Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Nigeria: The "Fun" Country and Why We Need It

Nigeria, whose chief exports these days are fraud and oil (the country supplies 10% of Imperial Nation's needs) may not actually be the bastion of strength and stability you may have thought. Tribal and religious strife, along with corruption, plague oil-producing areas. As a reliable source of energy, the country is questionable and with its tremendously high birth rate (almost three times the replacement rate, 5.8), continued instability is guaranteed. A major source of entropy in the world, in Chaos' view.

Let's Put the X Back in Christmas: SomaFM's Holiday Station

SomaFM, the coolest radio station on the Net (which, by definition, makes it the coolest radio station anywhere) has a seasonal offering up now: Xmas in Frisco, an irreverent, eclectic mix of holiday tunes ranging from Burl Ives to Southpark. Try it, you'll like it (ok, well maybe it's not for everyone, but still...).

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Free Speech No More: Anti-War Sermon Brings IRS Scrutiny; Brain Drain Watch

Here's a nice measure of how the comatose American public has willingly given away the constitutional freedoms Chaos grew up with and thought were inviolate: the IRS has threatened to revoke the tax-exempt status of All-Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, for an October 31, 2004 sermon from guest pastor Rev. George F. Regas, in which he criticized the Iraq war and George Bush, essentially asking, "what would Jesus say" about preemptive war. Since the tax code in its infinite wisdom allows rich and corporate citizens to escape payment but prohibits church intervention in political campaigns (except for fundamentalist church activity), the IRS claims that All-Saints engaged in improper political activities. Oh, yes, it also claims that the church's progressive social activism is not the reason for the attention given (ho ho ho). After some publicity, IRS offers to "settle" with the church if it will admit wrongdoing, which All-Saints declined to do--Chaos admires the stand on principle.

On another front, the ACLU takes on the Bush Administration for denying visas to foreign intellectuals and scholars for taking ideological positions contrary to (what else?) the Bush Administration's policies. "The government should not be banning scholars from the country simply because it disagrees with what they have to say," said an ACLU attorney. The justification for this despicable action comes from (again, what else?) the Fascist USA Patriot Act, which allows the government to deny visas to those advocating terrorism. That "marketplace of ideas-free speech" thing is so quaint, so outdated. The oblivious public now has the government it voted for, and deserves, and the collective IQ slips a tad more...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Peak Oil Perspective: James H. Kunstler

What happens when the oil runs out? As Chaos has pointed out recently, the issue has bubbled up to the surface of mainstream media's attention, and tentative articles on the issue have appeared. Curious readers who wish to know more, however, must drill down deeper and it is in this context that Chaos presents one of the prominent voices of the effects of peak oil (the geologic basis will be further discussed in an upcoming post), James H. Kunstler. The author of several books, including the recent The Long Emergency, Kunstler has done more thinking than anyone else about just how addicted this society is to cheap energy and what will happen once it is gone. Key highlights: the hopeful thought that "technology will save us" is "Jiminy Cricket" thinking--wishing upon a star won't make it so, and no alternatives to oil are able to step in and rescue our easy motoring society. The U.S. has constructed an entire economy based on cheap energy and when it is gone, many aspects now taken for granted will have to be relearned, chiefly food production and transportation. The suburbs, a giant misallocation of resources, will be particularly hard hit, but everyone will have to scale down and live locally. Kunstler's tone is harsh, pitiless, and forbidding, which makes The Long Emergency somewhat depressing, and some of his projections for the future are clearly sheer speculation, but his take on the coming energy crisis is dead-on. (It's not an accident that Kunstler begins with a quote from Jung that "people cannot stand too much reality.") For those lacking the time or intestinal fortitude this holiday season to parse the entire work, here's a summary to get started with Kunstler, and his weekly blog has more thoughts.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Economic Tsunami

Doomerosity level: Extreme

Here's a recent piece in USA Today concerning budget deficits and what will happen to the profligate nation's economy when the Boomer Generation starts retiring. Unlike a real tsunami, this one is mathematically certain to happen, and when it starts and how bad it will be can be precisely predicted, because of demographics. In brief, there simply will not be enough working people to pay for the unfunded liabilities (that's Social Security and Medicare) when the large numbers of Boomers retire, as they will in 2011. Every year after that will produce larger and larger deficits: they are now estimated at $74 trillion. Reasonable people would note that seniors are the most active voting group in Imperial Nation and will fight to the death to preserve "their" benefits. (Many of this generation have not saved much money and believe that a magic pension will somehow appear when it's time to retire...). Much could be done now to stave off this tsunami, but of course there is no political will to do so. (See next post). For further reading, although it won't be pleasant: The Coming Generational Storm, Burns and Kolitkoff (2004), Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It, Peterson (2004).

Meanwhile, back in the Land of Nod: remember the $223 million Bridge to Nowhere? Since it became so highly puclicized, those in Congress have become sensitive to "how it looks," and decided to scrap this particular piece of pork. Oh, Alaska will still get to keep the money (!), the mandate for the bridge will just be "eliminated." In light of this, Chaos wonders why anyone need bother with delineating actual projects for Congressional (that's taxpayer) largesse: just announce the amounts and don't bother coming up with "the Museum for Golden-Cheeked Orioles" or "studies of why people like to scratch their heads."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Climate Change Again

Environmentalist Bill McKibben writes for Rolling Stone: "we are entering the Oh shit era of global warming." A fine synopsis of what has come before, our sick denials now, and what lies ahead (hint: it's not good). Look for a wetter (higher sea levels-hurray!), sicker (malaria and more), hungrier (America's Bread Basket may dry up and blow away), and poorer world. Will the torpid American public awaken before the cataclysmic effects of the nation's irresponsible squandering become apparent or will entropy rule the Nation of Manifest Destiny? Vote for the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Dose of Realism In Energy Policy

This would be funnier if it weren’t so scary…Charles Grassley (R-IA): “You know, what--what makes our economy grow is energy. And, and Americans are used to going to the gas tank (sic), and when they put that hose in their, uh, tank, and when I do it, I wanna get gas out of it. And when I turn the light switch on, I want the lights to go on, and I don't want somebody to tell me I gotta change my way of living to satisfy them. Because this is America, and this is something we've worked our way into, and the American people are entitled to it, and if we're going improve (sic) our standard of living, you have to consume more energy.”

Hey Chuck, what happens when you flip the switch and the lights don’t go on? Do you bawl and call for your mommy? What happens when you put the hose in your gas tank and nothing comes out? Do you petition the Great White Father in Washington?

The infantilism and arrogance in Grassley's statement is just breathtaking...

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Current Bubble of the Imperial Economy

What follows is a long but compelling explanation of why Imperial Nation is headed for an economic freefall, by Clive Crook:

" Once upon a time Democrats were big spenders and Republicans were fiscal conservatives. That was a while ago. Ronald Reagan's defense buildup and tax cuts caused deficits to soar in the 1980s, and it was Bill Clinton who brought the budget back into surplus in the 1990s, partly by curbing spending. But those fiscal role reversals were timid by today's standards. Since 2000 the Democratic Party has been left in the dust when it comes to spending.
The Republican Party is the new, undisputed champion of big government. The Bush administration has presided over an explosion of public borrowing, fueled partly by tax cuts but also by huge new outlays. Both sides of the public accounts were out of control even before the enormous increases in spending to cope with Hurricane Katrina and the persistently dire situation in Iraq (see "Disasters and the Deficit," next page). The administration's incompetent handling of the hurricane will exact its own price over and above disaster relief, as the White House tries to buy its way back up in the polls. The Republican Party's former reputation for prudent fiscal management is no longer merely compromised; it is ruined, perhaps for good.
Among Republicans in Congress squeaks of complaint are heard here and there. But the White House has drowned them out. Before Katrina, at any rate, the administration was still insisting that the budget deficit would fall over the next few years. That prediction might have been right if Katrina and Rita had not happened and if Iraq had come good—at least if one further assumed that no other emergencies would arise, that most of the administration's tax cuts would be reversed by the end of the decade (which the administration itself, of course, is determined to block), and that demographic pressures (which are causing the government to pile up vast liabilities for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) would magically abate. On this side of the looking glass the deficit will not shrink unless something bold is done.
For those who find its budget forecasts unconvincing the White House has another line—one that slightly undercuts its assurances of fiscal responsibility. It is that the deficit does not matter. Economists have been predicting fiscal meltdown for years, officials point out. It has not happened and it won't, they say, even if the deficit sticks. The reason is that foreign investors just love this country's assets.
The resulting flow of funds—a global vote of confidence in American capitalism—means that the government can borrow without strain. Spend more, tax less, be happy.
It sounds like a confidence trick, and in the end it is—though, like all the best scams, it contains particles of truth. For much of the past decade private foreign investors have poured funds into the United States because they saw faster economic growth and better returns than were available elsewhere. As long as that kind of investment keeps flowing in, the deficit can be financed painlessly. Government spending still has to be paid for eventually, mind you—it is only a question of taxes today or taxes tomorrow. But a willing inflow of capital means that the eventual, inescapable cost to American taxpayers can be postponed at little risk.
Another thing helps. America enjoys the rare privilege of being able to borrow what it needs—currently on the order of $782 billion a year—mostly in its own currency. Countries heavily in debt usually have to borrow in a foreign currency. If they later get into trouble and the foreign-exchange market drives their currency down, the burden of their debt, measured in local money, weighs heavier, pressing them into an even deeper hole. But if the United States got into that kind of fix and the dollar fell abruptly, the value of America's debt would not rise. Instead the countries that had lent the dollars would see the value of their investments (measured in yen, say, or euros) fall.
As far as the United States is concerned, this is an excellent arrangement. With foreign lenders choosing to carry more of the risk, a credit-hungry America can afford to be less cautious.
But not this much less. If America were borrowing at half the present rate, it could probably relax. But $782 billion a year—more than six percent of GDP—is outlandish. Such reckless behavior has made America's privileged place in the world economy as much a curse as a blessing. Foreign capital is no longer voting as confidently for America. Private investors are spending less than before on American assets. Lately the slack has been taken up by foreign governments and central banks, which are pursuing not profit but doubtful policy goals of their own. (China's holdings of dollar reserves are already far greater than makes sense for China.) At some point these lenders are going to curb investment in American assets. Should this happen suddenly, here are some of the likely consequences: a spike in interest rates as the government is forced to find new takers of its debt, at dearer terms; a surge in personal bankruptcies and a sharp curtailment of spending among America's heavily indebted households; a stock-market crash; an increase in inflation; and a slide back into recession.
The present course of fiscal policy is not certain to end badly, but the risks are increasing. This summer, before Katrina, the economist Brad DeLong put the chance of a major U.S. financial crisis at 20 percent. The former Fed chairman Paul Volcker puts it at 75 percent within the next few years if we don't change our policies. Stephen Roach, the chief economist at Morgan Stanley (and a notorious pessimist), thinks it's about 90 percent. Whether any of these predictions is close to the mark is anyone's guess, but that's not the point. The point is that the chance of a bad outcome is substantial—and much higher than it needs to be.
Changing course now—before circumstances leave no choice—would be hard even if the administration believed it had to act. Starting from here, the combination of higher taxes and lower public spending required to bring the deficit down to manageable levels is politically daunting. Yet at the same time, Katrina has perhaps created a political opportunity to undo some of the fiscal damage this administration has wrought—by, say, curbing tax cuts and scaling back the Medicare prescription-drug bill.
Unfortunately, big-government Republicans see no need for such measures; they look at deficit hawks and see Chicken Littles. But this fiscal environment is more dangerous than any other America has faced in its modern history. Without corrective action the sky may fall.

Have a restful weekend; do your part to spread entropy.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Rays of Hope for Oil-Addicted Nation

The famed environmentalist Bill McKibben discusses what individuals could do if any of the plethora of pessimistic scenarios imagined by peak oil believers come to pass, and actually produces a somewhat hopeful scenario exemplified by the town of Burlington, VT. In brief, the town produces approximately 8% of its produce needs through an "intown" organic farming district (which was once the town dump), as well as a local currency known as "brown bread." McKibben envisions the growth of both of these elements should energy prices rise substantially, a not unrealistic view. Note, however, the small scope of these programs and the essential local nature, suggesting that supply-chain giants like Wal-Mart will not survive.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Theocracy Watch; God Bless Texas!

Theocrats win in Kansas, lose in Pennsylvania...Chaos has always been struck by the deviousness of so-called "christians," who apparently believe, among other things, that the ends justify the means. This is glaringly so when abortion opponents bomb clinics or murder physicians, but also when it comes to foisting their (objectively unChristian) viewpoints on others. The current "debate" on intelligent design is an another example: the proposition that this mumbo-jumbo is science and should be presented alongside evolution is merely a subterfuge and a way to get the nose of the camel into the tent. Chaos wonders why any belief system worth its salt needs to resort to such mendacity to spread its message. Do Buddhists or Hindus rely on trickery or lies to get followers?

Meanwhile, Texas continues its' enthusiastic spiral down into ignorance, bigotry, and theocracy, aided in part by rabid applause from the World Capitol of Ignorance. What really rankles is the statement from Glen Maxey, gay former legislator: "this issue is clouded by people's religious views (Duh! you think?)...I don't think Texans are overwhelmingly hateful kinds of folks and I think eventually they will come around." Liberals just can't believe that people choose to be moronic, homophobic and vile. No no no, they're just misinformed, misled, have their judgment clouded, relied on incorrect numbers, had the wool pulled over their eyes by Republicans or some other ridiculous excuse. Sorry, Glen, this wasn't even close.

Drawing upon trends in immigration, education and demographics, Chaos makes the following prediction for the state of the State in 20 years or so: the children of Mexican immigrants inundate the already overcrowded public schools, at least for awhile, until they are forced out by high stakes testing of the Every Child Kicked in the Butt (oh sorry, No Child Left Behind) Law. Non-immigrant (or wealthy Anglo, if you will) schoolchildren enjoy the teaching of creationism in their homes or private "christian" schools, devoid of testing of any kind, while the brain drain caused by the No Gays Allowed In This State referendum reduces the state collective IQ to dull normal or borderline retarded levels.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Trade Gods Declare Christmas Early

The Winter Solstice, the midyear holidays, the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, Hanukkah,Festivus, Kwanzaa, or whatever one believes in, seems to begin earlier each year. This year, however, in response to the upcoming anticipation of higher heating costs caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Wise Men of Commerce have decreed an extra-early start, primarily to encourage consumers to spend their lucre on Xmas gifts now rather than something as frivolous as say, utility bills later when the house starts getting cold. Chaos ran into the Xmas spirit yesterday entering the local grocery. A fully-costumed Santa, squatting strategically 20 feet inside the main entrance, bizarrely wished Chaos a "merry Christmas." Various local merchants have had seasonal merchandise displayed for at least the past three weeks (yes, that's before Halloween), and word of the "black Friday" discounts at SprawlMart has leaked out early.

Chaos wishes to make the following observations concerning the "holiday" season: one can now reasonably conclude that any spiritual component of said holiday has been gradually and finally leached out by the relentless grinding of the American retail machine. The demands of the market now dictate how Americans spend their holidays. At best, the rituals have become so degraded by gross materialism that they now resemble a caricature of the original themes and practices. The bestowing of gifts now substitutes for authentic sentiment and is best exemplified by that most modern of gift shortcuts, the gift card, a bonanza for retailers and a boon for time-pressed or careless shoppers. In contrast to the original feasting and merrymaking, many people undertake tasks so numerous that the holiday "break" is in fact more stressful than the normal routine. Overindulgence in food and alcohol, depression and even suicide are typical responses to the dysfunctional anomie of the season. Travel on the holidays is ill-advised, because of huge lines at the airport and price-gouging, but going into debt to "pay" for Christmas is common and expected. The holidays have morphed into such a gargantuan commercial fiesta that retailers now expect that up to 40% of sales and most of the profits for the entire year will be reaped during this three month period. Given the context, Chaos has no doubt that the insensible American public will go along with this "marketing strategy," much like the drooling Pavlovian canines. It may, however, be quite a chilly January when the bills come due.

Friday, November 04, 2005

News Flash! Nobody Trusts Liars!

From the Sun Came Up This Morning Department: latest poll shows 58% of the sleepy-eyed public harbors doubts about the Boy King's personal integrity. One supposes that's what generally happens when mendacity dominates the presidential discourse, or to put it in the vernacular, when you lie all the time, people tend not to believe you.

Doomerosity Index: Elevated
Your daily shot of doomerism appears courtesy of Population Connection and no, it's not a fertility site (hint: formerly known as Zero Population Growth) but one concerned with the horrific impact homo sapiens has on the planet. Check out this fact sheet; highlights: the U.S. has 5% of the world's population but produces 25% of pollutants, 27,000 species become extinct every year, 80% of rain forests have been lost, if every one on Earth enjoyed the U.S.'s "non-negotiable" lifestyle, it would require the resources of 3 additional Earths, and so on.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Useless Facts No One Cares About; Real News

"I know what you're thinking, cause right now I'm thinking the same thing. Actually, I've been thinking it ever since I got here: why oh why didn't I take the BLUE pill?" --The Matrix (1999)

From the News You Can't Use Department: Boy King's Tax "Reform" Commission produces politically impossible recommendations no one will follow-- let's eliminate deductions for mortgage interest, property taxes, employer-provided health insurance, state and local taxes. Sure. Anyone with a brain notice that these are all political nonstarters? In an ideal world, there might be some leadership willing to take on these popular items, but this world is not that world.

From the Actual News Department: More warnings from scientists who say that vast unprecedented changes in the climate will occur in the next 20-70 years unless global warming is halted and reversed. Said one of the authors of the study, Dr. Kenneth Caldeira, "the question is no longer whether we will need to address this problem, but when we will need to address this problem. We can either address it now, before we severely and irreversibly damage our climate, or we can wait until irreversible damage manifests itself strongly. If all we do is try to adapt, things will get worse and worse." Chaos wonders how many more scientists will undertake to futilely sound the alarm to the persons on the planet who contribute most to the problem (hint: it's the ones who make up 5% of the world's population but use 40% of the resources).

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Decline of the American Empire, Part XXIV

Here you go, this is it, civilization's final call: need a new career? unhappy with old economy ChinaMart job with stingy health care? Chaos has the answer, as well as why things will start to spiral out of control relatively soon: it's...animal massage practitioner!! For a mere $1500, you can change your career and change your life. Whee! As is obvious, Chaos is a devoted student of American frivolity, but this represents an unprecedented peak. One can only conclude that Imperial Theocracy is now on the downhill slope.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Recession By the Numbers

Respected financial columnist Scott Burns does the numbers (registration required)on working stiffs and comes up pessimistic. Reason: the rich have gotten richer while those in the bottom 75% (that's household income of $57,343) have not even kept up with the inflation rate while those in the upper 25% have experienced outsized gains. Rising costs of energy and health care hit those at the bottom the hardest and eat up any gains from lower rents, mortgage interest rates and easy credit. There is much more structural weakness in the economy, however, than just wage imbalances.

More broadly, the U.S. economy has lately been propped up by a consumption binge brought about by low interest rates, mortgage refi's and cheap foreign goods. Since the U.S. savings rate has now dwindled down to 0.00% (lowest recorded since 1959!) and our budget and account deficits (the "twins") are at shockingly high levels, depending on ever more consumption seems reckless at best. If foreign central banks decide not to continue financing the U.S.'s spending, the result may be a race out the door to dump dollars. Simply put, the country has forgotten how to live within its means, and neither the politicians nor the public wish to make inconvenient choices that require sacrifice.