Friday, June 04, 2010

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) America is a great nation. I think it is still the greatest nation on the planet, but not by as big a margin as it was in 2000. I don't know if that's the fault of the previous administration, but they sure didn't help and their partisans are still holding us back. We can be greater. We must not fear change. We must not fear progress. America has only been great when it has moved forward, when it has become more inclusive. There is an element in this nation that would turn the clock back, that would deprive, that would recurse.
They are wrong. We cannot compete by going back. We must move forward.
2) This. Moar, plz? After eight years of people dodging and stonewalling responsibility, first Obama and then a lowly umpire making the Worst. Call. Evah! have owned up to their mistakes. This is a teachable moment, as they say. In a nation filled with people who deny and obfuscate their support of really terrible ideas, and really terrible people, it's about time someone stepped up and told the truth.
3) Speaking of bad ideas...
4) It looks like the best political races...if you read "best" as funniest...will once again be from California. There's something about super-rich candidates who don't ever get no for an answer being told "no!" over and over again that brings out the "best" in people.
5) By the way, as I typed this, the Top Cap was installed in the Gulf. Looks like it will contain most of the leak, but what about the rest?
6) Here we go again.
7) Add Hungary to the list of European nations on the brink. This is not good, folks. World wars have started for less. Keep in mind that Hungary has a large middle class, low taxes and an austerity budget. In other words, conservative heaven. Which means it has had to borrow to provide even basic services.
8) Why the iPhone App store is far and away the best way to buy apps: safety and security.
9) Topless men at Delaware Beach cause civil rights stir. Yup. There's a catch! Will moobs (or as I like to call them "bobbletits") be next?

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Over the past few years, I've warned of two things: the mortgage crisis and the consumer debt crisis. I felt the consumer debt crisis would be the far worse of the two, and would likely drive the economy into depression.
One I predicted would come to pass shortly after the other. One has come to pass. So the clock is ticking.

WASHINGTON – The economy trudges ahead yet debt dogs many Americans, stressing them out even as they firm up their own financial foundations. [...]

So why aren't the stressed — and the not-so-stressed — feeling better?

For starters, it just doesn't feel much like a recovery to many people.

Unemployment is stubbornly high — 9.9 percent. The jobless face fierce competition for work. Those with a job are watching their paychecks shrink.

A growing number of people are at risk of falling into foreclosure, and only those with the most stellar credit probably can get a new loan. AP-GfK polls show that only 20 percent say the economy is good, compared with 15 percent last year.

Going into 2008, the total amount of consumer debt-- mortgages, car and student loans, and revolving credit-- was roughly equal to the national debt. The bailouts changed that.

I felt the mortgage crisis would trigger a consumer debt crisis for a couple of reasons:

1) A mortgage crisis shakes the very foundation of the American Dream-- to own a home and to maintain and grow equity in that home as a long term investment that will fund your retirement.

2) A mortgage crisis would automatically force banks to tighten their lending to consumers. Since Americans had been outspending their incomes by sizeable amounts and borrowing against their homes to do so, forcing them to rely on savings they were using to pay down debt would tank the economy. There would be panicked borrowing, refinancings, and even full-on foreclosures as people just gave up. Mitigated, of course, by the awful bankruptcy reform of the Bush years. Consumers are now looking at decades of debt piled up ahead of them and no easy solution to shift the burden away from higher priced debt to lower priced HELOCs and mortgages.

3) In addition to tightening credit to consumers, banks would pressure consumer debt by imposing more fees, higher interest rates and tightening rules, all designed to make debt less convenient. And more profitable, of course. But given that the banks had to scrape knees to get past the mortgage crisis (which by all accounts could have been much worse), its understandable they wouldn't want the other shoe to drop, and so would discourage consumer borrowing.

The reflex response would be that consumers had this coming, that instead of buying $150 Nike sneakers and $200 iPods, they should have been working to firm up their own houses.

That's partly true, but is a far more marginal factor than many would admit. Elizabeth Warren, Harvard professor and currently the Congressional watchdog on the bank bailout, has studied consumer debt and finds there are three major contributing factors to why people load up: divorce, job loss, and long term health care costs.

Often, two of those three hit the same family at the same time, and in a number of cases, all three swamp a family. That's not to say that there isn't an awful lot of ridiculous spending going on. An entire marketing sector of the American economy thrives on selling us shit we don't need but must have.

But as with fast food and obesity, there comes a point where even the most ascetic among us finds themselves grasping that iPad off the shelf. It's easy, its a quick fix, and most of all, it gives us the illusion of satisfaction. It is disingenous on the part of those who would blame the broke not to fess up to the fact that the entire consumer economy revolves around being made to look foolish if you have the wrong car or wrong hair color or wrong shoes. 

And there is the malevolence of America, and now of the west (seeing as we've infected the planet with our Buymore virus): two sides of the same corporatocracy vying to see which can bankrupt us faster, only we can't file bankruptcy, so we'll be indentured slaves for the rest of our lives. 

The fear they should have, the fear I do have, is what happens when the shit hits the fan? 


Wednesday, June 02, 2010

When "No" Should Mean "NO!"

Bob Herbert has it right:

If a bank is too big to fail, it’s way too big to exist. If an oil well is too far beneath the sea to be plugged when something goes wrong, it’s too deep to be drilled in the first place.

When are we going to stop behaving so stupidly? We nearly wrecked the economy and we’re all but buried in debt. But we can’t break up the biggest banks, and we can’t raise taxes. Now we’re fouling the magnificent Gulf of Mexico and ruining entire communities along the southern Louisiana Coast.

[...]For a nation that can’t stop bragging about how great and powerful it is, we’ve become shockingly helpless in the face of the many challenges confronting us. Our can-do spirit was put on hold many moons ago, and here we are now unable to defeat the Taliban, or rein in the likes of BP and the biggest banks, or stop the oil gushing furiously from the bowels of earth like a warning from Hades about the hubris and ignorance that is threatening to destroy us.

"BAM!," as they say.

There is a moral underpinning to the story of America in the 21st Century, one that ties in the hubris of the Bush wars with the hubris of the Gulf disaster with the hubris of the bankstas.

We just ain't all that. Our reach has more than exceeded our grasp, as Herbert points out. I think that's because somewhere in the late Twentieth Century, we became enamored with the idea that America can do no wrong, that we can never be evil, and that we can do anything.

We're fucking human, folks, not supermen.

There was a time not that long ago that the spirit of "more, more, more" was understandable, as nonsensical as it was. We had seemingly unlimited resources and unlimited space and time to waste them in the pursuit of, well, anything, but especially the almighty dollar. In the Fifties and Sixties, we started to wake up to the horror of our behavior. We started to acknowledge that prices had been paid in this country by innocent people and the very resources we used so wastefully.

And now, we're scrambling. We've given up trying to come up with the richer bounty of our nation in an effort to gather the bits and scraps of what we used to be able to do. We don't want progress, because that's scary. We want what we had, and we want more of it. It's comfortable. It's a known evil. We're used to it.

The problem is, of course, it's running out, and so is our time, unless we change course and start looking forward. We're so desperate to reclaim past glories that we'll build monuments to our greed and stupidity, like 5,000 foot deep wells that no one can fix and banks so big that their income could stabilize Greece inside of three months.

It has to stop. We have to have a meaningful dialogue, one that doesn't involve what we can do, but what we should do. Not what we can accomplish, but why.

Re: Energy Crisis
Herbert goes on to talk about the looming energy crisis over America and how he feels the Gulf tragedy will trigger Americans to call for real energy reform.
Two points I'd like to make:
1) It took effective journalism from the networks and newspapers of the 60s and 70s to trigger an environmental movement. Images of the Cuyahoga River burning, among other emotional appeals (the Native chief standing in a pile of garbage, for one) really got people's attention. I don't see that happening this time around. The pain of the people in the Gulf region, the horrendous impact of the oil slick, the imminent danger of an entire coastline being killed, literally smothered in oil, none of that has really effectively been covered. It has to be.
Yes, one sees reports and one-minute "analyses" of the impact, but I'd love to see all three networks pool resources...because goodness knows no one of them would dare risk the profits requirement imposed on them... and create a one-hour special, bringing us live and in person the devastation of this disaster.
It took body bags from Vietnam for the antiwar movement to become effective. We need that level of commitment from the people for whom "reporter" is just a way of marketing their books.
2) An immediate solution that Herbert neglects to mention, possibly because I seem to be the only person proposing it, is a $1 billion government cash grant to the company that finds a method to generate renewable energy as cheaply and efficiently as fossil fuels.
The competitive advantage that fossil fuels have is the effectiveness of power generation: they are filled with energy. The only energy source we've developed to this point that can compete with coal, natural gas or oil is hydroelectric and even that requires power plants that dwarf your average Con Ed facility and require you be near a source of moving water to enjoy the benefits.
The competitive advantage that renewables have is their ease of access and resource cost (effectively zero). It is in the conversion to usable energy that renewables are weaker than fossils.
Let's make it worth the while of companies and entrepreneurs to ramp up their efforts (do you think BP might jump at the chance to eradicate some of their liabilities, both financial and in terms of image?). A thousand million dollars, cash on the barrel, for a renewable energy source that can be converted to as many BTUs as fossil fuels, but as cheaply, efficiently, and as conveniently.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Israel Or Not?

This weekend's tragic encounter on the Mediterranean certainly brings into sharp focus, once again, the Middle East's most intractable conflict: Israel v. the Palestinians (including the Arab Muslim world).
Forget what got us to this point, because that way lies madness and a nest of competing claims and counterclaims: view this incident strictly in its cocoon.
You have a vessel, presumably bringing humanitarian aid and supplies from an ally to a beleagured people, confronted by a military force of a neighbor who has good reason to suspect the vessel is not what it appears.
Now put this in a different context: say a ship from Saudia Arabia is steaming towards Nova Scotia with commercial goods, but the American Coast Guard suspects there might be opium supplies on board. Interdiction agreements between Canada and the US allow the USCG to board the vessel and inspect it. Similarly, contained in the interim Israeli-Palestinian accords, Israel has a similar right to control the airspace and waters around Gaza.
So a few questions remain just within this context of isolating this incident: Why did the Israelis board at night? Why did the people on the "peace" ship attack the soldiers immediately as they rappelled down? Who gave the order to use live fire against pipes and rods?
Now we can expand the context: Why did Israel have an embargo and blockcade in the first place? There is, of course, the stock answer that Gaza contains Hamas militants (as did the boat), but that answers really nothing about the blockcade. After all, much of the land around Gaza is actually Egyptian territory. A blockcade around Gaza wouldn't stem the flow of armaments and terrorist operatives. Egypt would not tolerate any such behavior on its lands, but then we don't tolerate illegal immigration, yet it still happens.
In other words, a blockade is ineffectual at best, and tragic at worst. And it seems that the Gazans are dying, rather than leave or submit to Israel.
Too, a blockade, as has been seen countless numbers of times over the centuries, is rife with opportunities for just such a tragic encounter as yesterday's boarding.
There's going to be, over the course of the next several days, an awful lot of overheated rhetoric, so here's what you need to know: Both sides were wrong, both sides acted irresponsibly, and therefore both sides deserve condemnation in about equal proportion.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Thank You

I had a brother at Khe Sahn, fighting off the Viet Cong.
They're still there, he's all gone