Because the Common Wisdom is usually neither

Monday, April 4, 2005

Bush Launches Preemptive Attack on Social Security

"The Social Security system is a dangerous, financially unsustainable program," Bush said. "If we allow it to continue unchecked, we will need to resort to benefit cuts, tax increases, or massive borrowing in 36 short years. I call upon the combined forces of my administration and Congress to destroy this program and the threat that it presents to our way of life."

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From The Onion.

As I've said before, sometimes the truest news is just made up.
Mon, April 4, 2005

Sunday, April 3, 2005

The LA Times steps it up

I first remember admiring Michael Kinsley for his defense of progressive positions first on Crossfire, then later as the founder and editor of Slate. So I was extremely pleased when he took over as editorial page editor of my hometown paper the LA Times. The Times was at last ready to step up to the plate as the west's paper of record, a status befitting one of the largest dailies in the country, and the most (potentially) influential papers in the biggest city in the richest state of the union.

And so it seems the Times is stepping up to the plate.

In today's LA Times all three lead editorials under the heading Culture from the trenches, bring uncommon frankness and insight into the soldier's dilemma and the ambiguities revolving around ppost-9/11 America and the shifting casus belli of the occupation of Iraq. And they do so (appropriately enough in the world's entertainment capital) through the media of film, theater and music.

In The Palace's Surreal Life, the Times looks at the unpreachy, yet eye-opening documentary by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, Gunner Palace which

shows young men and a few women unfiltered, cramming their fear behind imperfect bravado on patrol, later romping like the teenagers that they are. Would they risk their lives to detour for a decent burger? Yes.

They struggle imperfectly to learn the cultural manners a 20-year-old gunner isn't taught. One hour holding hands with Iraqi children, another knocking down reinforced doors of suspected insurgents' homes.

The improvised explosive device might get them tomorrow, but today, back at Uday Hussein's old pleasure palace, they plug in the guitar and whack out power chords. Or rap their bewilderment at this alien place. They dream of cold beer.

Hell in the Stomach talks about the visceral impact of the play by playwright and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, Sean Huze, The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front.

This battle-hardened Marine, who enlisted the day after 9/11, returned home, not to the derision that greeted too many Viet Nam era vets, but to the discovery that his ideals had been betrayed by his own government. The play, in a way that only live theater really can, demonstrates how [a] true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe:

A private searching for survivors amid the wreckage of shot-out buses trips over a blown-off foot — and becomes obsessed with finding the leg it once matched.

A sergeant who's gone 30 hours without sleep loses control and begins kicking a kneeling "rag," then realizes, to his even greater shame, that the private under his command has begun kicking the Arab man too.

And over and over, Huze's actors recount returning enemy fire in streets filled with civilians, as horrified by their own numbness as by the women and children left wounded and dead.

The final editorial Songs in 9/11 Time, discusses the take various musicians have had on America after 9/11.

And though these musicians have staked out positions about the war and America's place in the world:

All of that is about the war, but not of the war. Folklorist and historian Lydia Fish sees the real deal emerging from "the traditional occupational folklore of the military." In other words, songs invented and sung by soldiers when no one else is around. Some of the soldier poetry from "Gunner Palace" is quoted above. Soldier Nick Moncrief also raps in the documentary, accompanied by percussion on the hood of a Humvee: "Yo, I noticed that my face is really aging so quickly, 'cause I've seen more than your average man in his 50s."

These grunts are doing what Haggard does on his best days — "look for songs in the world around me."

My congratulations and thanks to Mr. Kinsley and the LA Times for running this innovative editorial series. Not only have they brought some unique personal perspectives to bear on our current sorry state, but they've also pointed out that though news may be able to provide facts, sometimes only art makes the stomach believe.

Sun, April 3, 2005

Saturday, April 2, 2005

The passing of John Paul II

While media outlets and speakers around the globe mourn his death I find my feelings about John Paul II rather more mixed. Certainly his accomplishments were many and important, most especially the credibility his support gave the anti-Communist movement in his native Poland.

And while, unlike the Republican party, the Pope's commitment to a "culture of life" was vastly more self-consistent and defensible, I find the real-world results of his hard-nosed conservatism a good deal less so.

Especially when I read stories like this:

a growing number of pharmacists around the country are refusing to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or morning-after birth control pills because of moral or religious objections. Although the refusals are cast as important matters of conscience for self-described "pro-life" pharmacists, they have the pernicious effect of delaying, and sometimes even denying, a woman's access to medications that may be urgently needed.

At a time when this nation's, indeed all the civilized world's worst enemies are the extreme theocrats of Al Qaeda and fellow-travelers, I find the increasing prevalance of Christian theocratic wannabes disturbing to say the least.

That the pope himself might personally have rejected such overt interference in society (his rejection of the Theology of Liberation demonstrates, I believe his wariness of mixing religion and politics), certainly his resistance to any breath of liberalization within his own church has aided and abetted its most extreme elements.

As the United States lurches towards an extreme Christian Theocracy as a bulwark against extreme Islamist theocracy, I fear that the hosannas now being sung will sink into moans of despair.

Sat, April 2, 2005

Friday, April 1, 2005

Jeez, I was right about something?!

Today a Goldman-Sachs report forcasts oil prices in excess of $105/barrel:

LONDON (Reuters) - Oil markets have entered a ``super-spike'' period that could see 1970's-style price surges as high as $105 a barrel, investment bank Goldman Sachs said in a research report...

Goldman Sachs is the biggest trader of energy derivatives, and its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index is a widely-watched barometer of energy and commodities prices.

Goldman pointed out thin spare capacity in the energy supply chain, and long response times for bringing on supply additions, as well as robust demand in the United States and in developing heavyweights China and India, despite the recent rapid increase in energy costs...

Goldman said that were it to assume gasoline spending needed to reach 1970s levels to destroy demand, its upside super-spike estimate would be $135 per barrel for New York crude.

``Perhaps the ultimate answer to high how oil prices need to go before demand destruction occurs is derived from knowing when American consumers will stop buying gas guzzling sport utility vehicles and instead seek fuel efficient alternatives.

``Based on our analysis of gasoline spending and the economy noted above, we estimate that U.S. gasoline prices may need to exceed $4 per gallon.''

As noted, these estimates are conservative, and don't reflect the declining value of the US dollar which, as I've argued before adds a new wrinkle to the usual supply and demand equation:

Another interesting thing about oil is that it is one of those commodities whose trade is done in US dollars.

So now there are actually two things at work driving oil prices: the laws of supply and demand for oil, and the laws of supply and demand for US dollars.

So even as increasing demand for a limited supply of oil drives prices higher, it also takes an increased number of devalued US dollars to purchase that oil.

And given continued US demand, those same oil purchases will drive increasing US trade deficits, leading to further devaluation of the dollar and increasing costs for oil ad infinitum.

The solution is simple, the question is whether we can somehow muster the political will to implement it. Again from my earlier post:

There is a way to stop or at least slow this death spiral: conservation. Even small gains in energy conservation can have important effects. Reducing consumption:

  1. reduces our trade deficit, reducing downward pressure on the dollar; and
  2. reduces our portion of global demand, easing our significant contribution to oil price pressure

Conservation has, of course, some other benefits as well, reducing pollution and decreasing our dependence for our oil fix from countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. As I've argued before, US energy policy should be an inherent part of US Security planning.

So, that's the good news, the solution is simple, conserve. The devil is, as always, in the details: how do we implement a meaningful conservation regimen?

A gas tax of course.

And of course, there may be a few implementation problems, such as the conservatives screaming that it'll be bad for business, and whose money is it anyway? Liberals ranting at a gas tax's regressive, disproportionate affect on the poor. That sort of thing.

Both of which are, of course, true.

But consider, it takes neither a crystal ball, nor a Ph.D. in economics to foresee a time in the very near future where, as a consequence of the aforementioned factors, the price of oil will be much higher anyway. Does anyone seriously doubt that?

When that happens (next year, the year after?) GM indeed won't be selling any Hummers, the poor will be crowding what little public transportation exists, and those dollars spent ($4, $5, $6 per gallon?) will go to stuff the silk-lined pockets of some of the most regressive regimes in human existence, that's whose money it'll be.

Instead why don't we pay ourselves first by taxing gas at the pump to encourage conservation?

Why don't we pay ourselves first and pay down the inflationary and destabilizing Federal deficit?

Why don't we pay ourselves first and invest in conservation , alternative fuel and transportation technologies?

Why don't we pay ourselves first and establish US dominance over the only technologies absolutely certain to become vital over the next century as fossil fuel reserves are depleted?

We're going to be paying anyway. Why don't we pay ourselves first?

A would-be economic demiurge can dream can't he?

Now that global economic forces are combining to push oil prices so high even the plutocrats of BushCorp™ might notice them, perhaps we'll see some movement towards policies that might actually impact our energy consumption.

My fear though, is that the economic purists will win yet another ideology versus reality battle within the walls of the West Wing, and that BushCorp™ will let the holy market decide. And certainly the invisible hand of the market will eventually bring the death spiral to an end, though that end will not be much to our liking.

I'll take it as a hopeful sign that there have been rumblings along these lines from several disparate corners.

From Tom Friedman:

We need a gasoline tax that would keep pump prices fixed at $4 a gallon, even if crude oil prices go down. At $4 a gallon (premium gasoline averages about $6 a gallon in Europe), we could change the car-buying habits of a large segment of the U.S. public, which would make it profitable for the car companies to convert more of their fleets to hybrid or ethanol engines, which over time could sharply reduce our oil consumption.

From, God help me, Max Boot:

Set America Free estimates that if we convert entirely to flexible-fuel, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, U.S. gasoline imports in 20 years will drop by two-thirds. As important, because Americans are the world's biggest car buyers, U.S. preferences would reshape the global automotive industry. Carmakers would wind up shipping hybrid electrics to Europe and Asia too. President Bush could hasten the transition through an international agreement to move major economies away from oil dependency. This would not only reduce the Middle East's strategic importance but also help reduce emissions to Kyoto-mandated levels.

There is, of course, a catch. Moving to hybrid electric cars won't be cheap. Automakers would have to retool their wares, gas stations would have to add alcohol-fuel pumps, parking lots would have to add electric outlets. Set America Free puts the price tag at about $12 billion over the next four years. It sounds like a lot of money, but it could easily be financed by slightly raising U.S. gasoline taxes (currently about 43 cents a gallon), which are much lower than in Europe and Japan. Higher taxes could also be used to encourage more domestic oil exploration and production, given that petroleum will never be entirely eliminated as an energy source.

And, just yesterday,Robert J. Samuelson:

The message for Americans is simple. We import nearly 60 percent of our oil. We can't eliminate imports any time soon, but we could limit them by producing more at home and conserving more (meaning higher fuel taxes, tougher gasoline standards, smaller vehicles and more hybrid engines). That would lessen our own vulnerability and ease pressures for the rest of the world. The debate that pits greater production against greater conservation is wrong. We need both.

Samuelson, along with Boot, are misguided in their insistance on clinging to the conservative fantasy of producing ourselves out of this crisis as I point out here:

Increased domestic production will not make the US more secure.

Until such a time as the US can go entirely without oil imports its reserves will remain part of the global domestic market. Since tapping US oil reserves (including those in the Alaskan Wildlife refuge) can only address a tiny fraction of US consumption, increased domestic oil production will have only the most marginal effect on US vulnerability to radical changes in oil prices.

But as all three of these gentleman have pointed out, as have I, this situation should rightly be seen as a national security issue. One which, I believe, presents a unique opportunity for any Democratic leader courageous enough to make the argument:

By failing to adequately encourage both conservation efforts and alternative fuel and energy use technologies, the US government continues to leave the American public at the mercy of these petroleum pushers. And as with our loan-sharks in totalitarian China, as oil junkies, the US is in no position to offend its oil suppliers. How comfortable are you with Chinese and Saudi Arabia holding de facto veto power over US policy?

BushCorp™ will, of course never betray the members of its special friends and family plan (otherwise known as big oil), by taking steps to decrease US oil dependence (and of course reduce the donor class' profits). Since the simplest way to achieve conservation and finance new technology is through a substantial gas-tax (Tom Friedman recommends a tax to keep gas at $4/gallon) the Republicans, who won't even support a tax increase to support a war effort, will never summon the will to do what needs be done. This leaves the "energy as national security" issue wide open to Democrats.

Fri, April 1, 2005

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Ahem, "Culture of Life" cough, cough

From Dan Kennedy:

...Michael Schiavo has reportedly received numerous death threats. Florida state judge George Greer, who has presided over this fiasco for many years now, is under armed guard. Last Friday a North Carolina man named Richard Alan Meywes was arrested and charged with sending out an e-mail promising a $250,000 reward for the murder of Michael Schiavo, and another $50,000 for bumping off Judge Greer. According to reports, FBI affidavits revealed that the e-mail, supposedly written on behalf of an unidentified multimillionaire, said in part: "It is my understanding that whoever eliminates Michael Schiavo from the planet while inflicting as much pain and suffering that he can bear stands to be paid this reward in cash."

And worse than the loonies that kill for Jeezus are the media morons (Scarborough, I'm talkin' to you!) that encourage them.

And the only thing worse than such stalking heads are the amoral corporate media which make such hay whining about "morality".

[And a big thank you to DC Media Girl for the heads up on this story]

Thu, March 31, 2005 | link

Almost right on oil

So close, yet so far. A third columnist sees the light on US oil consumption. First there was Thomas Friedman, and more recently Max Boot.

Now, from the Washington Post, columnist Robert J. Samuelson, gets it mostly right:

Higher oil demand has now strained the global production system to its limits. Spare capacity of about 1.5 million barrels a day is the lowest in 30 years, said CSIS's Frank Verrastro. Most is located in Saudi Arabia. Higher prices partly reflect fear of more supply disruptions -- from terrorism, war, political upheavals, weather or accidents. In theory, higher prices should be partially self-correcting. They should dampen demand and encourage supply. But theory must always be revised for new realities. Here, there are two.

One is that in rich countries -- notably the United States -- rising incomes make it easier to afford higher energy prices. In the latest month, American oil demand was actually up 2 percent from a year earlier (and, yes, adjusted for inflation, today's gasoline prices are still roughly a third below levels reached in 1980 and 1981). A second reality is that big oil companies seem less willing or able to find new oil.

Referring, as ever to the most basic of economic verities:

Perhaps the most basic of economic ideas is that of supply and demand, that is: if supply is greater than demand, prices go down, if supply is less than demand, prices go up.

A corollary: If supply is fixed, but demand rises, prices go up.

Which is the current situation.

And, as I said Samuelson almost gets it:

The message for Americans is simple. We import nearly 60 percent of our oil. We can't eliminate imports any time soon, but we could limit them by producing more at home and conserving more (meaning higher fuel taxes, tougher gasoline standards, smaller vehicles and more hybrid engines). That would lessen our own vulnerability and ease pressures for the rest of the world. The debate that pits greater production against greater conservation is wrong. We need both.

Damn, the man gets that we need to urgently conserve, but insists on falling into the fallacy that increasing US production will make us less dependent on foreign oil supplies, and therefore (and here's the lie) more secure.

Increased domestic production will not make the US more secure.

Until such a time as the US can go entirely without oil imports its reserves will remain part of the global domestic market. Since tapping US oil reserves (including those in the Alaskan Wildlife refuge) can only address a tiny fraction of US consumption, increased domestic oil production will have only the most marginal effect on US vulnerability to radical changes in oil prices.

The only ones to gain from an increase in domestic production will be domestic oil corporations. Domestic production doesn't lessen our dependence on this dwindling resource, neither does it reduce the cost to the consumer, it only lines the pockets of oil execs and shareholders. That's it. As with the majority of Republican policies the result is the same: corporations win, you lose.

The only effective means of securing the US economy against the whims of the oil potentates is by reducing consumption, and therefore dependence on oil. That's the bottom line. Seeking to ameliorate the situation by adding fractional increases to global oil reserves only serves to mask the problem, not fix it.

Wed, March 30, 2005