Sunday, July 06, 2008

God bless America!

Wow. Nearly nine months since my last post. This blog really keeps you on the edge of your seat, huh? This time lag was indeed an egregious violation of my numerous, previous pledges to keep the dang thing timely. So what happened, you ask?

I think the biggest reason is that I was discouraged by the somewhat ugly direction the discussion in the comments went. I didn’t mean for things to get so heated. I blame myself.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to link to the inflammatory video. Though I still agree with every word of James McMurtry’s powerful protest song and the sentiments it conveys, I intended it as a kind of punctuation, like an exclamation point on the end of a sentence, to drive home the points made by the linked articles and blogs that I posted.

As it turned out, seems like most of the people who read the post didn’t pay too much attention to the links. Some (one of whom will remain nameless, Dad) got the impression I was cackling maniacally as I gleefully set fire to Old Glory, and cheering for a Communist overthrow of the US government as I congratulated Osama Bin Laden for his efforts over the phone.

That was not quite the case.

It was a stimulating discussion, but an exhausting one. I guess I deserve it for bringing up politics and economics in the first place. I mean, really what did I expect would happen? It’s now been the better part of a year since that controversial post. My interest in the issues I wrote about and linked too has only grown since then – I just haven’t blogged about it.

If you check out the first link in the last post (the official White House “Jobs & Economic Growth” page), you may notice a change from last year. Last October, it was trumpeting the strong economy, proclaiming a new era of prosperity and opportunity and thanking George W. Bush’s economic genius at every opportunity; now we get a fact sheet “Charting A Clear Course For The Economy”.

It’s pretty funny. Here we have a great example of your tax dollars at work to bamboozle you with cherry-picked statistics and economic initiatives of dubious merit, but what is really striking is how the narrative has changed since last year. Exactly what happened to that strong economy? Gotta love propaganda.

The reality is that since last year events have moved on. Nobody can predict the future but it ain’t looking too bright to me. I think what really disturbs me is that we seem to have lost what once made us great as a nation: the ability to govern ourselves. This is the country that once produced great leaders such as Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK. We saved the world from the Nazis and American ideas of freedom enraptured the world. What happened?

As a nation, we have never before seen such confluence of political decay, erosion of freedoms, corporatism and economic exploitation. Our country has been sold off to the highest bidder, and democracy is now considered more or less an obstacle to the global flow of capital and corresponding transfer of wealth from the lower to the upper classes.

This is happening via a number of conduits, lax government monetary policy and the globalization of the flow of capital without regard to the needs of human beings being two of them. Overshadowing everything like the Sword of Damocles is the looming specter of peak oil, which I am personally more and more convinced will be the number one nightmare for humanity for the foreseeable future. Oil hit $145 a barrel yesterday, and the national average price for a gallon of regular 87 octane gasoline was at $4.10.

That sucks huh? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There may be temporary drops here and there in prices, but the overall trend line is clear. Gasoline prices will never again be $1.15 a gallon. They won’t even be double that. I personally think that by the end of the year, the price will be around $5. If we go to war with Iran, double that.

Sounds pretty bleak huh? I don’t have any surefire solutions. I think there can only be treatments to mitigate the pain, not a cure for the disease. Unfortunately, I think that our culture, economy and government are incapable at this time of doing even the minimum necessary, thereby ensuring even greater pain down the road. This is a second reason I feel so pessimistic about our future. Believe me, nobody would be happier than myself if I was wrong.

So, I'll bet you're thinking: "Wow, what a crank Matt is! Why does he rant like that? How did it come to this?" Two books I have read over the past few months have profoundly influenced my thinking about these issues. They make me look like Pollyanna by comparison, but they make their cases more solidly than my "ranting" ever will. If you are at all interested in issues like peak oil or problems with globalization and the capitalist model to which we are accustomed, please check them out.

Jim Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency makes some dire predictions about our prospects for grappling with converging crises such as peak oil, global warming, and their effects on the economies of not just the United States’, but that of the world. The central thesis is that we are woefully unprepared to live in a world whose entire economy rests upon the premise of cheap fossil fuels. Simply put, in Kunstler’s view there is no possible way to avert the coming catastrophe.

Kunstler is a longtime critic of the post-war suburban housing pattern that now is the dominant form of development in the US, which he calls the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. He predicts (and I am inclined to agree) that this pattern of development, with its big box stores, shopping malls, freeways and parking lots has no future in a world of scarce oil.

Though the amount of investment in mass transit over the past fifty years has varied greatly from place to place, most places in the United States have given little thought to the long term and in some areas such as the deep South, there is next to no chance that any kind of mass transit will realistically come on line.

He is also dismisses the idea that renewable energy has any chance of preserving the post-war suburban lifestyle, and examines various schemes in detail to determine why exactly they cannot replace fossil fuels – solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, hydrogen, and even drilling for more oil are all looked at. Moreover, we are woefully unprepared for the coming shock.

This book was published in 2005, at the height of the last economic bubble when things were looking rosy, so to read it to day in the light of $145 per barrel oil is pretty scary. He goes so far as to doubt our ability to survive as a nation – “the long emergency” as he describes it a rather apocalyptic vision.

While even I am not quite so negative about the future as Kunstler, this book is a must read for anyone trying to understand the current economic gloom and the reasons why gasoline prices keep going through the roof. And don’t dismiss him as some radical leftist either – he supports drilling for oil in ANWR, investment in nuclear energy, and though he didn’t really support the second Iraq war, he regards it as having been pretty much inevitable.

Even if you don’t agree (as I don’t) with all of his predictions, this is an excellent resource that pulls a lot of loose threads together. Kunstler is also an engaging, witty writer – his gift for a pithy turn of phrase is on full display here, with a good dose of black humor. He also has a blog that he updates weekly here. In my opinion he’s one of the sharpest writers today covering this subject. Check it out if you’re interested in learning more.

The other book that has heavily influenced my thinking lately is The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. This is a detailed account of how the so-called “Chicago school” of economics (the dominant school of economics worldwide since the late 1960s), with the late Milton Friedman as its champion and figurehead, came to preside over a series of economic disasters in dozens of countries around the world.

The Chicago School is known for its embrace of extreme principles of free markets without regard to the short-term human costs involved. And though we have been lead by the corporate media and various leaders to embrace so-called free markets as being synonymous with democracy, in most cases these “free market principles” have been imposed on other countries by force, with the explicit aim of causing such dire economic consequences that all resistance is rendered impotent by the sudden shock. Hence, the title of the book.

The Shock Doctrine describes in great detail events that took place in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, the Maldives, Poland, Russia, China, Mexico, Sri Lanka and other places when, after some kind of shock natural (the 2004 tsunami), man made (the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pinochet’s coup and dictatorship in 1970s Chile) or economic (the so-called “Asian Contagion” currency crisis of 1997, the free-market ideologues in various governments and institutions such as the World Bank or IMF sought to impose radical free-market reforms in very anti-Democratic ways.

In Chile’s case, this took the form of University of Chicago educated bureaucrats advising and abetting a brutal dictatorship that overthrew a left-leaning but democratically elected government. In the case of Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a fire sale of state assets to the many of the high-ranking officials of that oppressive state and created a new class of oligarchs, along with nearly a decade of spiraling organized crime and economic chaos.

And so on, with depressing regularity. None of these shocks were accidental, but rather were explicitly called for by the adherents of this “neoliberalism” (as it is known in the rest of the world). They sought a proverbial “clean slate” in which to impose their ideology, and to bring it about they advocated exploiting these kind of shocks, and in some cases actually brought them about through shady speculative practices.

This book pulls together a lot of threads and paints a very big canvas. What is really striking is the similarity of neoliberalism to Leninism, its diametric opposite and mortal enemy. Both systems explicitly advocated advancing their economic philosophies by use of anti-democratic means. Both systems sought to shape the world according to their ideological visions. And though both of them never succeeded in doing what they claimed to do, their adherents only redoubled their efforts to remake the world in their image -- even though in most cases what came about was economic hardship and oppressive government. Makes you think, hmmm?

I recommend this book to anyone who is trying to understand why many of the events since the end of the Soviet Union transpired as they did. It’s thoroughly researched, and a damning portrait of what capitalism has become under the radical philosophy of neoliberalism.

Sorry to ruin your day with my blog. I'm really not that unpleasant to be around. I just think that people aren't realizing the great danger we as a nation (and the planet too) are facing. I would just like to see people be more informed about what is going on in the world so that we at least don't make things worse than they already are. The past 40 or 50 years were a gilded age. It's time we realized that things are going to change and the old models won't get us very far. But the world won't end. At least, I hope not -- for all it's flaws, I'm pretty fond of it.

Ok, that’s probably enough about this stuff. I promise not to bore you with politics and economics so much anymore. Gotta start keeping people up to date on my boring life. I know you’ll want to read about that. Stay tuned... more soon.

UPDATE 7/9/08:

Not to beat a dead horse, but Naomi Klein has a very timely column on disaster capitalism's influence on current events. This is why I roll my eyes when I hear people bleat about “free markets”, which too often really means "free for multinational capital, expensive for regular people -- suck on it."