view), degenerated into something a little along the lines of professional wrestling.  Currently, the Republicans are the Masked Avenger type bad guys, who wear black tights and knee boots, have big bellies, and cover their heads with executioner's hoods.  The American public is hissing and booing at them now, and the Democrats are the fair-haired, clean-cut wrestlers in red, white & blue Speedos who never cheat and manage to crawl back from a brutal (illegal) pummeling by the Avenger to win at the last minute with a devastating, patented set of moves which thrill the crowd.

My Brand, I'm beginning to see, is a little cynical.  The problem I have is with the entire system: the ossified, two-party apparatus which has dominated American politics since the end of the Bull Moose Party in the first decade of the last century.  For over a hundred years now.  There are essentially 545 people who control the basic economic, political and legal framework for the country, and they are drawn almost entirely from these two parties.  These two Brands.  435 Representatives, 100 Senators, a President and 9 Supreme Court justices.  They establish policy for everything.  So how did the United States wind up in the shape it's currently in, slumping toward a Depression and enshrined as the great environmental outlaw of the world?  As the only modern industrialized country in the world without guaranteed health care for all its citizens?  As the only advanced Western democracy which refuses to sign the Hague Treaty for the International Criminal Court?  As the country which neglects health care, education and mass transportation so that it can spend more on defense than all other countries in the world combined?  As the high fructose corn sipping world champions of obesity?

I suspect it's because the Republicans and Democrats lack any competition.  The system has frozen up, become nonresponsive to actual problems in American society because we've got Coke and Pepsi and that's it.  The Democratic Brand works if the Republican Brand is in disfavor, regardless of whether the Democrats are actually dealing with that long list of societal ills above. They don't have to do anything, really, because the default reaction to one party's demise is the other party's ascension, and the Powers That Be know it.  Yet it's impossible to advance any new party, any innovative Brand, because the public visibility for such a party depends on the cooperation of a media which also plays the Two-Party Game, including the so-called "rebel" commentators who use the Democrats as their substitute for creative thinking.

All this is toward, you know, a further definition of my Brand.  My Brand is sort of being sick of Brands and the limitations on constructive engagement with social problems caused by the channeling of all thinking into one of two Brand-determined modes.  And this recent past is just prologue to how bad things are going to get as this Depression gains momentum, even as the Masked Avengers and the Clean-Cut Speedos madly print money and throw it in all directions in a vain effort to cover up the misallocation of resources and fatal policy mistakes made over the last 50 years.  The General Motors Brand, you see, may show us the future of the American Brand.

December 03, 2008

American Motors?

It has been pointed out to me that I was a little hard yesterday on Ralph Waldo Emerson, charter member of the Transcendental Generation, and I accept the point.  Anyway, it isn't necessary to be invidious in defense of Henry David Thoreau.  His work stands all on its own. It's just that I think Thoreau, as a seminal thinker, stands in the company of such social philosophers as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.  I think of Emerson in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne and George Santayana, great writers and thinkers whose specific contribution to understanding the human story is a little harder to pin down. On the other hand, and long before the effects of the Industrial Revolution were fully realized, Thoreau saw the severe limitations of proletariat life.  I think this is why his work still resonates in modern times: he took Emerson's essay on "Self Reliance" to heart and wrote things which seemed outlandishly iconoclastic, in some respects, but which history has nevertheless vindicated.  We remember the prophets who were not honored in their own times precisely because of their courage.

And in that spirit: when this Big Three Bailout story first began unfolding, it occurred to me that lending money to the automakers made no sense whatsoever, especially in the amounts demanded. On the other hand, it is also counterproductive to allow all of those factories, skilled labor, parts manufacturers and distribution networks to disappear.  America needs manufacturing a lot more than it needs another investment bank full of fast-talking swindlers trading credit default swaps.  It's just that the fast-talking swindlers on Wall Street happen to be represented, in the person of Henry Paulson, by a fast-talking swindler emeritus "supervised" by a careless and feckless President who can't stand the sight of billionaires suffering for their greed and stupidity.

Plus, Americans need jobs and transportation.  So the thought that occurred to me was to nationalize the car companies, lock, stock & barrel.  I see where Michael Moore has arrived at the same conclusion.  It's actually a no-brainer, and since there are practically no brains on Capitol Hill, it's almost a perfect fit.  The financial math is pretty simple.  The Big 3 now want $34 billion to stay in business.  That will be money down a rat hole; no old school bank lending officer would give them the money.  The total market capitalization for General Motors (value of its outstanding shares), according to Yahoo Financial, is about $3 billion.  Its value as an enterprise (presumably, sale as a going concern) is about $33 billion.  So for the same amount of money contemplated as a bridge-loan-to-nowhere, the United States could simply buy General Motors outright.  If Congress actually perceives value in GM as a going concern, it makes more sense to acquire it than to finance it.

I think this approach might be an early test of the reality behind the "change we can believe in" slogan of the Obama Administration.  The safe play, of course, is to do what Congress and the Executive always do and simply give away money to popular causes.  When the Big 3 nevertheless go bankrupt, as they will inevitably go under current management, Congress (with "looking good" as its operating credo), can then blame the "shortsightedness" and failure to adapt of the auto execs.  Congress doesn't really care about results, after all; the key consideration is whether their failures are not so bad as to prevent reelection.  The Democrats have done a good job lately of painting the Republicans as the lousier of the two lousy parties, and that is their stunning "achievement."  The Democrats remain, however, a very lousy political party, and overall they are just as responsible for the godawful economic and environmental mess the United States has gotten itself into.

One can cite, of course, previous experiments in the Soviet bloc with state ownership of auto companies, such as the laughable Lada and East German Trabant, cars so crummy they inspired a kind of kitschy affection.  The Trabant was apparently made out of pressed sawdust, or something, and had an engine like a lawn mower.  Extreme examples.  But the plant and skilled labor of the Big 3 are far superior to these dubious precedents, and furthermore, the United States doesn't really need a new generation of internal combustion autos.  We need to switch to a more varied mix of electric automobiles for short haul driving (the preponderance of American motoring), and rolling stock and engines for passenger rail.  The Israelis, right now, are aggressively pursuing a national strategy of electric cars in cooperation with an international consortium, and they intend to use an infrastructure of renewable electricity for recharging. These things can be done, although there are risks involved, and inevitable false starts, posing problems for a member of the House of Representatives who reflexively thinks only in terms of two-year time periods. Congress prefers to pursue paths which guarantee failure but appear to be prudent and doctrinaire, such as our sacred commitment to free enterprise.  Then, while running for reelection, a Rep or Senator can always blame those darn auto execs for their "failure of vision."

It will be interesting to see whether Barack, when he has the chance, follows the road less traveled.  It will be an early test of his own belief in himself, in his own Self Reliance.

December 02, 2008

Meanwhile, just outside Concord, Mass.

As a preliminary note, I would say that what I have always prized in the writing of Henry David Thoreau was his prescient description of the perils of specialization.  I think many people believe that Thoreau was something of a reclusive crank who chose to live in the woods his entire life in a kind of Arcadian fantasy, a belief given some impetus by the essay "Thoreau," a marvel of condescension and incomprehension written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, that windy and ultimately useless "philosopher" of the kind Thoreau himself derided.  Thoreau's reductive experiment was to determine the "essential facts" of existence," and he managed to isolate the basic human prerequisite in one simple phrase: maintaining vital heat.  That is the sum and substance of all necessary human activity.  Clothes and shelter protect the outer man from the elements, and eating food fuels the inner furnace.  That's it.  Thoreau concluded that a "philosopher" who could not describe a better and more efficient way of maintaining vital heat was of no practical use, and one can search in vain through Emerson's hortatory screeds about "self-reliance" and the rest to find anything approaching such essential guidance.

So Thoreau spent 26 months at Walden Pond on acreage owned by the Emerson clan and answered his own question, then wrote the book which made him immortal.  The longest chapter was called "Economy," and it detailed, to the penny, how much he spent and how much he earned during his sojourn.  He reckoned that about six weeks of work a year was necessary to ensure basic survival.  Naturally, as societies evolved his quaint ideas were seen as completely impractical and even silly.  Our modern, high-tech existences are regarded, in the main, as infinitely preferable to his sylvan subsistence.  Nevertheless, Thoreau argued that the essential requirement of the Industrial Revolution, wage earning through narrow specialization, was ultimately an unsatisfactory way to live. His ideas, of course, had no chance, and we live now in the "organic society" in which specialization has reached its apotheosis.  The economic system itself has become organized at higher and higher levels of scale, through monopolies and the crowding out of individually-owned endeavours.  Here is James Howard Kunstler in his blog yesterday ("Clusterf*ck Nation"):

My own starting point for this is the belief that in the years just ahead any sociopolitical entity organized at the giant scale will flounder -- this includes everything from the federal government to global corporations to factory farms to centralized high schools to national retail chains. So even expecting Mr. Obama's government to act effectively may be asking too much in a situation that will require mostly local action.

Or Mike Whitney, writing about misery in general:

The problem is the way that the system has been reworked to serve the interests of the investor class at the expense of working people. As Wall Street has tightened its grip on the political parties, more of the nation's wealth has gone to a smaller percentage of the population while the chasm between rich and poor has grown wider and wider. The United States now has the worst income and wealth disparity since 1929 and a whopping 75 percent of the labor force has seen a drop in their living standard since 1973. The average American has no savings and a pile of bills he is less and less able to pay. Apart from the ethical questions this raises, there is the purely practical matter of how a consumer-driven economy (GDP is 70% consumer spending in US) can maintain long-term growth when wages do not keep pace with productivity. It's simply impossible. The only way the economy can grow is if wages are augmented with personal debt; and that is exactly what has happened. The fake prosperity of the Bush and Clinton years can all be attributed to the unprecedented and destabilizing expansion of personal debt. Wages have been stagnate throughout."

Rather interesting to read these laments in light of the warnings posted long ago by the Genius of Concord. Kunstler is perhaps more Thoreauvian than he realizes; he's aware that we're trying to solve the problem of maintaining vital heat with a "solution more complicated than the problem itself." 

Indeed, we've arrived now, in America, where the scale of basic activities (factory farming based on government-sponsored corn surpluses, Wal-Mart as our largest employer, 70% of GDP based on buying stuff made elsewhere, and most of that from giant retail chains) is beyond individual control, for the most part, and where most Americans are helpless to fend for themselves once the "organic society" collapses.The "solutions," at this point, are simply beyond the average person's ability to affect the outcome at all.  This comes about, of course, because the great majority (that "mass of men living lives of quiet desperation") have been cut off, both cognitively and functionally, from the fundamental sustaining processes of life: namely, how to get and maintain your own vital heat from Planet Earth by dint of your own interaction with the soil, air and water.

The organic society is collapsing, of course, and along with it the essential livability of the planet, which has been wracked by pollution, ocean acidification and global warming.  Maintaining the opulent (and highly concentrated) wealth of the society, as it is presently configured and savagely defended by those in power, depended on such callous disregard for the environment.  All of those ammonium nitrates washing down the Mississippi River and creating that vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico resulted from the "green revolution," the ability to grow monocultures of corn and soybeans in the Midwest using fossil fuel based inputs which replaced the natural fertilization of soil from crop rotation and farm animals.  All that corn provided feed for former grass-eating ruminants like cows, which instead have been force-fed a cereal to which their rumens are not adapted, leading to sickness which must be controlled by massive inputs of antibiotics, which have led to the proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria strains.  The superabundance of corn led to the proliferation of high fructose corn syrup as the sweetener and taste enhancer of choice, leading to an epidemic of obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease.  The elimination of natural modes of transportation, like walking and biking, or fuel-efficient means of transportation like passenger rail, was necessary for (and the result of the manipulation by) the big automakers, who then proceeded to design the most inefficient, overweight and CO2 belching vehicles possible, adding to the gaseous load of the troposphere.

So we have become the tools of our tools, as Thoreau warned.  Maybe it's just a phase in human development, however.  Maybe high-tech breakthroughs like solar power at the individual level, sustainable farming (though hardly anything new, just rediscovered), and efficient mass transportation will make their necessary comebacks, along with other vital heat-maintaining technology which can be scaled at the human level.  The question is how we can break through to such solutions when the vested interests, including the federal government, seem trapped in the illusion that restoring the "consumer economy" and the specialization regime of crap jobs in the service industries is the best way out of the accelerating decline.

Maybe Barack can put away the Lincoln biographies for a little while, stop worrying so much about what's going to happen in Baghdad in 2011, and take another look at what that guy living in rural Massachusetts about 170 years ago was writing about.  He hasn't been wrong yet.