Monday, May 30, 2011
Perhaps I am atypical, but I’ve always been hypersensitive to what’s going on around me in the real world. Among my earliest childhood memories are the gas lines that followed the 1973 Arab oil embargo; the event which probably planted the seed that sprouted into awareness of peak oil during my fifth decade on this planet. Despite being just a kid at the time, I was keenly aware that my family’s cars needed that gasoline that was being rationed, and we furthermore needed those cars to do just about everything that was important--from my dad getting to work in the morning, to me getting to school, to my mom going grocery shopping every weekend.
My heightened awareness is likely also the reason why I still have vivid memories of a headline that appeared in our local small town newspaper one day several years after those gas lines had abated. The headline read in stark simplicity: “60 to 90 Years' Supply of Oil Left,” and it really grabbed this thirteen-year-old’s attention. Being a thoughtful youth, I did a quick mental calculation and realized that if the headline was accurate it meant if I was lucky there was a chance I would not live to see the end of the oil age.
Flash forward to middle age, and while researching this article I unearthed a reference to what it was that generated that headline from so many years ago. According to a Time magazine story published in October 1978, the source of that “60 to 90 year” figure was an official report produced for the Central Intelligence Agency by Richard Nehring, a policy analyst for the Rand Corporation. The Time article, entitled “Oil: What’s Left Out There?” centered on two basic questions: “How much oil does the world have left?” and “When will it run out?”
These were hotly debated topics at the time. The article points out that President Jimmy Carter, in his drive to get an energy program through Congress, had been relying on a previous CIA analysis estimating that world oil supplies would be depleted by the end of the 1980s. Nehring’s report, therefore, represented a considerable change from the agency’s previous thinking on the issue and also had important political ramifications.
What strikes me looking back in hindsight is just how accurate Nehring’s prediction has turned out to be. It is now nearly 33 years later, and the general consensus among Peak Oil analysts today is that the world has something on the order of 35-40 years of remaining oil supplies at current consumption rates (putting aside the fact that production rates will no doubt fall well before then). Add those two figures together and the headline that grabbed my attention when I was a kid will hit almost the exact middle of its 60-90 year target range.
Even more telling is what the Nehring paper had to say about how his prediction would be affected by increasing oil demand: “If demand does increase and supplies are being used up more quickly, Rand experts believe that energy requirements could still be met through conservation measures and the use of special techniques to squeeze more oil out of existing reserves.” Done and done. Conservation through greater efficiency in the early 1980s caused oil consumption to actually fall for awhile and special techniques are now used to extract more oil from older fields.
Nehring’s credibility is further enhanced by a caution added to his relatively optimistic analysis: “the world's reserves can really be significantly increased only by additional recovery from known fields and by further discoveries of ‘supergiant’ fields containing at least five billion barrels of oil.” As we now know, the former has become standard practice while the latter has not occurred at all. In fact, the Rand report noted at the time that new discoveries of supergiant fields had already almost completely tapered off.
The Time article goes on to list the reasons why the oil crisis seemed somewhat less dire a half-decade after the appearance of those first gas lines. Among the factors cited was the development of already discovered supergiant oil fields in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico, which we now know were largely responsible for oil prices returning to their pre-oil shock, inflation-adjusted norms during the 1980s and 1990s.
So what do we learn from this little detour through the recent past? First and foremost, the evidence is right there in black-and-white that America’s political leadership has for the past third of a century had available at its disposal a highly accurate prediction from its own intelligence analysts as to how long conventional oil supplies were likely going to last. The fact that the more dire previous predictions regarding oil production relied upon by Carter were just then being overtaken by positive developments in the oil industry did not lessen the obvious need for long term planning to prepare the nation for the inevitable day when the oil would run out for good.
History records what happened next. Despite being the last president to take oil depletion seriously as a political issue, Carter hedged his bets and issued the Carter Doctrine, making it American policy to guarantee uninterrupted oil shipments from the Middle East, by force if necessary. Among his opponents during his 1980 reelection bid was Republican Congressman John Anderson--running as an independent—whose platform called for even more drastic conservation measures like a 50 cent a gallon gasoline tax (equivalent to about $1.50 a gallon today). Both men were of course defeated by Ronald Reagan, the first candidate to run on the notion of unfettered American exceptionalism, including the ludicrous idea that even geologic reality could be overcome by enough positive thinking.
For over three decades Americans have been living in a dream world created by politicians of both parties and reinforced by our mainstream media. Despite some indications that cracks are beginning to appear in the façade, most people have yet to awaken to peak oil reality. The guy driving the Hummer with the “Drill, Baby, Drill” bumper sticker plastered on the back is just as firmly in denial as he ever was. If you don’t believe me, read the comments section below any mainstream press Internet article about high gasoline prices and you’ll see more than you’ll likely ever care to see of the infantile mindset that still predominates among large numbers of our fellow citizens when it comes to energy issues.
As yet another quadrennial political spectacle begins to unfold before us, we must lament the fact that no serious candidate vying to take the presidential oath of office on January 20, 2013, has publicly acknowledged the stark realities of peak oil and resource depletion. Those of us in the peak oil movement are now also aware, of course, that oil production is going to drop off steeply long before we reach Nehring's projected date range for supplies to run out. What was once an inconvenient truth stubbornly denied by Reagan in the name of short-term political advantage is now emerging as the most serious crisis this nation has faced since its founding. That this is so should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, we were given a very clear warning about what’s coming all the way back in 1978.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Fear and Loathing in the Illinois Army National Guard (or How I Managed to Pay My Way through College)
image: “I’d rather be hanged as a traitor than go to war for Wall Street” – Eugene Debs, 1917
When I was 21-years-old, I did a potentially very dumb thing that turned out to be the smartest move I have ever made in my life. I raised my right hand at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Chicago, Illinois, and took the oath that served as my formal induction into the Illinois Army National Guard. At the time I was young and stupid and had no idea what a huge gamble I was taking, but fortunately for me it paid off.
It was the mid-1980s, and my circumstances were typical for a small town kid who had lived a fairly parochial existence and had no freaking clue what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Being behind the times is the essence of small town life, and I spent many nights bumming around in my old Plymouth Duster with the kicking 8-track player—unkempt long hair hanging down near my shoulders and skinny torso clad in a black concert tee-shirt. Like most of my friends, I was a Led Zeppelin kid stuck in the decade of Duran Duran.
To make matters worse, I was also an underachiever who had coasted his way through high school and then bummed around the local community college for a couple of years—not because I had any burning desire to keep going to school but simply to forestall the onrush of an adulthood that I knew deep down I wasn’t ready to handle. Eventually, I finished my Associate’s Degree and reached a crossroads where my dad threatened to kick me out of his house if I didn’t move on to university.
Problem was I didn’t have the money and dad couldn’t afford to pay my tuition. I knew student loans existed, but I’d never been in debt before and even back then I had a deep phobia about owing other people money. The military was an option, but only if you were willing to give up four years of your life. Then one day I received a brochure from the Illinois Army National Guard promising a full tuition at any state school plus a GI Bill monthly stipend if I enlisted for six years. I was immediately sold since the part-time commitment required of a Guardsman meant I wouldn’t have to wait until I was in my mid-20s to complete my studies.
So that fall, instead of returning to school I headed off to infantry basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and got what every aimless young person needs—a bucket of icy cold water called reality dumped right over my head. For I may have been NG (or “No Go” as we were derisively called), but at Benning we were mixed right in with the regular army pukes. It is an understatement to say I didn’t belong in a place where having attended a couple of years of college was not only not an advantage but actually carried a significant stigma. The drill sergeants and even many of my fellow recruits took great delight in humiliating me whenever they could. I also didn’t realize before I got there how fundamentally disadvantaged I would be, having never before fired any type of firearm and having been pathologically allergic to push-ups back during high school gym class. Every day was a struggle, and more than once I thought I was going to wash out.
That’s not to say that all of the guys I met during basic were assholes. Some of them were really good people, especially the ones who were not there because some judge had given them the choice: Army or prison. But even among the ones I liked I sometimes felt out of place.
There was this one guy about my age. He was from Alabama and had a thick southern accent I sometimes had difficulty understanding. I had never met anyone from Alabama before, but he was cool and we palled around a little bit. One day, and I have no recollection how we got on the subject, I for some reason started talking about the theory of evolution. My buddy got this peculiar look on his face and said, “Wait just a minute. You’re trying to tell me that man descended from the APES?” He wasn’t angry or anything. Fact was, not only did he not believe in evolution, he had never even HEARD of it before. For days afterward he kidded me, “man descended from the apes. That’s a good one, dude!” After that, I learned to keep any such intellectualism out of my casual conversation.
Somehow, despite feeling as out of place as Boy George at a Klan rally, I learned to do all the stuff you need to do to be a soldier. I qualified expert with my M-16a1 rifle without shooting myself or my instructors, didn’t blow myself up on the grenade range and actually enjoyed the feeling of power that comes from firing a .50 caliber machine gun. The drill sergeants took glee in dropping me for push-ups more times than I cared to count, but that actually helped me pass the final PT test. Ultimately, I made it through the training…by the skin of my teeth maybe, but I did make it. And probably the best revenge on those who had tormented me was that after graduation they had to go schlepping off to some shitty Army base, while I got to go home and merely had to report to the neighborhood Armory a couple of weeks later.
The best part was that I now had my full Guard scholarship in hand, and two years later I would graduate from university completely debt free. And weirdly, though I had passionately hated my early military days, after I returned to my home unit my National Guard career actually flourished. By the time I was discharged six years later I was a senior NCO and the First Sergeant had been bugging me for years to go to Officer’s Candidate School. Most importantly, it is no exaggeration to say that I would not have been nearly as successful as I’ve been in life had the military not kicked me in the ass and given me direction just when I desperately needed it.
So you can imagine my dismay during the summer of 2003 when the body bags containing National Guardsmen started returning to the U.S. from that awful war in Iraq. Some of the newly dead were guys in their 40s and 50s, no doubt family men very similar to the kind of guys I served with after I returned to my home unit. The majority of the Guardsmen I served with were blue collar types who were not in the Guard to pay for college like I was but to earn a little extra money to provide for their families. They busted their hump all week working at the local factory or prison and then sacrificed one of their weekends each month swatting mosquitoes in the woods while going through the motions of being soldiers.
It used to really piss me off whenever someone would say as an excuse for the Guardsmen being sent to war that anyone who took the military oath KNEW that they could one day end up in a war zone. I can tell you from personal experience that NOBODY in my unit ever expected to end up on the front lines overseas unless it was a dire national emergency. It was always understood that our first mission as Guardsmen was civil defense, and that if a major war DID break out we would be assigned to domestic military bases to replace the regular army units that were being shipped out to do the fighting. We were supposed to be reserves, and training one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer was hardly adequate to prepare a bunch of middle aged part time soldiers for the rigors of combat.
It seems like a little thing compared to all of the other horrors that arose out of that awful war, but what happened to the National Guardsmen and reservists over there was nothing short of a betrayal by our nation’s so-called “leaders.” And of course, there is the supreme irony that the Guardsmen were sent to Iraq by an arrogant martinet of a president who as a young man had used his daddy’s influence to get into the National Guard in order to escape going to war himself.
When I look back upon all of this, I remain grateful that I made the choice to join the National Guard. But I also realize just what a dumb chance I was taking with my future. Had I been born just a few years later it could have been me slogging through the desert trying to dodge IEDs, and it just as easily could have been my body shipped home in a coffin with an American flag draped over it. And that too would have been fine had the cause been just and proper, but it was in fact neither.
It pains me whenever I see one of those military recruiting commercials emphasizing that the recruits will be able to pay for college as a result of their service. In these desperate economic times, the golden ticket to the middle class has become more elusive than ever before. Those commercials and the military recruiters are selling the promise of a bright future to an increasingly desperate base of working class youth, not for the protection of home and hearth, but to perpetuate a worldwide empire and secure resources for the primary benefit of Wall Street. Sadly, in this era of Peak Oil and resource depletion, even if those young men and women manage to survive their service unscathed they will return to a homeland in which the door to their dreams of middle class respectability will likely have been closed to them for good.
Friday, May 27, 2011
I am going to start off today’s Rant by making an assumption. I know, I know, that’s a dangerous thing to do--making an ass out of both you and me and all that. But I think this assumption is a safe one. I’m going to presume that if you are reading this blog you aren’t a Wall Street trader, or a hedge fund manager, or the CEO of an international conglomerate, or the CFO of one of the big banks, or anyone else who makes an obscene amount of money by gutting the real economy and destroying the livelihoods of American blue collar and middle class workers. Pretty good assumption? I thought so.
Because if you are not someone in one of those categories, or someone who runs in the same social circles as the people in those categories, yet you still insist at some point within the next 18 months on wasting your hard earned money donating to one of the Presidential campaigns you are, to put it charitably, an idiot.
Oh I’m sorry, did I hurt your feelings? Well, go ahead and walk it off, Sunshine, and then come back here and sit down. What I am about to tell you is for your own damn good.
Let me spell out for you the most important fact you need to know about the upcoming election: Obama is expected to raise over $1 billion for his campaign. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. That’s right…(cue Dr. Evil)…One…Beeelion…Dollars.
So exactly where exactly do you think Mr. Hopey-Changey is going to raise all that cash? If you say from the same small donors who formed the backbone of his fundraising efforts last time around I swear I am going to get my big wooden paddle with the little holes carved in its face and spank your behind. Seriously, you really ought to know better. It’s probably indiscrete to mention this at any well-heeled tony suburban party in between servings of fine brie and glasses of cabernet sauvignon, but Obama’s biggest campaign contributor in 2008 was Goldman Sachs, which was described thusly by Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi: “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Still not convinced? Okay, how about the fact that Obama was the American politician who received the most campaign cash from British Petroleum right up until the summer of 2010, when he and his administration allowed that foreign company to spray millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico to “hide” all the crude oil that was inconveniently spewing forth from the ragged hole the firm managed to rip into the sea floor? But hey, Obama is so much smarter and far more articulate than that dipshit Bush. That’s counts for SOMETHING, right?
That’s not to say that the Mighty O won’t try to coat his reelection campaign in a shiny populist sheen by taking those laughably small one hundred and two hundred dollar checks from plenty of plebes who have yet to wake up from drinking the hope-spiked Kool-Aid back in 2008. There are millions of the fools out there—good mainstream liberals who are still basking in the glow of righteousness from having voted for the very first minority president—as if a man’s skin color is capable of rendering morally just any hideously evil act he might perpetrate while in office. They will persist in loving him no matter how many times the Great Democratic Savior grabs them by the skull and rubs their noses in the steamy manure pile of his undying support for big business, war and empire. Should they ever start to waver, he can always trot out the sight of his adoring family--looking like some central casting-approved remake of the old Cosby Show—to once again soften their hearts and get them back with the program.
Obama has one political trick up his sleeve, a sleight-of-hand that works every time no matter how often he fleeces the suckers, and that is his ability to point to the other side—at the shady collection of hucksters, frauds and moral cretins lining up to challenge him—and say, better me than any of them. That’s all it takes to cause any good liberal who is thinking about straying from the fold to get a vision in his head of a Christo-fascist America in which Muslims, gays, feminists, atheists and MSNBC viewers are promptly rounded up the day after the next inauguration and sent to reeducation camps where Fox News is on the teevee screens in every room 24/7 and they are forced at every meal time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase “under God.”
But wait a minute, you say. I want to see Obama receive the sound electoral thrashing he so richly deserves and I want to do my best to help ensure that happens. Well, aren’t you just the cutest thing. Let me know how that works out. Cause who exactly are you planning to give your money to? Palin? Romney? Gingrich? Pawlenty? If anything, that group of whores is even more willing to get gangbanged by the big money capitalists than our intrepid commander-in-chief. If you think any of them are going to give you change from the change we can believe in, you are even more delusional than Kristie Alley is about her figure.
No, no, no, I hear you pleading. Not any of those twits. I’m proudly giving my campaign contribution to Ron Paul. He’s the man who can bring REAL change.
Sigh. Nothing personal--I’ve said before on this very blog that I like the good doctor. He hates America’s war and empire foreign policy every bit as much as I do. But it is precisely BECAUSE he hates it that Ron Paul is NEVER going to be the nominee of the Republican Party let alone President of the United States. The Republicans tolerate Ron Paul the way a family tolerates a slightly deranged senior citizen uncle, mostly because he helps keep many libertarian types within the party fold. But if it ever looked like Ron Paul could actually do anything more than sit at a picnic table during the family reunion holding a deep conversation with the potato salad, the corporate forces who underwrite the party’s national campaigns would conspire with the party leadership to squash him like a stink bug that had gotten into their living room.
Look, I get it. You hate what America has become in recent years and you want to help turn things around. I used to be like you once. I even donated to a couple of presidential campaigns back before I realized that it’s all just a game and the result is the same no matter who wins. That is the very essence of modern two-party “democracy.”
You just have to learn to let it go. Do something nice for yourself with that cash. Buy yourself a little something. Hey, I have an idea. How about a couple of cases of pork and beans so you’ll at least have something to eat after the economy crashes? Really, Obama, Pawlenty and the rest of them will manage just fine without your dough. Trust me.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Editor's note - My original intention was to expand "The Downward Spiral" short story into a short (80,000 words or so) novel. That effort has stalled, but is not completely dead yet. In any event, here is an excerpt from the novel version in which I tried to place myself in the shoes of an unaware American who gets blindsided by Peak Oil reality when he loses his job during the great economic crash of 2008-2009. I originally posted this on the old LATOC forum and it was received very favorably.
Your boss just gets crankier and crankier. He really starts dumping the assignments on you, forcing you to work late more often than not. One day you try to object, but he tells you if you don’t like it you can hit the streets. You get the message and don’t say anything more. That afternoon you call Amy to let her know you’re going to be late yet again and she abruptly disconnects the call.
Whenever you get a chance, you begin desperately scanning Monster.com and other job websites, even finally going on Craigslist. But just as you suspected, there are almost no openings for people with your skill set. The news media reports that over half a million Americans are now losing their jobs every month. You find it difficult to even comprehend such a figure since it is the same number of people as live in a midsized city. You resign yourself to the fact that however poorly your boss treats you, you have no option but to try and hang on.
Rumors of layoffs have been swirling around your office for weeks. In early February they become facts as 25 employees from the Pittsburgh branch get the axe. The next day it is as deathly quiet in the cubicle farms as it was the day after the buildings collapsed in New York. Kim has taken to saying a prayer in her cubicle every morning begging God to not let her get laid off. You would do the same thing if you thought it would do any good, but you just haven’t kept up with your church attendance as you’ve gotten older and don’t want to feel like a hypocrite.
Early on a Monday morning in March, two grim faced guys show up at the office wearing nearly identical black suits with white shirts and red ties. They immediately head for the district manager’s office and close the door. Their presence causes a small discussion circle to gather just outside your cubicle.
Those are the corporate headhunters, Brad says.
Do you think Meyers is being recruited to go to another company, someone else asks.
No, dipshit, Brad replies testily. Not that kind of corporate headhunters--the ones that managers bring in to fire people because they are too chickenshit to do it themselves.
After an hour the two black suits emerge from the regional manager’s office and go into the conference room and close the door. A few minutes later, Jermaine, who works in the next cubicle row, gets a call at his desk. Jermaine was the last person to join your office, having been hired just over a year ago. You kind of like him, but have never had a chance to get to know him that well. What you do know is that he once played football at a small college and has two young daughters at home whose pictures decorate his cubicle walls.
He hangs up the phone and rises slowly on legs that have become visibly unsteady. Eyes follow him silently as he walks towards the conference room. Once he’s inside the door closes behind him. Some of the employees make excuses to walk past the door, straining to hear what is going on within. At one point there is a muffled commotion, but no one can hear what’s being said.
After half an hour Jermaine emerges, looking as pale as it is possible for someone of his ethnicity to look. In his left hand he is carrying some kind of fancy brochure labeled, Changing Careers.
What happened, one of the secretaries asks as he returns to his cubicle.
I got laid off, he says slowly.
Oh shit, comes another voice.
What are you going to do?
I don’t know yet. He looks down and considers the slick folder in his hand, then tosses it angrily against the cubicle wall. But that shit certainly isn’t going to help.
By lunchtime, Jermaine has packed up his belongings and is gone. You never see him again.
Three more employees get calls at their desks that afternoon, two of them from other office suites within the building. The routine is always the same. The employee goes into the conference room, stays for awhile and emerges with a fancy brochure and no job. You spend the day in your cubicle popping Tums like M&Ms, but nothing will quell the gnawing ache in your stomach.
That night at home you don’t tell Amy what is going on, not wanting to upset her since there’s always the chance they won’t call for you. At dinner Amy rambles on about the horrible day she had at school. The children were perfect little brats. Clearly their regular teacher had never enforced any discipline in the classroom. She would like to have sent several of them to the principal’s office, but it doesn’t look good when substitute teachers do that. You nod your head in agreement, but are barely listening. All you can think about is the haunted expression on Jermaine’s face when he left that conference room.
The next day the firings resume. You and the other older employees at least take small comfort that everyone summoned thus far has been a newbie. You are beginning to think you’ll survive all of this when Kim gets a call at her desk.
What, she exclaims. No! There must be some mistake. She listens for another moment and then hangs up the phone. She rises from her chair looking like she's just seen a ghost. Then she makes her way to the conference room.
A few minutes after she enters the room, the door opens again and from your cubicle you hear her screaming and crying.
You can’t DO this to me. I have over 20 years in with the company. I’ve always been a good employee. You bastards! I don’t even KNOW you.
Two uniformed security guards hurry through the office suite and enter the conference room.
What are you DOING! GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!
Ma’am we have orders to escort you out of the building.
The guards emerge from the conference room, each one holding one of Kim’s arms.
You don’t understand. I have four kids at home and I’m divorced. How am I going to feed them?
We have orders to escort you out of the building, ma’am.
Help me! SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME!
Kim tries to break from their grasp, but they hold on tightly. Her legs move, but her feet barely touch the floor as they drag her out of the suite.
Oh my GOD, she yells as they wait for the elevator. What am I going to DO!
The elevator doors slam shut behind them and cut off her words, which is almost a relief. One of the black suits closes the conference room door. His face is a mask. You’ve worked with Kim ever since you started with the company, but you never see her again after that day.
The headhunters leave the office early that afternoon, which at least provides a temporary relief to the employees. In the break room, the discussion is all about Kim.
Why do you suppose they fired her?
Are you kidding? She’s been coasting for years. All of that Jesus crap had gone to her head.
They haven’t been happy about how much time off she takes to deal with her kids.
Hey, whaddya expect? If the company wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one. (Nervous giggles all around)
That night you mention to Amy that Kim got laid off.
Really, that sucks, she replies before resuming another rant about the rotten children for whom she is substitute teaching.
That was supposed to be your segue to tell her what is happening at the office, but she doesn’t allow you the opening. So you say nothing. But Kim’s firing has you really scared since she had more seniority than you do. That night you toss and turn in bed for hours, unable to sleep.
The next two days pass and you don’t get the call. A dozen of your coworkers get summoned instead. You feel bad for them, but each time you are secretly relieved to have been spared. In a more reflective moment you wonder if this is how soldiers in battle feel when their buddies get hit.
Friday comes at long last and as you’re driving to work you feel a little bit of hope. It is the first day of spring and a bright, sunny one at that. The buds on the trees are bulging and green shoots are beginning to appear in flowerbeds in your neighborhood. Best of all it is your understanding that the headhunters are leaving your office after today. You’ve almost made it.
When you get to the office, the red message light is flashing on your phone. You dial into your voice mail as your computer is booting up. The voice on the machine is officious and abrupt. The caller addresses you as mister and uses your surname. He asks you to stop by the conference room promptly at nine o’clock.
All of the sudden you get tunnel vision and your computer screen seems to move very far away. Your heart begins racing and the ache in your stomach returns with a vengeance. After a moment’s paralysis, you glance down at your watch and cruelly realize that you have to wait a full half-an hour before the guillotine blade falls.
Coworkers trickle in to the office. A couple of them say hello as they pass by. It takes all of your energy to return their greeting, hoping they don’t notice that your voice is cracking. Your computer has finished booting up, but you don’t bother going to your e-mail box as you normally would. All of the sudden the messages contained within have become irrelevant.
At the appointed time, you rise from your chair and make the long walk towards the conference room. As you approach the door, you feel the eyes of your coworkers on the back of your neck. You can almost hear the whispers and silent prayers.
Looks like he’s next. Thank God it wasn’t me. Hopefully, he’ll leave some good office supplies in his cubicle--we’re always out of everything these days.
You knock at the door and the same voice that left you the message sternly instructs you to enter. You open the door and see the two guys in the matching black suits with the white shirts and red ties sitting down on one side of the conference room table. They don’t stand as you enter the room. You wonder momentarily if they’ve worn the same outfits all week, but the thought is snapped when one of them gestures for you to sit down across from them.
When you are seated, the one on the left begins what must be his usual spiel to start the session. He explains that the company’s financial situation is very dire and some cutbacks have to be made, as if you don’t already know the reason you are sitting there. He says you shouldn’t look upon this as a failure on your part. In fact, many people in your situation end up finding a better position elsewhere and end up realizing that changing jobs was the best thing that ever happened to them.
The one on the right picks up one of the Changing Careers folders and hands it to you. You place it on the table in front of you without opening it. He explains the terms of your severance package: $1500 for every year you have served with the company, which in your case--he actually has to use a calculator to add it up--is $24,000.
You’ll have to pay taxes on that, of course, he adds, smiling for the first time. The smile disappears as he goes on. You’ll receive full pay out at salary for the balance of your unused vacation days, but no reimbursement for unused personal days. The company will continue to pay your health insurance premiums for six months or until the day you begin other employment. You’ll be eligible for unemployment insurance to be paid by the state for up to 26 weeks. All company property in your possession shall be returned as soon as possible--and oh by the way, you get to keep the full balance of your 401K account.
You interrupt for the first time since they began speaking. Well, of course I’d keep my 401K account. It’s my money.
He smiles again. You’d be surprised at how many people we talk to think the company has the right to take back their 401Ks. He rolls his eyes at the other guy and they both chuckle. As an expression of humor it has the same effect as seeing a Great White swimming full speed towards a shark cage with you in it.
Do you have any questions, he asks.
And there it is. Sixteen years of your life has come down to this: half a year’s health insurance, a stock market crash-depleted retirement account and barely enough cash in your pocket to live on for four months. You feel a little bit like a wife who has been dumped by her husband for a younger woman. Thanks a bunch for giving me the best years of your life, hon. Now get the fuck out.
You decide that the only manly thing to do is to not make a spectacle out of yourself like Kim did. You don’t ask them any questions, but instead shake their offered hands as you get up to leave.
Good luck, tiger, the one on the left says with a wink. You’re gonna be fine--you’ll see.
Your coworkers watch silently as you shuffle back to your cubicle. A box has been thoughtfully placed on your desk. You don’t stop to figure out who put it there, and slowly begin packing it with stuff from your desk drawers and overhead bins. Lots of things that always seemed important like training manuals suddenly no longer have any value, so you place them in the trash. You’d like to call some of your long time clients to let them know you won’t be serving them anymore, but your phone and computer were disconnected while you were in the conference room.
A couple of your coworkers stop by to wish you well as you’re packing, but most stay away. They are the survivors and you’re already dead to them. The elderly receptionist gives you a little wave as you leave the suite. Hers is the last face you see among those you have worked with for most of your adult life. Two other people are riding the elevator when you step on. They see the full box you’re carrying and immediately stop talking. The doors open one floor below and they quickly flee without saying anything.
When you reach the lobby, you are intercepted by one of the security guards who escorted Kim out the other day. I’ll need your building pass before you go, sir. You put the box down at the security station and remove it from the lanyard around your neck. Momentarily, you glance at the photograph of yourself, smiling happily. The last time you renewed your pass was when you returned to work right after your daughter was born. Oh, how you wish you could return to that time when you were still gainfully employed and the future seemed bright. But you can’t. The guard takes the pass in his huge hand and nods. Then you pick up the box and walk slowly through the revolving doors and out into the midday sunlight.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
There was a news story published a couple of days ago reporting that many states are now in the process of cutting back unemployment benefits even as the nation is still mired in the worst employment downturn since the Great Depression. I would like to have linked to and quoted that story here, but it was put out by a certain wire service that frowns mightily upon us bloggers doing that kind of thing. That said, the details of the story really aren’t what’s important. What’s important is the widespread additional suffering this will cause among former blue collar and middle class workers who have been cast out from their jobs as the result of rampant Wall Street speculation and greed combined with the rampaging economic side effects of Peak Oil.
On the surface this is another one of those stories that most people, if they take the time to read it at all, will just shrug their shoulders and think, “no big deal--once the economy gets rolling again those who stand to lose their benefits will be fine.” That’s, of course, if they are of a charitable mindset. Those who are less charitable and who perhaps have been known to masturbate while reading a dog-eared old copy of Atlas Shrugged will more likely cheer the idea that so many “deadbeats” and “parasites” are being banished from the public dole.
What neither group, nor any of our so-called “leaders” will stop to consider is that there are no good answers here. My personal opinion, like it has any bearing on anything whatsoever, is that as long as the U.S. is squandering countless billions every year on pointless wars and other excessive “defense” spending we still can afford to flip a few shekels to those unfortunate souls whose livelihoods have been ruined by the predatory capitalism that is utterly destroying our economy from the inside out. One of the more hideous rhetorical points bouncing around Washington these days is the bipartisan praise being bestowed upon blow-dried, empty suit, Randian stooge Paul Ryan for the “courage” of his recent budget cutting proposals. Absolute bullshit. A “courageous” proposal by Ryan would have slashed massive amounts of Pentagon spending, as that would resulted in the termination of the little twerp’s campaign bribes…er, donations from the giant contract companies who grow as fat and happy as engorged ticks on its wasteful largess.
Nevertheless, even if I were to somehow magically get my way and Congress would suddenly experience a collective outbreak of common sense regarding out-of-control military spending, it would not begin to solve the real problem. First of all, even taking the drastic step of eliminating the Pentagon altogether would not balance the federal budget, let alone begin to reduce the national debt. Secondly, it is sad to say but there will come a day when so-called “entitlement” spending, those direct transfer payments from the federal government to individuals, will have to be dramatically reduced and eventually eliminated altogether. Not because of politics--in fact as the process advances the public will no doubt be kicking and screaming every step of the way--but because our whole economy and the government spending that is currently propping it up is facing a dramatic and permanent contraction.
The implications are obviously horrific. Take away unsustainable federal deficit spending and our real economy would already have contracted about 10-20%. Given that the reality of Peak Oil means any significant “recovery” is impossible and that the economy over the next decade has nowhere to go but down, many of the unfortunate “99ers” along with many millions more yet to be laid off as the economy continues to collapse are likely never going to be gainfully employed again.
The truly insidious aspect of the lies being perpetrated by our “leaders” and our mainstream media in their insistance that the “recovery” has already begun is how such absurd propaganda prevents people from realizing what they really face while they may still have some financial resources available to prepare themselves. As it is many are doing counterproductive things like going back to college, placing themselves deeper in debt to take courses that will not help their job searches in an environment in which even freshly minted college graduates with high GPAs cannot find decent employment. These lies we collectively tell ourselves also allow for absurd proposals, like the cutting back of unemployment benefits at a time of desperate need, to be seriously considered.
So what is ultimately to become of the unemployed when their benefits run out? That is the great tragedy that will be unfolding all across America over the next few years even if we are lucky enough not to see economic collapse accelerate before then. I really wish there were possible solutions I could propose as to how we can reverse this slowly unfolding humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, as long as we as a people remain collectively hypnotized by what the late Joe Bageant used to call the American Hologram of the mainstream media, no realistic solutions will ever receive any kind of public hearing, and the downward spiral for millions of former blue collar and middle class workers will continue unabated.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Everyone now knows that around 5:30 PM CDT this past Sunday night a massive tornado struck the unfortunate town of Joplin, Missouri, causing massive devastation, taking well over 100 lives and injuring many more. It was just the latest of a series of horrifying weather-related natural disasters, from floods to wildfires to tornadoes; that have devastated the middle section of the country this year. Joplin received a particularly vicious blow when a main hospital and several fire stations were virtually destroyed by the storm, and it was immediately apparent that outside help was desperately needed as quickly as possible.
So you would have thought that CNN, which laughingly bills itself as the Worldwide Leader in News, would have been right on top of the story from the get-go. Especially since a rival network, The Weather Channel, almost immediately began broadcasting live from just outside the ruined St. John’s Hospital by virtue of having had a storm chasing team led by on air meteorologist Mike Bettes fortuitously on the scene. The images of Bettes choking with emotion while standing in the ruins chatting with dazed survivors outside the hospital complex--which looked eerily like the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City right after the 1995 bombing--should have alerted anyone who saw them that a major humanitarian crisis was occurring in real time.
So I was amazed when I switched over to CNN around 6:30 PM CST to see that they hadn’t bothered to cut into their regularly scheduled Sunday night programming and were still showing an episode of CNN Presents. Even worse was CNN HLN, the later set of initials for which used to stand for Headline News and once upon a time provided 24/7 half-hour news broadcasts—hence the name. HLN was showing an episode of Showbiz Tonight, and switching back and forth between the utterly vapid report on the antics of yet another superficial celebritard and The Weather Channel vividly brought home to me yet again, as the late Joe Bageant often pointed out, just how disconnected the holographic world of the American media has become these days from everyday reality in this country.
Not until seven o’clock did CNN rouse out of its slumber and begin to provide live coverage, by which point Bettes had been on the air for over an hour pleading for anyone and everyone to send help. Even then, CNN was reduced to having its anchor chat on the phone with a local reporter who was slowly trying to make her way to St. John’s Hospital. When she arrived near the scene after much difficulty the anchor implored her to tell him what she saw, to which I lost patience and literally yelled at the screen, “Switch over to the Weather Channel, you dumbfuck. It’s right there!” But at least by this point CNN’s main network was actually covering the story. HLN did not bother altering its regular programming at all, at least not during the couple of times I checked as the evening wore on. Showbiz Tonight was followed by something I have never watched nor ever care to watch called the Joy Behar Show.
I don't know why CNN was so slow on the uptake in recognizing the magnitude of the story, but I surmise the likely reason is budgetary cutbacks that have probably left it with a skeleton staff during slow news periods like Sunday nights. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from wasting their remaining resources sending reporters out to produce useless shit like Showbiz Tonight. Seriously, if I actually gave a damn about the antics of talentless wastes of space like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber I would turn on E! Network, thank you very much.
We will never know if CNN’s tardiness in getting its act together on this story slowed down recognition of the seriousness of the situation and hence the speed of the response among EMTs, doctors and other emergency responders outside of the immediate Joplin area. But the delay is a damning indictment of 24/7 cable “news” networks, the purpose of which first and foremost is supposed to be their ability to quickly get the word of important stories out to the public.
Had Mike Bettes and The Weather Channel crew not happened to have been lucky enough to be right on the scene of the disaster when it unfolded, who knows how long the CNN coverage might have been delayed. And this is not to completely let The Weather Channel off the hook, either. It was reported online very early on that Bettes had asked his bosses to suspend the network’s commercials as they did during their live broadcast of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, tornado aftermath last month. The network honchos obviously refused, because for the rest of the night viewers were treated to five minute chunks of real life mayhem interrupted by ads for lawn care products and antihistamine sprays. No doubt they thought the spike in ratings caused by the coverage justified showing such poor taste in the face of disaster.
This is also not to single out CNN alone for its ineptness. “News” has always been a commodity subject to the whims of the corporations who underwrite its production. In recent years, however, the negative effects of corporate sponsorship have degraded the mainstream media to the point that here we see an example of how it is no longer even any good at producing what it was always good at producing in the past—coverage of a major natural disaster. If they can’t get a story as basic as the Joplin tornado right, how do you think they are going cover those truly serious issues that really matter to us all—like resource depletion, climate change and economic collapse?
One last word before I close. At one point on Sunday night the CNN anchor reported that he was getting many tweets from viewers demanding to know what was going on with the weather that was causing all these disasters. He then blathered in typical news speak, “this is a question we’ll be asking,” rather than just stating the obvious—climate change. Because heaven forbid a ‘news’ anchor in America in this day and age would EVER be caught telling the truth on the air.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Not many people have the "honor" of having the city near where they grew up named as the “Worst City in America.” I am one of those unfortunate souls. In 1996, Money magazine ranked the mid-sized rust belt burg of Rockford, Illinois, dead last among 300 U.S. cities in terms of quality of life. Money’s reasoning was simple: “few jobs and not-great health care.” And this was at a time when the tech-boom was fueling one of the fastest periods of economic expansion in recent American history.
By the time that article came out I had graduated from college and was long gone to the East Coast, but I was taken aback that Rockford could be named the worst of the worst. Surely, I thought, the place couldn’t possibly have become THAT bad in the half-decade or so since I had split town for good. Could the hometown of notable Presidential candidate John Anderson, the great classic rock band Cheap Trick and early 80s porn star and long time Charlie Sheen girlfriend Ginger Lynn Allen really have sunk so low?
Obviously, Rockford wasn’t always the butt of such derision. In fact, back in 1949 Life magazine actually said, “It is as nearly typical as any city can be.” Okay, so maybe that doesn’t bring to mind a glorious land of milk and honey, but it sure sounds like a pleasant place to live rather than an absolute urban hellhole.
So what happened? Well, unfortunately for Rockford and surrounding environs more than half of its earnings back then came from manufacturing…well above the national average at the time. Sundstrand Corporation, Woodward Governor Company, Airbrush Manufacturing, Hanson Clock Company and Hess & Hopkins Leather Company were just some of the industrial concerns headquartered there. In 1965, a major Chrysler assembly plant also opened in nearby Belvedere. Rockford was a town where things were built, and for nearly a century it formed part of the vital backbone of the American economy and supported tens of thousands of good paying blue-collar jobs.
Starting in the 1970s, however, all of that began to change as American corporations started to export manufacturing jobs overseas in search of cheaper labor. The trend accelerated in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, a politician who was revered as a near-deity in conservative Rockford despite the fact that he repeatedly knifed its working class labor base in the back. The final nail in the coffin then came under Bill Clinton, who despite being a Democrat and alleged union supporter pushed through “free” trade agreements like NAFTA, completing the process of globalization that was the demise of manufacturing cities like Rockford.
Rockford’s downfall from the kind of place where working men (and later working women) were proud to raise a family to a post-industrial wasteland was a bipartisan effort more than a quarter-century in the making. It all boiled down to the fact that there was more money to be made in destroying America’s manufacturing base than there was in preserving it. Some cites that have fallen victim to this vicious turn in the business cycle have tried to arrest their decline by transforming themselves into tourist Meccas. But a place like Rockford, situated as it is among the Illinois cornfields and possessing little of historical interest, hardly has that option. The only factor preventing a complete collapse in the local economy to date is that the eastern section of the city lies close enough to the ever-expanding Chicago suburbs to derive at least some economic benefit.
Like the scenes in Michael Moore’s stinging documentary, Roger and Me--about the similar decline of his own hometown of Flint, Michigan--where hapless local officials try to arrest the decline of their city with increasingly desperate economic development schemes, Rockford’s city leaders have tried their best to revitalize the town in recent years. Their lack of success can be measured by the fact that Forbes magazine just recently ranked Rockford as the 14th Most Miserable City in America, stating:
“Once known as the Screw Capital of the World because of the billions of screws and bolts made locally, Rockford has struggled with high crime as well as soaring unemployment, which is expected to average 16.9% this year.”But hey, at least the locals can take comfort in the fact that so many other places have been hammered even harder the past few years that they aren’t dead last anymore.
With Peak Oil-induced economic collapse sure to accelerate in the coming years, economically distressed places like Rockford are going to decline even faster. It is as inevitable as the fact that all those abandoned factory buildings will never be reopened. Thus we will witness the downward spiral into economic oblivion of countless American communities that not too long ago people were actually proud to have called their hometowns.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Yesterday’s post about the unsavory collection of clowns, hucksters, frauds and charlatans currently running for president made me long for a time when serious-minded people who care about the long-term stability and sustainability of their country actually had a viable candidate to support. The fact that it has been over three decades since there has been such a candidate speaks volumes for how low we have sunk as a nation in terms of the sheer volume of feel-good lies that we tell ourselves.
The story of the presidential campaign of former U.S. Representative John B. Anderson is so at odds with anything we see going on in politics today that it almost seems like it happened in a whole other country if not to say on a completely different planet. The Republican Anderson was serving his tenth term in the House when he decided in 1980 to challenge incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Carter himself was the last U.S. president to at least take tentative steps to treat Peak Oil as a serious political issue, but that didn’t stop him from putting forth the Carter Doctrine, the unfortunate mandate guaranteeing access to Middle East oil that serves as the foundation for our grotesque foreign and military policies in that region to this day. In any event, Carter was such an ineffectual leader that despite his best intentions he likely did more damage than good to the cause of getting Americans to understand the threat posed by finite world oil supplies.
Anderson, on the other hand, was an extremely unlikely messenger to preach the gospel that the country was endangering itself by becoming ever more reliant upon oil imports. Hailing from a very conservative safe Republican district in a largely rural part of Illinois, during his second Congressional term in the early sixties he actually introduced a Constitutional Amendment to "recognize the law and authority of Jesus Christ" over the United States. Even evolution-doubting, preacher-politician Mike Huckabee might today blush at that one.
As time went on, however, Anderson moderated his social views even as he remained fiscally conservative. Back then, believe it or not, Republican office holders could actually thrive without getting on their knees and performing felatio on the leadership of Christian right seven days a week. By the time he decided to run for president, the Ronald Reagan juggernaut was gearing up to seize control of the Republican party, but there were still enough Rockefeller-moderates around that it appeared they could conceivably deny the nomination to the man they derisively nicknamed Bonzo if they all unified behind the same candidate.
Early on, the moderates’ hopes were pinned on former Ambassador to China and CIA Director George H.W. Bush, who during the campaign derided Reagan's supply side mantra as "voodoo economics." But once the primaries started a funny thing happened. Anderson took second place in a couple of early Republican contests and was suddenly thrust over Bush into the national political spotlight. It’s difficult today to imagine a guy who was running the farthest to the left in either political party actually being treated like a serious candidate by the mainstream media (paging, Dennis Kucinich), but that is exactly what happened. It was a different and far better time in America in those days.
What really set Anderson apart from the other Republican candidates was his willingness to offer up concrete if unpopular solutions to America’s problems. As the election year began, the country was mired in a deep recession brought on by the second of the major 1970’s oil shocks. The two disruptions to Middle East oil supplies that occurred in 1973 and again in 1979 should have served as a clear warning that we were collectively heading down an unsustainable path. Being a sensible politician of the type who could never hold high public office today, Anderson as one of his central campaign positions advocated for a 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax (equivalent to about $1.50 today) to curb oil consumption and encourage the production of higher mileage vehicles. The idea was to take actual action to begin to wean America off of its oil addiction rather than just mouthing platitudes. Despite the ire this proposal raised, Anderson received support from a wide variety of prominent Americans, from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy-Onasis to Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau, who featured Anderson’s quest prominently in his comic strip.
What happened next, unfortunately, was entirely predictable in hindsight. The Republicans rejected Anderson in favor of the slightly crazy, B-movie actor Reagan despite the latter’s penchant for saying dumb things like proclaiming that trees cause air pollution. Anderson refused to be deterred and launched an independent candidacy—and at one point during the late summer was amazingly polling at over 25% of the electorate. It appeared for a brief moment that America might actually elect a man who was serious about our oil-related predicament. Sadly, as the campaign wore on Anderson slipped in the polls as voters decided they preferred the sunny, feel good blather of the utterly vapid Reagan, and by election day the third party candidate’s support dropped to a mere 7% of the vote.
The election of Ronald Reagan was the key moment in recent American history when we first chose as a nation to pretend that everything would be hunky-dory if we just crossed our fingers and wished hard enough for it to be so. By the time of the Gipper’s 1984 re-election campaign, the economy was “recovering” thanks to a big drop in oil prices resulting from the coming online of the world’s last great supergiant oil fields in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico. Reagan consolidated his hold on the presidency against Carter’s inept Vice President, Walter Mondale, by proclaiming that it was “Morning in America,” when in fact it was merely the start of a couple of decades of an economic Indian Summer that would precede the eventual onset of a long, cold Peak Oil-induced winter.
Being a lifelong politics junkie (an addiction I am trying desperately to overcome) I often think back wistfully to the John Anderson campaign, which happened when I was still an idealistic young high school student. That he was the Congressman from my home district and hence something of a local celebrity made it all the more painful when he finally got boot stomped by the national political establishment. When we look back over recent history and lament what has become of our country, Anderson’s quixotic quest for the highest office in the land stands as an unfortunate gravestone marking the demise of a potentially better future for us all.
Friday, May 20, 2011
For political junkies, the past week or so of the presidential campaign has been quite entertaining. First up was the good ol’ boy American Taliban, the Hillbilly Husckster from Ar-Kan-Saw, who decided that playing bass guitar on teevee behind washed up old pop musicians for an audience only half paying attention because their other hearing aid-plugged ear is listening out for Jesus beckoning them home is a LOT more fun than spending a year-and-a-half eating shitty road food and pressing the flesh with the sweaty, pale faced, blimp-sized plebes who form the base of the Republican party. Can’t say I blame him for that, actually.
Next up there was the implosion of the epic hair piece of reality teevee, who had actually been leading in the preference polls and whose withdrawal from the race caused considerable chagrin among stand up comedians all across the land. Trump spent weeks making a spectacle of himself by hammering Obama on the birther issue only to have the latter kick him in the gonads by releasing his long form birth certificate. After Obama’s announcement we were treated to the awe-inspiring sight of The (whiny-bitch) Donald complaining about the way he had been treated by the press as if he had no idea that a Presidential campaign can turn nasty, especially when you start throwing the darts first. Personally, I was sorry to see him go since I was looking forward to the first “reality Presidency” in which the White House gets wired up with cameras everywhere and we get to watch as an impatient Trump berates hapless senior officials during cabinet meetings. Now THAT would be reality television worth watching.
Completing the self-immolation trifecta was reptilian cracker and supposed political hatchet man Newt Gingrich getting his lunch money stolen from him on Meet the Press by that utterly insipid milquetoast masquerading as a reporter, David Gregory. No other single politician alive today has said more stupid, banal and contradictory things in his career than Newt Gingrich. This guy makes Charlie Sheen look like a model of emotional stability. Within a couple of days after the broadcast, the Newtster was apologizing to fellow Republicans and taking a page out of the Sarah Palin playbook by crying that he had been unfairly treated by Gregory, who had merely insisted upon asking him questions based upon, you know, his actual record.
Speaking of Sarah Barracuda, there is no unindicted politician in America whose star has fallen faster than the Fraud of Wasilla. A year ago she was riding high, promoting her book, bashing Obamacare and basking in the applause of emotionally stunted and empathy-challenged old white people everywhere. Then she, like the Huckster and the Trumpster, decided that being a teevee star was a lot more fun and personally enriching than that boring old politics stuff. She even brought the family along for the ride, securing a slot for her celebritard wannabee daughter on the Dancing With the Stars. And now that everybody’s favorite teenage mom turned abstinence scold has had plastic surgery, I figure it’s just a matter of time before she and LiLo find themselves hanging out together in L.A., doing tequila shots, snorting lines and humping any dangerous looking Eurotrash dude who can hook them up for more.
Beyond your front runners, the Republican side is a collection of political has-beens and never-will-bes, most of whom wouldn’t be recognized by the public if they happened to rob a bank without wearing a ski mask. Of this group I want to give a special shout out to homophobic freak Rick Santorum who, by being such an obnoxious flaming asshole, has perversely probably done more to advance the cause of gay rights than any other single politician in America. People who aren’t completely deranged in their attitude towards gays hear the shit that comes out of his mouth and think to themselves, “I don’t know if I’m on the side of the gays, but I sure as hell don’t want to be on the side of THAT guy.” The most amusing aspect of little Ricky’s candidacy is that if you Google his last name the first thing that pops up is the definition given to it by gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage in retaliation for all of his gay-bashing: “Santorum - The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” And no, I’m not making that up. In fact, I just copied and pasted it from Google.
All of this buffoonery really leaves one man standing for the Republicans, a man who the sound of his very name is like fingernails on a blackboard to conservatives despite the fact that he has spent the past four years running like an African tribesman being chased by an enraged rhino away from every political position he ever claimed to hold. Mitt Romney’s two big problems are that he is Mormon--and thus cannot pass for a righteous born again no matter how much he panders--and that Obamacare, which the Republicans claim to hate more Al Queda itself, is really just Romneycare without the perfectly coiffed, silver tinged hairdo. The implosion of the other frontrunners leaves the Republicans with the troubling prospect of having to turn to a guy who much of the party wouldn’t mind seeing get run over by bus.
On the other side, of course, is the incumbent, whom the Democrats are stuck with no matter how often he ties up their liberal base, sticks a rubber ball in their mouths and bones them like Marcellius Wallace in the basement scene from Pulp Fiction. The Mighty O is going to raise a billion dollars in campaign cash from his Wall Street benefactors, a little tidbit I’m adding just in case any of you have any remaining doubt as to whom he really represents. Mr. Hopey-Changey is betting that rising food and gas prices won’t pull a Tonya Harding on the economy before election day so he can skate past whichever of the moral and political pygmies the Republicans finally choose to oppose him.
Obama has been lucky to date that the shenanigans of his toady Treasury Secretary and his utterly colorless Federal Reserve Chairman have for the moment pulled the economy out of the free fall it was experiencing early in his term. The price of stability was trillions in additional unsustainable deficit spending added on to the backs of future generations, of course, but that matters little if your primary goal is to get reelected at all costs.
It’s becoming pretty obvious, however, that America’s day of financial reckoning will likely arrive during the next Presidential term. Knowledgeable peak oil writers such as retired government analyst Tom Whipple have tentatively placed the date that worldwide oil production begins to decline at 2014. Whoever is in office at that time is going to get politically tarred and feathered as gasoline prices shoot up well beyond the heights attained to date and our cheap-oil based economy begins to fly apart for keepsies. The unlucky soul sitting in the Oval Office chair is going to be the object of public ire such as not been seen since Marie Antoinette allegedly advised the starving workers of France that they could substitute a good gateau for their absent daily croissant.
Obama is already running hard and apparently really wants to be the epic fall guy. If he wasn’t one of the most arrogant human beings who has ever graced the planet he would consider himself lucky if he gets through his current term without everything falling apart. A timely, “I need to spend more time with my family” announcement would be the right move, but he’s too blinded by hubris to see that. I’m really hoping that he gets his wish, actually. Bush stuck around long enough to finally have his own political failures hung squarely around his neck, so it’s only fitting that the man who followed him and who raised false hopes in tens of millions should get a similar comeuppance. As for me, I’ll be sitting this election out--the first Presidential election of my adult lifetime in which I have not voted. For no matter who wins in November 2012, the one thing I can guarantee you is that the country will lose.
But wait, I hear you pleading. What about Ron Paul? Hey, don’t get me wrong—I like Ron Paul even if I disagree with about half of what he says. He is the only candidate running who opposes America’s war and empire foreign policy. But just the fact that he actually WANTS the job at this time and place ought to be proof enough that he is either mentally unstable or taking some really good mind-altering medications, and that alone should disqualify him from consideration.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Wherever Your Ancestry, Being an American Means the Freedom to Consume as Much of the Planet’s Resources as Possible
I’ve mentioned before that I am a resident of Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. As much as I have complained about the insular nature of residing in a well-to-do community full of folks who work in and around the imperial capital, there are certain aspects of living here I do like. One of them is the diverse nature of the local population. On any given day you literally see people from just about every major ethnic group, religion and nationality in the world around here. I’ve lived in my current residence for 14 years, and during that time have had a Jewish family, and Indian (subcontinent) family, two Korean families and a Hispanic family as my next door neighbors (the downside is it is a transient neighborhood). Going out to dinner, you can partake of just about any kind of world cuisine there is should you be so inclined. My community is a nearly perfect mosaic of the American melting pot.
One thing that becomes apparent when you live around such a diverse group of suburbanites for a long period of time is that no matter where they hail from, or what religion they practice, or what social customs they may have followed back home, once they have been here long enough they truly start to become modern day Americans. By this I don’t mean that they are grateful to have the “freedoms” that Americans supposedly enjoy, although maybe some of them did come here to escape political or religious repression in their own countries. No, what I mean by that is they all to a greater or lesser extent become perfect American consumers.
This is particularly noticeable among the younger generation; the teenagers and college age children who have been here all their lives. The high school age daughter of the Indian couple who currently lives next door to me could in her appearance and mannerisms easily pass for as the child of a pair of blonde-haired, blue-eyed WASPs. She dresses in the latest fashions sported by well-to-do teenagers everywhere, is constantly chatting and texting on her IPhone and was given a car to drive by her parents as soon as she turned sweet 16. The only indication that she retains some knowledge of her cultural identity was a recent performance of traditional Indian dance she gave at her high school.
I should emphasize that I do not begrudge her or her family for wanting to live their lives in their adoptive country the same way as any other successful American would. Just because their family moved here much more recently than mine does not mean they have any less right than I do in that regard. What it really goes to show, however, is that the great appeal of America to many people around the world is not necessarily the right to speak freely, or have a free press or even to own a firearm, but instead the fossil-fuel enabled abundance that allows even the average citizen wealth and convenience inaccessible to all but a tiny elite in many other countries. This is the real essence of the American Dream for many people.
Historically, legions of immigrants have come to America more for economic reasons than to escape persecution. The Statue of Liberty would be more reflective if the great lady were draped in Gucci and carrying a Coach handbag instead of a torch. Unfortunately, however, as America enters the latter stages of an economic decline that began shortly after our domestic oil production peaked in 1970 this dream is becoming more and more inaccessible to those who grew up here, let alone those coming from other nations in pursuit of it. When the day finally comes that emigration to America trickles to a halt it will be due to economic collapse rather than because of any elaborate border fences or rigorous internal identification checks (sorry, Arizona).
When Americans proclaim that their country is founded upon freedom, what they really mean even if they don’t realize it is the freedom to make a buck and consume. All other aspects of freedom in America are secondary and always have been. Nativists who point the finger at immigrants as the source of our economic ills are misdirecting their ire. Those accusatory fingers should instead be pointed squarely at themselves for our current economic predicament is the result of decades of rampant, uncontrolled consumerism--pursued by the public and urged on by the politicians they vote for--that has pushed our economy well past the point of long term sustainability.
Monday, May 16, 2011
There are a lot of reasons why I feel extremely fortunate to have been born into my time and place. Whatever its shortcomings in terms of damage to the natural world, the latter stages of the oil age have been for those fortunate enough to have been born into the wealthier nations the best time in human history to be an average citizen. Never have so many enjoyed so much freedom of movement and had so much knowledge right at their fingertips while having a lengthy life expectancy to enjoy it. The fact that an overwhelming majority choose to squander these precious fossil fuel-derived gifts does not change the blessings they have conferred upon those astute enough to appreciate them.
Perhaps no aspect of this bounty has been more potentially enriching to the lives of the average person that the Internet. Maybe its because I spent the first three decades of my life without it that I am so thankful for the ability to access so much information in an instant. With just a few hours of Google searches, I can learn more about the world than a Magellan or a James Cook discovered in their entire lifetimes. So what if the dipshit in the cubicle next to me at work spends his days following the latest exploits of celebritards like Charlie Sheen or Lindsey Lohan? I am not his keeper.
The Internet is like any other tool. It can be used for good or for ill. And while I may choose to use it to research, for example, the Apollo Program as I did for an earlier post on this very blog, it would be daft not to consider its many ill effects. Quite simply, a sheer mass of unfiltered information is of little use to those without the critical mental facilities to easily separate the wheat from the chaff.
One thing the Internet does is expose people to ways of living other than their own. That can be a healthy thing if the searcher is, say, reading up on tribal cultures in sub-Saharan Africa in order to reach a greater understanding. It is not such a good thing if sensationalist portrayals of what the old weekly alternative newspaper column, News of the Weird, used to call People Different from Us are being exploited to reinforce stereotypes in support of the status quo.
And that brings me to the People of Walmart, along with other similar sites such as the mugshot galleries of The Smoking Gun. On the surface they appear harmless enough, and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit perusing their pages. When looking at POW's daily Feature Creature one is tempted to yell at the subject on the screen, “have a little dignity, for fuck’s sake.” As with many things in our society, however, it’s all great fun unless you stop to think about it.
For what is it that POW and the TSG are really selling? Conformity, my friends. You there, in your comfortable suburban house or your hipster urban condo pad, yes you are one of the cool people. You’d never be caught dead out in public dressed like one of these freaks. They’re LOSERS (or to use the Internet vernacular, LOOSERS). Nevermind that most of them come from the very strata of society that has seen its good paying blue collar jobs shipped overseas for a couple of generations now. Nevermind that most of them are just trying to make it through this life in a world likely spinning way too fast for them to comprehend. Nevermind, too, the fact that as America continues its long slow slide towards oblivion most of these folks are DOOMED. And never for one moment ever allow yourself the realization that you too could be one of them someday.
This all hit home to me recently when I was checking out the prostitution mugshots on TSG (I know, I know, I should be beaten with a large stick for that one). What struck me was not the sad, world weary expressions on the faces of most of the women but the crass insensitive comments TSG users had posted underneath their pictures, most of which rated the subject’s “hittability” or stated what sexual act the poster would most like to perform on them. For that’s what the downtrodden in America have become: just another entertainment spectacle to laughed at and mocked. The old teevee show Cops was the pioneer of this disturbing form of living vicariously over 20 years ago, and “reality” shows and websites have become an order of magnitude worse since then.
The term “class warfare” gets thrown around a lot these days, and is usually used in reference to what the wealthy elite of our society are doing to everyone below them. But I would argue the real class war is actually being fought on multiple fronts. It is in fact every social strata waging war against those below them in the pecking order. Except now, in this era of Peak Oil and resource depletion the motivation is to avoid falling further down the ladder rather than to prevent those below from moving up. Which could be why it is being fought with ever increasing desperation as witnessed with the rise of the tea party movement.
What is obviously lacking here is a little thing called basic human empathy. And though many people in America still have it as individuals, collectively it vanished from the body politic along time ago…just another sad symptom of an empire in terminal decline.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
From Tampa Bay.com
Friday the 13th hit hard for 1,942 workers in the Titusville area.
That's how many employees were affected by the latest round of layoffs announced by United Space Alliance LLC, an organization that partners with NASA to run the space shuttle operation.
The cuts weren't a surprise — the alliance has been cutting hundreds of jobs as the space shuttle program winds down. In fact, United Space Alliance has accounted for some of the biggest mass layoffs over the past year. It gave 549 workers a pink slip in February on top of 53 layoffs announced in November.
Eventually, most of the 9,000 workers connected to the Space Coast will need to find new jobs.
Fitting that this story would appear in the press a mere one week after my blog post about the Apollo Program and how its demise signaled the end of the Age of Exploration. The Space Shuttle program lasted for three decades after the initial flight of Columbia in 1981, but for all of the hoopla that surrounded the first few launches the program represented a space agency merely running in place as America lost interest in properly financing it.
NASA had wanted to move on to a manned Mars mission after Apollo, but President Nixon and a stingy Democratic Congress put the kibosh on the idea for budget reasons. So the Shuttle program was green-lighted as a way for NASA to continue putting people into space at a much lower cost. The idea was that a reusable space ship would be more economical. Well, it certainly was that, even despite the fact that 40% of the shuttle fleet eventually exploded. What it was not was a forward step in space exploration. Earth orbit-bound shuttle flights became routine in the minds of the public, who stopped paying attention except in those instances when disaster occurred.
Soon we will see the last shuttle launch, and the era of American manned spaceflight will have effectively ended. NASA has plans build a new space vehicle named Orion and in 2006 announced plans to build a permanent moon base by the 2020s. But with this coming era of federal budget austerity, which will only be made worse by increasing effects of Peak Oil and resource depletion, it is pretty safe to say that these are nothing more than pipe dreams.
For ask yourself this, if the space program was still moving forward instead of DE-evolving like so many other areas of our society, why are 9,000 Floridians who work in the industry slated to lose their jobs? Presumably, these are people who know a thing or two about building and maintaining a space vehicle. For the workers themselves this is truly the worst of times as they are being cast out into a slowly collapsing economy in which good-paying jobs are few and far between.
The ultimate success of the Apollo Program, coming as it did one year before America’s domestic oil production hit its all time peak, represented the high water mark in our nation’s technological achievements. For all of his faults, John Kennedy committed this nation to a triumph for the ages. Forty years later, by contrast, the ending of the Space Shuttle program provides us with the clearest evidence to date of a people and an empire who are well on their way to being consigned to the dustbin of history.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
From PC Mag:
A month after shedding 550 employees due to the shutdown of its Flip video camera line, Cisco Systems has announced more job cuts by the end of this summer to save $1 billion in annual expenses.Another day, another major layoff announcement. Yawn. (Scratches self) So who got eliminated from Dancing with the Stars last night?
Layoffs at the troubled networking giant will begin with a recently announced early retirement program, said Gary Moore, Cisco's chief operating officer, in a third-quarter earnings call late Wednesday. The program itself will cost Cisco a one-time expense of up to $1.1 billion, he added.
"To be clear, we do anticipate a workforce reduction. On a global basis, affecting both our full-time and contractor workforce, we are taking the time needed to do what's right for our business and for our people," Moore said.
Although Moore did not specify how many jobs would be cut, AP estimates that 4,000-5,000 of the company's 73,400 employees, or 6 percent of the workforce, will get cut. The figure is based on the same percentage the $1 billion savings translates to against its annual expenses.
That seems to be the attitude of the general public and of our opinion “leaders” in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, it isn’t so boring for the thousands of families about to be cast into the grim uncertainty of unemployment. For them, a real nightmare is about to begin.
According to economists (a profession that by now really ought to be held in even lower esteem than lawyers), the economy is “recovering” and has been for almost two years now. Virtually none who practice that alchemic art masquerading as an actual scientific discipline acknowledge that America’s renewed economic “growth” was purchased with insane and unsustainable levels of federal deficit spending. Subtract the federal largess and we would still be in the middle of the worst economic depression since the 1930s.
But don’t worry, say the economists. The massive job losses of late 2008 and early 2009 have been halted and the economy is again creating jobs. And while technically true, there are all sorts of problems with that assertion, namely:
1). America needs to add approximately 150,000 jobs every month just to keep pace with population growth. The Bureau of Labor’s Statistics’ (BLS) monthly job report has only seen seven (7) positive figures out of the past 40 months, and the numbers for three of those months back in 2010 were goosed upward by the U.S. Census Bureau hiring enumerators for the decennial count, all of whom have subsequently been laid off again.
2). The BLS monthly jobs report is highly flawed in that it uses the so-called Birth-Death Model that adds jobs supposedly being created by small businesses that do not get picked up in the official statistics. Even the BLS admits that the Birth-Death Model does not accurately reflect major turning points in the economy. During most months since last recession began in January 2008, the Birth-Death Model has added unverifiable jobs, but because of the way the statistics are assembled there is no way to adjust the numbers with any accuracy.
3). The total number of U.S. jobs is approximately seven million lower than it was in December 2007, and in fact is at approximately the same level it was in January 2000. This means America has essentially experienced ZERO job growth for going on 12 years, despite the total population expanding by approximately 30 million since then.
4). Even if you buy the BLS’s official job statistics showing that jobs are again being created in substantial numbers, most of the employment improvement has been in the area of temporary workers and low wage service industry jobs. The higher paying middle class jobs are largely not coming back.
5). The number of people working part time would who like a full time job is at an all time record high. The April 2011 BLS report showed that 8.6 million people were working part-time “for economic reasons.” In other words they could not find a full time job.
6). Governments, especially at the state and local level, have begun furloughing and riffing employees in large numbers due to budget deficits. As tax revenue remains stagnant or even continues to decline, expect this trend to accelerate. Traditionally, government jobs have been a source of very stable and secure employment.
Add this all up and the picture is of a slow motion train wreck for middle and working class people. Every time an unlucky employee of a company like Cisco or a junior public school teacher in a bankrupt school district gets their pink slip, they are being cast out from stable, middle class employment into a job market in which the best work they are likely going to find is either a temp position or in retail sales. They can also say goodbye to their health and retirement benefits as well as any financial security whatsoever. And those are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones become “99ers”; people who fruitlessly search for work for nearly two years only to have their unemployment benefits run out.
Every day, every week and every month that passes more and more middle and working class Americans join the ranks of those who have begun the downward spiral towards destitution and poverty. So far, most have been content to quietly accept their fate even as the media treats them like they do not exist. How much longer will they remain docile?
That, my friends, is another key question, for the potential exists for a massive outbreak of domestic civil disturbances the likes of which we haven’t seen in America since the late 1960s. Trends forecaster Gerald Celente is fond of saying that “when people lose everything they lose it.” So far, they don’t seem to have yet lost enough to lose it, but that day is no doubt coming.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Editor's note: this might be the beginning of a new Friday feature here on The Downward Spiral blog, or it might just be a one off--I haven't decided yet.
I hate the upper middle class. Which is kind of funny because by any income-related statistical measurement (if not actual lifestyle) I am one of them. I reside in Fairfax County, Virginia, which perennially makes the list of the top five richest counties in the country based upon average income. Most of the people I know are upper middle class. They work at jobs where if they ever break a sweat they can just turn up the air conditioning, and not a one of them would be caught anywhere within a 100 miles of a NASCAR track. And while I like plenty of them as individuals, as a collective whole they really turn my stomach. Not so much because of how they act but because of their general obliviousness to the severe economic distress being felt by so many of their fellow citizens and because many of them claim to, you know, really care.
If you watch MSNBC, or the Daily Show, or read lefty blogs like The Daily Kos or Think Progress, you likely have seen and heard a lot of bashing of wealthy conservative boogiemen like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers. Tax the evil Randian elite and distribute the wealth to the masses, is the message. That will solve all of America’s economic problems so you dear reader/viewer can stop your fretting and go back to your latte-sipping, soccer mom lifestyle confident that your righteous faux outrage has helped to save the world.
It’s a great message to sell if you are trying to goose your ratings or your readership among conventional well-to-do lefties, the kind of people who were enthusiastic supporters of Obama in 2008 and will constitute his (perhaps now somewhat less enthusiastic) base as he cranks up his reelection campaign. Problem is, it’s complete bullshit. Even jacking up the top income tax rates back to where they were after World War II (over 90%!) along with hiking capital gains taxes would not be enough to close even the current federal budget deficit, let alone restore the increasingly desperate state governments to fiscal health.
But cognitive dissonance is a rampaging epidemic among my fellow upper middle classers. These are people who claim to be concerned about climate change, for example, but feel they absolutely need that giant SUV with the video screen in the backseat to keep their precious little snowflakes safe and entertained while being chauffeured to and from the shopping mall. These are people who say they care about the downtrodden but for whom life is not complete without a lawyer foyer, granite countertops, a kitchen island, surround sound entertainment system, flat screen teevees in every room and a half acre patch out back onto which their lawn service can dump a Bhopal’s worth of chemicals every summer.
They can’t imagine how they could make it through life without the daily trip to Starbucks, the weekly trip to the organic grocery store or the annual vacation to the latest trendy place where they can whip out their plastic and bring back another beaucoup load of useless crap they don’t need. If the local school system is found wanting, they’ll yank their little snowflakes out of there—for NOTHING in my experience can turn a progressive soccer mom into a stark raving Randian faster than any perceived threat to her kid’s education. They are easy to spot out in public, these fake liberal fucks, spending their days chattering and texting on IPhones and Blackberries that didn’t exist ten years ago but have become as indispensable to their lives as oxygen itself. For them, life is an experience to be carefully cataloged on their Facebook pages and inanely commented upon by friends just as superficial and shallow as they are themselves.
And that’s just the liberal breed of upper middle classers. The conservative ones are even worse. And whether they are Democrats or Republicans; Keith Olbermann fans or loyal flag-waving followers of Bill O’Reilly, they all share one big trait in common: none of them have any fucking clue that the cheap-oil fueled extravaganza that enables their spoiled, entitled lifestyle is quickly coming to an end. Their denial runs so deep that if you tried to warn them about what’s coming they would dismiss you as a crank or accuse you of not engaging in positive thinking. These are people for whom provable facts are irrelevant if they do not fit into their world view. Say to your average sensitive, male metrosexual that Obama’s unwarranted attack on Libya makes him as big a war criminal as Bush and he will stare at you uncomprehendingly. Or if he’s a NFL fan and a teabagger he likely believes that the Libyans have no business living on top of America’s oil, even if he might not say that out loud.
I’m not a big “solutions” guy, at least not for big picture stuff that is well beyond my puny control as an individual. But since so many of my fellow upper middle classers seem to believe that if you sign enough petitions or send enough e-mails to your local CONgresscritter you can effect positive change (there is no utterly meaningless phrase in the English language I would more like to nuke into oblivion than “effecting positive change”), I am going to offer some solutions for how we can handle these people.
First, tax the holy hell out them. While we’re jacking up the rates on the evil Koch brothers, let’s not leave the upper middle class unscathed. Did you know that social security taxes are capped after the first $106,800 of annual income? Most people don’t unless they are one of the fortunate few who make enough money to hit that limit every year. When it happens it’s like getting a big pay raise. Whoo-hoo! Let’s go get that new IPad, honey. What’s that? The Social Security “trust fund” is a lie and the program is insolvent, you say? Not our problem, dude. We’re going to the mall. It’ll work itself out before WE retire. At least it better. The government OWES us that money.
Better yet, let’s do some specifically targeted taxing. McMansions and big ass SUVs to start. Wanna live in a cheaply built oversize palace 40 miles from your job? It’s gonna cost you, Biff & Buffy. How about a big tax on all of that ICrap and other electronic devices? Producing that shit in China and shipping it all over the world is sucking down scarce resources as well as massively polluting the environment there, Mr. & Mrs. Greenwannabees. Maybe if you can’t afford another distracting gadget, you’ll actually have to start TALKING to one another again. The horror! And while we are at it let’s also tax all the damn soccer fields too, because you know, fuck that boring ass Commie sport already.
What’s that I hear you saying? “Bill, those are hardly practical or constructive solutions.” Yeah, well, it’s my blog. And a man can dream now and again, can’t he?