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The Clusterfuck Nation
Commentary on the Flux of Events
by Jim Kunstler
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February 15, 2005
Last week, "futurist" Joel Kotkin, a fellow of the New America Foundation, wrote a column for the Washington Post titled "Rule Suburbia," declaring that the land-use debate is now over and suburban sprawl is the undisputed winner.
"Once we acknowledge this reality, we can turn to the task of making the best of it." Kotkin wrote.
Kotkin, a highly-paid consultant to municipalities on these matters, is apparently unaware that the world is cruising at full steam into the immovable obstacle of a permanent energy crisis. But his credulous declaration of sprawl's triumph is only one small example of our society's fecklessness.
I was in Boulder, Colorado, over the weekend. This town of about 100,000 at the base of the Rockies, some thirty miles north of Denver, is struggling with some success to rebuild its center after fifty years of sacrifice to the Gods of easy motoring. Four story apartment buildings with ground floor retail have gone up where there used to parking lots and car-washes. Streets that were once dead zones have come back to life. They've cobbled together a bus transit system that runs frequently enough so that normal people (i.e. the non-indigent) will actually ride it.
Meanwhile, an orgy of suburban sprawl development continues out on the prairie between Boulder and Denver. When you actually behold this sordid smear of beige-colored tract housing, mirror-clad office boxes, and tilt-up retail pods, one message comes through with laser-like clarity: "No Future Here." The suburban "story" has a tragic arc, and since we've squandered our national wealth on it, we are apparently determined to make ourselves feel good about it. You cannot overestimate the delusional thinking that the public will bring to this effort. It will range from credentialed intellectual figures such as Kotkin, to the lowliest Nascar morons defending their entitlements to the American Dream.
At the supposedly more respectable end of the commenting industry, Kotkin now joins NY Times Columnist David Brooks in the cheerleaders' section for a way of life that Vice-president Dick Cheney said was "non-negotiable." They've made common cause with more notorious idiots such as Peter Huber (who thinks the planet has a creamy nougat center of oil), and the ambiguously rational duo of Wendell Cox and Randall O'Toole, who have made careers of pimping for the highway gang.
America can tell itself whatever it wants to hear, but history and destiny have other plans for us. That plan includes a lot of trouble with the energy needed to run the beloved drive-in utopia. No amount of cheerleading for that way of life will bring back the depleted oil fields of Texas or the tapped-out gas wells of Oklahoma, or buy us the friendship of the people around the Persian Gulf who own two-thirds of the world's remaining oil. Reality's message to us doesn't jibe with Kotkin's strange victory lap. Reality's message is "Tilt! Game over!"
February 7, 2005
Over the weekend, a friend asked me, "What if you're wrong and there's no global oil peak problem, at least not right away, and maybe never?"
Well, okay, if the global oil peak is a myth or a shuck, we're still stuck with the American oil peak, which is a fact of history. US crude oil production peaked in 1970, at more than 10 million barrels a day and our production has been going down by a few percentage points every year until it is just over 5 million barrels a day now -- and still going down. We get an additional two million barrels a day in natural gas condensates and other liquids. Since Americans consume 20 million barrels of oil a day that means we have to import more than half the oil we use. Every year, we'll have to import more as our own production goes down.
It is estimated that the US kicked off the oil age in the mid-nineteenth century with about 210 billion barrels of oil underground. According to United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), we now have about 21 billion barrels left, one-tenth of what we started with. If the US had to depend only on its own production, and if we could pump out every last drop, then we would have enough oil to last roughly three years at current rates of consumption. By the way, of the 20+ million barrels a day of oil we use, just under half of that is devoted to motor transport.
Ask yourself: are we going to reform the driving-intensive suburbs of Houston, Atlanta, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Washington, et cetera, anytime soon? Do you know of any plans to revive the US passenger rail network?
I guess we're just going to have to depend on the good will of other oil-producing nations. Incidentally, about two-thirds of the remaining oil in the world belongs to the people in and around the Persian Gulf.
One final thing: the "cornucopians" often claim that oil is a self-renewing resource, that a great master pool of oil exists deep in the earth's core, like the creamy nougat center of a bonbon, always seeping upward and replenishing the oil fields. If this is so, then how come US production goes consistantly down year after year? Do the Gods just not like us?
January 31 2005
The elite clueless of the economics world had their annual jamboree in Davos, Switzerland, last week. Among other things, they heard that China's economic output will grow to $4 trillion in 2020, from $1.6 trillion today. There was also apparently no discussion of the global oil production peak problem. Had it factored into things, there might have been some eyebrows raised about China's prospects.
Davos jamboreener supremo Bill Gates, in his doofus-nerd "wisdom," termed China "a change agent for the next twenty years." What did he have in mind, one wonders? That all of China would eventually become a super-giant Redmond, Washington? A dynamic hypermega-burb full of happy motorists sipping Starbuck's frappocinos on their way to the video game office?
Here's the real deal: China is the last industrialized nation of the cheap energy age. Its factory production is keyed to the continuation of regular supplies of cheap oil. It has little oil of its own. In order to continue to pretend it can keep "growing" -- if that's what you call its current state of pathogenic hypertrophy -- it will have to do two things. 1.) embark on a military adventure to establish hegemony over oil producing regions, and 2.) replace the prime customer for the avalanche of cheap "consumer" goods that its factories churn out.
We'll take these questions in reverse order. China may have to find someone else to sell to because its American customers, the WalMart and Target shoppers, are sliding into bankruptcy after a decade-long credit card orgy. Will the Europeans throw away their own manufacturing capacity to make way for a Chinese tsunami of cheap hair dryers and blue jeans? Don't bet on it. Will South America and Africa replace the American market? Forget it. Will China simply shift marketing to its own citizens? That brings us back to the oil question.
An industrial economy is not a perpetual motion machine. It has to run on something -- in this case, oil, natural gas, and coal. If China expects to expand to meet the expectations of Davos, it will have to go adventuring for oil, in effect establish hegemonic relations with the countries that have the stuff. China is already scurrying around the globe signing contracts with nations such as Venezuela and Canada for future oil delivery -- which, by the way, will come at the expense of the oil-hungry United States. China is currying favor with the nations of Middle East by doing civil engineering projects there. China's army could walk into the oil producing nations of Central Asia. China can reach down to Indonesia with its expanding navy. In all these ventures, China will bump up against an increasingly desperate US, determined to preserve a way of life that, in the words of Veep Dick Cheney, is "non-negotiable."
Meanwhile, China's coal supply is mostly low-grade "soft" coal, exactly the stuff that will shove the world's climate into phase change if it has to be used to replace missing oil. China hopes to get natural gas from its neighbor, Russia. Good luck on that. The Russians just planned a major natural gas line that will bypass China to north and go to Japan. The Russians need to be dominated by China like they need a hole in the head.
Conclusion: in the next twenty years, China is certain to contest militarily for the world's remaining oil with what has been the prime customer for its manufacturing output. That would be America.
While the US is fraught with multiple economic difficulties -- energy dependence, loss of productive activity, debt meltdown, an ongoing expensive war -- China has problems that are even more fundamentally ominous -- a population much more advanced in ecological overshoot, severe environmental destruction, and a water crisis that is manifesting, among other ways, in steeply falling grain harvests (on top of energy and resource dependence, unregulated banking, and the prospect of huge industrial overcapacity in the face of bankrupt customers).
Those of us Boomers, who were reading newspapers in the 1960s can recall China's capacity for political psychosis. It's been forty years since the "cultural revolution." The Davos Sages seem to assume that China is a stable country. The Clusterfuck view sees it differently. As the American consumer / sprawl economy sputters, China will find itself in desperate circumstances: starved for energy, stuck with zillions of unsold coffee-makers and barn jackets, racked with unemployment, and hard-put to feed its own people.
China is going to be a "change agent," all right, but not in the way that Bill gates expects.
January 23, 2005
I was down on the Gulf Coast of Florida last Thursday, flapping my gums about the issues of the day in civic design against a background of the most stupendous hopelessness. Until twenty years ago, Fort Meyers was a backwater on the northwest edge of the Everglades. Today it is an object lesson in how a society commits suicide by land development.
The hyper-turbo phase of the cheap oil blow-out -- roughly 1985 to now -- has produced a final iteration of suburbia so gigantic in scale that the only visible entity is the space between things. The chain drug stores, and other tawdry objects, are set back so far from the immense highways that you can't even see them from the road, let alone walk to them. The planning officials have evidently decided that it is beyond the competence of American architects and builders to produce buildings that are worth seeing, so now the "solution" is to just hide everything way off the road in the palmetto flats.
Don't be deceived, though. This is not an aesthetic issue. This is about a society's ability to create a plausible future for itself, truly a life-and-death issue. Judging from what you see on the ground there, Florida has given up on the future. They expect the world to remain forever as it was in 1999, with oil at ten dollars a barrel and a "new economy" delivering caravans of newly-minted Nasdaq millionaires to the real estate offices, and the Ford Expeditions endlessly rolling off the dealer lots.
When I'm in Florida, I see a living arrangement that is not going to survive even the first decade of the 21st century. I see a people so psychotically in thrall to easy motoring that they have zero chance of carrying on without it. I see an armature for daily life that will become dangerously useless, stranding and isolating hundreds of thousands of people who thought they were merely insulating themselves from trouble. That trouble will find them anyway, in the form of a growing class of desperate economic losers who will move through the suburban interstices in numbers that no law will be able to control.
Florida had a chance in the early 1990s to begin reforming the way it built out its towns and cities, to prepare for the changing circumstances of the post-cheap-oil future. The founders and best practitioners in the New Urbanist movement started there. They laid out a comprehensive vision of how communities could get off of the sprawl track and build compact, walkable, beautiful places that had a chance to endure in a future that worked differently. The New Urbanists were able to do some great projects here and there -- Seaside, Winter Park, West Palm Beach, Mizner Park -- but by and large the officialdom of planning ignored them and just kept mindlessly issuing approvals for ever more six lane highways, gated housing pods, big box "power centers," and jive-plastic apartment complexes disconnected from anything. More than 99 percent of Florida's recent development came in that form.
Now, it's too late. We're in the fourth quarter of the suburban sprawl fiesta bowl with less than two minutes left on the clock. Soon, there will be no development of any kind going on in Florida. The enabling mechanisms of cheap credit, cheap energy, and easy motoring will be things of the past. An impoverished American middle class will no longer be able to afford theme park vacations and the airlines that used to shuttle them down to Florida will be out-of-business. The new theme in 21st century America will be staying where you are and, unfortunately, a lot of places in America will not be worth staying in because of the choices their citizens made over the past two decades -- but people will be stuck in them anyway.
Floridians thought they would live in a drive-in utopia forever. When that system fails, the younger generations will blame the old people who designed and administrated a world were you would hardly ever have to get out of your air-conditioned car to do anything.
The baby boomer generation will feel the wrath of the young. Forget about reforming social security. The time will come when a younger generation says, "Look what you assholes did to our world -- now crawl off and die."
January 17, 2005
For decades America has had a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. Now, our airlines are stumbling into the zone of soviet-style service.
Last week, I had to fly down to Philadelphia overnight on bankrupt US Airways. The flight down was delayed an hour but I got to my destination, an NPR snow, in time. Things got interesting on the way back.
The 10:45 am return flight was already delayed three quarters of an hour when I got to the gate. At 11:30, there was no sign of a gate agent at the podium. I headed into the concourse to locate another gate agent. All the gates in our neighborhood of Concourse B were unstaffed. On my way back to the waiting area, a flight attendent came up the ramp from the jetway at our gate.
"Hey," she said, "Where is everybody?"
I took this to mean 'where's the US Airways terminal crew?'
"How should I know," I said. "I'm just a passenger."
"Well, we've been ready to board you guys for twenty minutes," she said.
"Don't you have phones at your end of the jetway?"
"Nobody answers," she said.
"Well, can't you call the US Airways management?"
"They don't answer, either."
Imagine how reassuring this conversation was.
Well, the flight attendent took off and somehow she snagged a US AIrways ground employee who came back to the B-8 gate and said we could all board at once because there were so few of us. The plane was a 727, I believe, seating six across, three-by-three. There must have been fourteen passengers on the flight.
Eventually we pushed back from the gate and headed toward the runway. But we stopped somewhere out on the tarmac and sat for twenty minutes. The cabin was thick with fumes from the aviation fuel we were burning just sitting at idle. The pilot eventually came on a barely-comprehensible PA system and said that we would have a twenty minute wait for take-off. A half hour later he got back on the PA and said we'd have a thirty minute wait to take off. I'm not making this up.
While we were idling, a few of us got up to use the bathroom. Ordinarily the flight attendents don't allow you to leave your seat while the plane is idling on the runway, but the one in the rear of our plane didn't try to hassle anybody. I stopped and chatted with her on the way back to my seat.
"What was that all about back at the terminal?" I asked.
She rolled her eyes. "Philadelphia is hopelessly screwed up," she said. "If I was you, I'd try to avoid it."
Hmmmmmm. Words to reflect upon.
"I hope you guys remembered to gas up," I said. She thought I was kidding.
Eventually we took off -- by my calculations exactly an hour and ten minutes after pushing back from the gate (on top of the original delay, which exceeded an hour)..
US Airways was, of course, the same company that got their passengers' luggage hopelessly lost during the Christmas rush last month, as well as stranding thousands over cancelled flights. The news media reported that many of them vowed angrily to never fly US Air again. Perhaps that explains why there were only fourteeen passengers booked on my flight home.
My theory is that the airlines are like the proverbial canaries-in-the-coal-mine for American corporate business. When they start lurching and tottering, it is a bad sign for the economy in general. It also seems to me that the airlines are an extremely sensitive indicator of the destabilizing effects of the global oil production peak and everything it implies.
One thing it implies to me is that Americans will be doing a lot less flying generally, and that airline travel will rapidly become, as it once was, a fairly exclusive province of the wealthy. The lumpen-folk will no longer be larking off to Orlando for theme park weekends, or hopping a jet to visit grandmaw in Louisville. Since most of the so-called "legacy carriers" are in or near bankruptcy, it's hard to imagine what, if anything will take their place.
It is also sobering to realize that this is happening when aviation fuel is still not outrageously expensive. The cost of oil-based fuels is up about 30 percent over a year ago, but the potential for further price increases has barely gotten to "take-off," so to speak. I wonder if, ten years from now, there will be any airlines, as we have known them, left at all.
January 10, 2005
Six of the seven soldiers killed Thursday in an attack on an armored vehicle in Iraq were members of the Louisiana National Guard, three from the same town, Houma. Tragic events like this will "bring the war home," as the saying goes, to a nervous American public, especially to the subset that resides in the NASCAR belt, where the love of military adventure traditionally runs high.
Here are some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves, along with some of the answers:
1. What's our purpose being in Iraq?
Answer: The original purpose was to depose a ruler who was in a position to lend support to, and even orchestrate on his own, a great deal of Jihadist mischief in a region that contains two-thirds of the world's remaining oil: the Persian Gulf, which includes a half-dozen sovereign nations. Saddam was deposed and captured. Mission accomplished. That was then, this is now. A parallel purpose was to secure and defend the oil infrastructure of Iraq so its substantial production would continue to reach world markets. Note: we were not there to "steal" it. A third parallel purpose was the strategic project to establish a long-term military presence in Iraq in order to influence and moderate the behavior of its oil-producing neigbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
2. What do we mean when we say we want to bring democracy to Iraq?
Answer: In the first flush of victory it meant design a set of basic institutions for an orderly pluralistic society to function in, starting with police and courts of law to ensure basic order, then moving on to an apparatus for public administration, and finally a framework for the fair election of leaders and representatives to run those institutions. The Sunni-Baathist insurgency has pretty much put the schnitz on that ambitious agenda. The way things have turned out, anyone cooperating with the occupiers (i.e. us) in any of these endeavors is being targeted for assassination or summary execution, sometimes by decapitation. The election still scheduled a few weeks hence promises to be both a political fiasco and an extraordinay bloodbath. The results of the election -- if there are any -- will not produce a leadership that enjoys legitimacy. The whole sorry affair is disappointing to nation-building idealists, but it raises another interesting question.
3.) Was there any alternative?
Answer: Realistically no. The US was not about to set up shop in Iraq as an overt colony and run the place ourselves as, say, the French ran Algeria in 1905. Outright colonialism would have played abysmally in the theater of world opinion. It would have invited international sanctions against the US, wrecking our globalist trade relations (Goodbye OPEC oil imports. Goodbye WalMart, Volvo, and cabernets from Chile). Anyway, attempting to run the place ourselves would have even more effectively aroused an insurgency. The key to the insurgency is not just the jihadi emotion, but the sheer fact that there are so many small arms loose in that part of the world -- machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, stinger-type shoulder-launched missiles, and Semtech plastic explosive used in conjunction with cell-phones. So-called "asymetrical warfare" can (and obviously does) confound and immobilize the most powerful conventional armies. The potential for lethal mischief with all that weaponry is endless. A middle stratgey between colonizing the joint and democratizing it would have been to just appoint a bunch of leaders and not bother with elections. But such appointed stooges would have automatically lacked legitimacy and become targets for assassination. Elections had to be at least attempted, for PR purposes.
4.) Now what?
Answer: The US is faced with some unappetizing options. We could increase the numbers of our forces there and attempt to do the policing ourselves, but the bounty of small arms available to an insurgant opposition pretty much guarantees only more mayhem and slaughter. We can withdraw from the population centers, especially Baghdad, and establish more secure bases out in the desert areas, while attempting to secure the oil production, leaving the Iraqis to settle their own political hash. This still might preserve one of America's initial objectives of maintaining an armed presence in the region in order to moderate and influence Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq may be in turmoil for a long time to come, ultimately splitting up into three smaller entities: one Sunni, one Shi'ite and one Kurdish. The prospect that we could secure the oil infrastructure is still poor, especially when it comes to pipelines, which traverse vast, desolate distances. We would also, of course, have to replace Iraqi oil workers with Americans, which would once again put us in the position of acting as overt colonialists, and inviting international sanctions.
Bottom line: Uncle Sam really has got his tit in a wringer on this one. Yet another possible consequence of all this is that we will exhaust our military and bankrupt our treasury pursuing any of these options over the long haul. The grand strategic purpose here was an attempt to pacify the Persian Gulf region so we could continue buying their oil at a reasonable price and enjoy an extraordinary high-energy way of life back home. No American leader has advanced the idea that we had better prepare for a far less energy-intensive way of life. But we have our own crazy religious conviction that God intended for us to live in a drive-in Utopia, and the rest of the world can go to hell if they don't like it.
Geology, not politics, will determine where this is all going. No matter what we want to do, the global oil production peak event is bearing down on is with the same inexorable force that the tsunami carried to the shores of South Asia. The global peak will only intensify our desperation and the hatred of the Jihadists, and soon other actors will enter the stage desperately attempting to secure some of the world's declining oil supply for themselves.
Ultimately, in this writer's opinion, the US will find itself withdrawing into our own hemisphere, unable to control the people, states, and events that play out on the other side of the world.
January 3, 2005
I'm going to stick my neck out and make some predictions for the coming year.
-- Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton has already stuck his neck out and called 2005 the year of the global oil production peak. We'll go neck-and-neck with him. (Colin Campbell and others are holding out for 2007.) We'll only truly know in the rearview mirror, but we are apt to see a lot of turbulence in the oil markets as they apprehend the approaching peak. It is extremely significant, for instance, that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has decided to give favored customer status to China. Chavez would like nothing better than to turn the screws on the United States. Under the China deal, there will be a lot less imported oil for the US. This alone guarantees substantial price increases for Americans this year. We'll know this year whether the Saudis have truly lost their ability to boost production and act as the world's swing producer; their super-giant Ghawar oil field is pumping half-seawater these days. 2005 could also be the year that west Africa becomes so politically chaotic that oil production and export suffers dramatically. US natural gas storage is high now, but production continues to decline. If the winter weather turns harshly cold, we'll have problems. The past two summers in the northeast have been supernaturally cool, with barely two consecutive days over ninety degrees. If we have even a normal cooling season, it may also be one of electrical blackouts. 2005 will be the year that the public gets panicky about the global energy predicament.
-- The Iraq elections will be a fiasco. Few Iraqis will venture to go to the polls, which become wholesale targets for rocket, morter, and suicide attacks. Interim President Iyad Allawi is declared the winner by default, since there is no other alternative. American policy will be to take the path of least resistence and let Allawi rule -- assuming he isn't assassinated -- and make it his responsibility both to organize another election and to impose basic civil security, which may be utterly beyond his government's abilities. US forces will withdraw from the Iraqi cities (and peacekeeping duties) to bases out in the desert where they will revert to the primary strategic mission (perhaps futile) of attempting to exert a modifying influence over Iran and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile. Iraqi Shi'ites (Allawi) and the Sunnis (including old Baathists) will have a civil war. God knows what will happen to Iraq's oil infrastructure. US forces can't guard it all.
-- In 2005, China continues its policy of securing natural resource contracts (oil and metals) around the world. Several friction points may develop between China and the US. A slacking off in "consumer" spending in the US as Americans choke on credit payments will prompt China to search desperately for a group of new customers for manufactured goods. China will find some in Brazil but few elsewhere and ultimately won't be able to replace its shredding US customer base. China will orchestrate a movement among adjacent former Soviet republics to terminate American military base leases there. If China is pissed off enough, it will turn the heat up on Taiwan, forcing the US to pretend that we would intervene on behalf of Taiwan -- a pretense the whole world would see through, and which would be a major sign of America's waning ability to project power around the world. Eventually, trouble in the US economy may lead to political turmoil in China as factory workers are laid off in enormous numbers and begin to make trouble in the streets.
-- Speaking of the US economy (aka, the dual WalMart / Housing bubble), here's what I see: the fantastic apparatus of mortgage-and-credit creation wobbles as misfeasance in Fannie Mae combines with a falling dollar and loss of overseas customers for US debt to cause interest rates to rise substantially. Rising interest rates crush large numbers of homeowners holding absurd mortages on over-priced houses that never should have been granted in the first place (and only were because lending standards turned to shit over the past decade.) Also clobbered are "consumers" over-extended on credit card debt (who are actually the same people as the ruined homeowners). A knockout punch comes in the form of up-ratcheting oil-and-gas prices, which thunder through the economy as price inflation. The housing bubble pops like a zeppelin and a giant sale of distressed properties begins, with house prices plummeting. (Prices on other things, especially food, shoot up.) Yesterday, the New York Times ran a typically clueless business section story on an expected bull market in corporate mergers. This was pawned off as a sign of economic vitality; I see it as an obvious sign of weakness. Virtually all mergers will result in substantial layoffs of workers, as merged companies seek first to eliminate payroll redundancy. Many mergers will represent the desperate marriage of losers, for instance Sears and K-Mart, two giant chain retailers who had lost out to WalMart and Target for a huge-but-limited customer base, and were headed down the drain. Now Sears and K-Mart will head down the drain together as that customer base becomes even more limited by the credit default orgy of 2005.
-- After a long cycle of dominance the Republicans begin to pay a price for their stupidity and greed. An economically hard-pressed public will become inflamed over White House efforts to go easy on illegal immigration. Bush and Co. will be blamed for all the economic travails cited above. Meanwhile, the Democrats, led by the wraith-like Harry Reid (Nevada), will stand idly by without a single idea in their collective heads. In a better world, this would lead to the formation of a new-and-improved progressive opposition. But in this imperfect world, what we are apt to see instead is the formation of several big movements on the lunatic fringe: hardcore isolationists, anti-immigrationists, and biggest of all, a tsunami of the formerly middle-class -- all those ruined home owners and credit card bankrupts who will demand political action to bring back their lost 'entitlements.' These are the people who could lead the United States into a kind of corn-pone Naziism.
-- Finally, there is a whole category of events that we have to classify as "the uncallables." An islamist maniac could bring down the al Saud dynasty with one well-placed bomb. Of course there could be some kind of major terrorist strike in the US or Europe. It's impossible to predict events like last year's multiple hurricane assault on Florida, or the tidal waves that killed multiple thousands in the Indian Ocean last month. There hasn't been an attempt on a US president's life in twenty years and there will be no shortage of homegrown ticked-off crazies here. Who knows what's going on inside Iran (perhaps not even the CIA). The Boston Red Sox might even win a consecutive world series. Considering what we face, that wouldn't be so strange. In the immortal words of Bette Davis's character in All about Eve, "Fasten your seat belts, everybody. It's going to be a bumpy ride."
Oh yes, in May 2005 the Atlantic Monthly Press will publish The Long Emergency by the overworked editor of Clusterfuck Nation, Jim Kunstler.
December 27, 2004
Where do people get the idea that Las Vegas is America's city of the future?
In their usual reality-resistant way, The New York Times ran a big front-page story in the Sunday business section on all the wow-wee new development being planned for that city. The thrust of the story is that the action in Vegas has shifted from gambling to luxury housing, from "themed" hotel-casinos like Mandalay Bay and the Venetian to condominium towers, in the apparent belief that Las Vegas will become an irresistible magnet for the next wave of rich retirees -- and that there will be a more or less endless supply of them. Donald Trump is about to put up -- what else? -- the tallest building in Vegas. And a bloated corporate organism named MGM-Mirage, which already owns half a dozen of the biggest themed casinos, is about to put up a 66-acre mega condo tower project on the celebrated "strip."
It's sad to note that both businessmen and the newspapers analyzing their activities both subscribe to such a foolish and clueless vision of the future. Here's what the real score is with Las Vegas:
The city is a pathological hypertrophic suburbanoid anomaly in the middle of a desert wasteland, analogous to a deadly tumor growing in a remote part of a person's body, say the colon. The tumor of Las Vegas was established for the same reason that a tumor occurs in a body: exposure to toxins and broken DNA. In the case of Las Vegas, the main toxin has been a half-century of cheap energy. The broken DNA is present in the animating principle behind the gambling mecca, the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing.
If anything, the destiny of Las Vegas is to dry up and blow away, sooner rather than later. Here's why:
-- The global oil production peak will put an end to cheap oil and economies that depend on it. That means the end of things like casual visitors motoring in from Southern California and Phoenix. It means the evaporation of hallucinated value in abstract financial rackets like derivative-based hedge funds. It means far less disposable wealth among the population in general, and for many baby boomers it probably means the end of hope that their retirement will be funded by pensions and stock options. It means the end to cheap air conditioning and bargain hotel rates. It means bankrupt airlines.
-- The water situation in Las Vegas is dire. The city has absolutely no capacity left for expansion under any circumstances. What's more, Lake Mead, the impoundment behind Hoover Dam, is down to historically low levels, dropping a foot per week lately, and may soon fall so low that the turbine intakes on Hoover Dam no longer operate, meaning goodbye electric generating capacity. The Colorado River's flow in 2004 was 70 percent below average, and the region was gripped by a years-long drought. Climatologists agree, in fact, that the desert southwest has actually been enjoying two comparatively wet centuries and is now reverting to a drier cycle. Global warming could make it much worse.
-- As industrial agriculture withers, places in America than can't grow a substantial amount of their own food will be fucked.
The last thing that the American future will be about is mega-cities in the desert supported by lifelines of cheap oil, cheap electricity, cheap air conditioning, cheap diverted water, and cheap long-range transportation and the pissing away of financial resources for "excitement." Of course, when your national mythology is based on the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing, you'll believe anything.
The businessmen in Las Vegas and the Times business reporters are like the clueless westerners gamboling on the beach in Phuket with a tidal wave silently bearing down on them. Only in this case the wave is a permanent global energy crisis. When the wave lands in Las Vegas, the excitement will be over.
December 20, 2004
Time Magazine's Person of the Year had a famous father who famously remarked a decade ago that "the American way of life is not negotiable." This remains the animating principle beneath most of America's troubles in the world.
A good many people in the United States probably still agree with this notion, but how realistic is it? How long can America base its economy on suburban land development? Realistically, that way of doing things has to end now. Unless we want to try to turn the entire Middle East (including Saudi Arabia) into an occupied colony, which would seem beyond our military capacities, to put it mildly, since we can't even enforce civil order in Iraq.
To keep the suburban expansion going indefinitely we will need to continue using one-quarter of the world's oil every day. Since this resource is about to head over the all-time peak production arc, there will be incrementally a few percentages less total oil produced every year after the peak. We'll probably have to occupy Venezuela, too, and Nigeria, to keep the suburban expansion going -- not to mention the daily operation of it, with the sixty mile commutes and the estimated average seven car trips per day per household to chauffeur kids and run errands. As we maintain our oil consumption under these conditions, other nations will have to use proportionately less. How will the Europeans and the Chinese feel about that? Will there be discontent over it? And might it affect our relations with them?
We also have a problem with natural gas (methane), the stuff that heats half of the houses in America and powers virtually all of the electric power plants built after 1980. The problem is that we are thirty years past our natural gas production peak in the US, and you tend to get natural gas from the continent you're on, because it is transported by a pipeline network. Otherwise, you have to liquify it, pump it into special, expensive tanker ships, and re-gasify it when it gets to special port terminals, all of which is costly, by the way. We have very few of these terminals and they are facilities that no community wants built near them (because of the potential explosive hazard) so even if we wanted to import a lot of natural gas, we're not prepared to do it anytime soon.
We also have to continue to pretend that we have money. We've been successful at pretending to be an affluent nation in recent years because of the intimate notional connection between money and credit. On the grand scale, money is credit because a currency is only worth what a consensus of people engaged in trade believe it is. That belief is in turn intimately connected with what people think the prospects are for a society to continue to be successful, i.e. capable of generating wealth. Americans have come to believe that buying houses on credit is a wealth-producing activity.
There's an awful lot of evidence that a suburban building boom, based on credit, will eventually lose credibility. Other people in the world may notice that the building of McHouses and WalMart stores is not an activity that in itself produces enduring value. And there's a connection between the words credibility and credit. The net result may be a society having to revert to the value of the real things that can be sold (made "liquid"). This list of things is hierarchical beginning with those things that have indisputable value (gold and gems) to those things that have elastic value (paintings by William Merrit Chase and common stock in the Krispy Kreme Corporation), to those things that may have little-to-marginal value if living conditions change (Hummer cars and McHouses built far away from any town). The medium of exchange for these items, the dollar, may itself lose credibility, which would complicate matters.
Time's Person of the Year has functioned as the cheerleader-in-chief for the non-negotiable way of life. Whatever his biological lineage, he was raised in that part of the nation most devoted to the suburban paradigm. The Person of the Year has demonstrated no capacity to imagine different arrangements. In this, he is not any different than either his lieutenants, his cohorts, his recent election opponent, or indeed of the American public itself. Even a so-called environmental leader like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has devoted his attention to developing cars that get better fuel milage, not to walkable communities.
So, come all ye clueless. Enjoy one of the last Christmases that will be characterized by easy motoring and Ditech miracle mortgages. Since our way of life is non-negotiable, get ready for reality to arbitrate it for us.
December 15, 2004
Paris was normal, which is to say the streets were thronged with live human beings (hardly any of them overweight), the cafes and restaurants were bustling, even the parks were well-populated on a brisk December day and we were reminded emphatically of the stark contrast with the impoverished public life of America. In fact, one morning as we puttered in the hotel room with CNN-Europe playing in the background, a story came on about retail sales back in the States, and there was a shot of our supersized fellow countrymen waddling around in a WalMart dressed in the usual slob apparel by which they fail to make a distinction between being at home and being out in public.
Amsterdam, Holland, was pretty much the same story as Paris, though it is physically quite different from Paris -- the scale is smaller, the intimate streets are deployed along a network of beautiful canals, and the car is barely tolerated (or even much in evidence). There, we would duck into a "brown bar" (so-called because of the dark wooden wainscotting) at five p.m. and it would be full of well-dressed, gainfully employed adults in animated conversation. Public life in Europe is only minimally about shopping and maximally about spending time with your fellow human beings.
American public life by comparison is pathetic-to-nonexistent. Americans venture out only to roam the warehouse depots, and only by car. In most American places bars are strictly for lowlifes, and the public realm for the employed classes is pretty much restricted to television, with its predictable cast of manufactured characters and situations. The alienation and isolation of American life is so pervasive and pathological, compared to life lived elsewhere in this world, that all the Prozac ever made will never avail to make things better for us.
The process of making America an alienated land of solitary, obese driver-shoppers has been very profitable for predatory corporations. They have systematically disassembled the public social infrastructure and repackaged pieces of it for sale -- starting with the single-family house isolated on its lot from all the normal amenities of culture and society. Everybody now has their 'home theater' so the cinema is only a place to park children for two hours so you can drive elsewhere to buy the cheez doodles, frozen pizza, Pepsi, and other staples of the American diet. You equip your kitchen with an espresso machine and there is no reason to "waste your time" in a cafe. Everybody has to have their own pool, so the kids can go swimming by themselves. Family values. The rest of the human race is unimportant.
American adults are said to work far more hours than their European counterparts. Clearly, that is because they have no place to "be" with other people besides the WalMart, and no way to get anyplace except the car. On top of this fantastic alienation, there is the inescapable din of manufactured Christmas festivity, which must only reinforce the deep,chronic loneliness of most average Americans, the utter lack of connection with other people. In Paris there was hardly a Santa to be seen, or a carol to be heard, though the busy and beautiful streets were saturated with cheer and conviviality.
What is also striking in contrast is the stupendous and immersive ugliness of all "normal" American daily environments. Public beauty in buildings and streets is not merely absent, it seems to have been rigorously banished. Americans now move continually through a machine terrain unmediated by any reminders of what it means to be human. Our most celebrated architects are high priests of the machine ethos. America has become a country of sad, lonely, and frightened people. We say that we like our way of life, but I suspect that many Red staters have never known anything else besides the six-lane highway, the box store, and the life of cable TV. The widespread demoralization is too great to be calculated.
December 6, 2004
The Christmas shopping frenzy is upon us and I wonder if this is going to be the very last blowout of the the credit card era. If it's true that American families are virtually maxed out on their credit card debt, and they still go on a spree to buy Christmas presents, then they will hit a very hard wall in early 2005 when those first bills roll in. Because something is happening in the financial markets, Mr. Jones.
The currency markets have entered a supernatural realm of instability. The dollar can't continue to hemorrhage value without interest rates going up. Who would continue to hold, not to mention buy, US dollar denominated securities with the dollar losing two cents a week against the Euro and the British Pound? While it's true that nobody -- namely, China, Japan, Europe -- wants to see the US economy tank, neither do they want to write off billions in order to help American dog groomers and NASCAR marketing executives enjoy an artificially high standard of living. Only significantly higher interest rates will induce foreingers to hold onto US Treasuries.
The US government and the Federal Reserve have played a dangerous game of jiggering deficits and ridiculously low interest rates in order to keep the public buying stuff. Retail trade (i.e. shopping) is now roughly 70 percent of the US economy, but it is not an activity that produces anything of value. The productive part of the economy has either been allowed to rot away, or has been sent to other lands. The deficit-and-interest-rate jiggering game managed to levitate a non-productive economy for a few years. But with the dollar now in free-fall, the runaway train of "consumerism" fueled by incredibly easy credit is poised to go off the rails.
Credit, after all is money and vice versa. The dollar only represents what a consensus thinks it's worth. And if that consensus begins to think that the dollar represents X-million families of overfed slobs driving endlessly around munching on Cheez Doodles and slurping iced beverages between stops at the WalMart and the Home Depot to wield Discover cards buying things made by Chinese factory slaves who can't drive around endlessly listening to Snoop Dog while enjoying ice cold beverages -- well, they might decide that America is not such a good investment.
Investment, after all, is a judgment about future prospects. What are the prospects of a nation that spends way more than it produces, has hocked itself to the eyeballs, and has to pay around two billion a month premium for military security in the Middle East in order to keep those overfed, over-extended "consumers" gassed up for easy motoring between the WalMart and the Home Depot in the suburban gloamings.
So here's how I call it. Interest rates shoot way up in the first half of 2005. A lot of people sitting on multiple thousands in credit card debt go bust. A lot of mortgage holders find themselves living in McHouses they can't keep paying for. End of housing bubble. Beginning of fire sale of US residential real estate (and other assets, including stock, SUVs, and signed limited edition Thomas Kinkade prints). Cratering of "consumer" demand. Impressive job loss. Ultimately, deflationary depression.
Everybody will blame George W.
All this and Peak Oil, too.
I'll be away next Monday (Dec 13).
November 29, 2004
I got a letter from a young reader named Robert yesterday, along with some photos.I'm a long-time fan of Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. I was out shooting some images of the crap around where I grew up (Shreveport, Louisiana) and thought I'd share, since your work was part of what awakened me to the horrors of it all to begin with...
I feel that the young people of America deserve an apology from the past two generations, mine and my parents', for wrecking their everyday world. These are the environments that the current generation grew up in, to whom they are absolutely baseline normal. They're pretty much the same whether you're in Shreveport, Bangor, or San Jose. These places, and their furnishings, represent the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Their salient characteristic was their futurelessness, and that future is now here.
Robert, your generation will see all this stuff lose even its provisional usefulness and all of its supposed investment value. You will have to find a different way to arrange your lives in the decades to come. You'll have to return to traditional human habitats of town and farm as the role of the car diminishes down to nothing, and as the US economy comes to center on food production. Corridors like the highway strip above will be your future salvage yards. A hundred years from now, little will be left of them but the tilt-up concrete walls and the paved parking lagoons sprouting weeds. Meanwhile, your cow barns and hog pens will be roofed with Auto Zone signs. Perhaps it will seem quaint, but most of you who survive will be too busy to cultivate an air of irony about it
The people who built this stuff came out of the world's most most irresponsible society. They were childlike in their utter disregard of the future. Your generation is now being asked to lay down your lives in the deserts of the Middle East to keep that racket going. Nothing will really avail to keep this way of life going. It's just a fact, not a threat.
So, the question really is, Robert, what kind of plans will you start making to live in a very different country? Can you and other young people generate a political vision to take yourselves there without fighting desperately among yourselves? You'll need it. Can you generate a spiritual narrative to account for all this ruin without compromising your humanity? I hope so.
November 22, 2004
Forty-one years ago, I had the day off from school (teacher conferences) and I was buying clothes in Bloomingdale's department store around lunchtime. When I stepped out on Third Avenue and walked around the corner on 60th street, I noticed that a clot of men and women were standing around someone holding up a transistor radio, and other people on the street seemed to be walking faster. I ducked into an art supply store up near Lexington where another group of people clustered around the counter listening to a radio. President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I walked uptown in a daze and by the time I got home to 68th Street, they were saying on TV that he was dead.
My generation never got over the death of President Kennedy. It changed everything. It knocked the legs out of our very steady world. Everything that came after it was an anticlimax, even the fantastic carnage of 9/11. Every president since then has been something of a disappointment, including JFK's most self-conscious protege, Bill Clinton. Yet the idea has taken hold in recent years that Kennedy was a bum because he had an active sex life outside his marriage. It only shows how infantile American culture has become. These days, Nixon is held in higher esteem than Kennedy only because his misbehavior wasn't sexual.
Kennedy began his one partial term in office by challenging his fellow citizens to ask what they could do for their country. Kennedy came of age in a world tearing itself apart in an orgy of political violence. The world of my childhood was safe and predictable because the Americans of Kennedy's generation banded together in a great project of cultural defense. Virtually every able-bodied man not needed in crucial production went into the army. For four years the car-makers made other things, civilians stoically endured gasoline rationing, and ate out of victory gardens. Las Vegas barely existed and nobody in America expected to get something for nothing.
Kennedy certainly made mistakes as President, but what president did not make any? After all, George Washington lost far more battles than he ever won, Abraham Lincoln waited three years into the Civil War before freeing the slaves, and Franklin Roosevelt made a lousy deal with Stalin at Yalta.
What we lost in Kennedy was someone who could intelligently express a national sense of purpose unburdened by the sordid desire of individuals to have more things, more money, more power over others, or fewer responsibilities. Along with that graceful conviction was a supple wit which reminded everbody, the president himself included, how frail we are behind our pretensions.
I used to come home from school to watch Kennedy's press conferences on TV. Even at age thirteen you could tell how well he handled the press, and how much they appreciated his humor, even when they were the objects of it.
The sad and startling truth is that Kennedy's time really was Camelot for the United States. Unlike Ronald Reagan's completely phony Morning in America, Kennedy's abbreviated term was the last time we were lean, hopeful, and confident as a nation. Everything since then has been a spree of one kind or another, and now we face a new century in which we will be left alone in our hemisphere, out of gas, bankrupt, our cities ruined, and out beautiful land WalMartized, waiting for a "rapture" to put an end to it all. I miss John F. Kennedy more than I can say.
November 15, 2004
A theory banging around the web says that the current bull run-up in the stockmarket is exactly proportional to the amount of loss in value suffered by the dollar over the past year. In other words, that higher stock valuations only make up for the fact that it takes more dollars now to buy each share.
We might not even care that much what goes on in the stock market if the finance sector wasn't the bloated, diseased organ it has become. Some of you under thirty-five might not know this, but under normal circumstances finance is not the "industry" that drives the economy. Rather it is supposed to be the capital formation service for an economy based on the production of things of value.
The perversity of the current situation is easy to see in "blue chip" companies like General Motors and General Electric. Both of them now make profits only in their finance divisions, not from making cars or turbines.
What ought to scare people who pay attention to these things is that no sane investor will want to buy American treasury notes if the steep decline of the dollar continues and if interest rates don't rise to compensate the buyers. That leads directly to the question of whether China will continue to subsidize the US "consumer" economy by buying US treasury certificates with all the dollars we send them for the stuff they ship to WalMart.
China likes getting paid for their goods, and they like keeping their factories humming and their workers paid, and they'll go pretty far to keep the racket going. But the trouble is, they can't just hang on to what they've got -- now hundreds of billions in US debt. They have to keep buying more of it. Because if they stop, the decline of the dollar will only get steeper. If that happens, the treasuries they own will lose value. Americans will have fewer and fewer dollars to spend at the WalMart. China will have to start laying off workers. . . .
The holidays are literally upon us. It has now become an unofficial six-week hiatus in the US when little real business gets done besides the final point-of-sale for business set up during the previous eight months of the year -- the mad rush to clear all that WalMart Christmas inventory. Sometime before George Bush's second innaugural, it's going to become obvious that the financial game is over. The Chinese (and the Japanese) are going to halt their purchases of US treasury debt, if not sell off some of what they already own. Interest rates will have to rise a lot more than a chickenshit quarter basis-point. And the US housing bubble will pop with a roar that will be heard around the world. At the same time, more oil-exporting nations will demand to be paid in Euros.
Thus, the second Bush term will kick off with the dollar losing its long-held position as the world's reserve currency. This will open the door for a wholesale drop in the US standard of living. Before the winter is over, the American middle class will find itself behind on the mortgage payment, drowning in heating bills, and goggling at three-dollar jars of peanut butter on those WalMart shelves.
November 8, 2004
These are heady days for the Bush gang. Chief political strategist Karl Rove is looking to consolidate Republican power for the long haul (at least until the "rapture"). The President has stated that he intends "to spend the political capital [he has] earned" -- and that presumably means more tax cuts, a constitutional amendment defining marriage, "growing" the economy, and partially privatizing social security. He will be "resolute" in battling the "War on Terror," meaning we'll pay any price to maintain our sick dependency relationship with Saudi Arabia. His agenda would be funny if it wasn't pathetic in the face of a tidal wave of trouble heading America's way.
Bush & Co. have no idea what's coming, but then neither do the Democrats, or the American public for that matter. The global oil peak is ushering in a permanent production decline that will put an end to the growth of industrial economies all around the world. In the US, that means an end to an economy based on continuous suburban expansion, production house-building, and the sales of stuff to fill up those houses. Without these activites, the public will soon discover that there is no American economy.
For individuals, this is now the time to start making other plans to live differently. It's the time to get out of the suburbs while you can, find a place to live in an area that can support local agriculture, and take up a practical line of work. By "suburbs" I also mean many big cities, especially ones in the Sunbelt which are virtually made out of suburbs: Phoenix, Orlando, Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas, et cetera. These places are going to become very disorderly, and some of them have no chance of local food self-sufficiency. Since local food production will be at the center of the US economy in the near future, the many activities associated with that would be a good place to seek vocational opportunities.
Getting free of dependence on any large scale enterprise is as important as getting out of the suburbs. In the post-cheap-oil era, large enterprises will stagger, wither, and die, whether they are giant corporations, oversized schools, or big governments. If you are employed by a big company, now is the time to get out. Of course, most Americans will continue to do exactly what they have been doing, because they are clueless about what's coming down, and their leaders have failed to prepare them. But that only puts the non-clueless at a comparative advantage.
The global oil peak, and the permanent energy crisis it implies, will also usher in an era of tremendous turbulence. If you think America's foreign affairs are a mess now, just wait. China will soon challange America's ability to act in Asia. They will do it even while they continue to stock all the WalMarts with cheap consumer products. Remember, China is a lot closer to Central Asia and the Middle East than we are. They can actually walk into these places if they want to. And they have the largest army in the world. Do you think America wants to fight a land war in Asia against China?
Before long, our pretenses about controlling distant parts of the world will dissolve in an acid bath of reality, and America will retreat back into our own Hemisphere, with very little oil or natural gas left to run Disney World, the Bellagio Hotel, or the interstate highway system. Where will WalMart get its merchandise then? Denmark? Uruguay?
I don't even want to think about what happens to the dollar in the meantime.
So, take all the Republican gloating of-the-moment with a grain of salt. These assholes are about to be buried in disillusionment. For those of us in the opposing camp, we may have to think about forming a more coherent and potent progressive opposition, one that can actually perceive the trendlines, inform the public realistically -- actually lead -- and act intelligently. It may have to happen outside the boundaries of the Democratic Party establishment. Sorry, Hillary.
November 3, 2004
I voted against Wal-Mart and NASCAR. I pulled the lever for Kerry. At six-thirty this morning, it looked like Wal-Mart and NASCAR won in taking Ohio by 130,000-odd votes. But given the complications of the 2000 election, none of the networks will call it yet.
John Kerry hasn't conceded and it looks like the Democratic lawyer squads may be heading into Ohio (with Republican lawyers flocking into Pennsylvania).
What strikes me in the tally is how overwhelming the victories are in many states for either side. In California and New York, Kerry murdered Bush by a million vote margin. The margin for Bush in smaller "heartland" states was even greater: 68 to 30 percent in Idaho, 62 to 36 percent in Kansas, 60 to 40 percent in Kentucky, 55 to 44 in Arizona. Obviously this denotes a deeply divided nation. But do the divisions make any sense?
We know that Bush Republicans stand for aggressive corporatism, blood-for-oil, and the suburban dream-at-all-costs.
Kerry's positions remained murky to the end. He seemed to support blood-for-oil, saying only that he could do it better -- though many of the Democratic rank-and-file were vocally anti-war. He certainly took plenty of cash handouts from big corporations. And he urged crowds to go out and buy SUVs because it would be good for the economy. In the end, he made himself out to be little more than a pale carbon copy of Bush.
Neither candidate had a credible position on the energy predicament the country faces, and its dire economic implications. Neither dared say a word about out-of-control illegal immigration.
Only on a couple social issues did the candidates really differ: abortion and stem cell medical research. Kerry never actually supported gay marriage, but Bush was decisively against it.
Bush will enter his second term with a flimsy mandate. He will preside over the global oil production peak and the widespread instabilities it will initiate, including ever-widening jihad. There is every indication that the US economy -- based on continual suburban development -- will crater under the circumstances of the next four years. Bush II is likely to become Herbert Hoover II.
A Bush victory will have two salutary political results. It will leave Republican conservatism discredited when the administration is overwhelmed by the problems described above. And it will force the Democratic party to either transform itself into a vehicle for meaningful ideas-and-action, or die.
Kerry was the perfect media creation for his time: tall, handsome, with great hair and a deep voice and beyond that an absolutely empty vessel. He was quite remarkably unable to articulate a coherent political point of view on the great problems of the day. I voted for him with the deepest displeasure. George W. Bush, for all his fumbling, made his position quite clear: keep on shoveling coal with him on a runaway train.
The senate will be an interesting place with two freshman mad-dog conservatives elected: Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, both of them practically Nazis. Democratic senate minority leader Tom Daschle is out, whupped by a telegenic John Thune. The Republicans have a more solid majority now. The GOP also increased their margin in the House of Representatives. That sets them up nicely to be blamed when the shit hits the fan over the next several years.
It is hard to not view John Kerry as representing some essential failure of the educated minority of the baby boom generation. We didn't have the starch to stand up to the NASCAR boobs and the morons who want to sell their country to Wal-Mart. We couldn't form a plausible opposition to the those who act as if the future doesn't exist.
November 1, 2004,
With battalions of lawyers waiting in the wings, and new voting machines of unknown reliability, and motor-voter systems that enroll new voters who register a car, whether they are qualified citizens or not, there's a fair chance that a close presidential election may not produce a clear and timely result. In fact, there's a possibility that it could remain contested and unresolved, leading to a crisis of legitimacy.
This will be an interesting example for Iraq -- and the rest of the world.
America's national psyche is a fraught and riven thing, like the soul of one of those tortured trailer park drunks in a television cop show. Our futureless suburban mode of living, our sick addiction to cheap oil, our something-for-nothing casino economy, our remorseless hunger for entertainments, our show biz religion, have all left us unable to function.
At the bottom of this dysfunction is the loss of faith in ourselves and our way of life, which is exactly what happens to a drunk or a drug addict whose own behavior is so self-destructive that he can no longer trust his own instincts or know what to believe.
Our worship of technology (and cluelessness about its diminishing returns) has led us to 'fix' a voting system that wasn't broken, and that will lead us to election results that we do not trust -- to be arbitrated by lawyers. Shakespeare was onto something essential about politics when he has a character in Henry VI say, "First. . . kill all the lawyers."
A second impasse of legitimacy in two consecutive elections would be an extreme crisis for our system of governance. The nation could recover, but probably not without going through the kind of convulsion that a drunk or a drug addict has to endure to sober up. That convulsion is likely to come anyway, in the form of a permanent global energy crisis and the bloody conflict between nations that it will entail. That conflict is already upon us in our awkward attempt to pacify the Middle East, where more than sixty percent of the world's remaining oil is.
Notice that neither candidate for president had the fortitude to challenge the issues of our collective behavior here at home. An election that refuses to resolve will be nature's way of telling us that neither man was qualified to lead this nation out of its self-destructive course.
A gridlocked election in the US will also, of course, be a tragic example for our enterprise in Iraq, which is predicated on our effort to establish legitimacy there by means of fair elections. It was a laudable ambition -- after all, the only alternatives were to impose leadership on them or allow somebody besides Saddam Hussein to seize it. But when our own election ends in a train wreck, what we will we teach them about democracy? Choosing your own destiny is not necessarily the best outcome when your own habits and behaviors leave you too incompetent to function.
Like every other commentator in America, I'll run a post-election analysis on Wednesday Morning.