Monday, October 31, 2011

The Climate, it is a-Changing

Yes, yes, yes, I know you're not supposed to attribute individual weather events to climate change. So noted. And if this weekend's unprecedented October snowstorm that struck the Northeast was the only unusual bout of weather we've had this year, I would shrug it off as an anomaly.

But 2011 has been a doozy of a year overall for unprecedented weather events. Just here in the U.S., off the top of my head, we've had the haboob dust storms in Arizona, the record breaking heat wave and wild fires in Texas, the monster tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa, the snow melt floods in the Midwest, Hurricane Irene drowning Vermont, and the 1000-year rainstorm we got here in Virginia. And now this.

Just how unprecedented was this latest bout of wacky weather? Here is the Weather Channel with the details:
New October Snow Records

These are just some of the noteworthy records (there are many more) set across the Northeast from this historic snowstorm. Outside of Worcester, which typically sees its first measurable snow (0.1" or more) on November 17, most of these cities do not typically see their first measurable snow until another month to month and a half from now!

Hartford, CT - 12.3" on Saturday crushed the previous single day record snow total in October of 1.7" set on October 10, 1979.

Worcester, MA - 11.4" (Storm total: 14.6") on Saturday beats the previous single day record snow total in October of 7.5" set on October 10, 1979.

Newark, NJ - 5.2" on Saturday was the most snow ever recorded on any October day in history. This is also only the second time with measurable snow in October. The last time measurable snow occurred was when just .3" fell on October 22, 1952.

New York, NY (Central Park) - 2.9" on Saturday is the only time in October history that an inch or more of snow has been recorded during the month. This is also just the 4th time in history with measurable snow during the month.

Allentown, PA - 6.8" on Saturday is the largest October snowstorm in history and just the 6th time in history with measurable snow in October.

Harrisburg, PA - 9.7" on Saturday is the largest October snowstorm in history and just the 5th time since 1889 that measurable snow has been recorded in October.

Peru, MA - Received 32", which is the biggest snow total from this storm as of early Sunday morning.
Holy crap...32 inches of snow in October? This could be shaping up to be one hell of a winter. Happy Halloween!

Happy Seven Billion People Day

Disproving once and for all the notion that statisticians do not have a sense of humor, today is not only Halloween but the day, according to the leading entities charged with tracking human population growth, that our collective numbers will exceed the seven billion mark. My preferred source for keeping track of world population is, which has been morbidly counting down to this momentous event for several weeks now. It looks like the clock will strike seven billion at precisely 1:48 P.M. EDT this afternoon.

To put what this means in perspective, here's a quote from an article written by Paul B. Farrell that appeared on the website MarketWatch back on June 28th:
Yes, you can forget “Peak Oil.” Forget global warming. Forget debt, deficits, defaults. Forget commodities, scarce resource depletion. Forget all other economic, political, military problems. Yes, forget all of them. None of them matter … if our leaders fail to deal with the world’s out-of-control population bomb. Nothing else matters. Nothing.

Still, the silence is defining. We’re trapped in this deafening “conspiracy of silence.” Neutered. Blind to this suicidal path, incapable and unwilling to face the greatest single economic challenge in history. Won’t wake up till it’s too late.

Why? Deep in our hearts we see no acceptable universal solution. So we wait … until this economic bomb stops tick-tick-ticking. Explodes in our faces. Till the wake-up call, a total economic collapse. Till then, the silence is deafening. We stay in denial. Waiting.
If you want to know why I am such an extreme pessimist you need look no further than the blurb above. Yes, optimists have been making fun of Thomas Malthus for more than two centuries, and have been deriding author Paul Ehrlich of Population Bomb fame for a couple of generations now. But the thing to keep in mind is that Malthus and Ehrlich need only be proven right once, whereas their critics have to keep being right forever and ever lest their criticism blow up in their faces as the bomb finally detonates.

The key question is how long do we have until the bomb does finally explode? No one can say for sure, obviously, and if I didn't think it was imminent--say within the next 20 years or so--I'd probably be off somewhere sipping a beer and a watching football game rather than sitting here writing for this blog.

Prepare yourself accordingly.

Bonus: since this song came out around the same time as The Population Bomb was published, I always thought it would be the perfect theme for the title sequence were they ever to make the book into a feature film.

Double Bonus: a wicked Doug Stanhope rant on overpopulation (warning: NSFW).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Motorola to the State of Illinois: Drop Dead

If you make a deal with the devil, you shouldn't be surprised when he turns around and sticks a pitchfork up your ass:
Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. plans to cut 800 jobs, it reported in a regulatory filing.

The Libertyville-based mobile-phone maker expects the job cuts will cost it $31 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission
So why is this so unexpected?
The cell-phone maker agreed to keep 3,000 jobs here when the incentive deal was announced in May. But the agreement with the state calls for Motorola Mobility to maintain a workforce of 2,500, the paper reported. It said the cell phone maker employed a total of 3,290 at its Libertyville headquarters and in Chicago.
That's right, Illinois, we'll take your tax incentives and do the absolute minimum we need to do to employ your slackjawed workers. But hey, say hello to former Gubbner Blaggo in cell block 6 for us, will ya?

And before I forget, here is the usual corporate-blather about how great all of this is for the bottom line:
A spokeswoman said in a statement, "Motorola Mobility continues to focus on improving its financial performance by taking actions to manage the company's costs.”
Personally, the first "company cost" I would eliminate is anyone who draws a large salary to spew such inane drivel. But that's just me.

Occupy the Junk Mail

This video is absolutely brilliant. I strongly encourage anyone who gets barraged with credit card applications to do the same.

The Quiet Environmental Catastrophe: The Trees are Dying Due to Air Pollution

The week before last my wife and I took our annual fall trip, visiting the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York for a few days. It was the fourth time we’ve been to that area, of which we have grown quite fond. I remember being struck the first time we went there a decade ago by how brilliantly vibrant the fall colors were. The ridge lines in between the lakes, in particular, were an explosion of orange, red and yellow, much more dramatic than we ever see down here in Virginia.

The second time we visited in 2006, it was more of the same. This time we stayed in Ithaca on the southern shore of Lake Cayuga, which has become our preferred destination in the area. Ithaca, to paraphrase the local civic slogan, really is gorgeous, situated not only next to the lake but also amidst a whole region of deep canyons, rushing streams and spectacular waterfalls. And trees…lots and lots of trees, that were every bit as colorful as I had remembered from our first trip to the region. As you can see from the photo above, the large used bookstore in downtown Ithaca on the commons is even called Autumn Leaves.

We didn’t make it back to Ithaca again until last year, and although we once again had a fabulous time, hiking in the many parks, following the wine trail around the lake and eating at fine restaurants like nationally-famous Moosewood, I couldn't help noticing that the fall colors were actually very much absent. Instead, many of the trees were either still green, browning or had already lost their leaves. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, writing the lack of color off to perhaps the effects of a lingering drought or something.

Well, before this year’s trip began I had started reading a blog with the clever name of Wits End, by Gail Zawacki, an environmental writer and activist who lives on a farm in New Jersey. Gail has done a lot of research about the reason the fall colors have been absent in not just the Finger Lakes, but all over the country, and has identified the culprit: air pollution, more specifically ground-level ozone. Gail herself explains in an excerpt from the Basic Premise on her blog:
…does anybody stop to think what ozone must be doing to long-lived species - trees and shrubs and even lowly mosses - that suffer from cumulative exposure, season after season?

Answer: it's killing them incrementally - and most tragically, imperceptibly to most people.

The preindustrial level of ground-level ozone was in essence, zero. When it became obvious over fifty years ago that inversions and high spikes downwind of polluting sources were killing vegetation and sickening people, industries very cleverly learned to disburse the precursors. They built tall stacks and restricted some auto emissions, thus reducing much visible smog, and reined in locally extreme peaks of ozone concentration. Because the VOC's travel across continents and oceans, over decades the global background concentration has been inexorably rising - damaging trees everywhere on earth at a rapidly accelerating rate. Virtually no one is asking what role ethanol emissions might play in the most recent increase in dying trees.

That trees are dying is empirically verifiable by a cursory inventory. Characteristic symptoms you can readily locate in any woods, suburban yard, park or mall include stippled, singed foliage; yellowing coniferous needles; thinning, transparent crowns; cracking, splitting, corroded, oozing and stained bark; early leaf senescence; loss of autumn radiance; holes; cankers; absence of terminal growth; breaking branches; and ultimately, death. Why isn't this simply due to climate change and/or drought? Because, the identical foliar damage is to be found on plants growing in pots with enriched soil and regular watering - and even aquatic plants that are always in water.
I thought I was pretty well read regarding the ills that are plaguing our modern industrial civilization and the damage it is wreaking upon the natural world, but I have to admit that before reading Gail’s blog I had never heard about nor had considered the ground level ozone problem. So with this new awareness in mind, I decided to observe the trees more closely during this year’s fall trip. And you know what? Gail is absolutely right.

The trees in the Finger Lakes region appeared exactly as they did last year—dull and largely devoid of bright colors where they hadn’t already lost their leaves. No way the lack of color could be chalked up to drought this year, as the whole area is still recovering from the horrific floods it suffered during Tropical Storm Irene. Ithaca is still gorgeous, especially this time of year, but thanks to air pollution it has become a lot less colorful in October. And if ethanol really is greatly contributing to this phenomenon, that is very much proof that if there is a God, he or she has a perverse sense of humor.

Lest you think this is all just an inconvenience for vacationers and of little relevance otherwise, here is Gail again with why you should care:
What are the implications of a world without trees? Much the same as the parallel acidification of the ocean, which is destroying coral reefs that will lead to a collapse of the entire ecosystem.

Imagine a world without lumber, or paper...without shade, shelter, or habitat for birds and other wildlife...without walnuts, almonds, avocados, apples, pears and say nothing of losing the splendid primeval magnificence of beautiful maples, oaks, hemlocks, tupelo, ash and sycamore. All of the species that depend upon trees - including humans - will ultimately go extinct without them.

As billions of trees expire, they are already turning from an essential carbon sink to carbon emitters, driving climate change to become even worse than the worst predictions. And how we will replace the oxygen they produce, to breathe? There is evidence that phytoplankton, the other major producer of oxygen and the base of the food chain in the ocean, has been reduced by 40% - and that they are absorbing ozone as well. Earth is a closed system, like a closed garage - with a car running inside. The invisible but deadly exhaust fumes are building up and up. If we don't turn off the engine everything will die, sooner or later.
If you care about the trees at all, or even if you just want to know more about this dire issue that, unlike climate change, is receiving very little publicity, I strongly urge you to check out Gail’s blog. It’s depressing to think about yet another way we humans are shortsightedly destroying the natural world, but my own personal philosophy has always been that it is better to know what ails the world, even if changing your own personal habits will have only a minute positive effect, than to bury your head in the sand.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Night Music Video - "The Loneliness and the Scream" by Frightened Rabbit

The Scottish band Frightened Rabbit has become a favorite of mine in recent years. They've produced a number of haunting, melancholy songs, but I chose this one to post because the lyrics reflect how I often feel as a doomer in a world full of people who cannot see what is speeding towards them.

I feel the loneliness and this blog is, as the song says, the scream to prove to everyone that I exist.

What's the Matter With Canada?

I want to take time out from my constant carping about the many ills ailing the American empire and address my friends from north of the 49th parallel for a moment. You guys are supposed to be the smart ones up there--more thoughtful, more tolerant, less belligerent. We Americans have in recent years provided you with countless examples of what you should strive NOT to be. And yet it doesn't appear that you're at all paying attention.

It's bad enough that you insist upon turning the stunningly beautiful province of Alberta into a lifeless moonscape in order to feed America's insatiable petroleum habit. But now your largest and most prosperous city has gone ahead and elected a pro-sprawl stooge of a mayor:
Rob Ford is Toronto's buffonish embarrassment of a mayor, elected by the suburbs to "end Toronto's war on cars" and "open the city for business," he declared that he would save money by "ending the gravy train" of city spending, only to take office and discover that the only discretionary funding that remained to be cut was to things like well-loved, well-used libraries.
But wait, you haven't heard anything yet:
Marg "Princess Warrior" Delahunty is a character played by Mary Walsh on the comedy-news-show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. It's complicated, but basically she dresses up like a middle-aged housewife, who is, in turn, dressed as a warrior princess, who is, in turn, a political journalist. It actually works really well and has resulted in some of the best political reporting in Canadian history.

But when Marg Princess Warrior tried to interview Rob Ford, Ford reportedly went crazy, called 911, demanded faster service, and said, "You bitches! Don’t you fucking know? I’m Rob fucking Ford, the mayor of this city!"

To be clear, the emergency that prompted this outburst was that Mayor Ford was in danger of being interviewed by a comedian.
Wow, this doofus sounds like he's ready to enter the competition with Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain as the most out-of-control fevered ego among North American politicians. Seriously, Toronto, how do you elect someone like this? It's not like you have Fox News up there relentlessly destroying voters' brain cells 24/7.

Sadly, it appears from what I tell from my perch down here in Virginia that rather than being appalled and horrified by how America is slowly tearing itself apart, many Canadians are determined to be ever more like us. That's how powerful the allure of our consumerist economic model is, however unsustainable and doomed it might be.

A Marine Learns an Important Truth about the Empire

Last week, the Occupy movement received a huge boost in public sympathy when the Oakland Police Department stupidly chose commit a wanton act of brutality by apparently firing a tear gas shell in a manner designed to maim the crowd rather than merely controlling it. It was their “bad luck” that the protester whose head got in the way and who was knocked into a coma by the round was a former Marine and two-tour Iraq War veteran. The progressive blogosphere and sympathetic mainstream media sources like Keith Olbermann were all over the story almost immediately—seizing on and highlighting the victim’s service record.

This incident was the latest in a serious of deplorable acts on the part of police around the country who have engaged in unwarranted confrontations with the Occupy protesters. Despite the very justifiable rage of those participating in the demonstrations, their peaceful restraint has been nothing but admirable. Given the huge numbers who have been occupying various cities around the country, you would have thought that at least one hothead would have provoked a violent confrontation by now. Instead all of the violent provoking has so far been on the law enforcement end.

Still, I couldn’t help but being depressed that those among the pundit class who sympathize with the protests felt they had to so relentlessly hype the fact that the unfortunate victim was a Marine and a war veteran. I know they are anxious to show that the protesters are more than just a bunch of “dirty college hippies,” but the fact that the poor soul who ended up in a coma had been a foot soldier in America’s imperial wars does not make this crime any more or less severe than had he been a third year philosophy student at Berkeley.

Don’t get me wrong. It is a great thing that Scott Olsen and many of his former fellow soldiers and Marines from the group, Iraq Veterans Against the War, have chosen to join the Occupy movement. These brave young men and women have woken up to the fact that they have far more in common with the other young adults of their generation who went to college rather than volunteer for the military than either group has with the “one percenters.”

The real lesson here, however, is that just because you raise your right hand at the recruiting center, put yourself through the hell that is basic training and then spend a year or multiple years in the desert halfway around the world fighting people you have no personal quarrel with for the economic interests of the empire, it in no way, shape or form makes you any more valuable to the elites who sent you there. They don’t care about you, and despite your service should you ever stand up like Mr. Olsen did and try to object to having been so callously used, you too might find yourself on the wrong end of a tear gas gun, flash bang grenade or even worse.

It’s a lesson that far more people in the United States today need to learn, up to and including those cops on the other side of the barricades. You are perfectly expendable—a piece of meat who will only be thrown some crumbs by the select few who sit at the big table as long as you continue to play ball and keep your fucking mouth shut. I think back to the protagonist in Dalton Trumbo's horrific World War One novel, Johnny Got His Gun, who doesn’t learn this lesson until it is far too late. Years after the war, when he is lying in a hospital bed, blind and deaf, his arms, legs and face blown off, unable to communicate with those taking care of him, he angrily thinks:
Somebody said let's go out and fight for liberty and so they went and got killed without ever once thinking about liberty. And what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway? How much liberty and whose idea of liberty? Were they fighting for the liberty of eating free ice cream cones all their lives or for the liberty of robbing anybody they pleased whenever they wanted to or what? You tell a man he can't rob and you take away some of his liberty. You've got to. What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It's just a word like house or table or any other word. Only it's a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let's fight for liberty and he can't show you liberty. He can't prove the thing he's talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?

No sir anybody who went out and got into the front line trenches to fight for liberty was a goddamn fool and the guy who got him there was a liar.
You can be a dutiful citizen and pay your taxes, sign up to go fight in the latest war against people trying to protect their homeland from exploitation, be the perfect obedient worker serving in the holy temples of American consumerism or even go out wielding a baton to bust the skulls of troublesome protesters, but you will never, ever get a seat at the big table. It is off limits to you and your ilk. If your labor is no longer profitable, they will still lay you off. If you miss some payments on your mortgage they will still evict you. If you get seriously sick or injured and don’t have health insurance you will still be bankrupted if not actually allowed to die. And if you try to object you will be the one who finds yourself on the wrong end of that flying baton or tear gas grenade shell.

The quicker you wake up these basic facts, the better off you will be. America faces a crisis far more dire than any it has faced before. The peak oil-induced end of the era of economic growth and the beginning of the period of permanent economic contraction will mean a free-for-all scramble by the elites to secure for themselves as much of the country’s remaining wealth as possible. At some point in the future, your economic interests WILL conflict with theirs. And by then it will be too late to stand with those who are today rallying on behalf of the 99%.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Now First Solar is Headed into the Crapper

I previously covered the implosion of solar panel maker Solyndra, the unfortunate company that went bankrupt in August despite having received over $500 million in loan guarantees from the Obama administration. At the time, I asserted that the real problem with solar energy is in trying to force it to do something it is not capable of doing: namely, simply replacing oil, coal and gas and allowing business as usual to continue as if nothing has changed.

Now on top of the Solyndra debacle comes word that America’s leading solar panel manufacturer is also in trouble. Here is Renewable Energy with the details:
What's going on at First Solar? The company, a pillar of the solar industry, on Tuesday announced what seemed an abrupt departure of its CEO, Robert Gillette, and the return of its former chief executive, Mike Ahearn, during a time when the company and the rest of the industry are dealing with a market marked by an oversupply of solar panels and plummeting prices.

First Solar’s shares plummeted 26 percent to reach $43.06 per share near Tuesday's closing.
Hmmm…that doesn’t sound too positive. So what’s the problem?
But 2011 so far is turning out to be an awful year for First Solar and the industry overall. The falling incentives in Germany, Italy and France — and the delay by project developers to complete projects — have led to several gigawatts of solar panel inventories industrywide and crashing prices. First Solar has experienced huge drops in earnings this year. Gillette told investors in August that there should be a rebound in the second half of 2011.

But the big drop in silicon solar pane prices — between 30 and 40 percent so far this year — presents a growing threat to First Solar’s advantage as a low-cost solar panel maker. First Solar uses cadmium-telluride instead of silicon for its solar panels.
So lessee now, rising inventories and crashing prices for solar panels, all at a time when oil prices remain elevated far above their historic norms. Anything to add?
The company initially won promises of federal loan guarantees for four of its U.S. solar farm projects, but lost the one that would have guaranteed a bulk of a $1.9 billion project in California called Topaz Solar Farm. It was able to finalize the loan guarantees for three other projects and sell them to utilities and other investors.

First Solar needs to find a buyer for the 550-megawatt Topaz project, and that has proven a rather difficult task. A report emerged Monday that a potential buyer, Enbridge, backed out of the deal.
So in other words, without the federal government propping them up, First Solar would quickly go the way of Solyndra. This is yet another nail in the coffin for the hopes that solar energy will save us from the onrushing effects of both climate change and fossil fuel depletion. The only way out of those predicaments is to power down. Solar power on a localized, sustainable scale could be a part of that. Too bad we're so determined to pound this square peg into the round hole of business as usual.

Whirlpool Sucker Punches Fort Smith, Arkansas

Even as the Occupy Wall Street protests pick up steam, the gutting of America's manufacturing base and the offshoring of good paying jobs continues unabated. Whirpool is the latest company to join the party:
Whirlpool Corp. announced Thursday it will close its refrigerator plant, long the most important employer in Fort Smith, next year, putting 1,000 people out of work.

The company issued a statement blaming the closure on a decrease in demand for side-by-side refrigerators and price pressure from competitors.
Okay, a decline in sales is a legitimate reason for reducing production. But hey, wait. What's this?
The factory employed 4,600 people five years ago, but that number has declined in the poor economy and since Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool opened a refrigerator factory in Mexico.

A number of Fort Smith-area companies that supplied the Whirlpool plant have already scaled back production or closed. Manufacturing jobs in Fort Smith dropped from 23,322 in 2000 to 14,736 in 2009, a decline of 36.8 percent, according to a study by the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
And so the beat goes on...and on...and on...and on. These soon-to-be unemployed factory workers need to Occupy Fort Smith. It won't get them their jobs back, but at least it might help wake a few people up.

Addendum: I initially wrote this post before I saw this update from a separate article:
Whirlpool(WHR) significantly reduced its outlook for 2011 earnings and said it would cut 5,000 jobs to trim costs and expand its operating margins.
And, of course, there was the usual inane blather from Whirlpool's CEO:
"We are taking necessary actions to address a much more challenging global economic environment," said Jeff Fettig, Whirlpool chairman and CEO, in a statement Friday. "We believe our cost and capacity reduction initiatives, recently announced cost-based price increases and innovative product launches will enable us to expand operating margins and deliver long-term value to shareholders."
"Better living through layoffs and closings." It's enough to make you want to tear your hair out.

Friday Rant: A World of Shit

Last Saturday, I wrote a blog post about the travails of actress Lindsay Lohan and how the white-hot glare of fame caused her rapid descent into the living hell of hopeless narcotics addiction. Though her fans may have thought she had it all and her detractors may demonize her for throwing it all away, it is pretty clear that poor young Lindsay Lohan is very much living in a World of Shit.

In that she is no different from millions of her fellow countrymen. People whose lives are being torn asunder by forces of which they are neither aware nor are able to comprehend. Because America has entered the era of permanent peak oil-induced economic contraction, they have lost their jobs and will likely never be meaningfully employed again. These aimless and idle citizens of the empire have been cast adrift in a brave new World of Shit.

Countless young Americans have graduated from college since the spring of 2008. Many of them took on huge amounts of student loan debt in order to obtain that coveted degree because they were conditioned to do so by our so-called “leaders’ and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media. Some of these unfortunate young people are right at this very minute occupying various sites around the country in protest of their plight. But many more have likely succumbed to an abject feeling of sheer helplessness and now realize that rather than being young men and women of great expectations they are instead debt slaves in a World of Shit.

Even more countless Americans are among the many millions who lack even basic health insurance coverage. For these poor souls, any major illness or injury that should happen to befall them means financial destitution and possibly even premature death. So that the profit margins of the corporate interests which control the American health care system not be unduly affected, these unfortunate suffering human beings now find themselves in a painful and uncaring World of Shit.

Other Americans have overstretched themselves financially—borrowing huge amounts of money in a vain attempt to live the kind of lifestyles their teevees tell them they ought to be living. In their hopeless quest to keep up with the Joneses they have instead found themselves evicted, bankrupt and destitute. These delusional citizens who foolishly believed in the American Dream have woken up and discovered that their new reality is actually a nightmarish World of Shit.

But there are still many others…those with the good fortune to still be employed and who are largely oblivious to the suffering of so many of their fellow Americans. They continue to carelessly consume and revel in our celebrity-obsessed culture, twiddling on their electronic gadgets and never once giving thought to the evils perpetrated on the natural world and on citizens of other nations in order that they be able to maintain their comfortable and insular existence. They heed not the cries of those already in need, nor the warnings that their way of life is utterly unsustainable. Most of them will never wake up to what is happening all around them until that inevitable day of reckoning comes when they too find themselves being forcibly ushered into a permanent World of Shit.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Church Bell Survives 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, but Not 2011 Metal Thieves

Whatever the declining crime statistics might say, people out there are getting more and more desperate as the Great Recession drags on:
A 5,300-pound bell that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and is worth an estimated $75,000 was stolen last weekend by recycling thieves probably hoping to scrap it for about $10,000.

The theft of this historic bell from St. Mary’s Cathedral is just the latest in a rash of alarming metal thefts across The City. The Police Department recently launched a special investigations unit specifically to combat such thefts.

In another heist last weekend, crooks cut several thousand dollars worth of copper from a building owned by Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, San Francisco police Inspector Brian Danker said. Sacred Heart recently acquired the building to house a nonprofit organization, he added.

The prior week, a bronze plaque honoring slain Supervisor Harvey Milk was pilfered from Muni’s Castro station. The plaque, worth $10,000, had been bolted to a wall.
Clearly, there must be a whole lot of scrap metal dealers around who don't ask questions when people drag in obviously stolen artifacts, but that's a whole other issue.

Update: hat tip to anon below...the bell was found:
A historic bell reported stolen from the garden at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco last weekend was found near a scrap yard in Oakland on Wednesday, police said.

The copper bell, which weighs several thousand pounds, was reported stolen on Sunday from the church, located at 1111 Gough St., according to San Francisco police.

A police inspector called the bell a "priceless artifact" that was made in 1889, and survived the 1906 earthquake and a fire that burned down the original St. Mary's Cathedral on Van Ness Avenue in the 1960s.

Police received a tip around 2 p.m. today about the whereabouts of the bell. Investigators responded and found it in an open area across the street from a scrap yard near Ninth and Pine streets in West Oakland.

The bell was sitting on top of two beams and was covered by a tarp, according to police.

No arrests have been made in connection with the case.

Greece is "Saved" - All is Well

So...the powers that be did it again. Greece is "saved." The DOW just shot back over 12,000. All is well, citizen.

Seriously, that's what they want you to believe. I wrote about this very issue back on July 14th, in my post: "Why We’re Screwed (Part 4): The Propaganda Ministry Touts the Dow Jones Industrial Average." Here's what I said then:
There is perhaps no more observable example of the Hologram in action than the relentless touting of the stock market indices, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) in particular. Every cable “news” channel features a stock ticker that provides updates in real time all day long. The evening news shows, despite only having about 21 minutes per half hour broadcast to sum up the day’s events, always makes sure the stock results get highlighted—even on that bane of right wing conservatives everywhere, National Public Radio. It’s been this way for so long that no one ever questions why that should be.

Why promote the DJIA so relentlessly when it’s the upper 10% of households that own a majority of stocks while the lower half of wage earners own virtually no stocks at all? The networks insist on persistently pumping a figure of little meaning to a vast majority of the population. What’s more, most of those who do have large stock portfolios presumably get their financial information from sources far more sophisticated than the nightly news. And if they don’t, they shouldn’t be investing in stocks in the first place.

The only answer I can come up with is that the DJIA is being used a propaganda device to help sell the narrative that all is fine with the economy. Since the depths of the market crash in March 2009, the DJIA has regained nearly all of its pre-crash losses.

Yes, stocks are way up. Whoo-hoo, happy days are here again. Pop the cork on the champagne, honey, tonight we are going to celebrate.

Don’t pay any attention to the fact that the rally was bought and paid for by the Federal Reserve’s Zero Interest Rate Policy and Quantitative Easing programs; the federal government’s $700 billion bailout of the big banks and Wall Street; and an additional trillion dollars of annual deficit spending being added over and above the already high deficit levels of President Bush’s last full year in office. Also ignore the fact that even with the recent run-up, stocks are not much above where they were in 2000, meaning you could have kept your money under your mattress for the last 11 years and been just as well off—not to mention that you probably would have slept better during the market’s many wild gyrations.

The very purpose of all the reckless post-crash economic policies was primarily to pump up the stock markets. In the minds of our economic overlords, it was imperative that at least the facade of prosperity be propped back up in order to quickly dissipate the doom and gloom mentality that accompanied the financial crash. Consumer spending represents approximately 70% of the American economy, so they had to get the plebes to open their wallets and pull out the plastic again. Coaxing folks back into the shopping malls required getting them to stop worrying about the future and to resume partying like there’s no tomorrow.
Since I wrote that post, those in charge have developed another reason to drive the markets back up, namely the rise of the Occupy Wall Street protests. A stock market crash now would go a long way towards legitimizing the protesters in the eyes of your average American couch potato.

So if you still have your money in stocks, enjoy this ride, because it likely won't be too long before the roller coaster makes its next dip.

Library Cutbacks Fall Hardest on the Working Poor

image: the old public library building in Freeport, Illinois, which was built in 1901 and closed in 2004 when it was replaced by a new facility

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time at the library. This was back during the 1970s, before video games, 500 satellite channels and personal computers came to occupy every spare moment of the average child’s free time. Back then, the public library in Freeport, Illinois, was housed in a stately old turn-of-the-20th century brick building with high ceilings and old fashioned light fixtures, and I always used to get a thrill just from walking through the front doors. The place had that unique, musty smell of old books, and the library staff was always friendly and helpful, especially to children. I could spend hours just going through the various shelves looking for something special to read, and I always took it for granted that everyone else felt the same way I did about the place.

Though I did not know this at the time, Freeport's old public library was one of those built around the country by funds donated by Gilded Age businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carneige. According to the Wikipedia entry about Carnegie, he believed in giving to the "industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others." All in all, 2,509 "Carnegie Libraries" were built in the United States between 1883 and 1929.

Years later after I had graduated from college and moved to the big city to start my career, I became prosperous enough to buy any book I wanted to read and sort of fell out of the habit of visiting the local library. This became even more true after the rise of the Internet, which meant I no longer needed to go there in order to access reference books and encyclopedias. Nowadays, I still have a library card, but on those rare occasions when I visit my local branch I am more likely to be donating books for one of its periodic fundraising sales rather than checking one out.

I’ve also noticed that despite the fact that Fairfax County, Virginia, where I now reside, is one of the wealthiest locales in the country on a per-capita income basis, library hours have been drastically cut back. Our local branch is now closed on Sundays, only open a half-day on Saturdays and on weekdays it is open for precisely eight hours each day on a varying schedule. Several times I have gone there and been surprised to find it closed during what would be considered normal business hours.

Most people that live in my county probably consider this to be nothing more than an inconvenience, if they think about it at all. They all have the latest laptops and iPhones, with a world of information constantly available at their fingertips, so what do they care? This could be why public library funding is one of the first things to get the axe whenever state and local governments are making budget cutbacks. Most local politicians come from the same economic class as I do, and undoubtedly view the library as an arcane public service that, like the post office, no longer has the value it once did.

Such myopic thinking at a time when our economy is undergoing a slow motion collapse is exactly how America came to be in its current predicament. The decision makers cutting library budgets do not stop for one minute to think about what life would be like for them if they could not afford that fancy laptop, iPhone, Kindle or regular high speed internet service. This very point was made in a recent Chicago Tribune article:
When Charles Mason was laid off from his job as a truck driver two years ago, he turned to the Chicago Public Library, scouring the Internet for a new driving job that could support his family better than his meager unemployment check.

Though back at work now, he almost daily visits the library, where his children study and his wife, who works as a clerk, can earn a paycheck.

"It's a lifeline," said Mason, 45, a Back of the Yards resident.

At a time when libraries have become a beacon for job-seekers like Mason, the city is proposing reduced hours and hundreds of staff layoffs to shore up its own budget.

The cuts come despite library visitors continuing to rise on a statewide and national level, though Chicago has seen a drop in visitors overall in recent years after library hours were cut.

Nationwide, there were 1.5 billion library visits in fiscal year 2008, the most recent year available. That's up from 1.28 billion in 2003 and 1.09 billion in 1998, according to studies by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and National Center for Education Statistics. Illinois followed the same trend with 77.6 million visitors in fiscal year 2008, up from 63.9 million in 2003 and 57.1 million in 1998, the studies showed.

Experts attribute the increases to patrons looking for jobs, belt-tighteners choosing to borrow books instead of buying them and libraries' growing digital collections.
It should be pretty obvious from those statistics that about the LAST service local governments should be cutting out are libraries. Not only are they a vital public service in a country when the median income is a mere $26,364 per year, but they also function as one of those few places where people can gather with members of their local community. And with brick-and-mortar book stores rapidly being consigned to the dustbin of history, they are one of the few remaining places where you can actually go and BROWSE through a shelf of books. What a concept.

Sadly, I expect that exactly the opposite will occur. Not only are libraries a tax “burden,” their support requires the kind of belief in the common good that has come to be in all too short supply these days. As the financial squeeze for state and local governments continues to get worse, libraries will likely be among the first municipal services to be terminated completely, for such shortsightedness and selfishness has become the norm in these waning days of the American empire. Andrew Carnegie, grandfather figure as he is to today's billionaires, is no doubt rolling over in his grave.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Christmas is Cancelled in Fresno

Or rather, make that the annual Christmas parade has been cancelled due to insufficient funding:
A holiday tradition is changing in downtown Fresno: budget cuts are forcing the city to cancel its annual Christmas parade.

City officials tell Action News the traditional parade costs a minimum of $15 thousand.

The city has only $5 thousand for the event this year, before community sponsorships are added in.

Instead of a parade, officials say the city will host a tree lighting ceremony and holiday festival in downtown Fresno.
Somewhere, Ebenezer Scrouge is looking down upon us and scowling.

Ten Ways You Can Screw Up Your Life

Today's main post is actually a guest post that I wrote for Dave Cohen of the excellent Decline of the Empire blog. Dave has been a big supporter of The Downward Spiral, to which I am most grateful.

So be sure to check out the post at the link.

Life DURING the Oil Crash

It was around one year ago today that former Peak Oil writer and activist Matt Savinar pulled the plug on the old Life After the Oil Crash forum and went off to become a professional astrologer. It was one of the weirdest spectacles of someone turning their back on their life’s work I have ever witnessed. I have no idea why Mr. Savinar chose to do what he did, but I suspect that perhaps after years of predicting the demise of our cheap oil-based civilization he simply got tired of waiting around for it to happen.

I actually owe Matt Savinar an extreme debt of gratitude. Whatever foibles caused him to flame out in such a spectacular manner, I learned a lot during the two plus years I was a member of LATOC. Though I have clear childhood memories of the 1970s oil shocks and have always harbored a lingering suspicion that something was very wrong with our modern society, I didn’t actually become aware of peak oil until I read Jim Kunstler’s book, The Long Emergency, in February 2008.

Those were scary times. Oil prices had just entered triple digits for the first time, and wild predictions that it would soon hit $200 or $300 seemed eminently plausible. I joined LATOC soon after finishing Kunstler’s book, and was grateful to find an online community that recognized the seemingly imminent catastrophe. That summer oil spiked to $147 a barrel, and when the financial world began to fly apart during September in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse, I figured it would only be a manner of months until Mad Max himself came riding over the horizon.

Well, as we all know, the fast crash didn’t happen. Our so-called “leaders” belatedly recognized the danger and pulled out all of the stops to prevent it. Since then, we’ve been living in an economic never-never land, in which if you are still employed all seems normal—except that the normalcy is being purchased by massive amounts of unsustainable government debt.

As time has passed, my own personal panic about the onset of peak oil and resource depletion has abated, and I’ve come to recognize that a complete collapse of our modern civilization will likely not happen for quite some time yet. Kunstler smartly called it a LONG emergency for a good reason. Like with ancient Rome, what took centuries to construct is unlikely to come flying apart overnight.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Matt Savinar made was calling his now-defunct website Life AFTER the Oil Crash. It should be pretty clear by now that although we have entered the initial stages of the end of the cheap oil era, it is going to be a long time--likely several decades--before we reach the point of a completely powered down world. Instead, it is more accurate to call this period we are now living in Life DURING the Oil Crash.

So welcome to LDTOC. What a long, strange trip it's been, and will no doubt continue to be.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Woman After My Own Heart

I guess some mainstream publications' "Ideas" are better than others. This morning, I called out the Washington Post for its "Ideas @ Innovations" column's idiotic attempt to link obesity and economic growth. I was then pleasantly suprised to read a starkly realistic piece put out by Time Magazine's own Ideas page. The article, entitled, "Why We Can’t Spend Our Way Back To Normal" was authored by Boston College Professor of Sociology Juliet Schor, and begins promisingly:
Every month, one of the most anxiously anticipated pieces of economic information is the Commerce Department’s spending data. Are people in the malls? How deep are discounts? Spending is cheered; frugality causes concern. In the drama that is the U.S. economy, consumers have been cast as the hero, expected to provide the growth that avoids a double-dip recession and rebalances the labor market.

It’s an increasingly quixotic hope. Consumers, burned by predatory financial institutions and labor market insecurity, are in no position to play the Little Engine That Could. But even if they were, is what ails the country really a shortage of cars, cell phones and Cuisinarts?
Well, I would argue not, of course. But then again, I am just an unpaid blogger sitting on the couch in my basement howling in the Internet wilderness rather than someone with a prestigious professorship and a gig writing for a national news magazine. But please continue:
In the decade leading up to the collapse, the country went on a consumer binge. This won’t be news to anyone. But what might be surprising is the sheer volume of commodities that were acquired, many of them imported. (That’s one reason that the spend our way out of unemployment approach no longer works.)

According to my estimates, the number of new items of clothing bought by the average American rose from 41 to 67 items per year. Furniture purchases rose 150%. Consumer electronics — from coffee makers to laptops to cell phones — rose between 100 and 1000% depending on the item, and it wasn’t just the cool gadgets. We bought 180% more vacuum cleaners. By both weight and volume, material acquisition hit all-time highs.

All this spending occurred as consumers were supposedly less concerned about the “material” properties of goods, and more attuned to brand value, symbolic meanings, and the virtual world. The assumption was that the shift to a service, experience-based and digital economy would reduce the country’s material footprint. Yet the reverse occurred. Acquisition of products sped up. That’s because symbolic consumption relies heavily on fashion and novelty, and this model spread from clothing and shoes to furniture, electronics, ceramics and household goods. I call this the materiality paradox: people buy more products and they discard them more quickly. The rates at which consumers divest themselves of yesterday’s must-have purchase has also soared, as disposal sites such as landfills, thrift shops and container ships full of used consumer goods bound for Africa attest. It seem unlikely we’ll revert to this pre-recession pattern anytime soon, but that’s a good thing: it’s economically and environmentally unsustainable.
Okay, professor, you're starting to get me excited, with that last sentence in particular. So what's your solution?
So if consumer spending isn’t the answer to what ails the U.S. economy, what is? The alternative to consumer spending is investment — by businesses, government, and households. We desperately need to wean the country off fossil fuels, for economic and ecological reasons. We need to transform agriculture from the current chemical intensive, factory-farm model to one that is capable of keeping consumers and ecosystems healthy. We need investment in education, mass transit, and urban infrastructures. We need more research and development, especially for green production methods that minimize the use of natural materials. We need more household saving and more acquisition of useful skills and education.
Hmmm...if I were grading you, professor, I'd have to give you an "E" for effort. Certainly, that sounds like EXACTLY the prescription we need to mitigate the effects of having enetered the age of permanent economic contraction. There's only one little problem: all of that stuff would require convincing the corporate elites who own this country to give up a substantial share of their profits and convincing the overwhelming majority of the population to dramatically change they way they live. Sorry, but that is NEVER going to happen.

But thanks anyway for giving know...the good ol' college try.

Latest Dumb Idea to Combat the Recession: Reduce Obesity

Even if you think you're completely inured to it, sometimes the blatant stupidity of the mainstream media can still take your breath away. That was my reaction upon reading a recent entry in an online column the Washington Post laughingly calls "Ideas @ Innovations." Here's a snippet:
It’s not just the U.S. economy that’s sick and overweight, apparently it’s the workers, too. According to the latest survey on the U.S. workplace by Gallup, roughly 86% of full-time workers are overweight, obese or suffering from at least one chronic health problem. Even before the recession, business gurus talked about “lean” operations, “trimming the fat,” and creating the type of “nimble” corporations capable of taking on their overseas competitors. What if this was more than just clever wordplay? Can we actually jump-start the U.S. economy by asking our nation’s workers to slim down?
First of all, that 86% figure cited in the Gallup poll seems WAY TOO HIGH to me. I know America is suffering from an obesity epidemic, but it seems absurd to think that nearly nine out of ten of us are either fat or chronically sick. Okay, let's fast forward to the part where the article tries to make the link between fitness and the overall economy:
There is already a significant body of evidence to suggest a causal link between obesity and poverty — is there also a causal link between obesity and economic competitiveness?

Within the U.S., for example, there is a strong correlation between the states with high rates of obesity and low economic growth. The classic example is Mississippi, which has the highest obesity rate and the highest poverty rate in the country. On a global scale, the World Economic Forum reports that the world's most competitive nations are Switzerland, Sweden, Singapore, the U.S. and Germany. With the exception of the U.S., all of these nations are not exactly known as being friendly to obesity.
Okay, first of all, there is only a link between obesity and poverty in Western nations, particularly the U.S., where the poor in fact have plenty of access to cheaply produced foods that are high in grease, carbohydrates, corn syrup and other additives that make one fat. Go to Africa and Asia, however, and I doubt you'll find a lot of obese poor people. In fact, many of them are instead likely malnourished if not actually suffering from the effects of starvation.

Secondly, those other "competitive" nations cited above do not have huge predatory and politically-connected agribusinesses that incessantly lobby for the right to produce the cheap, crappy food that is MAKING so many Americans--and not JUST the poor--obese. If you really wanted to crack down on obesity in America, the first thing you would do is to start tightly regulating the additives placed in pre-packaged foods and the fat content of fast foods. But that would hardly serve to boost the economy. In fact, it would likely severely constrict the bottom line of the entire American food industry.

The article concludes with a bit of common sense wound together with one of the dumbest assertions I've read in quite awhile:
Could a bag-of-chips-a-day routine be the difference between a double-dip recession and a slow-but-steady recovery? At a time when the U.S. economy is looking a bit flabby and the unemployment rate still hovers around the ungainly 9-percent mark, it might just be worth it to create a workout routine or be more diligent about an existing one.
Yes, obviously everyone should strive to take care of their health. That means eating nutritiously, exercising regularly and getting a sufficient amount of sleep at night. I strongly advocate all of those things.

But to suggest that even if the unlikely happened and a significant portion of the population were to start changing their habits to become more healthy our economy would rebound is the kind of magical thinking one could easily dismiss as completely irrelevant had it not been published by the newspaper of record for the Imperial Capital. You can bet SOMEONE up on Capitol Hill is reading this article, and is right now trying to think a way of using it to deflect the real blame for America's economic ills.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Give Me Your Wealthy, Your Well-Heeled, Your Select Few, Yearning to Buy Our Houses

A couple of weeks ago in my post about Obama’s fast-tracking of the latest “free” trade agreements, I asserted that bipartisanship in Washington is actually the worst possible thing for average Americans. On those rare occasions when both parties agree on a particular measure, it is almost always designed to help rich people. The latest sad example of this phenomena was reported by the Los Angeles Times on Thursday:
American consumers and the federal government haven't been able to bail out the sinking U.S. real estate market. Now wealthy Chinese, Canadians and other foreign buyers could get their chance.

Two U.S. senators have introduced a bill that would allow foreigners who spend at least $500,000 on residential property to obtain visas allowing them to live in the United States.

The plan could be a boon to California, which has become a popular real estate market for foreigners, particularly those from China.
You hear that, you poor, American deadbeats? You slackers aren’t pulling your share of the load to bail out the construction, real estate, mortgage and investment banking industries, so we have to enact yet another measure to sell out the country from underneath you.

So who is behind this latest nefarious scheme?
"Many people want to come and live in the United States," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced the legislation Thursday along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). "They will be here spending money and paying taxes, and the most important thing is they'll sop up the extra supply of homes we have right now compared to demand, and that's what's dragging our economy down."

The legislation would create a new homeowner visa that would be renewable every three years, but the proposal would not put them on a path to citizenship. To be eligible, a person would have to buy a primary residence of at least $250,000 and spend a total of $500,000 on residential real estate. The other properties could be rented.

The program would come with several restrictions.

The purchase would have to be in cash, with no mortgage or home equity loan allowed. And the property would have to be bought for more than its most recent appraised value, Schumer said.
I was no fan of former New York Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato, but he had it exactly right during the campaign in which he lost his seat to Chuck Schumer when he referred to his opponent as a “putzhead.” Yes, Senator Schumer is correct that America has a long tradition of encouraging immigration. That’s what all of that windy verbiage penned by Lazarus and inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty is all about. As you’ll recall, it concludes thusly:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
But you can forget all of that lofty nonsense in an era in which the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination has seriously proposed building an electric fence along the southern U.S. border with enough juice to kill any illegal immigrants who try to cross. We don’t want your huddled masses anymore. Just your millionaires—people who can come here and instantly join the 1%. Because who else other than a millionaire is going to have $500,000 in cash laying around to invest in U.S. real estate?

Let's also recognize who most of these millionaires the "honorable" Senators Schumer and Lee want to bring here really are--Chinese businesspeople who likely made their millions by destroying the natural environment of their home country and exploiting the cheap labor of their countrymen. If you want to see what the "modern" China is really like, watch this horrible video (hat tip: Mish Shedlock)...but I warn you, it is GRAPHIC. China is a country where the average human life has little if any value. However awful America's belligerent foreign policy may be, we haven't sunk to this level on the domestic front...yet.

What really strikes me about this proposal is just how transparently desperate it is. Putzhead Schumer and his Senate colleagues know that the dismal condition of the U.S. real estate market is still the biggest threat to trigger an economic collapse in this countrty. Were Bank of America, for example, forced to open the books on its mortgage-lending portfolio, there is little doubt that America’s biggest bank would instantly implode.

So there you have it. America has become a land of the millionaires, by the millionaires and for the millionaires. As far as your “leaders” are concerned, it no longer matters whether you were born and raised in this country, or whether you went off to fight in its imperial wars. All that matters to them is whether you have a fat bank account and can afford to help bail out their buddies in the financial industry.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

9 Percent Sauce, 9 Percent Cheese, 9 Percent Baloney

I really don't have much to add concerning the classic political cartoon above. The fact that an authoritarian-minded, political neophyte clown like Herman Cain is current the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination is all you need to know to appreciate just how far gone America's political system really is.

Doctors Take $760 Million in Bribes from Major Drug Companies During the Past Two Years

The corruption in nearly every aspect of American life these days is so pervasive that trying to call it out is like trying hold the ocean back with a broom. The latest example, as reported yesterday by CBS News is from our notoriously broken for-profit health care system:
A dozen pharmaceutical companies have given doctors and other healthcare providers more than $760 million over the past two years - and those companies' sales comprise 40 percent of the U.S. market.

The numbers come from the non-profit journalism organization Pro Publica, which assembled and continues to update a database on the payments.

The payments, says Pro Publica, are for consulting, speaking, research and expenses on the part of the providers.
Well, of course they are. Otherwise, you might be tempted to call these payments what they really represent: bribes. At least there is one guy who gets it:
With bucks that big flying around, is the quality of care offered by providers accepting them compromised? "Absolutely," said Dr. John Santa, head of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.

"Money works," Santa told "Early Show on Saturday Morning" co-anchor Russ Mitchell. "Doctors are human. Doctors who take money from drug companies are more likely to give you an expensive drug or more likely to give you a drug you may not need."

A recent Consumer Reports survey had 72 percent of respondents saying they believe pharmaceutical companies have too much influence on the drugs that doctors prescribe; 85 percent saying they were concerned about drug companies rewarding doctors who write a lot of prescriptions for their drugs; and 76 percent saying they were concerned about doctors providing testimonials or serving as a spokesperson for a drug.

Santa says he'd be reluctant to advise someone to go to a doctor who has that sort of relationship: "The issue is, who are you working for? Me, as the patient? Or the drug company you're taking money from?"

Do the payments result in doctors not giving patients the least expensive drugs in some cases?

"Absolutely," Santa replied. "We know from our studies and others that there are still many opportunities for doctors to prescribe generic drugs and they're not doing it, and one of the reasons is these financial relationships."
Keep this example in mind the next time you hear some asshat politician spouting off about "socialized" medicine. What they are really doing is defending the right of the corporate interests to continue to earn maximum profits from health care even though the costs are rising so far above the rate of inflation as to make the whole system unsustainable.

In the Great Recession Millionaires Win, Everybody Else Loses

When not accidentally leaking Social Security Numbers and ruining people's credit history, the Social Security Administration occasionally produces reports on the state of the economy. The one that came out this past Thursday was a stunner. Here is the Washington Post with the details:
Fifty percent of U.S. workers earned less than $26,364 last year, reflecting a growing income gap between the nation’s rich and poor, the government reported Thursday.

There were fewer jobs, and overall pay was trending down — except for the nation’s wealthiest. The number of people making $1 million or more soared by over 18 percent from 2009, the Social Security Administration said, citing payroll data based on W-2 forms submitted by employers to the Internal Revenue Service.
Forget the manipulated employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The SSA is simply reporting the total number of jobs based upon the W-2 forms everyone who has a job is required to complete. And that data shows that the number of millionaires is rising while everyone else is screwed. Here are some more details:
Despite population growth, the number of Americans with jobs fell again last year, with total employment of just under 150.4 million — down from 150.9 million in 2009 and 155.4 million in 2008. In all, there were 5.2 million fewer jobs than in 2007, when the deep recession began, according to the IRS data.
More importantly, the article concluded with data that shows how income disparity has been increasing for the past 30 years, a common theme on this blog:
While the average U.S income last year was $39,959, the mean income — the figure where half earn more and half earn less — was much lower, $26,364. This disparity reflects the fact that “the distribution of workers by wage level is highly skewed,” according to Social Security.

Median compensation last year was just 66 percent of the average income, compared with nearly 72 percent in 1980.
So here we see the results of 30 years of supply-side economics bullshit. The sad part is that this increasing economic injustice would never have happened had not slick politicians of both parties sold these policies to many of the same people who have been getting screwed. Those of us who are aware knew this was happening, but it is stunning to see it right there in the raw numbers at a time when so many of our so-called "leaders" continue to spout nonsense about not taxing the "job creators."

My final takeaway is that when 50% of the voting age public makes less than $26,364 per year, they could theoretically turn the whole system upside down were they all to suddenly get registered to vote and start voting the same way for candidates who would look out for THEIR economic interests. It will never happen, of course, but if you want to know why the Occupy movement has the elites nervous, you need look no further than this report.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Saturday Night Music Video: "Calamity Song" by The Decemberists

I've posted some heavy duty doom recently. To help make it go down a little easier, here is one of the peppier songs about the end of the world you're ever likely to hear. Cool video, too.


Lindsay Lohan: The Perfect Sex Symbol for a Crumbling Empire

Normally, I try to not pay any attention to the relentlessly publicized exploits of celebrities, especially vacuous no-talents like Paris Hilton and the Kardashian sisters who are famous for just for being famous. There is no doubt that the media uses them to serve as a massive distraction, and I refuse to play along with that particular game. But for some reason, the ongoing tragedy of actress Lindsay Lohan fascinates me, perhaps because her life’s story ties together so many threads of what ails the empire in the early stages of its death throes.

At a very young age, Lindsay Lohan was thrown by her parents into the Hollywood meat grinder that chews up and spits out many thousands of desperate young hopefuls every year. Author Jake Halpern described in his excellent book, Fame Junkies, how so many American children are completely deprived of a normal childhood in the quest to become the next Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. Their families drag them out to California, often taking on huge debts to enroll them in academies that are supposed to prepare them to be the next big superstar in movies, television or music. These kids spend their whole waking lives taking singing, dancing and acting lessons in between being dragged around from audition to audition where the competition is absolutely cutthroat. A lucky few get their big break and achieve what they are seeking. Most, however, are broken by the system and return back to where they came from having had their youth squandered by their stage parents.

Initially, Lindsay Lohan appeared to have won the fame lottery. She was already modeling at the age of three, and by age 11 was cast to star in her first featured film, the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap. By all accounts, despite appearing in Disney-produced, teen-oriented fluff, young Lindsay actually did have some natural ability as an actress and a singer. This could explain why her career soared to such meteoric heights during her adolescent years.

Unfortunately, instead of nurturing her burgeoning talent, our celebrity-obsessed culture placed her on a pedestal—throwing countless millions of dollars her way while the media stalked her incessantly, all at an age when the biggest worry for most girls is whether anyone will ask them to the prom. Lindsay could scarcely step out in public without her every move becoming a major headline. Seriously, how many of us could ever hope to stand up to that kind of scrutiny, especially at that age?

Sure enough, as the bright lights of fame turned into a white-hot, unending glare, Lindsay’s life began to spiral out of control. She became a habitual user of narcotics, which was bad enough, but then began to commit a series of petty criminal acts for which she’s been repeatedly arrested. And it is here where all of the hypocrisy and class-based injustice of the American legal system has been put on full display.

Because she is a famous Hollywood actress and not a single welfare mother living in a public housing complex, Lindsay’s drug busts have always resulted in her being allowed to go to cushy rehab centers rather than being sent to prison. I would argue that non-violent drug offenders SHOULD be given treatment rather than punishment, but they only are if they have the money to hire top notch defense attorneys. Even more telling is how the actress has so far avoided serious jail time for her other infractions, including twice Driving Under the Influence, driving with a suspended license, misdemeanor theft and repeated probation violations. In one notorious instance, she spent exactly 84 MINUTES in jail to fulfill her sentence on one of her DUI arrests.

Throughout it all, the paparazzi have continued to stalk her, gleefully documenting her many court dates and her rapid physical decline, which has become red meat for hungry tabloid readers desperately seeking an escape to feel better about their own shitty lives. If there is anything idiot Americans love more than breathlessly following the lives of celebrities, it’s heaping scorn and derision upon them should they prove to be frail and all-too-human. It’s even better when the celebrity is a young woman whose sexual exploits, both real and imagined, are the grist for endless speculation and gossip and she can then be condemned as a slut and a whore.

All of this stuff —celebrity worship, media irresponsibility, a broken criminal justice system and insane drug laws--is bad enough, but to top it off like a cherry on a shit sundae comes the unfortunate Lindsay’s parents to display another quintessentially modern American trait: an utter lack of responsibility for one’s own actions. Here’s a quote from a recent interview with her father about her most recent arrest:
"I hate seeing my daughter in cuffs. She belongs in rehab! Why don’t they institute drug testing? Get drug testing involved! Keep her straight! Make sure she’s in an outpatient program. They need to put a sober coach with her! A no nonsense sober coach! I’m sick of this, when she wants to be honest with herself and live up to her responsibility she’ll turn her life around. But she has learned too much of the opposite from her mother," says Michael.

Even though Michael is known about town as being low-key crazy and has willing appeared on Celebrity Rehab, for some reason he seems to think he's knows what's best for Lindsay.

"My mission is to get rid of all the people in her life that are kicking her down. I'm going to eliminate them from her life. I'm going to do all I can...not physically but I'm going to put them in a position where they can't be around her."
Not to be outdone, here is her mother in a separate interview:
“I blamed her friends, her career and her handlers for an (sic) newfound lifestyle of partying excessively. Drinking, drugging and behaving irresponsibly became Lindsay’s way of daily living–and it tore me up inside.”

“How could I deny my daughter the chance of a lifetime? How could I hold Lindsay back from her dream of becoming an actress? So, I listened to others and sent my daughter to Hollywood with a few pieces of luggage and a chaperone.”
Do those quotes not make you want to grab these two clueless morons and slam their fucking heads together? Really, it was Lindsay’s conscious choice to become a model when she was only three years old? For much of her professional career, Lindsay Lohan was a minor, and therefore raising her was their responsibility. They were perfectly happy to cash the big fat checks and bask in the reflected glory of their young movie star daughter. But actually being parents to her? Why, that’s way too HARD, don’t you know.

Despite having international fame and more money than most of us will ever earn in our lifetimes before she was even old enough to vote, Lindsay Lohan’s life is a complete wreck at the tender young age of 25. It will be a shock if she actually lives to see 30. When she does inevitably succumb to that final fatal overdose, you can bet moralists everywhere will be wagging their fingers while National Enquirer readers gleefully soak up every sordid detail of her death. The cable news shows will feature extended career retrospectives and her record label will no doubt release a posthumous album in order to cash in on the publicity. The funeral will be widely televised, and plenty of teary-eyed mourners who never even met her will say how sad her passing is, even if not one of them would have ever deigned to lift a finger to help her while she was still alive.

So there you have it, America. Lindsay Lohan: the perfect poster girl for the type of deranged society we’ve become. She is literally giving her life to keep you entertained and distracted so you won’t have to open your eyes and see how completely screwed you really are. Appreciate her now—revel in her transgressions, laugh at her misfortunes, speculate about who she’s fucking, embrace the feelings of moral superiority that come over you when you look at her mug shots—but be sure to do so soon before it’s too late.

Friday, October 21, 2011

National Propaganda Radio Fires Host for Participating in Occupy DC

Once again, the myth that there is any such thing as a "liberal media" in the United States has been exposed as a laughable falsehood. Here is The Raw Story with the details:
A broadcaster that hosts several programs that air on NPR was reportedly fired Wednesday for her participation in “October 2011/Stop the Machine” protests in Washington, D.C. after conservative websites suggested “apparent ethics violations.”

Lisa Simeone said Thursday that she was read NPR’s code of ethics as she was fired as the host of Soundprint.
To Ms. Simeone's credit, she didn't take her firing lying down:
“I find it puzzling that NPR objects to my exercising my rights as an American citizen — the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assembly — on my own time in my own life,” Simeone told’s David Swanson, a noted peace activist. “I’m not an NPR employee. I’m a freelancer. NPR doesn’t pay me. I’m also not a news reporter. I don’t cover politics.”

“This sudden concern with my political activities is also surprising in light of the fact that Mara Liaason reports on politics for NPR yet appears as a commentator on FoxTV, Scott Simon hosts an NPR news show yet writes political op-eds for national newspapers, Cokie Roberts reports on politics for NPR yet accepts large speaking fees from businesses. Does NPR also send out ‘Communications Alerts’ about their activities?”
Mara Liaason, Scott Simon and Cokie Roberts haven't been fired from their NPR gigs or even reprimanded because they play the game. Which means that even if you are supposedly "leftist" you can at times be mildly critical of the system, but must not EVER be seen to stand in real opposition to it.

Ms. Simeone's example should serve as an important lesson to liberals and progressives everywhere that NPR is no more a reliable source of unbiased information than is Fox News. It would be supremely ironic if, by demanding Ms. Simeone's ouster, the conservative media websites that raised this issue instead caused NPR's somnolent audience to wake up to what is really happening in modern day America. But I'm not holding my breath.

Memo to Michael Moore: It's the Peak Oil, Stupid

Okay, I'll admit, that headline is a little harsh. I actually LIKE Michael Moore. His first and best documentary, Roger and Me, demonstrated way back in 1989 how the effects of globalization were already devastating the working class. Call him a blowhard if you will, but his expressions of pain and outrage at the slow motion economic catastrophe that was engulfing his hometown of Flint, Michigan, were sincere. Hailing as I do from a similarly devastated rust belt burg, I completely identified with that movie.

I also like Moore because he's a rabble-rouser. And whether you agree with everything he says and does or not, you have to admit that America would be a lot better off if we had more of his ilk...not afraid to speak his mind at the pompous ass freak show that is the Acadamy Award telecast, for example. Not surprisingly given his history, Moore has thrown his (ahem) weight behind the Occupy protests, and I applaud him for doing so.

Last Tuesday night, however, he was interviewed by MSNBC about the protests, and made this observation:
Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore said Tuesday night that the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration in lower Manhattan and other cities continued to grow because Wall Street had ruined the lives of so many people in the middle class.

“I think historians when they look at this time, they’re going to wonder why the wealthy overplayed their hand like this,” he said during an appearance on MSNBC’s PoliticsNation.

“Why would they, when they had it so good? They had the middle class voting for the politicians that the wealthy bought, everything was running just fine, they were posting profits of a billion a year, but that wasn’t enough for them.”

“What they did was started to ruin the lives of the very people who voted for their politicians and supported them all these years, the middle class,” Moore said.
Ummm...Bill, I hear you asking. I thought you SUPPORTED the Occupy movement. If so, then what the heck is wrong with THAT?

Those words certainly SOUND good...except for the fact that they demonstrate that Moore possesses the same massive blind spot of nearly every prominent American these days, regardless of political ideology. Really, Michael? Is it THAT difficult to understand why the wealthy "overplayed their hand," as you put it?

Okay, let my try and keep this simple. Think of the economy as a gigantic pie in which every non-incarcerated citizen gets a slice every year. The wealthy get the biggest slices and the poor get smallest. Moreover, in a hierarchical society like ours, the wealthy always ensure that they get their slices first before the rest is doled out to the "99%" if you will. When the economy grows, the pie gets larger and everybody's slice gets bigger, minus the amount of the additional slices given over for population growth.

It all works great as long as the economy keeps growing. But what happens when our society begins to bump up against natural resource limits and real economic growth is no longer possible? Well...the wealthy, who control the politicos who hold the large cutting knife, ensure that they continue to get their slices even though the pie remains the same size or actually begins to shrink. Obviously, that means that there is less pie left for everyone else. Just as obviously, those young adults who have newly graduated into the system and are at the very end of the line suddenly find that there is no pie left for them.

Unfortunately, Michael, as long as you remain blind to these basic facts, you are going to continue to mislead your fanbase into thinking that this is a political problem rather than a resource problem. The kids out there chanting the slogans and waving the signs are never going to be able to live the same consumerist lifestyle that their parents did. In that they are no different than the sons and daughters of those blue collar factory workers whose ruined lives you portrayed so effectively a generation ago in Roger and Me. Rail against the wealthy if you will, but don't ever think that even if somehow a miracle were to occur and they were to agree to give up a substantial portion of their share of the pie it would solve all of our economic problems.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Potential MBA Students Appear to be Catching On to the Student Loan Debt Trap

I hope we can all agree that one thing this country needs is fewer soulless little cretins running around with MBA degrees. Remember back in 2001 when we were supposed to get all excited about the inauguration of the first MBA president? So how’d THAT work out, anyway?

Somehow, despite being experts at knowing the price of everything and yet the value of nothing, MBAs have avoided kind of widespread public derision that has for many years been heaped upon lawyers. And now, maybe, just maybe, those whose top priority in life is to make money at all costs are beginning to look at college as being a bad bet in that regard. Here’s Chicago Business with the details:
Applications to most of Chicago's business schools are declining, as the recession makes would-be graduate students more wary of taking on huge education debts in an uncertain job market.

Loyola University's Graduate School of Business, one of the metro area's smaller business schools, posted the biggest drop; MBA applications were down 9.5% this year, to 399 from 441 in 2010.

But Chicago's world-ranked institutions are down as well. At Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, 2011 applications declined 5.6%, to 4,974 from 5,270, while at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, applications slipped 3.0%, to 4,169 from 4,299.
Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a much larger trend of young people finally waking up to the fact that it makes no sense to saddle themselves with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student loan debt to obtain a useless education that will never help them land a high-paying job in this era of permanent economic contraction.

Bonus--here is Bill himself on marketing: