Saturday, August 18, 2012

Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead (and a Site Announcement)

"To Kaitlyn, the scourge came from a different population. She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, dead beat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws and those who had only themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit card debt."

There is just something primal about a great zombie story. Maybe it's because zombies touch the deep fear many of us have of ever being singled out for destruction by a crowd of our fellow citizens, or maybe it's because zombies make the perfect metaphor for our brain dead, out-of-control consumer culture, but it is probably no accident in these paranoid times that the zombie has risen (so to speak) from B-movie status to become a very prominent icon in our popular culture.

That said, and take this as coming from someone who considers himself a bit of a zombie aficionado, most zombie novels (ahem) stink. They are often either self-published and atrociously edited and/or, the hero/protagonist is portrayed as some cartoonish action figure mowing down legions of the undead and ushering his little band of survivors to safety. Left unexplored in such books is a thoughtful examination of what it would be like to actually live in a world overrun with the undead. The one previous novel that explored such territory was Max Brooks's sublime World War Z, which stands as a towering monument among the vast wasteland that is zombie literature.

Well, now we can add a second entry to the list of great zombie novels. Colson Whitehead is probably the most talented writer to ever tackle the genre, and his writing style more resembles someone who produces short fiction for the New Yorker than someone who writes with too much testosterone and not enough (double ahem) brains. Zone One starts off kind of slowly, and much of the action takes place in a series of flashbacks, but it picks up steam and towards the end begins to deliver a series of strong stomach punches to the reader.

The story's protagonist, whose true name is never revealed but who goes by the ironic nickname of Mark Spitz, has been assigned as a sweeper, disposing of straggling numbers of the walking dead from lower Manhattan as part of a project by the newly reborn U.S. government to retake the island and once again make it suitable for habitation by the living. Mark Spitz and his fellow sweepers move methodically from building to building, ousting and dispatching the occasional animated corpse while dealing with their own tormented memories of the Last Night and everything they have lost and have witnessed since then. A constant theme of the novel is whether the survivors should let themselves hope that civilization can really be reborn, or whether they should remain within their hardened psychic shells (suffering from variations of a malady wryly named Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, or PASD) until the war against the undead has truly been won.

As all good zombie stories should, Zone One contains plenty of wry social commentary on the times in which we live, satirizing everything from the militarization of our society to the banality of reality television. The plot, despite the many detours through each main character's personal history, builds to a appropriate and logical climax. My one forewarning is that this is a literary zombie novel, and the style of writing may be a bit off-putting at first (this could also be why it has such a low average customer review rating on Amazon). Overall, Zone One is a very appropriate story that seems distinctively tailored to times in which we live.

Site announcement: I will be out of town starting tomorrow until after Labor Day (September 3rd). There will no posting and there may be long delays in moderating comments (depending on my Internet connectivity) during this time.

Bonus: "All we want to do is eat your brains"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gallup: Congress's Approval Rating Slips to 10%, More than 90% of Incumbents Will Be Reelected Anyway

The latest Gallup poll has what would appear to be bad news for America's Congresscritters, especially those who are running for reelection this fall:
Ten percent of Americans in August approve of the job Congress is doing, tying last February's reading as the lowest in Gallup's 38-year history of this measure. Eighty-three percent disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.

Congress approval was 30% in Gallup's first measure using this question wording in April 1974, and has averaged 34% across the more than 230 times it has been measured since. Congress approval has been below 40% since early 2005, and below 20% every month since June 2011 -- dropping to 10% in February of this year and again now.

Before 2007, Congress approval had been below 20% only twice -- in 1979 and 1992. The highest congressional job approval in Gallup's history was 84% in October 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

Congressional approval is down among all political groups and is now virtually the same across these groups -- with Democrats at 9%, independents at 11%, and Republicans at 10%. Democrats' approval declined the most, from 18% in July.
I say "would appear to be bad news" except for one little countervailing point: despite the fact that Congress's approval ratings have averaged a mere 34% since this poll began in 1974, more than 90% of all incumbents have won reelection every two years since that time. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that, despite the current record lows in Congressional approval ratings, the 90%-plus figure will be substantially different this year.

So in other words, an overwhelming majority of American voters hate Congress but yet will dutifully trudge off to the polls in November and vote for the sitting representative in their district and Senator for their state, assuming he or she is running this time. If the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, the only conclusion you can therefore draw from this poll, my friends, is that American voters are certifiably insane.

Bonus: More and more, Bob Roberts looks like a documentary

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guardian Article About Romney's "Sensata Problem" Tells Only Half the Story

I've covered this story a couple of times before, but it's in the news again and because it involves my hometown of Freeport, Illinois, my interest is obviously personal. This is the first time that Freeport has had any kind of impact on the fortunes of a presidential campaign since one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates was held there back in 1858 during the Senate race that served as a warmup for the national election two years later.

Anyway, Paul Harris of The Guardian newspaper wrote the latest article about the role of Bain Capital in closing the Sensata plant in Freeport and moving it to China. The details, while quite gruesome, are sadly pretty typical in modern day America:
The shock of losing a precious job in a town afflicted by high unemployment is always hard. A foundation for a stable family life and secure home instantly disappears, replaced with a future filled with fears over health insurance, missed mortgage payments and the potential for a slip below the breadline.

But for Bonnie Borman – and 170 other men and women in Freeport,Illinois – there is a brutal twist to the torture. Borman, 52, and the other workers of a soon-to-be-shuttered car parts plant are personally training the Chinese workers who will replace them.

It’s a surreal experience, they say. For months they have watched their plant being dismantled and shipped to China, piece by piece, as they show teams of Chinese workers how to do the jobs they have dedicated their lives to.

“It’s not easy to get up in the morning, training them to do your job so that you can be made unemployed,” said Borman, pictured, a mother of three who has worked for 23 years at the Sensata auto sensors plant.

Borman knows her eventual fate in the stricken economy that surrounds Freeport. “I am going to be competing for minimum wage jobs with my own daughter,” she said.

Such scenes have been common in America as manufacturing has fled abroad in search of cheaper wages.

But, in the midst of the 2012 presidential election, Freeport is different. For Sensata is majority-owned by Bain Capital, the private equity firm once led by Mitt Romney, that has become a hugely controversial symbol of how the modern globalised American economy works. Indeed, Romney still owns millions of dollars of shares in the Bain funds that own Sensata.

So as Sensata strips out costs by sacking American workers in favour of Chinese ones, the value of Romney’s own investments could rise, putting money into the pockets of a Republican challenger who has placed job creation in America at the heart of his bid for the White House.

The story of how Bain became involved in a car factory in a small town amid the rolling farmland of northern Illinois is emblematic of modern financial wheeling and dealing.

Bain bought the firm that was to become Sensata in 2006, when it was the Texan arm of a Dutch company. It then floated it on the stock exchange in 2010, but kept a majority stake. Sensata came to own the Freeport plant at the beginning of 2011 as part of a wider purchase of a car parts business from Honeywell.

Sensata spokesman Jacob Sayer said closing the Freeport plant to cut costs was a key element of the Honeywell deal. “If that had not been part of the strategy, then the deal would not have been so attractive,” he said.

Bain has declined to comment. But it has made a lot of money from owning Sensata, quadrupling its initial 2006 investment. In business circles that focus on the bottom line is all that matters. But, not surprisingly, it cuts less ice in Illinois.

Workers insist their operation is profitable and makes top quality auto sensors.

“I understand business needs to make a profit. But this product has always made a ton of money. It’s just that they think it is not enough money. They are greedy,” said Tom Gaulraupp, who has put in 33 years at the plant and is facing the prospect of becoming jobless at the age of 54.

Mark Shreck, a 36-year-old father-of-three, confessed he was one of the few workers not surprised at the layoffs, as this is the second time his job has moved to China. “I feel this is what companies do nowadays,” he said.

The Freeport workers have appealed to Bain and Romney to save their plant. The local town council, several Illinois politicians and the state’s Democratic governor have all rallied to their cause. “This company is competitive globally. They make a profit here. But Bain Capital decided to squeeze it a little further. That is not what capitalism is meant to be about,” said Freeport mayor George Gaulrapp, 52, pictured.

The anger towards Bain and Romney is palpable. Romney has become the target for the emotions of a community who built lives based on the idea of a steady manufacturing job: a concept out of place in the sort of fluid buy-and-sell world from which Bain prospers. “I didn’t have a clue what Bain was before this happened,” said Cheryl Randecker, 52. “Now when I hear Romney speak it makes me sick to my stomach.”
Good reporting, so far, but here is where it goes off the rails:
President Barack Obama’s campaign has sought to make Bain’s record of buying and selling companies – often involving job losses – a key part of its strategy of painting Romney as an out-of-touch super-rich financier. In turn, Romney, who left Bain in 1999, has defended his long career there, saying Bain ends up generating economic growth and spurring job creation. Far from profiting from layoffs, Romney has portrayed Bain as a model for the American future.

That argument stuns Illinois governor Pat Quinn. “If he thinks that is the model for American economic growth then he is barking up the wrong tree,” Quinn told The Guardian.

Of course, no one at the Romney campaign wants to be linked with the Freeport plant closure. “Governor Romney is not familiar with this issue and has not been involved in the management of Bain since 1999,” said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.
It makes for a good story line...the evil Bain Capital, that used to be run by the Republican presidential nominee, heartlessly closing down yet another small town manufacturing plant and moving the jobs to China (not incidentally the very same country that The Pentagon insists is the supposed big military threat that we need to waste trillions of dollars defending ourselves against, but that is an issue for another day) with the gory little detail of the workers being forced to train their replacements to wrap it up in a nice neat bow. Too bad it is also shoddy reporting that only tells half the story.

For who was it that rammed through all those "free" trade agreements back in the 1990s that created the conditions that allow Bain Capital to shut down the Sensata plant and export those jobs to our alleged worst enemy? Oh, that would be Democratic President Bill Clinton, of course. And who was it who pushed through the latest round of "free" trade agreements after his predecessor failed to get them through CONgress? Oh, that would be President Hopey-Changey himself, who is now laughably trying to score political points by hyping up Romney's record as a jobs outsourcer.

So there are your choices of viable candidates at the ballot box this November if, like me, you really give a shit about how American workers are being fucked over by globalization: the scumbag vulture capitalist whose former company does the outsourcing versus the arrogant fake liberal sellout who pushes through the laws that allow him and his company to do it. And yet people look down on me when I take it personally and tell them that I am refusing to participate in the whole fucking sham.

I'll finish up with one last blurb from the article that reads like something ripped right from the script of Michael Moore's Roger and Me:
There is little chance of a happy ending for Freeport. The workers collect petitions and hold demonstrations. But they know they are likely doomed. “We are not stupid. We know we are unlikely to save our jobs. But if we get the next company that tries it to think twice, then maybe we save our neighbour’s job. Or our children’s,” said Tom Gaulrapp.

Meanwhile, bit by bit, the machines inside the Freeport plant are being packed up, beginning their long journey to China. By the end of the year it will be over. “It is kind of like part of your family being shipped out – I worked with that stuff for years. Now there’s nothing left but a discoloration on the floor where the equipment used to sit,” Gaulrapp said.
Think twice? That's a laugh. The only thing these sociopathic assholes are going to be thinking about is how best to count up all the money they make from fucking over the next town and how grateful they are to have politicians like Romney and Obama in office who will stand aside and let them do it.

Bonus: "Should I hate them for having our jobs today? No, I hate the men who sent the jobs away"

Added Bonus: "Wouldn't it be nice?"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Spoiled Rotten Nation Screams for Socialism to Combat High Gas Prices

Thanks to a recent series of refinery and pipeline mishaps, gas prices are spiking again, and Spoiled Rotten Nation isn't happy about it. In fact, SRN is SO unhappy about having to pay more money at the gas pump that it is demanding government action to correct the problem. The call to arms was issued on Friday by one Patrick DeHaan of Gas
The day when motorists see such rapid increases in gasoline prices is the day when it should be asked by lawmakers if there is enough spare refining capacity. That day should have been long ago.

The number of refineries have dwindled. Unstable margins have added into the risky future of expanding a refinery. The U.S. can require a certain amount of ethanol to be consumed and produced yearly, prompting hundreds of new ethanol refineries. But oil refineries? Nothing new in decades. Why hasn't the U.S. looked at oil refineries and the lack thereof in the volatile prices? It doesn't matter how much oil prices are or how much ethanol we produce- if we're still subject as a country to sticker shock like we're seeing- what's the point?

As I recall, the requirement of ethanol was supposed to drive us towards energy security. As long as there is conventional gasoline, there's no such thing. As long as we're subject to refinery fires and equipment malfunctions, all is pointless.

We need additional refinery capacity. We saw the direct reason why several times this year- specifically along the West Coast today. It was the Great Lakes region a few weeks ago, it was the West Coast earlier this year. It could have been the East Coast earlier this year when several major refineries were being sold or closed.

The bottom line, politicians, is that it doesn't matter how hard we try to become energy independent. It should start here at home with managing our refineries better, and building new state of the art facilities- just like the ethanol industry has been doing the past decade.

As a motorist, I'm disgusted that we're subject to every problem at a refinery, whether it be a fire, a control board failure, an equipment problem, etc. Let's get the act together. If we don't follow up, it'll cost this country precious GDP as more money goes to the gas pump, diverted from elsewhere in the economy. Wake up, politicians.
Holy shit...alert Michelle Bachmann and let her know that there is an good old fashioned Trotskyite writing for Gas Buddy.

I'm being only half facetious here. Mr. DeHaan is simply falling back on the typical reaction that nearly every American has when they are upset about something: the federal government must DO something...and now. The fact that oil companies are private concerns and that their decisions to build or not build refineries have NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with government policy (other than the required licensing) nor the "politicians" he is desperately pleading for action from seems not to have crossed his mind.

To make matters worse, DeHaan confuses his demand for something to be done about America's supposed shortage of refining capacity with federal ethanol polices in which an entire industry largely exists because of corn subsidies and federal mandates. The government did not itself build any of the ethanol plants that are now consuming approximately 40% of America's corn crop each year and helping in this recent time of severe drought to drive corn prices into the stratosphere, it merely created the conditions to allow big agribusinesses to profit from the whole boondoggle.

Herein lies the very essence of Spoiled Rotten Nation, petulantly demanding that the government take action to allow its resource depleting and environmentally destructive happy motoring ways to continue indefinitely. It is also a big reason why there cannot be any serious debate about the very dire predicament we find ourselves in as the day of reckoning for our unsustainable "American way of life" approaches. The only redeeming quality in DeHaan's delusional article is that at least he didn't trot out the ridiculous notion sometimes asserted by conservatives that the utterly impotent environmental movement is responsible for preventing the rich and politically connected oil companies from building all the new refineries they'd want to build or drilling any hole anywhere they want were they so inclined.

The fact is, and this would be obvious to Mr. DeHaan if he stopped for a minute and thought this problem through rationally, that if the oil companies thought building new refineries was going to be at all profitable, they would be building them as fast as they could. The fact that they are not doing so tells you all you need to know about the reality of peak oil and whether the industry itself really expects there to be enough oil available in the future to keep the current number of refineries busy, let alone any new ones that they might bring online.

So, Mr. DeHaan, here is a little friendly advice from me to you and SRN: suck it up. Buy a hybrid. Move closer to your job. Take the fucking bus, already. Because it isn't going to get any better from here no matter how much you piss and moan, and there isn't and damn thing the politicians can do to help you.

Bonus: "You can say what you want to say...You can think what you think you want...It doesn't matter anyway...It's not funny anymore"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Romney Throws in the Towel

Well, not really. But the selection by Willard of the detestable and hated Paul Ryan to be his running mate certainly isn't going to help him at all. This pick was solely about trying to shore up his conservative base so that they don't stay home on election day. It does nothing to help "broaden the tent" and bring in more minority voters, especially Hispanics, that the Republican party is always giving lip service to saying it wants to do. It also indicates that despite all of the social issues nonsense spewed out of the mouths of the likes of Sarah Palin, when the rubber meets the road the Republican Party leadership is all about ensuring that the federal government should first and foremost exist to serve big business. Ryan, the perfect ideological Randian stooge, meshes perfectly with Romney's vulture capitalist to form a billionaire mogul's wet dream of a perfect presidential ticket.

All of which serves to make President Hopey-Changey the prohibitive favorite to win reelection this November. I've said all along that Obama's chances to win a second term were largely dependent on whether Ben Bernanke and Obama's economic team could manage to stave off the next major market crash until after this election, and every day the chances of that happening are increasing. The market could still deliver an "October surprise" like it gave to Bush and McCain back in 2008, but the difference this time is the "stewards" of the economy are on guard for another Lehman Brothers-type meltdown and not asleep at the switch.

I don't really believe that Romney and the Republicans are consciously trying to throw this election so that the next big phase of the economic meltdown that started in 2008 will happen while a Democrat is sitting in the White House, but even if that is not their deliberate intent the result is likely going to be the same. I now expect the status quo of stock market-levitated economic unreality to continue at least through the end of this year. After that, all bets are off, and Obama will likely be the fall guy to get the blame when it does all finally come crashing down.

Bonus: Steve Miller was also born in Wisconsin, so this song is dedicated to Paul Ryan

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

"So then, Doctor. What are our options?"

Dr. Leo Tolkin trembling, almost laughing. "Options? There are no options."

Despite all the official denial and obfuscation regarding the current collective predicament of mankind, the end of the world is a HOT topic in the popular culture right now. Maybe it's because many people feel the truth of the matter subconsciously even if they are not willing to admit it openly, but from The Walking Dead to Left Behind, there's a vision of the onrushing apocalypse out there to suit every taste and political and religious perspective. Much of it is pure garbage, which for me is why it is such a pleasure to stumble across the occasional gem amidst all the dross.

Ben H. Wniters's new novel, The Last Policeman, was written in the grand tradition of the Nevil Shute classic, On the Beach, of wondering what would life be like in a society that knows it is doomed and is merely waiting for the end to come. In Winters's novel, it is not the encroaching radiation from a nuclear war which looms over the eponymous protagonist and everyone around him, but an impending asteroid strike.

Now, I know what you are thinking about how overused this fictional scenario is, but The Last Policeman is no dumbass Armageddon movie. It is instead a very intense and realistic portrayal of a society that is already rapidly unravelling even as its doom remains more than six months in the future. In Winters's chillingly realistic vision, the economy is breaking down as many people either walk away from their jobs to pursue their bucket lists, descend into hopeless substance abuse or kill themselves out of despair. All the while, an increasingly authoritarian federal government is all that stands between America and mass chaos and starvation.

Enter Hank Palace, the last policeman of the title, who despite having served on the Concord, New Hampshire, force for less than two years has been recently promoted to detective because so many cops have already left the force. Arriving at the scene of yet another apparent suicide, Palace becomes convinced that the victim was in fact murdered and sets out to solve the crime, thus raising the question of whether solving a murder case still matters when everybody is going to die soon anyway.

The Last Policeman works effectively both as a murder mystery and as a portrayal of modern society undergoing collapse. Winters keeps his audience guessing--at first it is not entirely clear that Detective Palace isn't just tilting at windmills--and there are numerous unexpected twists and turns right up until the end. Particularly intriguing is how Winters portrays the actions of those who cling to an irrational hope that humanity can be saved and narrator Palace's disgust at both them as well as those who refuse to continue to do their jobs even in the face of utter doom.

If I have one quibble with the novel, it's that because it is the first in an intended trilogy, the narrative ends well short of the actual asteroid impact date. Nevertheless, Winters leaves things off in such a way that I am really looking forward to the publication of the next entry in the series. Overall, The Last Policeman is an enjoyable read that will stay with you after you have finished it, as all great doomsday stories should. It is definitely worthy of inclusion in any future version of my Top 10 End of the World Novels list.

Bonus: "If you are dying, why aren't you scared like I am scared?"