December 23, 2009

It's that time of year

We're nearing one year of President Obama's tenure, and I was thinking it might be nice to lighten up a little. One way of thinking about what we've been through, after all, is to recognize this is what most of us thought would happen. We knew last year that 2009 would be a lousy year for anybody to be President. Remember? I think the President was so caught up in the campaign to become President that it perhaps did not register just how tough this job would be at this particular time.

"America was in a throe, a kind of eschatological heave..." Norman Mailer wrote those words in his wonderful Armies of the Night book, way back in the Vietnam protest days. Something like that is going on now. Most of the bad news is economic, of course. We're going through a painful and long-delayed transition from the import/service/information economy to something else, probably based on Green energy and smaller scale enterprises. Obviously it will take years to get there, but the journey has to be made. Presidents who govern at such times, during difficult transitions, usually have a miserable time and are thrown out of office as thanks for their efforts. I'm thinking of Jimmy Carter in 1976-1980. He's generally denounced as a lousy president in our revisionist histories, and a lot of this concerns high inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. But another major problem he faced was the transition from American peak oil (around 1970) to the beginnings of OPEC power over the American economy, which we allowed to happen by not dealing with the energy crisis then. Carter was definitely on to this, but Americans did not want to hear about "shortages" or "conservation" or efficiency or anything else sensible. It was better just to get rid of the guy who talked this way, and give us a President who would tell people what they wanted to hear: it's Morning.

So we went from oil self-sufficiency to the present state of helpless dependency where we import about 2/3rds of what we use: 14 million barrels out of a daily habit of about 20, or 25% of world usage. All that oil costs a fortune, and it has been the main driver of the imbalance of trade. And it makes us responsible for a hugely disproportionate (per capita) contribution to climate change. My guess is that Barack Obama, a bright guy, figured out what happens to Cassandras who acquaint Americans with inconvenient truths. The problem is: how do we ever confront the necessity of change without having it forced upon us in the present, chaotic, dislocating way by Reality? This seems to be the chief problem with over-reliance on "free market" ideology: it's a blind pig staggering around a crystal show room.

Meanwhile, the blogs (like mine) are in full roar, having gotten addicted to negative dissidence during the Bush years. At this point, you can read so many different versions of the same apocalyptic prognoses, on so many different blogs, in so many different ways, that it's getting a little silly. I do think there is quite a bit of stabilizing inertia built into the world's interlocking economies, after all. It's not all negative stochastics. For example, the Chinese have warned us that they don't have as much money to buy Treasuries anymore. The Selbstschadenfreueders immediately leap upon this as definite proof that America's complete bankruptcy is only days away. They drive this point into the ground. I read it one place, then see that blog's point quoted on another blog, then another blog starts talking about the "consensus" that we're bankrupt, and pretty soon 5 million angels are doing the mazurka on the head of a pin. I think what the Chinese were trying to convey is that they've got a large stake in dollar-denominated assets, and the U.S. needs to cool it in terms of demanding more investment.

And so Obama has begun talking about fiscal restraint as a main focus next year. You know: duh. Then the liberal Keynesians (Krugman, Dean Baker) call this restraint "idiocy" and bad economics because only by running up the deficit can we hope to revive the economy that wasn't really working in the first place. I think this is the difference between pundits and people who actually have to make decisions in the real world, based on real world restraints. Krugman is reciting something he read in a text, Obama is looking at an overdrawn check book and a banker making ominous noises about calling loans. Obama's right, Krugman's wrong.

If Obama can get past this economic crisis, maybe he will have the elbow room to demonstrate some innovation. It's not really possible now - it's all damage control, all the time. I'm not that optimistic about him, however, and that's a conclusion I'd rather not reach. Some very exciting, interesting things could be done, but I don't think he's going to do them. But maybe the American people will lead the way, for once, and the leaders will rush to get in front of a parade already in progress.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

December 21, 2009

Cruising for a bruising

Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to live in an Arab-speaking country when a Democratic President in the United States is having public relations difficulties. The attack by cruise missile becomes the go-to diversion; Bill Clinton, of course, had his "I did not have sex with that woman, that Ms. Lewinsky," followed by a few cruise missiles lobbed into Iraq (it was during the between-wars period of the Iraq Wars, when we would bomb Saddam just to keep our hand in). Now Barack Obama, who's having all kinds of trouble here at home, is taking Rahm Emanuel's Clinton-era advice and giving us, "I did not campaign for President in order to help out a bunch of fat cat bankers."

No one really believed Bill. And guess what, Barack? The only people who seemed to take Obama seriously were Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon (of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, respectively), who didn't show the next day at the White House to receive Obama's apology for having to pretend to be angry at them. ("It's just politics, fellas.") They literally phoned it in. That's a little cheeky; those outfits owe their very existence to government largess, and here they are blowing off an invitation from the White House because of inclement weather. Could they have flown down the day before (Sunday)?

The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate expanded the hot war against al-Qaeda into that small nation down there just south of Saudi Arabia. About 23 million people, presided over by Al Abdullah Saleh, who's been president of at least some part of Yemen since 1978. International observers who monitored the most recent (2006) elections said they were at least "partly free," so the characterization of Saleh as another Arab dictator, such as the guys next door in Saudi Arabia, is maybe a little harsh. Still, that 31-year tenure makes you wonder.

A cruise missile is really something, I imagine. It flies in on its own power at supersonic speeds hugging the terrain below radar detection - more or less like a bat out of hell. Then - there it is. Packed with high explosives, it's all over you before you can do anything. So did we kill any al-Qaeda operatives? It's the usual story. Anti-U.S. sources say the attack killed about 50 civilians, including many women and children, and no al-Qaeda. The U.S. and Saleh say the attack was successful. Saleh was on board with the hit, of course. We had his permission to launch cruise missiles at his country.

One must say that there is an internal consistency to expanding the attack to any country with al-Qaeda personnel hanging around. It does answer, in a way, the question often posed about the selectivity of only bombing and attacking Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, as if the operatives would cooperate by gathering there to be bombed.

There has been surprisingly little coverage about these cruise missile attacks. On one level, that kind of negates their P.R. value - how can the public be diverted from the President's political problems if the media don't write up the latest angle on the war on terror? More ominously, the silence suggests we no longer consider it a big deal when we bomb a brand new country. There used to be a lot of talk about "preemptive war" and the United Nations Charter requirement of imminent danger as a justification for a war of self defense before we gave the Go signal.

But no more. We more or less launch on impulse at any target of opportunity, I guess. It must relate to that Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) back in the fall of 2001, which has been given quite a workout. It's another exception to the War Powers Clause in Article I of the Constitution, which used to confine the right to declare war to Congress. The power has become so attenuated that we can bomb a brand new country and no one even mentions it. Yet if you were on the ground looking up, somewhere in that dusty terrain of Yemen, and saw a cruise missile about to land in your back yard, I imagine it would look a lot like war indeed.

December 20, 2009

The Aughts in the Rearview Mirror

Frank Rich strolls down Memory Lane today and takes us through the dubious ten-year period which never quite acquired a nickname or handle, although the "Aughts" probably came closest. Rich describes 2001-2010 as a kind of Age of Frauds, beginning with Enron and finishing up with Tiger Woods, stopping along the way to note the misrepresentations used to sell the Iraq War, steroids in sports and Bernie Madoff. One must be loath, of course, to write off any particular ten-year period of life. If we're granted by the Good Book three score and ten, then ten years are more than 14% of the Whole Enchilada. Anyway, good or bad, it's all interesting, isn't it? Your individual ten years had lots of particular events, joys, surprises, passions, disappointments, tragedies and moments of grace which are completely unrelated to these more general societal trends. In my own life, I think about those individualized experiences much more than I spend bemoaning the fakeries of public life.

I've been reading a book by Kevin Starr concerning the history of California in the immediate post-war period, 1950-1963, which happens to coincide with my own childhood in that very state. In 1950 California had a population of about ten million people. These days, we can't really be sure how many people live here, but the best estimates put the number somewhere around 35 million, or more than 10% of the national population. The place looks like it too, believe me. I watched a lot of it happen. It always seemed strange to me that a state on the far western shore, the greatest distance from the region where the country originated, should always have been in the vanguard of societal changes, but that's the way things have worked. As Exhibits A & B, I offer McDonald's and Disneyland. The McDonald brothers opened their first store in San Bernadino in the early 1950's. My father's brother lived in San Gabriel during that period (working in the aeronautics industry as one of the "Aviation Okies," as Ernie Pyle called them), and I can remember a visit down to see his family in the pre-catalytic converter days when the acrid air stung your eyes mercilessly there in that smog canyon near Pasadena. He told me and my brothers that there was a restaurant near his house where you could buy a hamburger for 15 cents, and we had to see it. I can recall being impressed. And then we had to make another trip in 1955 or so, the year Disneyland opened. The biggest thrill for me was when my dad took me on Autopia and I drove an electric car through the loops. Here we are 54 years later trying to find our way back to electric cars.

California took the Levittown principle of prefabricated neighborhoods and applied it to the vast tracts of land available in Northern and Southern California. The area east of Los Angeles known as the Inland Empire (larger than Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware combined) grew up virtually overnight during the go-go days of the post-war boom. My own neighborhood was built on filled-in land over what was once San Francisco Bay. The Bay itself is only two-thirds of its original size as a result of encroachment from every point on the compass. Growing up on land reclaimed from water, in an artificial atmosphere of streets laid out on a preconceived grid, with minimalist amenities such as a "park," a shopping center standing in for a "downtown," a centrally located school, and no real open space whatsoever where nature might be said to thrive, I was inured from earliest memories to the idea of artifice and abstraction. I thought that's what America was, in essence. A fantastically elaborated artifact of suburban planning.

Trips to L.A. as a kid never disturbed this conception; indeed, it gave me a glimpse where we were headed. But occasional journeys (usually by train on the old Santa Fe) to the Deep South, where the family lines originated, let me see a more "organic" approach to living. Towns that grew naturally, where there were no sidewalks and blocks of houses were interspersed with small farms. What I didn't know then, but found out later, was that California was on the way East, and the franchising, chain-store, homogenizing pervasiveness of the Golden State would become the societal norm. Sorry about that. And beyond the backwash eastward in the U.S., you can now see the same influences in Europe and elsewhere around the globe. It seems to be one of those phases that civilization needs to live through in order to recognize as a mistake. Without knowing it in 1954, I guess, I was one of Christopher Columbus's advance scouts for the New World.

Those houses built in the 1950's weren't really built to last, but they did last, and now they're going through their demographic changes. The lily-white neighborhood I grew up in is now 64% Hispanic. California is effectively bankrupt, arguably more than the federal government since the state can't actually engage in deficit financing. So once again, California marks the path toward the future.

So relax, Mr. Rich. It's not as if all these artificial phenomena are really something new. It's a destiny, actually, this American embrace of the fraudulent and meretricious. Besides, even in California, real life goes on. Wasn't it Oscar Levant who said about Hollywood that if you dig down beneath the tinsel, you come to the real tinsel?