Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why Formal Education Often Doesn't Help the Underclass, and Why It Won't Matter in the Future

Readers of this blog will remember Leslie, the young recent college graduate carrying $100,000 in student loans who stayed with my wife and I for a few days during her job search. Despite her situation, Leslie reminds me a lot of myself at her age: eager and energetic, full of ideas about how she can help change the world. While we were discussing her future the subject of social inequality came up—as it often does with progressive minded, well educated young people—and she repeated the standard mantra that I’ve heard many times before that education is vital if poor people are ever going to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Access to better quality schooling, the argument goes, is the key to combating unemployment, teen pregnancy, crime and the cycle of poverty in general.

Before I go on, I should emphasize that I have not in middle age become some wild eyed follower of Ayn Rand who blames the federal government for illegally seizing my hard earned tax dollars only to redistribute it to “parasites” who contribute nothing to society. I am fully cognizant that the real parasites are the corporations, big banks and Wall Street who—if you count the trillion dollars plus in annual American war spending, the primary purpose of which is to make the world a safe place to make a buck—are the biggest welfare queens of all.

Nevertheless, unlike most people in the middle to upper middle classes, I grew up around kids who didn't have much and in my career have actually worked fairly closely with members of the underclass. For several years after I graduated college my job was to conduct housing benefit investigations involving people who were committing fraud in order to receive rental assistance. Not the most glamorous occupation in the world, obviously, and one that I moved on from as soon as I was able. But it was an invaluable experience, and one that first made me question the conventional liberal values I had carried as a college student.

For this is what I found in my experiences with the working (and some not working) poor: formal education appears to do little to help a lot of them. Many modern liberals make the mistake of thinking that most poor people are just like them but have merely not been given the opportunity to succeed. Now, I won’t argue that on occasion some gifted individual doesn’t break the bonds of the housing project and have great accomplishments in life. There are plenty of examples where that has happened. But they are the exceptions who are hardly reflective of the norm. Indeed, Leslie herself achieved a Masters’ Degree despite a rough upbringing, which included both of her parents dying when she was a child.

This is also not to argue that there are not plenty of complete idiots running around who are middle class or above. The difference for the latter, of course, is that the higher up the food chain you go, the stronger safety net. If you are George W. Bush, for example, you can spend half of your life as the alcoholic family fuck up and still get to be President.

As I gently explained to Leslie, the problem with formal education as a supposed cure-all for our societal ills is that many people simply lack the intellectual capacity for it to be of any real benefit. Statistically, half of the population has IQs below 100, and I think it is difficult for those of us blessed by having been born on the high side of the number to contemplate just how bewildering our complex modern society must be to someone who is on the lower end of the scale.

We also tend to forget that the idea that everyone, down to the lowliest member of society, should be a fully functioning citizen who participates in all aspects of our representative democracy is an historical anomaly enabled by the economic abundance brought on during the all-too-brief cheap oil era. For most of human history, members of the underclass were the serfs, disposable labor to be exploited by kings and nobility who rarely lived beyond their 40th year. No education was necessary for those folks, just get the men working in the fields and the women producing as many babies as possible to overcome the high rate of infant mortality and maintain a steady supply of labor. When you think about it that way, the whole teen pregnancy issue, for example, can be seen in a whole different light. No matter how well intentioned, those working to prevent it are actually fighting thousands of years of human evolution.

There was a kid who lived down the block from me when I was growing up who dropped out of school at age 16 having mentally checked out several years before that. Predictably, that same kid could never hold a steady job and ended up in prison by age 19 despite the fact that his father was a cop. When it comes to education you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, especially if the horse lacks a basic understanding as to what purpose the water serves.

The tasks that many of us take for granted—balancing a checkbook, reading and understanding the terms of a mortgage document, differentiating between two political candidates’ positions and heck, even completing a job application—must be pretty daunting to someone whose mind has difficulty grasping basic mathematical concepts or the meaning of complex words and phrases. The rise of the personal computer and the Internet these past 20 years has just made matters worse.

As I said to Leslie, I am very much a believer in a level playing field; that every child should, as much as society is able, be provided with a fair chance to succeed. That means access to the same quality of education whether you live in a tony suburb or an inner city housing project (it is in this area that America’s education system most dramatically fails many of its children). But no one should expect that even an impossible-to-achieve complete equality in formal educational opportunities would eliminate or even put much of a dent in the number of Americans who represent the permanent underclass.

The irony in all of this is that as peak oil and resource depletion accelerate the devolution of our modern industrial society, some of these folks will likely be much better prepared psychologically to handle it than most in the middle and upper middle classes. After all, when you’ve never had anything, nor have you ever expected to have anything, you won’t be wasting your mental energy lamenting what you’ve lost. Instead, you’ll be getting on with surviving as best you can, just like you always have.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

High Gas Prices Are Changing People’s Behavior (Again)

I bought a new car this past weekend. Yeah, yeah, I know, shame on me for engaging in such “business as usual” behavior—but the oil age isn’t over yet and I still have to get around. After a bit of research, I settled on the Ford Escape, a smaller SUV that can haul a lot of stuff without sucking down a main battle tank’s worth of fuel. I was able to get a good deal, and I’m quite happy with it—which is especially important because I keep my cars for a long time and this could well be the last one I ever purchase before the day finally arrives when gasoline becomes prohibitively expensive.

Anyway, when I first started looking, I decided to check out the hybrid version of the Escape, not because I have any silly illusions about hybrids saving the Earth by being “green” or anything, but because I was hoping to maybe save a little gas money. Bad timing on my part as it turned out, for not only was the hybrid model a staggering $7,000 costlier, there were none available at my local dealership unless I wanted to buy the ugly lime green (for the “greenies,” I guess) showroom model. Of course, the salesman was happy to take me to the back lot where over a hundred regular Escapes were all lined up in rows, with just about every feature and color combination I could have possibly desired.

Business must be a little slow, I remarked. He laughed off the comment, but the truth was pretty obvious. He said I could have my pick of the lot that very afternoon, but if I wanted the hybrid version in anything other than a color that made me want to puke I’d have to wait at least six to eight weeks. I told him I would consider my options and went home to talk it over with the wife.

In the end, the decision was easy. We went with the regular version since it is not a commuter car and we will mostly use it for highway driving— the hybrid’s gas mileage on the open road was not nearly enough of an improvement to justify the huge additional cost. Even if gas prices soar to over $5 a gallon sooner rather than later it would still take years to make up the difference.

All of this got me thinking, as just about everything that happens in my life does these days. Clearly, the recent run-up in gasoline prices is once again having a major effect on the public’s car buying habits. It’s depressing to realize how quickly people forgot about the last gas price spike even though it was less than three years ago. For awhile hybrids and other gas sippers were all the rage, but not more than a year after oil prices subsequently crashed along with the stock market, I started seeing a large number of brand new behemoth SUVs and pick-up trucks on the roadways again.

A while back, I wrote a post about the 1980 presidential candidacy of Republican Representative John Anderson, who advocated as one of his central campaign planks a 50 cent a gallon federal gasoline tax (equivalent to about $1.50 today) as a response to the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Anderson instinctively realized that the only way you were going to get Americans to change their behavior, conserve energy and look for alternatives was to hit them in their pocketbooks. It should have been done then, and it most definitely should be done now…but instead you have the spectacle of President Obama and other world “leaders” releasing oil from various nations’ strategic petroleum reserves in a desperate effort to keep prices down.

So what will happen if they manage to succeed in their efforts for a year or two? People will drive more than they otherwise would have, will purchase bigger vehicles than they otherwise could have afforded to buy gas for, and in the near future, probably right after the next presidential election, we will be right back where we started, only with several hundred million less barrels of oil in those reserves that are supposed be there for dire emergencies.

Today it is likely way too late, even if it were politically possible, for America to change course before the onset of a peak oil-induced economic catastrophe. Indeed, we are already well into the early stages of it. The time to act was back when John Anderson was running his quixotic campaign for the presidency. Despite complete inaction on the part of the federal government back then, America did experience a significant decrease in gasoline consumption during the first half of the 1980s as people bought smaller cars and automakers were motivated to build more fuel efficient vehicles. During his college days in the late 1980s, for example, my brother owned a tiny little Geo Metro that got over 45 miles a gallon—more than many hybrid models do today.

Sure enough, however, once gas became cheap again as the last supergiant oil fields in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico came online we reversed course and carmakers began trotting out the gas hogs, first the minivan and then the SUV. Today, by my casual observation vehicles larger than the ones Americans drove back in the 1970s constitute about half of the passenger vehicle fleet.

One last thing of note about the car I bought. I hadn’t purchased a new vehicle since the bad old days of 2002, which was just as the I-Craze was getting started; so I was astonished that my new car came with an IPod connection, a USB port and more electronic doohickeys than I will likely ever be able to figure out how to use. Add in hundreds of satellite radio channel options, and I seriously wonder how some people find the time to actually keep their eyes on the road. Anyone remember back when cars just had an AM radio dial? Then again, that’s very much the motto for America these days: Entertained at All Times and at All Costs.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

If You Don’t Watch Television, You Live in a Whole Different World

Recently, I was making small talk with someone who asked me if I had seen a particular television show. I’m never quite sure how to respond to such an inquiry as more often than not I haven't even heard of the program in question, so I answered patiently that I rarely ever watch television. The other party, a middle aged woman who seemed nice enough, looked at me as if I had just told her that in my spare time I enjoy standing around bus stops in the nude.

Really, she asked, then how do you keep up with what’s going on in the world?

The Internet, mostly, I replied. I prefer to seek out stories I’m interested in and not have someone spoon feed to me what they think is important.

Hearing this, she immediately switched gears. So what do you think about the Casey Anthony trial?

She got me with that one. I asked, who is Casey Anthony? And no, I wasn’t being an ass; at the time I genuinely had no idea.

Not surprisingly, after what I subsequently discovered, the conversation quickly petered out. That night I Googled the name to see what the lady had been referring to and—ah yes, a little white girl murdered, this time by her own mother. Another overhyped media spectacle of absolutely zero importance to anyone beyond little Caylee Anthony’s family. Shame on me for not knowing. I’m such an uncaring bastard. A few days later, Jim Kunstler included a snide reference to the case on his blog, which caused me to laugh out loud at the coincidental timing of my having just become aware of it.

So the point was driven home yet again—because I do not participate in the vapid, celebrity-driven spectacle of our mainstream media, I live in a completely different world than do the vast majority of Americans. What’s funny is that it’s not like I’m a hermit or anything. I live in a prosperous suburb of the imperial capital and I keep a pretty close eye on the doings of the arrogant local denizens who think they create their own reality around the world. I can explain to you in great detail what’s happening in many different countries, most particularly my own, but because I am so sheltered as to not have any idea who Casey and Caylee Anthony are I’m at a disadvantage when making casual conversation at parties. It’s surreal, to say the least.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Coming of age in the 1970s, I was raised on television like nearly every child of my generation and can probably recite all of the lines from various Bugs Bunny cartoons from memory. Being a curious youth who was interested in what was going on in the wider world beyond my parochial hometown, by my high school years I was an avid viewer of the nightly network news. MASH was then my favorite entertainment show--its strong antiwar message holding much appeal for me. Television was a huge part of my life.

Probably my first realization of the power the medium can have over people’s thoughts was during high school history when the teacher asserted that he could take over the country if he was given complete control of just three institutions: ABC, NBC and CBS (no cable or satellite channels back in those days, obviously). Shortly thereafter, cable television and CNN came to my hometown and I quickly became a junkie, often watching the half-hour Headline News broadcast two or three times in succession.

When I got to college, a political science professor proclaimed that it was important to watch the television news in addition to reading a daily newspaper if you wanted to fully understand what was going on in the world. Faithfully, I followed the tenants of my education, keeping a subscription first to the Chicago Tribune and then the Washington Post well into my thirties. CNN was a regular part of my day, and I still enjoyed numerous entertainment shows like Cheers and Seinfeld.

But somewhere along the way, it all started to go bad. The first time I remember being really disgusted by overhyped “news” coverage was during the O.J. Simpson trial. Naively hoping that the media would regain its senses once that spectacle was over, I was instead dismayed when such sensationalist coverage became the norm.

It was around that same time that Fox News appeared on the scene, and even worse than its right wing editorial slant was how it drew viewers by MTV-ifying its coverage—using quick edits, slick graphics, sensationalism and celebrity worship when not actively pushing its political agenda. Instead of resisting this coarsening of news broadcasts, the other networks instead fell all over themselves to imitate it. Meanwhile, I noticed that the number of entertainment shows I watched regularly was quickly dwindling as quality programs went off the air and were replaced by utterly vapid prime time game and reality shows.

After 9/11 came the now omnipresent running scroll at the bottom of the screen during news broadcasts, but I noticed that the more information the networks insisted on presenting, the less actual value it had. By the middle of this past decade I had become an Internet news junkie, rarely turning on the teevee for information at all. For entertainment programs, I eventually whittled my regular viewing all the way down to just The Daily Show, which I ultimately gave up this past year after Jon Stewart’s hugely dispiriting Rally to Encourage People to Do Nothing.

So now here I am, braying in the Internet wilderness, writing a blog so at odds with what most of my fellow citizens accept as reality that I fear their heads would explode if they ever read it. It’s a strange feeling, but sometimes it can be fairly exhilarating—such as the grim satisfaction I felt when the stock market crash I had been predicting to my friends and colleagues throughout the summer of 2008 came to pass and they then thought I was clairvoyant. The evidence was all there, I tried to tell them afterward, you just need to stop believing what you see on the news.

Occasionally, I’ll read a peak oil article where the writer will be very earnest in suggesting this or that big picture solution for the problem of our society transitioning to a powered down world. They always make sense, and I appreciate their efforts, but then I think about the above and realize the author is no doubt someone like me—thinking so far outside (the idiot) box that they will never be able to get through to the idiots.

That’s why I don’t offer such solutions here. Instead, I merely implore my readers to do what they can to prepare themselves and those they care about for what’s coming. It’s all you can do, really, until the day finally comes when what the late author Joe Bageant used to refer to as The American Hologram delivers its final broadcast, and is ultimately revealed to have been a mass hypnosis conjured by slick hucksters who have made the little man behind the Great and Powerful Oz look like a rank amateur.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How Long You Have Left Depends on How Prepared You Are

With this post I am probably going to raise the ire of some of my friends in the doomer community who adhere to belief in the so-called “fast crash” Peak Oil scenario, as this analysis is going to assume that the ongoing ‘slow crash” we have been experiencing since 2008 (and arguably much longer than that) is going to continue. Of course, part of the slow crash/fast crash argument depends on how you define “fast” and “slow.” I define a “slow” crash as taking at least a generation to play out, but some would say that America going from a globe-dominating colossus to a powered down feudal state in around 20 years is from a historical perspective the very definition of a fast crash. Point taken, I cannot argue with that.

Most fast crashers, however, believe that we are right now approaching the point at which the global financial system will collapse, resulting in massive disruptions to food and energy supplies and quickly causing law and order to break down as looting and rioting spread across the landscape. So far the closest we have come to that scenario playing out was after the Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008 when the U.S. banking system suffered an electronic run and, if the subsequent news reports are to be believed, only a massive cash infusion by the Federal Reserve prevented a complete failure.

Since those harrowing days, however, things have stabilized, even if only through an insane level of borrowed money being injected into the entire economy by the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve. You can argue that these easy money policies are devaluing the dollar and are creating utterly unsustainable levels of debt, and you’ll get no objection from me on that point. But you cannot deny that they HAVE worked in the short term. Moreover, they have greatly reduced the likelihood of a fast crash anytime soon since The Powers That Be now recognize the risks and will act to head off any other event that could trigger another banking panic, as they have recently in Greece. If that isn't enough to convince you, ask yourself this: how many of us doomers watching events unfold in the fall of 2008 would have predicted that three years later the facade of business as usual would still be firmly in place?

However you define what’s coming, and I prefer how peak oil activist Chris Martenson puts it as part of his excellent Crash Course series of videos—“The next 20 years will be utterly unlike that last 20 years”—we have clearly reached a turning point in American and human history and huge changes will shortly befall all of us. An often asked question for those that have accepted this basic truth then becomes, “How long do we have?” Well, I don’t claim to be a savant or a fortune teller. All I am is a blogger sitting on the couch in my basement who tries to exercise a little critical thinking about the state of the world using as much impartial data as I can find. So with that in mind, here is my ambiguous answer in the best tradition of the American legal system: It depends.

Wow, Bill, I hear you saying. Awesome analysis. I could just as easily have come up with that one on my own.

Okay then, bear with me for a moment while I define what doom really means. Are we in agreement that doom for the average person means unemployment, homelessness, hunger, being in constant discomfort and having absolutely no hope for the future? That sure sounds like my definition of doom--the point where I as someone who relishes every day of my life upon the surface of this planet would seriously consider locking and loading my very last round and sending it through the roof of my mouth into my brainpan.

By that definition of doom, there are many people in America who are either already there or are drawing perilously close. In the past few years, I’ve passed by numerous homeless camps on the sides of the road around my area and have seen the broken down derelicts who occupy them. It used to be that you only saw such folks in the inner city, but nowadays there are plenty of places in the suburbs and exurbs where they congregate. Traditionally, most homeless people were in that condition due to prolonged substance abuse or mental illness, but you have to figure that the explosion of their numbers in recent years is largely due to job losses and not knowing how to cope with the new economic realities.

It’s the people in that latter category who serve as an example of the future that will soon be faced by tens of millions of Americans. Most people today still believe there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our economy, that the downturn of the past few years is just a hiccup and eventually everything will return to normal. You can see this in the numbers of the unemployed who are foolishly taking out student loans to go back to school in order to make themselves more marketable, despite the fact that there are few job opportunities even for recent college graduates and there is no driver for jobs to be created in cubicle-land. Every dollar an unemployed person pays or borrows for so-called “education” is a wasted opportunity that unfortunately brings them a little bit closer to the day of reckoning rather than being their salvation.

Because our so-called “leaders” refuse to level with the general public about what is happening, preferring feel good bromides about “green shoots" and “turning the corner” in hopes of getting reelected, most people today continue to make bad economic decisions that will eventually cause them to become more vulnerable as times get worse. The recent high school graduate filling out a student loan application with the intention of studying liberal arts, the young couple looking at purchasing their dream home 30 miles from their jobs, the soccer mom buying an oversized SUV thinking she is keeping her children “safe” and the middle aged professional shoveling money into his 401K account while dreaming of an easy retirement are each making terrible decisions that will come back to haunt them within the next decade. All of them will eventually realize to their chagrin that had they known what was coming they should have made much different choices.

There is nothing that can be done about this phenomenon. The power of our corporate-owned and utterly compromised mainstream media is far too pervasive to be overcome by a few voices out here shouting the truth in the Internet wilderness. I note that whenever I try to discuss these issues with friends or colleagues in meat space I have to be very careful not to get too far out in front of what they are willing to hear lest they shut down on me and become totally unreceptive. Nudging them towards the truth is all I can do; most likely will not get there until it’s too late.

Worse off are those who rely on any kind of government check--be it welfare, rental assistance, food stamps, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security or retirement payment--for their survival. The federal government’s finances are deeply out of whack and the day will eventually come when it will default on its obligations and those EFT payments will stop coming. When that happens, the ranks of those approaching doom’s critical mass will jump very quickly and our body politic will destabilize overnight. It likely won’t yet bring the system down completely, but daily life in America is going to be very difficult for most people after that, even the ones lucky enough to still be employed.

The comforting aspect of all of this for doomers is that the more prepared you are, the better chance you have to weather the coming storm. As the old adage says, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than the slowest camper. Being prepared means at a minimum getting out of debt, investing in hard assets and having some form of personal protection. Just by doing those things you will have placed your long term survival chances ahead of well more than 90% of the herd. Beyond that, it is anyone’s guess as to how long we really have left before the façade of business as usual crumbles once and for all and the onset of a powered down future becomes undeniable.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hunter S. Thompson and America's "High Water Mark"

The following is an excerpt from the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by the Godfather of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. The main theme of the book was the hippie generation of the 60s coming to grips with the so-called American Dream, as they understood it, dying right before their eyes in the age of Richard Nixon.

The book was written in 1971, as the Vietnam War was beginning to wind down, the Apollo Program was landing astronauts on the moon and American domestic oil production was reaching it's all time peak. A pivotal moment in our history, I think we can all agree.

Sadly, the drugs that helped fuel Thompson's best works led to him becoming an increasingly addled caricature of himself before he finally committed suicide in 2005. In his prime, however, he was also an absolutely brilliant writer, so I will stand aside and let him describe Peak America as only he could:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime...San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of...

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons nobody really understands at the time--and which never explains in retrospect, what actually happened...

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda...You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...

So now, less than five years later, you can go up a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost SEE the high water mark--that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lies Our Leaders Tell Us – “Nobody Could Have Predicted”

There has been a lot of commentary within the peak oil movement as of late noting that the concept seems to be creeping ever closer to mainstream acceptance. While we should be heartened that the logic of our arguments is finally beginning to shine through the fog of denial and obfuscation, we also need to remind ourselves that we still have a long way to go before any major political leader will be willing to come out and flatly acknowledge the truth. So how will we know when that happens? I suspect it will be when we hear this phrase uttered in connection with peak oil: “Nobody could have predicted…”

If I’m right, it will be the third time that phrase has been applied to an issue of grave national concern in recent memory. The first time was right after 9/11, when apologists for the Bush administration used it to deflect criticism that both the president and his senior officials had completely dropped the ball on protecting the country from a major terrorist attack. They had, of course, and it was ultimately revealed by former Chief Counter-terrorism Advisor Richard Clarke that warnings of the impending attack were repeatedly sounded by lower level officials in the months leading up to that awful day.

But what about the argument itself—is it true that nobody could have predicted that a terrorist might fly a jet airliner into a vital building? Not hardly. Back in 1974, when Osama Bin Laden was still a student in Jeddah studying economics and business administration at the Al-Thager Model School, a disaffected, unemployed American tire salesman named Samuel Byck attempted to hijack an airliner at Baltimore-Washington International Airport so he could fly it into the White House and kill President Nixon.

That Byck’s plan had little hope of success was due to his lack of planning and impulsive, cowboy-like attempt to storm on board the plane. There is little doubt, however, that had Byck employed a more rational approach—taking flying lessons as later did the Al-Qaeda operatives and boarding the plane disguised as a normal passenger—he would have had a fair chance of success. If such a delusional, angry loner could think of the idea 27 years before OBL’s minions successfully pulled it off, you know there were plenty of contingency plans aimed at preventing it buried within the federal government’s national security vaults. Nobody could have predicted…indeed.

The next time this big lie came in to play was in the wake of the economic crash of 2008 that was primarily caused by the popping of the housing bubble. Once again, our nation’s so-called “leaders” trotted out the phrase over and over even as they rammed a $700 billion bailout package for Wall Street and the big banks down the American taxpayer’s throats. How could anyone have possibly known that average home prices doubling in less than a decade and being used issue debt to prop up the entire economy was unsustainable? This was the line repeated over and over again by everyone from President Bush to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan; the latter of whom, of course, did more than any other single figure to set the financial conditions that created the bubble through his reckless interest rate policies.

So how could any of the politicians and the players who profited so handsomely off the housing bubble and who stood to lose it all without the bailout possibly have known what was going to happen? Well, perhaps by listening to respected voices like New York University Economics Professor Nouriel Roubini, who argued long before the bubble popped that it had the potential to cause an economic crash "much nastier, deeper and more protracted" than the 2001 recession. As is always the case when a truth-teller gets in the way of the making of massive corporate profits, Roubini was ignored and the party continued on until the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a panic that nearly brought down the entire U.S. banking system. Nobody could have predicted? Not from where I’m sitting.

Of course, the most maddening aspect of when the phrase inevitably gets used in connection with peak oil is that the warning signs have been there for nearly 40 years, dating all the way back to the first gas lines in 1973. As I noted in an earlier article, Rand Corporation Analyst Richard Nehring produced a paper for the CIA in 1978 that made an uncannily accurate prediction about how long world oil supplies would last. Nehring gave a figure of 60-90 years until the oil ran out, and a third of a century has passed with his warning having gone essentially unheeded by policymakers. Making matters worse, we have also learned since Nehring’s time that from an economic standpoint it is not the total amount of remaining oil reserves that really matters, but rather the RATE at which those reserves can be extracted.

So that brings us back to the present day in which those of us in the peak oil community await the uttering of that phrase, “Nobody could have predicted…” in connection with oil production and energy supplies. Thinking about all of this, you realize just how feckless America’s political leadership really is. There is no more fundamentally basic responsibility of any government than to ensure that a nation is secure from attack, that its economy is not vulnerable to collapse and that it has sufficient energy supplies to meet its future needs. Within just this past decade, our so-called “leaders” have utterly failed us on all three counts.

But nobody could have predicted…

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Rant: If You Want to Understand What’s Really Going on in the World, Stop Thinking Like a Middle Class American

I was having a conversation with a professional colleague the other day who had spent some time working in Egypt and was reassigned back home shortly before the protests erupted that resulted in the abrupt departure from power of Hosni Mubarak. We started talking about the state of the economy, and I mentioned how the reckless policies of the Federal Reserve, engaging in Quantitative Easing and setting interests rates near 0%, were a primary factor leading to Mubarak’s ouster and the civil unrest that has been spreading across the Middle East. My colleague, who spent a year in Cairo and presumably would have seen the conditions there first hand, looked at me quizzically and asked on what basis I was making my assertion.

I patiently explained that by flooding the world’s economy with liquidity, Benny and the Ink Jets (as I affectionately refer to Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke) devalued the dollar and greatly increased speculative investment in the commodities markets by the same pack of jackals that crashed the economy in the first place. This has led to a dramatic rise in the costs of food and energy, which are priced in dollars due to America being in the advantageous position of having the world’s reserve currency. I specifically mentioned the exploding price of sugar, which had been cited in several news reports as having been a major factor in the initial uprisings in Tunisia that eventually spread to Egypt.

This only produced more obvious confusion on the part of my colleague. Sugar, he asked, how is that such a big deal?

Now then, I can be much more patient when talking to people in meat space who remain in the dark about the issues that I write about on this blog than it sometimes may seem from how I come across around here. Instead of being snide or condescending (after all, I gotta work with this guy), I explained that historically, rising food prices have ALWAYS been a key factor in revolts against oppressive regimes. I went on to add that in order to really gain an understanding of what was happening in Egypt and elsewhere, my friend needed to stop thinking like a typical middle class American.

Not since the Great Depression have the majority of Americans had to think much about the costs of food and energy, which for most people during the post-World War Two period have consumed only a relatively small percentage (maybe 10-20%) of the family budget. As I stated to my colleague, however, just the cost of food alone for the vast majority of Egyptians takes upwards of 50% or more of their annual income. Therefore, an increase of, say 25%, in the cost of basic foodstuffs like corn, wheat and sugar, a mere annoyance to most Americans, can literally be a matter of life and death to people living at or near subsistence level who do not have a food stamp program to fall back on to feed their children when times get rough.

At about this point, I sensed some understanding beginning to dawn upon my colleague. You know, he said, I never thought of it that way.

I added that there are a lot of issues he would understand better if he dropped his American-centric view of the world. It doesn’t take too much imagination, I said, to realize why people in countries where our military is dropping drone missiles might hate us. Certainly, we would probably hate them if they were doing the same to us.

You’re right, he answered, but I could tell he was getting uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation so I let it go at that.

Such points ought to be blindingly obvious, but they rarely are to a citizenry who are constantly being fed the lies regarding American Exceptionalism by our corporate-owned and utterly compromised mainstream media. The resulting lack of critical thinking allows our government officials, as they did the other day for example, to announce that they are exploring the possibility of war crimes charges against Syria while being confident that their fellow Americans will never demand they be held accountable for the many civilian deaths that result whenever our drone missiles fly.

The whole conversation left me profoundly depressed. For if my colleague, a well educated American of the tiny minority that has not only traveled overseas but lived there as well, could be so utterly clueless about the real state affairs in the world what hope is there for the bovine herd sitting around munching buffalo wings, drinking Lite beer and watching Jersey Shore? The default position for most people today is not only to not know, but to not want to know. As long as the lights go on when they hit the switch, the supermarket has plenty of food on the shelves and the filling station has gasoline available for the SUV, all is well and good.

Pass me the remote, hon, this show is starting to bore me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Where Were You When the Walls Went UP?

I used to consider myself extremely fortunate to have graduated from college the very year that the Berlin Wall fell--a very exciting time to be a young American just embarking on your working career. The Cold War was over and the future seemed so bright that we had to wear shades, but no longer to shield us from the glare of a possible nuclear holocaust. Where were you when The Wall came down? That was a question many of us asked each other back then in our enthusiasm for the future.

Two years later the Soviet Union collapsed for good and by the following autumn I had relocated from Chicago to Washington, DC. It was an exciting to be living in the nation’s capital. Bill Clinton was elected President less than two months after I got here, and even if you weren’t terribly political you could tell there was a sea change in the air as a stuffy generation of older politicos gave way a young and vibrant new generation. We were going to change the world back then, using the so-called “Peace Dividend” to help America finally live up to its values and principles.

So what the hell happened?

The shortcomings of Bill Clinton as a “leader” are well documented and need not be recounted here. The first Baby Boomer president turned out to be just as superficial and narcissistic as the stereotype that bedevils his generation in general. He was followed, of course, by an even worse Boomer in Junior Bush; the two of them representing the ying and yang of college age 1960s youth—counterculture on the one hand and establishment on the other.

Between them they managed to oversee the completion of the project to wreck American representative democracy that gained steam with the election of Ronald Reagan back in 1980. The central component of this effort was our nation’s transition from republic to empire, and nowhere has this transformation been more physically evident than in the Imperial Capital.

Amazing as it seems now, when I first moved to DC an American citizen wanting to visit one of their representatives or even the office of a government official could walk right into a federal building without having to pass through security barriers or enduring an airport-security style screening. Security in the nation’s capital as we know it today didn’t really start to ratchet up until after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when Clinton took the first big step by ordering that Pennsylvania Avenue be closed in front of the White House:

Of course the security measures then REALLY took off after 9/11. Partly because of fear of the next terrorist attack, but mostly because Beltway bandit contractors and their paid army of lobbyists recognized just how much money there was to be made from the latest political buzzword. No elected official or senior government bureaucrat was ever going to take a chance at being accused of being “soft” on security measures. Certainly not if he or she wanted to keep their job.

And so the security barriers went up--from the Capitol to the Washington Monument--and with them was born Fortress DC, an unwelcoming place in which the people’s so called “representatives” and bureaucratic officials hide from the public behind walls that become a little more forbidding with each passing year. Today you can’t even ride on the Washington Metro subway system without the specter of your bag potentially being searched, and just to make sure the masses go along with it prerecorded messages from the likes of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano blare over the Metro’s public address system extolling riders to be vigilant and if they “see something, say something.”

True story: one day a few years ago the building that I work in was locked down for a couple of hours after some overly hysterical employee reported finding white powder on the floor of the women's restroom. The hazmat team from the local fire department responded and determined that the potential "deadly" threat was (surprise! surprise!) talcum powder.

Lost in all of the hysteria is that there has not been a successful terrorist attack on the American homeland in nearly ten years. This is not to say vigilance isn't important, but it must be weighed against the waste of many billions of dollars and the loss of our basic freedoms.

All of this has somehow become “normal” and accepted by a docile public. The national security state radiates outward from the Capital Beltway through the nation’s airports and sports venues and even more recently to its small town Walmarts. Paranoia strikes deep, and it has indeed struck our own body politic so deeply that we fail to even recognize it as paranoia anymore.

No supposedly democratic society can survive with the malignant cancer of an out-of-control national security state metastasizing within its bowels. It's a supreme irony that the fall more than 20 years ago of the most iconic symbol of state security repression the world has ever seen should have been almost immediately followed by the rise of a repressive national security state within the very open society that had led the fight to tear that wall down.

Benjamin Franklin had it right when he said that those who would trade a little liberty for a little safety deserve neither. He also said that the founding fathers had given us a republic, if we could keep it. Unfortunately, it has become very evident that we cannot. Osama bin Laden did not take our freedoms away; we managed to do that to ourselves.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fittingly, Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System as the Last Space Shuttle Gets Ready to Launch

It was reported this week that the Voyager 1 space probe, currently the farthest flung made man object from planet Earth, will be leaving the boundaries of our solar system any day now. In its heyday, Voyager was a spectacular technical triumph, sending back to Earth amazing close up photographs of Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980; rekindling public interest in a space program that was seemingly running in place after the last Apollo moon mission in 1972. The unmanned space vehicle now becomes the first object of human construction to exit our solar system at almost exactly the same time that America is preparing to launch its final manned space flight, and the symbolism could not be any more apt.

No other institution more dramatically represents the rising and declining fortunes of this country in the post-World War Two period than the space program. In the early postwar days, America took advantage of the technical know-how of German rocket scientists, particularly the brilliant Wernher von Braun, who was a member of the Nazi Party and was complicit in war crimes by constructing his V-2 rockets with slave labor. Overlooking Braun’s past and using his expertise to help win the space race against the Soviet Union was a typical example of the moral compromises America often made during the Cold War period.

It was also the paranoia generated by the Cold War, rather than any desire to engage in exploration for mere knowledge’s sake, that first drove the country toward its ultimate space triumph, landing a man on the moon. The Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957 filled America’s leadership with dark visions of orbiting nuclear platforms, and thus galvanized the political will to fund a program to catch up in the space race. This led to the launch of Project Mercury, which in 1961 sent Astronaut Alan Shepard into space just as a young and vital new president was settling into the Oval Office.

Galvanized by that success, President Kennedy promised that America would land a human being on the moon before the decade’s end, a daunting technical leap to be accomplished in a relatively short period of time. Kennedy’s words were stirring:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

At the time, America was uniquely positioned to accomplish Kennedy’s goal. Possessing by far the most dynamic economy in the world, thanks in large part to possessing a vast quantity of easy-to-exploit oil reserves, the country had the excess abundance to allow it to undertake such a costly effort.

The 1969 landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon was a tremendous accomplishment, and even managed to beat Kennedy’s deadline by a few months--demonstrating once and for all what this country could accomplish when its attention and resources were properly focused. Unfortunately, the event took place against the backdrop of a bloody war that was ripping the country apart politically; the eventual end of which would be the first major blow to America’s post-World War Two prestige.

Unnoticed at the time, but of far more dire consequence, was the fact that first moon landing occurred almost simultaneously with the peaking of domestic American oil production. By the time America’s active involvement in the Vietnam War ended in 1973 we were already far too dependent on oil imports, a point that was dramatically driven home by the gas lines resulting from the first Arab oil embargo that same year.

With the costs for the Vietnam War mounting, President Nixon and a Democratic Congress conspired to quash NASA’s plans to follow up the Apollo landings by taking the next logical step, a manned Mars mission. It was at this moment, just a couple of years after the peak of American oil production, that the nation turned its back on further exploration and began a long term economic, social and political decline that continues to this day.

Voyagers 1 & 2 temporarily resurrected the illusion of progress in the space program as the decade of the 1970s came to a close. The success of the unmanned probes and the dramatic photographs they took were the last chance the agency had to rekindle public interest to the point where proper funding could be restored for space exploration, but the election of Ronald Reagan and the new anti-government, tax cutting rhetoric coming out of Washington effectively ended any hope for a reversal of fortune.

Reagan’s bashing of government and his deregulatory zeal helped create a political climate ripe for the tragedy that ultimate struck the space program during his tenure. In January 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded a few minutes after liftoff, shattering NASA’s previous glittering reputation as a “can-do” agency. There had been accidents before, most notably a fatal fire aboard Apollo 1, but nothing on this order of magnitude.

The cause of the disaster was ultimately found to have been the faulty design of a key component supplied by a contractor combined with an overly ambitious flight schedule. In other words, NASA being forced to do things on the cheap while trying to maintain appearances was what ultimately doomed the Challenger. More telling is what happened to the contractor, Morton Thiokol, which “voluntarily accepted” the forfeiture of a $10 million incentive fee in order to avoid being forced to accept liability for the disaster (according to Wikipedia), a foreboding sign of the complete lack of corporate accountability we see in America today.

Since the Challenger disaster, the space program has limped on for another quarter century, becoming more and more irrelevant with each passing year. By February 2003, when another Space Shuttle was destroyed upon reentry, ironically shortly before the beginning of yet another grievous and unnecessary American war, the country seemed to almost take the latest major blow to its prestige in stride rather than see it as a sign of terminal decline. The following year, President Bush announced the impending end of the Space Shuttle program in true Orwellian fashion by issuing his Vision for Space Exploration.

Plans are still on the books to go forward with the Orion program, alleged to be the next generation of space vehicle, and the latest mantra is that the private sector is now going to take over from NASA in propelling the era of manned space flight forward. The obvious logical flaw in such an arrangement is, of course, that space flight is very costly and has no real commercial application beyond the ambitions of a few wealthy “space tourists.” Clearly, in this “age of austerity” the resources are not going to be available for continued advancements in space exploration, and thus the era of American manned space flight comes to an inglorious end just as the economy is slowly imploding from the effects of the peak in oil production moving on from our country to embrace the rest of the world.

Someday, a hundred years from now perhaps, tales will be told to young children around the evening campfire of a fanciful time when human beings actually walked upon the face of the moon. Sadly, those stories will likely be treated by those youngsters with the same sense of wonder and yet innate disbelief as the legends of the Greek gods of mythology are today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

$100,000 in Student Loan Debt, Can’t Find a Job

I’ve written on this blog time and again about the current dreadful state of the American economy, at least for many in the working and middle classes. Most of what I‘ve said here has been based upon media articles or on the parsing of economic statistics. There is plenty of evidence out there for anyone who cares to cut through all of the mainstream media obfuscation that a lot of economic pain is being inflicted upon a whole lot of people.

More rarely do I actually have a chance to see the real world effects of what I write about up close and personal. I live in the Washington, DC, metro area, which has been, largely due to the massive increase in federal government deficit spending since the beginning of the economic crisis back in 2008, a relative bubble of prosperity amidst the economic calamity going on in much of the rest of the country.

This past week, however, it all hit home unexpectedly when my wife offered up the use of our spare bedroom to a young college graduate from out-of-state whom she had met at a professional conference when the young woman was still a student. My wife arranged for the young lady, whom I will call Leslie, to meet with some of her professional contacts as part of her ongoing career search.

Leslie spent several days getting together with the people whom my wife had arranged for her to meet and spreading her resume around to anyone willing to take a copy. She had finished her Master’s Degree this past spring, graduating from a good college with a high grade point average—in other words she is the kind of person who not all that long ago would have been snapped up by an employer in relatively short order, likely after having recevied multiple job offers. Unfortunately for her she graduated into, as she herself put it, the worst job market for new college graduates since 1948.

I didn’t know Leslie before she came to stay with us, so I was completely unaware of her personal situation. On her last afternoon with us, we talked for a while about her job search and her life. Leslie is not the stereotypical middle class kid whose parents spoiled her and instilled unrealistic expectations. In fact, both of her parents died when she was still a child, her father from drug and alcohol addiction. She was raised by relatives and had to work very hard to achieve what she did academically.

Unfortunately, that meant taking out student loans so she could afford to go to college—ultimately around $100,000 dollars worth. That would have been quite a nut to have to repay with interest even had she been able to immediately find a good paying job in a healthy economy. As it is, she is unemployed, desperately searching for work and her only source of income is her live-in boyfriend’s wages—about $10 dollars an hour. That and the food stamps they are eligible for and are receiving. To say she and her boyfriend are nervous about the future is a cruel understatement.

At one point during our conversation she asked me what I would do if I were in her situation. I was honest and said I really had no idea what she was going through. I graduated from college debt free more than twenty years ago thanks to the National Guard’s tuition program, and also thanks to college costs having not yet become so insanely expensive. Moreover, even though the country was just then heading into Daddy Bush's recession, I was hired less than a month after graduation.

But it was when she confided to me her future hopes and dreams that the heartbreak of her situation really became apparent. I’m not looking to be rich, she said. All I want is to be middle class, which they promised me I could be if I got a good education. I just want to be able to eventually afford to buy a home so I can raise a family. And have a secure retirement. Is that too much to ask?

There really wasn’t a whole lot I could do other than nod and agree. As I dropped her off so she could catch the bus back home she thanked me profusely for our hospitality. I told her it was no problem and lamely wished her well on her job search.

One other thing she said that really struck me was how she wished, if what her generation of college graduates is going through represents a permanent change in economic conditions rather than just a temporary downturn, someone in a position of authority would say something. She even added that President Obama has seemingly turned his back on the young people who were among his most adamant supporters. Funny, how a 23-year-old woman experiencing what is really going on in this economy makes more sense than nearly every media pundit who gets paid the big bucks to pontificate about it.

So what do we, the older generations who were lucky enough to have been born and raised in the all-too-brief era of cheap oil-fueled economic abundance, say to someone like Leslie? Sorry, kid, the future is fucked. We got ours, and best of luck to you. In the end, I couldn’t think of anything at all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Guess What, Seniors? The AARP Just Threw You Under the Bus

In talking with others, I often find myself in the unenviable position of trying to convince them that some large institution they think is working on their behalf is actually their enemy. For example, liberals get all defensive when I point out that on issues of real importance regarding the economy and foreign policy, President Obama is no different from the hated Bush. A Tea Partier, on the other hand, might get testy when it is demonstrated that big corporations benefit far more from government largess than do Medicaid and welfare recipients and that Republicans are the biggest defenders of corporate subsidies. Though it rarely sinks in, I try to warn people that when it comes to dealing with any large institution these days, be it corporate, governmental, religious or even charitable, the mantra of the little person should always be: Trust No One.

And that brings me to the breathtaking announcement last Friday by the American Association of Retired Persons, supposedly the preeminent lobbying entity for the nation’s senior citizens, that it would concede to allow cuts in Social Security benefits. This move comes after the AARP basically sat around watching pretty birdies fly by during the past two years as Congress and the Obama Administration curtailed the annual cost of living increases for beneficiaries. The organization also remained mute when the tax deal Obama and the Republicans struck in December slashed Social Security taxes, thereby ensuring that the program’s ultimate day of financial reckoning would come sooner rather than later. So much for what we’ve always heard, that Social Security is allegedly the “third rail of American Politics.”

Please understand, I don’t want to get into an argument about Social Security’s long-term viability or whether the program is broke. It is true that the so-called Social Security “trust fund” is actually loaded up with Treasury securities—in other words government debt that can only be redeemed by increasing the deficit—and it is also true that the program faces a long term revenue shortfall amounting to many trillions of dollars. That is not the focus of this piece. No, what is really more telling in this story is how yet another large American institution that vacuums up millions of dollars in membership dues from the nation’s elderly (and some not so elderly) was so quick to sell its membership down the river on the one issue that is of the most importance to it.

The first thing you need to know to understand why the AARP caved in so quickly is that in 2009, former CEO William D. Novelli earned over $1 million in salary and deferred compensation. That same year, 17 other AARP executives pulled down in excess of $300,000 apiece. Does that sound like a group of people who have ANY idea what it might be like to be a retiree and try and make ends meet on a monthly Social Security check alone? Another little fact you need to know: in 2008, AARP earned over $770 million in income from peddling supplemental health insurance policies to its members and for paid advertisements placed in its publications (according to Wikipedia). Add that all up and a picture begins to emerge of an organization that is much more beholden to corporate America than it is to its rank and file membership.

It really should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the state of affairs in America these days. Organizations across the board, be they companies, banks, unions, churches or government agencies have become calcified and protective of the perquisites enjoyed by insiders at the expense of all else, including and especially the common good.

AARP’s own history shows the typical trajectory for such American institutions. Founded back in 1958, its original mission statement declared it to be: “a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for people age 50 and over…dedicated to enhancing quality of life for all as we age." Note the non-profit portion of that proclamation—not exactly consistent with an organization employing a millionaire CEO and raking in hundreds of millions from corporate America.

In 1999, in the typically idiotic manner of corporate America that has changed, for example, the name of the fast food chain formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken to just KFC, AARP similarly consolidated its handle to just its initials, presumably dropping the word Retired from its name in an effort to discourage indecorous commentators like yours truly from pointing out that the organization is now happy to start sucking membership dues from anyone who turns 50 and is thus presumably still many years away from retirement.

More importantly, it has always been understood that the primary purpose of the approximately $23 million AARP spends on lobbying every year is to protect Social Security benefits. Indeed, as recently as 2005, the organization’s lobbying was a key to helping defeat President Bush’s half-baked privatization plan. In more recent times, however, it has gone AWOL on its membership; by not forcefully opposing the freeze on annual cost of living increases, by not opposing the Social Security tax cut and now with this move—all while continuing to happily take those annual membership dues from the suckers who still believe AARP is looking out for their best interests.

I assume if you’re reading this blog you have likely accepted the fact that Social Security is ultimately doomed. The only question is how long will it be before the Grim Reaper swings his scythe and the monthly EFT payments stop coming. If you know that then there is really no point in sending your membership dues to an organization that is far more interested in maintaining the pay and perquisites of its senior leadership than it is fighting on your behalf. Let the other suckers foot the bill for the AARP’s fraudulent lobbying efforts. In the long run, the result is going to be the same anyway.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Top Six Writing Influences

Since I started this blog, I’ve received a lot of comments from readers who say they really enjoy my writing style, which is quite gratifying because not only was I not an English major, I was actually an atrocious speller as a child and positively HATED being forced by my teachers to diagram sentences in class. As I grew older, I managed to improve my writing skills by becoming a voracious reader—and not even so much the classics, of which I will readily admit to not having read as many as I should.

Since this is Sunday and normally a quiet day on the news font, I thought I’d indulge myself a little bit and put together for those interested a little list of other writers who are my most important influences. These are literary artists who, despite writing non-fiction, use prose that grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and demands their attention. The subject matter they write about varies considerably, but what really matters is HOW they tell the story.

So all of that said, let’s get on to the list:

Hunter S. Thompson – the fact that I’ve used the phrase Fear and Loathing in the title of a couple of my blog posts should be a clue that the good doctor is a strong influence on my writing. Because Thompson spent a long career twilight as a drug-addled caricature of himself before finally committing suicide in 2005, people tend to forget how great he was during his heyday. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is his signature work, the central theme of which is the death of the American Dream, a topic of obvious relevance to this blog. Just as good were many of his pieces of actual journalism produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s; from the fascinating book, Hell’s Angels, to his blisteringly insightful coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign in which the Godfather of Gonzo Journalism nailed Richard Nixon’s character better than any reporter ever did before the Watergate scandal broke wide open.

Joe Bageant – it is really a shame that the man who ought to be the pride of Winchester, Virginia, died of cancer earlier this year having produced only two books during his lifetime. Deer Hunting With Jesus and Rainbow Pie are simply MUST-reads for anyone who truly wants to understand what has gone wrong with modern America. Even as good as they are, Bageant was a rarity in that he actually did some of his best writing on his blog. From 2004 until his memorable last post in December 2010 (“America: Y Ur Peeps Be So Dum?”), no blogger out there produced such high quality prose on the ‘Net. RIP, Joe, we miss you dearly.

Mike Royko – The late columnist for three different Chicago newspapers is another guy who did much of his best work in a highly disposable medium. Royko literally cranked out thousands of first rate columns from the mid-1960s until his death in 1997. Invariably, Royko took the side of the little guy against whatever corporate or governmental forces were trying to trample him or her, and for his troubles became a permanent enemy of the Daley Machine. The collected anthologies of his columns are priceless treasures, and his one actual full length book, Boss—Richard J. Daley of Chicago, is considered one of THE best works ever written about municipal politics and corruption in America.

Bill Bryson – The author of the delightfully funny and massively successful A Walk in the Woods is a much different kind of chap than those above him on the list. Nevertheless, readers who have only experienced his lighter-hearted later works might be surprised that Bryson’s earlier stuff was actually quite biting. For me his best book is The Lost Continent, which recounts the first time he returned to the United States after 20 years of living in England and travelled around the country in an effort to get reacquainted with his roots. To say he wasn’t exactly charmed by what he saw is an understatement. His subsequent second return to America resulted in Woods—which is also a very insightful work but doesn’t pack quite as much of a visceral punch. What Bryson has always excelled at throughout his career is writing prose that reads as if he is sitting right next to you telling a story.

Tony Horwitz – Like Bryson, Horwitz was a long time expatriate American journalist who subsequently turned to travel writing. Also like Bryson, he returned to the United States after a long period abroad and hit upon a particular subject matter regarding his native land that struck a major chord with the reading public. His signature work, Confederates in the Attic, is an absolute masterpiece. Ostensibly about how the U.S. is still fighting the Civil War, the book digs deep into the American psyche in such a way that is witty, informative and unsparing. The half of the book in which Horwitz spends his time traipsing around Civil War battlefields with a nutty, dedicated Confederate re-enactor are worth the cover price alone. His other works, particularly the pre-Jamestown American history account, A Voyage Long and Strange, are also very entertaining and informative.

Jon Krakauer – I very much admire anyone who develops a great writing voice through experience rather than formal education. Krakauer was a mountaineer who started his literary career with the excellent Into the Wild, the story of a young college educated American who tosses away all of his earthly possessions before traipsing into the Alaskan wilderness and starving to death. He followed that up with the tremendous Into Thin Air, about the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition of which he was a part. But it is his next book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which shows what a gifted writer Krakauer really is. Moving beyond works of personal interest or experience, his searing expose of the Mormon Church is compellingly readable and thought provoking. Krakauer’s work may be controversial at times, but one thing it is definitely not is boring.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Make No Mistake – Obama’s Actions Attacking Libya Constitute an Impeachable Offense

More political theater played out in Washington this week as a restless Congress woke up from an extended hibernation and was displeased to realize that the nation’s chief executive had engaged its military in yet another undeclared war, this time against the Madman of Tripoli, Muammar Gadaffi. First there was the spectacle of ten congressmen, led by the unlikeliest pairing since Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon—Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Ron Paul—suing in federal court to stop the Libyan action until such time as President Obama manages to go through the motions of obtaining Congressional approval. Then there was the orange tinted Speaker of the House himself—looking like the Yao Ming of the Oompa Loompa clan—drawing a line in the sand saying that Obama needed to provide a justification for the Libyan attack by Friday or he would—I dunno, de-friend him on Facebook or something.

All of this expended hot air may have been great grist for the 24-hour cable “news” shows, but as with most such posturing in the imperial capital, it was just sound and fury, signifying nothing. Congress long ago abdicated its responsibility for deliberating on the most gravely serious action any nation can take—going to war. It’s been a good three decades since I took high school history, but if I recall correctly from when we studied the Constitution there was some obscure passage in there about how only Congress can actually declare war.

The last time that particular archaic Constitutional provision has been used was in 1942, when Congress voted to declare war on Romania in the midst of World War Two. Incidentally, that last formal war declaration happened exactly five years before the old Department of War was magically transformed in true Orwellian fashion into the Department of “Defense” in 1947. Coincidence? I think not.

Since that last time a war was formally declared, America has engaged in countless military actions, including major land wars in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan—not one of which was “defensive” in nature. In each of the aforementioned conflicts, the president sought some sort of approval from Congress before committing American troops, most notoriously with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1965 that led to the use of combat troops in Vietnam.

So why no more formal Declarations of War despite there being at least five occasions in the post-World War Two era in which it should have been appropriate? We could probably debate that question all day. Certainly, the abdication by the legislative branch to properly fulfill its duty in this area was a significant early downward step towards this nation’s Constitution being reduced to a “damn piece of paper,” in the words of a recent Oval Office occupant.

There was one attempt awhile back by Congress to regain at least some of its authority in this area. Having been burned by Lyndon Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Congress decided as the Vietnam War was winding down to try to reassert itself by passing the War Powers Act of 1973, which (according to Wikipedia):

“Requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war.”

In all of the bluster coming out of Washington this past week, it was noted that as of May 20, 2011, the 60-day period for the Libyan campaign had passed with no such authorization requested from President Obama. Obama’s argument is that the 60-day limit does not apply because this is a “NATO campaign” and that the use of U.S. forces is “somewhat limited.”

Well, far be it from me, a nobody blogger sitting on the couch in my basement, to argue with a former Constitutional Law professor and his best and the brightest legal team. In fact, I have no desire to engage their argument because their insistence on rhetorically dancing on the head of a pin really doesn’t matter, at least not from a Constitutional standpoint.

What matters is that Congress has a very simple method by which it can reassert its authority once and for all, a method spelled out very clearly within that very same Constitution: it can draft and approve Articles of Impeachment against President Barack Obama. The Libyan campaign is an undeclared war in which the president has not even deigned to ask Congress for approval as called for by the War Powers Act. If Congress really wishes to reestablish the checks and balances called for by the founders, all the silly lawsuits and public posturing in the world don’t mean a damn thing. Impeachment is the one and only option. After all, it was put into the document by the founding fathers first and foremost as a method of reigning in an out-of-control chief executive.

Will impeachment happen? Not a chance. The Republicans are scared to death that it would boomerang on them politically like it did with Bill Clinton, and antiwar Democrats like Kucinich are hardly likely to vote to impeach a president of their own party. Sadly, ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America’s chief executives have been becoming more and more brazen about blowing off our constitutional safeguards as they pursue the Global War on Terror (or whatever it is being called this week). Bush started it and Obama has doubled down on essentially daring Congress to do anything to stop him.

We the people, who stand to lose the most in the face of unfettered executive power, should demand impeachment, but of course we won’t. Many on the right would rather obsess about the media-manufactured and completely irrelevant Birther controversy, while many on the left would immediately charge that anyone advocating for Obama’s impeachment must be a racist. And so nothing will happen. The politicians will dither and bicker as they always have, American bombs will continue to drop on Libya and that damn piece of paper will take another small step towards utter irrelevance.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Rant: Unlike in the Movies, in Real Life Americans HATE the Underdog

It’s a standard cliché to say Americans love the underdog. Certainly you would get that impression if you have spent any time watching popular American cinema. From Rocky to the Karate Kid to The Blind Side, we just can’t seem to get enough of stories where plucky, determined protagonists with the odds stacked against them rise up through sheer will and determination and win the day. It’s even sweeter when those that oppose them are rich and snooty, so much the better to see the dismayed look on some second rate actor’s face when the hero/heroine sticks it to them in the climatic scene. Pass the popcorn, ma, that there is some mighty fine entertainment.

Probably no other movie in our culture benefited more from this supposed American love for those who overcome the odds than Star Wars. George Lucas’s low budget space opera was really nothing more complicated than an old western taken into outer space. The story line couldn’t have been simpler—the good guys were the brave rebels risking all in their battle against The Evil Empire, led by a bad ass dude who dressed in all black and choked his subordinates whenever they displeased him. It was the quintessential mythical American feel good story, and became a cultural phenomenon while not incidentally helping to make Lucas one of the richest men in Hollywood.

Problem is, all those American moviegoers who flocked into the theaters to watch the antics of Luke Skywalker and his otherworldly companions were actually rooting for the wrong side. For Americans may love the rebel forces in the movies, but in real life they have proven time and again that The Evil Empire is much more to their liking.

Oh come on, Bill, I hear you saying. That’s not true. Americans have an innate sense of fair play. You are just being a cynical old meanie, as usual.

Really? Well then, allow me to present exhibit number 1: George W. Bush. If Americans love the underdog so much, how come we were so pathologically determined to install into the highest office in the land the idiot son of a previous mediocre president? Here was a man who went to the best schools only because he was a legacy, used his daddy’s connections to dodge out of going to fight in a war he and his family supported, failed at every business opportunity his daddy’s friends set him up in and spent the first half of his life wasted to the gills. There is no more shining example of an asshole who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple, and yet half of the American electorate cast a ballot for him and the rest hardly uttered a peep when he was installed into office by judicial fiat.

To make matters worse, in the wake of that election a large segment of Americans then heaped scorn and derision upon a man who had spent his entire adult life working tirelessly on behalf of the little guy just because he had the temerity to run a third party presidential campaign that they blamed for Bush’s victory rather than the shortcomings of their own preferred candidate. There were the so-called liberals, the ones who are supposed to be the guardians against economic oppression by the elites, trashing Ralph Nader rather than questioning why exactly Al Gore couldn’t arouse any passion among an electorate that had just witnessed eight years of a Democratic administration Gore was second-in-command of selling the working class out to Wall Street every step of the way.

Need another example? Only in a pathologically money-obsessed culture could the likes of the deranged Donald Trump become a major media figure. Trump is the perfect anti-underdog; a rich, arrogant, blowhard jerk admired for his ability to swing business deals that consolidate wealth at the expense of wages and job security for working people. If our society really did view real life the same way it does the movies, Trump long ago would have been besieged by a mob of the unemployed, had that hideous rug ripped from his scalp, and been tarred and feathered and chased over the border into Canada. Instead, the bastard gets his own reality show and tens of millions of working mopes cheer as he berates and humiliates the contestants every week.

Our so-called love of the long shot doesn’t even translate into the world of sports anywhere other than on the silver screen. Major league baseball is dominated by worship of the Yankees and the Red Sox, two franchises that often spend more money on just one player than some others do fielding their entire teams. Millions of people with WAY too much time on their hands tuned into to ESPN for an hour to watch attention whore LeBron James make the simple announcement of what team was going to shower him with more cash for every game he plays than any of them will earn in a year. And let’s not forget the supposedly more genteel sport of golf, where before Tiger Woods was laid low by a sex scandal, 99% of its fans worshiped the hallowed ground upon which the world’s first potential billionaire athlete walked.

But it’s in the international arena where America most behaves like the Evil Empire, to the cheers of domestic Star Wars fans everywhere. The empire’s legions roam the globe, dropping drone missiles on top of any goat herder’s wedding party in countries where the locals are unfortunate enough to be living on top of vital energy resources and actually have the audacity to insist that they should be allowed to live their lives free of American meddling. You’d think, given our alleged love for the small fry, Americans would be outraged at this injustice and demand that our military stop butchering civilians in our name, but you would of course be wrong. Instead we plaster yellow ribbons on the back of our cars, drape an American flag on anything that doesn’t move quickly enough and warble “Proud to Be an American” at top volume during every ball game.

Yep, in real life Americans love the big dog. We throw out our chests and repeatedly proclaim that we live in the greatest nation in the world. Buy me some more fireworks, hon, I’m gonna blow some shit UP this July Fourth.

The only problem is, there’s a bigger dog out there, a nemesis that will make us pay dearly for our hubris. It’s called Peak Oil, of course, and when the day comes that wheels of the American war machine come grinding to a permanent halt, Americans will finally know, once and for all, what it really means to be the underdog.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Trip Report: Bermuda is Doomed, Part 2 (or What I Did on My Summer Vacation)

If you haven’t been fortunate enough to ever go there yourself, Bermuda is an absolutely beautiful little corner of the globe—beautiful, that is, for a place that is completely and utterly doomed. The people are quite friendly (or at least the ones involved in supporting the tourist trade are), the climate is delightful all year round and even though I’m not the world’s biggest beach aficionado, I will say that I have never encountered a finer or more spectacular stretch of sand than the ones on which we found ourselves sunbathing.

I was actually quite intrigued by the history of the place, which is one reason I wanted to go there. The first permanent inhabitants didn’t arrive until 1609, when a British ship that was part of a relief convoy headed to resupply the starving Jamestown colony got blown off course in a storm and was shipwrecked. The enterprising crew built a new vessel and continued on their way (leaving a few hearty souls behind), and when the captain returned to England he convinced the crown that the island chain would make a great naval weigh station.

So Bermuda is actually one of those very rare places settled by Europeans utterly without the taint of colonialism or native genocide. Unfortunately, the British being the British—in other words never ones to allow humanitarian principles stand in the way of making a quick buck—they had to go and mess it all up by introducing slavery to the colony only a few years after its founding.

One thing I learned during a visit to the local history museum I found fascinating is that for many years Bermuda was a leading supplier of vegetables to locales from New York all the way up to Nova Scotia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the colony exported tens of thousands of pounds of vegetables every week, which was especially appreciated by their northerly neighbors during the long, cold winter months. Even now, as we rode around the island we could see the legacy of those days—large vegetable plots squeezed into the crowded interior landscape seemingly almost randomly. Vegetables are such a big part of Bermuda’s history that the colloquial nickname for a local person is, I kid you not, an Onion. Thus the name for a charming pub we visited that was founded by two proprietors, one French, the other Bermudan: The Frog and Onion.

Bermuda’s agricultural past simply highlights the very large problem it faces in this era of peak oil and resource depletion. The archipelago, charming as it is, has a current population of over 65,000 squeezed onto just 21 square miles of land. From once having been a huge exporter of vegetables, Bermuda now imports about 80% of its food. Making matters worse, tourism currently constitutes an estimated 28% of the islands’ GDP while international business contributes about 60% of its economic output (according to Wikipedia).

You can see where I’m going with this. Bermuda is a vastly overcrowded place, totally dependent on food imports with an economy that is utterly dependent on cheap energy. When tourists like me stop going there to spend their excess dollars, and the international firms that rely upon cheap oil-fueled globalization to conduct their business collapse, Bermuda is in deep trouble. And that doesn’t even take into account rising sea levels from climate change and the accelerating worldwide depletion of fish stocks.

Already, cracks are appearing in the façade of Bermuda’s prosperity. They obviously don’t like to advertise the fact but crime, once nearly not existent, has been on the rise in recent years. In several shop windows around the capital city of Hamilton we noted posters supporting something called Bermudians for Non-Violence—which made me wonder exactly who the Bermudians in favor of violence were.

Bermuda also experienced a housing boom similar to America’s, with the average price of a house soaring to an incredible $1.6 million in 2006. Prices are said to have dropped significantly since then, but there are no reliable current figures. How far are those prices likely to drop when the there is no longer any cheap aviation fuel available to power the airliners that bring the tourists, nor any cheap diesel fuel to power the cruise and cargo ships?

All in all, it was lovely trip, and one I am very glad to have had the opportunity to make while it is still possible. But as with so many other things after one becomes aware of Peak Oil, it was difficult to completely put aside thoughts of doom even as I enjoyed this one particular moment in the twilight of the cheap energy era.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Trip Report: Bermuda is Doomed, Part 1 (or What I Did on My Summer Vacation)

I try not to make this blog too much about me. There are many more pressing issues out there to write about and my life really isn’t all that interesting anyway. So I promise I’ll limit the ruminations as to what’s going on in my world to just those instances when I think it’s relevant to the overall theme of The Downward Spiral. With that qualification, please indulge me as I recount what I did on my summer vacation.

If there is a more decadent way for a middle class person to spend a week of his or her time in the twilight of the cheap oil era than taking an ocean cruise, I don’t know what it is. These modern massive cruise ships accommodate over 2000 passengers, have many hundreds more crew members, and gobble up more nonrenewable resources than I care to imagine. Nevertheless, it was a nice thing to do with the missus, and I was looking forward to seeing Bermuda the same way I always look forward to traveling to some corner of the world where I’ve never been before. Travel expands the mind even more than drugs do, and I’m WAY too old at this point in my life to be taking illegal pharmaceuticals.

But first you gotta get there, and while the ship we were on had every imaginable luxury and was about as well run as such an operation can be, the downside was being cooped up on board for a couple of days with a large horde of entitled, clueless middle class Americans. This crowd skewed older; probably well more than half of the passengers were couples in their 50s and 60s—in other words a perfect sampling of the Baby Boomer generation that won the golden lottery ticket of growing up during America’s postwar, cheap oil fueled economic bonanza.

Had you been dropped out of the blue onto one of the decks of that ship without having any idea where you were, the first thing that would have struck you is just how obviously soft and spoiled most of these people were. More than half of them were overweight, ranging from a bit pudgy to grotesquely obese—quite a repugnant sight when everyone is running around in their bathing suits, let me tell you. Making matters worse was the tattoo ink scrawled across much of that flab. I’ve never figured out why people with bad bodies are so keen to draw attention to their least attractive features, but then again there are a lot of things I don’t understand about my fellow Americans these days.

Nevertheless, we were determined to enjoy ourselves and not be distracted from being in the midst of a floating State Fair. Sometimes though, we couldn’t help but be dismayed, like when the otherwise seemingly sensible retired bus driver at our dinner table started going on and on about how Obama was born in Kenya and thus wasn’t eligible to be President. I wanted to reply that there are so many LEGITIMATE reasons to criticize Obama and that the Birther issue merely serves as a media-manufactured distraction that helps to drown out and discredit that criticism, but I could see it wasn’t going to do any good. So instead, my tablemates and I quickly steered the conversation into safer rhetorical waters.

After about the third day on the ship my wife intimated to me that she found talking to the crew members far more interesting than conversing with any of our fellow passengers, and I found it hard to argue her point. Most of the staff were Eastern European—not an overweight one among them, incidentally—and they literally worked their rear ends off. They told us they sign six-month contracts with the company before they go on board—which means six months of straight work, every single day, without a day off. Our cruise lasted exactly one week, which meant we came aboard the ship in the afternoon after the previous group of passengers had departed just that morning. Our waiter at dinner, a charming young man from the Ukraine, said his typical day was 15 hours long, except for that one day a week the passenger list changed, which might instead be only half of that.

Most of the crew had families back in their home countries that were, of course, benefiting from their labors. Invariably, when we asked them if they missed their loved ones they said of course they did, but then they’d smile as they’ve no doubt been programmed to do by the company and say they were looking forward to spending a lot of time with them when they returned home after their contracts were up.

Much as we tried to put it out of our minds and just relax as we were supposed to do, we couldn’t help but feeling sympathy for the crew. Here was a group of people, born poor by geographic happenstance, laboring profusely to ensure the comfort of another group of people, born into abundance again by geographic happenstance. Luck of the draw was the only difference between the fat slob sucking down his third Margarita by the pool and the svelte, dapper waiter who was bringing it to him for an hourly wage that would likely add up to be far below the U.S. federal minimum.

Anyway, we endured, got to Bermuda and had a great time (I’ll have more about that in Part 2). But before I wrap this up, one final anecdote:

On our last day on the ship, we were chilling out topside in a couple of deck chairs enjoying the sunshine and the fresh seas breezes when one of our fellow passengers plopped down in the chair right next to us. She was about 55 and had to have been somewhere in the vicinity of 80-100 pounds overweight—in other words exactly the kind of person who shouldn’t be seen out in public wearing a bathing suit. She settled in, opened up a book, and started read. The book was, and I swear I’m not making this up, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. A curious choice of beach reading material, to say the least. After a while the lady dozed off in her chair, no doubt put to sleep by the warm sunshine and turgid prose, and probably dreaming sweet dreams of that glorious future day when the federal government stops supporting the “parasites” with her hard earned tax dollars.

Oh waiter; on second thought, make mine a double.