The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle
Commentary on the Flux of Events
by Jim Kunstler
or, for previous chronicles click on
Clusterfuck Nation Archives
August 26, 2000
WASHINGTON (AP) – New-home sales shot up by 6.7 percent in July to the highest monthly level on record as low mortgage rates motivated buyers to lock in good deals. The advance propelled sales to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.02 million, an all-time monthly high, the Commerce Department reported today. The increase surprised analysts who were forecasting sales to fall around 3 percent. One of the consistent bright spots of the spotty economic recovery has been the housing market, which even performed well during last year's recession.
The void of intelligent reflection in the news media is pretty astounding, especially in the realm of economics and finance.
There seems to be a consensus, for instance, that the chimera of growth is being sustained for the moment by zero-percent new car financing and a residential real estate boom, especially for new suburban houses. And that this is just fine.
I wonder whether the commentators ever ask themselves: Do we have enough fucking cars in this country? Is our collective national life being improved by subjecting more citizens to automobile dependency, to longer commutes along more congested freeways? Does every new suburban housing pod represent a net gain or a net loss in our national life? Or would we be happier living in traditional towns, cities that functioned (and were beautiful), and real rural countryside (both cultivated and wild) untrammeled by the revolting effluvia of car culture?
The criteria used in the news media to describe the national condition -- a few stark statistics -- are like the read-outs for a hospital patient on life support. Hmm the blood pressure is at least steady, a pulse can be detected, but the brain wave is flat.
I have proposed (in the Clusterfuck Nation Manifesto) that the only way out of America's debt-encrusted leisure-life fantasy toxic suburban hypertrophy will be the downscaling of our living arrangements and the re-localization of economic relations. What I wonder is whether we will be too exhausted to take on this huge task. Every day that we waste trying to prop up the status quo is going to deplete our collective will to act, and increase the chances that the current system will simply collapse into entropic disorder -- meaning, violence, political strife, scapegoating, extreme economic hardship, and perhaps some form of civil war.
I don't go along with the idea, however, that the news media are merely venal in the way they cover events. Rather, I think they represent a kind of national avoidance behavior. They immerse us in familiar triviality so as to avoid the real issue of why our national living arrangement is insane. The NBC Today show (which I view daily in the YMCA weight room) opened today with nearly a half-hour coverage on the story about the remains of two long-missing girls found under a neighbor's garage slab floor in suburban Oregon. Of course this is a sad and terrible story. But what struck me is how Matt Lauer acted as though he lived in the same subdivision (along with everybody else in America) and refered to everybody by their first names, and asked outrageously sordid questions about the relatives' emotional states ("How will you feel driving past that man's house every day from now on....") as if he was their therapist. The purpose of this exercise, it seemed to me, was not really to add any information to a pretty straightforward murder story, but to give the audience a sense of being connected to these strangers, as if they were all friends of ours at the end of some cul-de-sac. In other words, it's better to find yourself in a familiar and recognizable territory-- even one where dramatically horrible things happen -- than to ask yourself why we are living in territory so psychotically devoid of civic decorum that children can just vanish into thin air.
August 20, 2002
Former UN arms inspector and US military operative / intelligence officer Scott Ritter has been all over the airwaves the past week with a very chastening message for those of us who have been beating a drum for an invasion of Iraq. First of all, Ritter is a physically formidable figure -- very tall, strong, trim, articulate, passionate, smart -- he's a central-casting American Military Hero type. His credibility itself is rather scary.
Ritter served on one of the US teams monitoring the disassembly of Russian nukes as part of a set of agreements between our two nations in the 1990s. Later he was sent into Iraq as part of the UNSCOM weapons inspection mission. He now aknowledges that his principle role was gathering military intelligence, systematically locating potential targets for future US action against the Saddam Hussein regime.
Ritter now says that it is very unlikely that Iraq has been producing nuclear weapons or biological weapons at any scale of importance. He says the facilities for accomplishing this would be too large to hide in underground bunkers. He is stating pretty forcefully that a US incursion now would be a huge mistake.
As I said, Ritter is a formidable voice of dissent. Make of it what you will.
A reader and correspondent writes apropos of these developments
"W's sudden urge to invade Iraq has absolutely nothing to do with Hussein and absolutely everything to do with the Enron / Harken / Halliburton scandals. How to maniupulate the Great Unwashed? Scare the fuck out of them with a manufactured crisis which threatens huge uncontrollable repercussions. Then, after a few months, casually opt to desist from violence. The world sighs with relief and the scandals have been implicitly defused since those issues were not pursued while the world was holding its breath. Upshot: Bush stays in office, no charges are leveled against him or Cheney. And there is no uproar in the Middle East."
That interpretation is a little more strictly Machiavellian than my tastes allow.
I have another one: Saddam Hussein is trying to snooker the US into an act of aggression in order to lead a worldwide jihad against the Great Satan. Saddam is nearing the end of his regular career and, being a fellow of grandiose self-regard, would like to cast himself as an historic savior / warrior-king of the Islamic world. Note: Saddam was overtly secular in his behavior and apparent beliefs until the last several years when he has been acting out an Islamic version of the Born Again story (among other things, he has been reportedly at work on his own personal hand-lettered transcription of the Koran). Anyway, Hussein perhaps recognizes that the time has never been more ripe for a united jihad, and there are no other candidates stepping up to the plate to lead it.
This raises the obvious question: would Saddam survive any US incursion provoked by his snookering? Well, Osama bin Laden apparently survived using little more than camels and caves to make his getaway. Central Asia is a large place, and despite the internicine animosities there, the huge region might prove hospitable to an Islamic warrior savior on-the-lam.
Would Iraq survive as a nation? I doubt it. But it was an artificial construction anyway.
The greatest result of a US incursion in Iraq would likely be enormous political turbulence, including the overthrow of the Saud family, an escalation of hot war in and around Israel, some kind of oil market fiasco (and the destruction of pumping infrastructure), and a meltdown of Pakistan (perhaps helped along by India). All this with further repercussions for global economic stability.
Would Saddam benefit from throwing the world into turmoil? My guess is that, if he survived on-the-lam, he would enjoy the spectacle hugely. How many of us, nearing the end of our temporal careers, get to set the world on fire?
A word or two about the August stock markets: watching this sickening spectacle of the August bear-trap is like seeing a morbidly fat lady filling her supermarket shopping cart with frozen pizzas, Ring-Dings, Cheez Doodles, and Mountain Dew -- a common sight, by the way, where I live.
The eventual result of this delusional market splurge will be the fierce destruction of retirement accounts later in the year. It could be the kind of epochal event that provoke third parties to form in the US.
August 8, 2002
The remarkable oscillations of the stock markets are like bouncings of a diver on the high board before his fateful plunge.
There are dependable cycles and seasons on this earth, and historic convulsions customarily get underway in the fall of the year. World War One's Guns of August were an overture for the military acts of September. Hitler stomped through Poland in September, 1939. The stock market debacles of 1929 and 1987 were both October affairs. The derivatives-and-currency meltdown of 1998 occured in late summer and fall. So here we are in late summer with all the elements lining up for an epoch-changing tipping point.
The violent impasse in Israel / Palestine and American designs on Iraq are priming the Islamic world for a concerted jihad. The Ponzi finances of all South America are unraveling faster than you can do the Macarena. Western markets are saturated. Credit cards are maxed out. House values are cresting and about to tank into a cloacal liquidity vacuum of sub-prime mortgage default.
These are ominous conditions, but the clusterfuck that they combine to produce will be aggravated terribly by our inflexible American Dream drive-in utopia living arrangements. In an expanded war between international Islam and the West, the oil markets and their supply lines will shut down, and we will not be able to compensate for that with oil from Russia. Meanwhile, our suburban metroplexes will seize up like V-8 engines trying to run on corn syrup. We are going to learn the hard way that our economy was about suburbia and little else -- building it, furnishing it, running it, and servicing it. The collapse of this living arrangement, and many of the economic relations within it, will be the back-story of the long emergency ahead.
We will be left with these questions: Where do we begin rebuilding a daily infrastructure that has a future (hint: they're called towns). How can we be good neighbors and protect our own interests (hint: find a way to be useful locally and get paid for it). What do we do about melting assests and the value of the dollar (hint: prepare for austerity). What kind of politics will this emergency provoke? (hint: think corn-pone Nazis).
Is this the last summer of Happy Motoring?
August 7, 2002
If this nation ever does come out of the coming clusterfuck, it will have to do so with an altered mental infrastucture. In his column this morning, Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley writes:
"In my post-bubble vision of the US economy, a purging of the excesses of the 1990s is vital before America can resume a more sustainable and vigorous economic expansion."
Well, yes. But instead of "expansion" or growth, how about we substitute the word "activity?" Isn't it time we detatched everyday economics from the language of cancer? Our economic troubles (as well as political and ecological, not to mention spiritual) are largely the results of 100 years of turbo-hyper-growth. We're going to need a different kind of economy -- and a different brand of thinking -- to get beyond the overshoot disorders of the 21st century and resume the project of civilization. For me, of course, this implies the necessity for reorganizing our everyday activities at a much finer scale, the local scale.
What passes for "expansion" these days is something like the gruesome spectacle I saw the other day along Route 50, in Wilton, NY, two miles north of Saratoga Springs. A great convulsion of earth-moving was underway there, next to the Lowe's store, which is next to the WalMart Super Store (each store and its parking lot occupy at least 15 acres). The adjoining thirty acres (across the highway from the under-tenanted Mall) was being bulldozed for yet another power center (i.e. ensemble of Big Box stores). I'm confident that most people who motored past this landscraping operation felt sick to their stomachs -- even those on their way to the WalMart to be consumers. (That's another word we need badly to get rid of. Consumers, unlike citizens, have no obligations, duties, responsibilities to anything but their appetite for Cheez Doodles. Americans demean and confuse themselves when they call each other "consumers," especially in the news media.)
By the way, the idea that we need more Big Box retail infrastructure in the Saratoga area is a joke, but that anyone would undertake such an investment just as hyper-turbo-economy tanks is a sick joke.
Now, it may be true that under any circumstances all systems rise and fall, flow and ebb. But turbo-hyper-growth of the kind we have experienced for several generations, is naturally prone to turbo-hyper-bust, and that means economic clusterfuck. We need a new vocabulary for new circumstances. We need economic activity, but the times will soon require it to shrink in size and increase in quality. This is a huge task, but if we fail to address it, our nation is liable to dissolve in obsolescence and disorder.
August 5, 2002
A friend got me decent seats for the Lyle Lovett / Bonnie Raitt concert at our big outdoor performance shed last night. Probably 10,000 people came (many on blankets on the "lawn" portion of the great grassy bowl outside the shed). They put on a good show (though poor Lyle was encumbered by a huge surgical contraption on his right leg (compound fracture? knee operation??) and had to sit down through his whole set. Bonnie looked as slinky as a jaguar, sang great, and played pretty darn good slide guitar. What dogged me through the show, however, was the nagging thought that it might be the last bigtime rock-and-roll show that I would see for a long long time, if ever again.
Not because I expect to keel over from an infarction or get hit by a pulp truck, but because I believe we're entering an age when shows on this scale can no longer be mounted, and there will not be enough fans willing to spend seventy-five bucks to see a couple of musical acts. It seems to me that the rock show circuit operates at the same scale as WalMart, and I believe that scale of things has poor prospects. As we left the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) after the show, two huge 18-wheel trailers idled near the backstage area, waiting to cart the immense amount of sound equipment and stage scenary to the next gig. The performers themselves probably fly between many of their gigs. The number of fans who traveled over fifty miles by car to fill the shed must have been substantial. The sound amplification was excessive. We were in a middle row of the shed and the sound was deafening. These are not really the kind of musicians who need to be heard that way. In sum, the show seemed an exercise in the show biz of the cheap oil age. Bonnie made a few "green" remarks between numbers, but considering what the show requires in energy "inputs," her comments were fatuous.
Anyway, I much prefer to see either of these two acts in a club that seats a hundred and fifty people. And perhaps someday I will.
August 1, 2002
Listening to our shithead governor, George Pataki, early this morning on NPR sure put my knickers in a twist. He was touting the news that WalMart would build a regional distribution center in the Hudson Valley town of Walkill. I guess the governor doesn't understand that WalMart is in the business of putting local economies out-of-business, and making sure they stay dead.
July 30, 2002
Conspiracy theory is not for me (see below, July 29), but I don't believe the stock market melt-up is due to "bargain hunters" or other such gremlins hallucinated by the AP wire or CNN. My guess is that major banks (J.P. Morgan, Citigroup) are goosing the markets to create an illusion of stability -- and to forestall a stampede to the exits by disgusted small shareholders (the ones who have been too nauseated to open their monthly statements). If there are any "bargain hunters" among professional stock traders, then the average IQ on Wall Street is in double digits.
Even the mighty central banks have limited resources for sustaining the magical levitation of stock markets. There are only so many dollars invested in foreign assets and equities that can be called home and funneled into US stock -- which is how I think this stunt is being performed.
If this is what has happened, then the government and the central bankers will be very close to running out of tricks. What's more, I suspect that, as the trend reverses back down, we will soon learn how this melt-up was engineered and that it will reflect very negatively on President Bush, though Idoubt he was anywhere near the center of this gambit. Until very recently, I disbelieved correspondents who wrote saying that Bush might be forced out of office before his first term expired. But if we learn that the government has been desperately colluding to re-inflate equity values, the public may see that as a continuation of the Enronitis infection, and Mr. Bush will end up in grave state of discredited.
July 29, 2002
We have to make a distinction between an economy and finance.
An economy is a complex web of value-producing relations within a hierarchy of networks from the neighborhood up to the global scale.
Finance is the management of money and related abstract instruments of trade and investment.
In the US today, both are unsound.
The simple trouble with our economy is that the hierarchy of networks has been destroyed, especially at the fine grain: the community level. The American economy is now geared to only operate at three levels -- global, national, and regional. We have virtually no local commerce in goods anymore, only services like plumbing, massage, hair-cutting. That's why our main streets are occupied (if at all) by "craft" shops, antique emporiums, and tanning studios, etc. The regional scale is pretty weak too. There are regional supermarket chains. There are regional convenience store chains. That's about it. The national scale is huge. Most ordinary household goods are now sold out of big box stores like WalMart and Lowe's. Yet, even that scale is weakened by the fact that most of the merchandise purveyed is actually made in foreign countries. We send billions of dollars to other countries every month to obtain these foreign goods, and the amount we spend each month exceeds our income from exports by about $40 - 50 billion. That's called the trade deficit. A big portion of that outflow goes to buy foreign oil, without which our car-dependent, highway-dependent can't operate.
These out-of-scale economic relations are a train wreck waiting to happen. I believe we have begun to come off the rails.
US dependence on foreign manufacturing and foreign oil depends, in turn, on peaceful global shipping lanes and other supply lines. Introduce military mischief, terrorist acts, rogue armies, foreign insurrection, religious hatred, and those supply lines will not operate.
Probably sooner than later, America is going to have to reorganize its economy, to rebuild those local webs of relations that were destroyed by the WalMarts and RiteAides. Even if you put aside the moral and ethical issues of predatory corporate behavior, or Americans' own willingness to let their towns and communities be destroyed, we are left with the practical problem of having to rebuild. (see the Clusterfuck Nation Manifesto)
US finance expresses itself in parallel to our economic predicament. As the economy increasingly becomes a process of trying to get something for nothing (manufactured products made by foreign wage slaves for "credit"), our finances increasingly take on the character of malinvestment, diminishing returns, and hallucinated value. Finance by definition involves the management of money and securities, and management can easily evolve into manipulation. Because financial manipulations are abstract and abstruse, it is often difficult for a financial civilian to detect what is being manipulated and by whom. This problem has increased tremendously with the computerization of finance and the increased velocities of monetary movements around the planet.
Many readers no doubt have heard of the Plunge Protection Team, the supposed clique of Federal Reserve, US Treasury officers, and major bank officials who operate with as much secrecy as possible to prevent financial train wrecks in the increasingly unstable securities, currency, and commodity markets. I am by nature not a conspiracist. I generally dismiss most conspiricy theories because I believe that 1.) people are incapable of keeping secrets, and 2.) people are not that smart, including the governing classes. But I do believe that a Plunge Protection Team has been operating steadily since the Crash of 1987 as a kind of brake on the natural tendencies for markets to respond catastrophically to fear.
The best explanation for last week's stock market rebound (coming from The Market Privateer) is that the major US banks made a tremendous effort to repatriate US dollars invested in foreign assets and securities and to put those dollars into the collapsing US equity markets. It is not a strategy that is liable to work for long. I suppose the hope is to give the markets the appearance of stability just long enough to staunch the panicked withdrawal of funds by middle-class people with retirement funds (those who have some say in how it is invested). There are a lot of these people. Probably enough to take the Dow down to 4000 or 5000 points before September.
The consequences of calling in dollars in foreign investments is liable to be severe in the slighty-more-than-short-term as the dollar weakens and falls to its knees.
Meanwhile pass the chips and salsa. America heads off for vacation.
July 23, 2002
For the US economy to remain healthy and sound, consumers must keep on doing their patriotic duty.
In the trackless suburbs west of Chicago, a woman waddles into the WalMart. She is 34 years old, but at 327 pounds (and five-feet, five inches tall) she has the medical disorders of a much older person. She buys six boxes of Nabisco Snack-Well low-fat cookies, a videocassette titled The No-Diet Diet, a Care Bear doll for daughter Tiffny (sic), and a George Foreman-brand sandwich grill. At the check-out, her first three credit cards are refused for being at their limit. The fourth is accepted. . . .
Having just been laid off as an assistant purchasing officer for an Atlanta-based information technology company, a father of three drives up to Boatland at Lake Lanier and buys a Kawasaki 1200-STXR personal water craft (or Jet Ski) on his Capital One Visa card. "I'monna have me some damn fun," he tells the sales agent. Six hours later he hits a stump at 55 miles per hour. . . .
The supper hour at the Smith household in Mission Hills, Ca, is an amorphous time. Cody, the 16-year-old, growing at a furious rate, rustles himself up a dinner composed of nacho cheese dip over three microwaved beef burritos, one blueberry toaster strudel, a bowl of fat-free "death-by-chocolate" frozen yogurt over seven crushed oreo cookies, and a 32-ounce bottle of Jolt. When he has cleared out, fourteen-year-old sister Wyneena, follows. She fixes a salad of the following ingredients: two slices of cucumber, three ounces iceberg lettuce, one radish, the juice of one-eighth of a lemon. After finishing it, she madly assaults the remaining half-gallon of the "death-by-chocolate" frozen yogurt, and after that she throws up. Mother Jo-leen returns from her job as a drive-in photo kiosk clerk 48 miles away in Placentia, pulls a veal picatta Healthy Meal from the freezer, and eats it in front of the TV with a re-run of Friends. Father Dale comes in around 9:15 from his job repairing automobile air conditioning systems over in Pomona. Jo-leen is now asleep, Wynenna is just that moment parked outside a 7-Eleven with three of her friends, while the fourth, who looks mature, shall we say, is inside purchasing two 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. Cody is doing bong hits at a friend's house while they surf the web for porno sites. Father Dale pours himself four fingers of vodka in a jelly glass, opens a bag of mesquite-flavored potato chips, and settles in to watch Chris Mathhews yell at a congressman from Texas on CNBC . . . .
At a roadside establishment called Ammo-World outside Billings, Montana, a laid-off WorldCom employee purchases a Ruger "Blackhawk" .357 revolver, an ISAPOR #1 Mark 3 grenade launcher (pre-owned), a Chinese-made SKS 7.62mm semi-auto rifle, and 100 pounds of Goex 4FBB military-grade blasting powder. The establishment's policy painted in seven-inch block letters behind the cashier's counter is "You'll have to pry my rifle from my cold dead hands." Under it is a poster of the World Trade Center Tower Number One in mid-collapse. . . .
July 22, 2002
Readers of this page know that I do not believe the "underlying fundamentals" of the American economy are sound. We have been sleepwalking into a clusterfuck and phase one (the meltdown of hallucinated wealth) is upon us. Phases two and three, which involved the contest over dwindling world oil supplies and the international strife that is liable to entail, have not quite commenced.
But I don't like to dwell in despair anymore than you do. I believe that we have the abilty to manage our destiny by making the right choices. So, today I present a snapshot of what the future is telling us we must to do in order to continue the difficult project of civilization in America.
Continue to: The Clusterfuck Nation Manifesto
July 18, 2002,
So Alan Greenspan kicked off the week by declaring that America's economic infrastructure was fundamentally sound. Apparently he hasn't noticed that we have become a nation of fat-assed infotainment zombies living in a toxic medium of car dependency, non-stop advertising, sugar addiction, and credit card binging.
The tanking markets and the falling dollar replied unambiguously.
I know ordinary people who are scrambling desperately to move their retirement funds out of the stock market. Foreign investors will be next in line. A hangover effect of America's 50-year industrial hegemony still props up the idea that dollar-backed corporate securities are the last safe refuge for floating currencies. But, guess what? We've outsourced our industrial hegemony. Now what America produces is cooked books, "creative" financing rackets, consumer debt, TV shows, fried snacks, parking lots, and movies about teen-age problems with body fluids. That's some economy.
We've reached an economic (and civilizational) dead end.
I believe that the next phase of our national experience will be about the inescapable need to downscale our economic relations and our living arrangements. By this I do not mean that we become a lesser nation than we were in the past. World events and historic circumstances will soon compel us to live locally and to recreate networks of locally-based, fine-grained economic relations to take the place of the high-milage, WalMart, suburban sprawl way-of-life to which we have unfortunately become habituated.
I believe the transition will be rather harsh. There will be some winners and lots of losers. The losers, for the most part, will be those who try in futility to continue the current arrangement. We will have to become a more rigorous people and find a national purpose (and personal purpose) greater than the freedom to comparison shop for chain store bargains.
I'll spell out what I mean by all this in the days ahead.
July 10, 2002
It seems to me that the next week or so could be a turning point in US (and global) economic circumstances. Yesterday, with confidence sagging in American economic leadership, the dollar fell to near parity with the euro. When it reaches parity (1 dollar = 1 euro), and then passes it (1 dollar = 1+x euros) then the outflow of foreign investment in US securities turns into a hemmorhagic fever, and the world heads into a terra incognita of extreme financial and economic turbulence. Global trade relations fall into disorder, a tidal wave of defaults flushes through the sewer of bad loans (especially in the cloaca of home mortgages), more companies evaporate, pension funds go up in a vapor, standards of living crumple, institutions and governments totter. This is all apart from the potential aggravations of our War Against Terrorism (and Terrorism's War Upon US).
What I'm describing is a possible severe acceleration of trends that have, until now, been happening in slow motion -- the fall after the long wobble. The unwinding in the US is liable to be especially severe, since American misbehavior, greed, and economic recklessness are behind the misallocation of global resources that demands now to be corrected. It seems to me that much of the wealth left after the workout will end up in Europe.
Europe is in a position to remain civilized in the 21st century. Europe did not destroy its cities. Europe has excellent multi-modal transportation systems. Europe still has appropriately-scaled food production and industrial enterprises that operate with a sense of social responsibility.
America may not know what hit it. The US has been sleepwalking into this clusterfuck in a rapture of infotainment and recreational shopping, and it will be disoriented when it wakes up in the howling storm. We will find ourselves stranded in a dysfunctional infrastructure of unaffordable and unsustainable suburbs, with cities that don't work, without a workable public transport system, with an angry population of foreclosed house owners with gun collections. Duck and cover.
July 8, 2002
I've been up at our lake house in the Adirondacks for a week. It's a big lake, but it was all a'churn during the holiday heat-wave with screaming waterskiers, drag-racing jet-skiers, howling babies in tube-tows, speedboats with glass-pack exhausts, and other such watersports requiring huge motors. Hour after hour, until the angry disc of the sun slipped behind a purple majestic mountain, and the fireworks commenced in the little village a mile across the lake, the motorheads were out there grinding through the water, having fun burning gas and going as fast as possible. It being the patriotic holiday, and in the rockets red glare and all, I was moved to reflect what a nation of dangerous morons we've become.
The next day in the marina office, I encountered just such a typical specimen of my fellow citizen, filling out the papers for a motorboat rental. About fifty, with a head like a cinder block and a Sluggo haircut, he was costumed in a black T-shirt that depicted a homicidal-looking eagle clutching in its dramatically oversized talons the phrase "FREEDOM," only in big pointy gothic characters. One couldn't fail to notice how much this garment evoked the spirit of the Third Reich, if not the style, because the Nazis had different sartorial ideas.
I worry about America's lumpenprole masses slipping into a kind of corn-pone Naziism. As the clusterfuck scenario plays out, and the middle and sub-middle ranks of American society feel the pain of the new austerity, and watch their presumed entitlements to the old drive-in utopia evaporate, and all their perquisites of motorized leisure with them, they are going to get very pissed off. Their childish fascination with engines and firearms is liable to mutate into peevish armed aggression which, I believe, is just as liable to be expressed in domestic strife against their fellow-citizens as in foreign war.
We have our share of lumpenprole motorhead morons here in the snooty northeast, but in my view the Sunbelt is going to be the real epicenter of 21st century American corn-pone Naziism, because the Sunbelt is going to be crushed economically and socially by the sequence of events to come -- the meltdown of American (and global) financial institutions, the disgrace of corporate culture, the end of the easy-credit economy, the coming oil crunch, the weather anomolies of global warming, and the turbulent realignment of world power relations.
So I look at someone like that creep in the marina with his black T-shirt (the true message of which might as well be Pray for Death), and deep melancholy comes over me. If middle-aged men are sending out that message, what are young people and children thinking?
The now-perfunctory alarms have been sounded and we're waiting for whatever the Fourth of July brings. The truth is that many Americans feel absolutely impotent in the face of asymmetrical terrorist threats. This seems to me consistent with the fact that there's not really much we can do about it. Do we arrest every olive-skinned person carrying an attache case on K Street in downtown Washington, D.C.? I don't think so. Do we assign every citizen over seven years old to guard a public monument or a piece of civil infrastructure?
So, in the best American tradition, we party on and cross our fingers.
But the inability to act to control one's destiny invariably produces depression.
Meanwhile, the US economy (and hence US dominated "globalism") unwinds like a foreordained narrative. Our corporations are rackets run by chiselers. Our daily business is the construction of redundant discount chainstores selling merchandise made by virtual factory slaves half a world away, to be bought on credit by people with poor records of repaying loans. The collective hallucination that America is the safe haven of world investment is also about to dissolve, and when it does, the value of the dollar will fall, perhaps by a lot. We are not prepared for this.
For many, Independence Day will be spent stuck in cars on horrible collector highways in a desperate search to entertain children who have lost the capacity to play by themselves.
Repeat after me: "We're number one. We're number one."
June 25, 2002
State of the nation:
Circumstances took me out to the 'burbs west of Saratoga last night for a friend's birthday celebration. It was evening and the moms were out walking the golden retrievers -- yes, several sets -- along the collector road outside the subdivision. They were all walking in the drainage ditch beside the road because that's the only place there was to walk.
Twice yesterday I stood behind people making miniscule purchases on credit cards. At our natural foods emporium, the woman ahead of me charged a small bottle of water and a chocolate-covered rice cake, about $2.50. Later, at a convenience store, a woman charged two hot-dogs and a bottle of Pepsi.
One thing that this means is that that Americans who shop this way end up discounting their own dollars by around 18 percent, or whatever their credit card interest is -- in other words, an insidious form of inflation.
June 21, 2002
Apropos of the diminishing returns of technology, a friend writes:
"The former Soviet Union had more educated technocrats than any other nation. Russia is now an environmental devastation basket-case. Science is no longer viewed with awe and cargo cult reverence in the former USSR. Superstition is now the big thing. Arguably, Russia would have been better off under Rasputan than Lenin. Under Rasputin not much would have changed, except Rasputin's sex life -- such a small price to pay for a lack of 'progress.' Enlightenment reductionism yielded technology. Technology is like a heroin fix: no pain for a while. We're entering the techno-hangover phase.
Artificial fertilizer yields --> population explosion and nitrate pollution
Nuclear energy yield --> Yucca Mountain Doomsday Machine and Chernobyls
Refrigeration yields --> Ozone layer collapse
Car dependence yields --> Collapse of Civic infrastructure
Chemistry yields --> pesticide induced endocrine havoc
Bio-tinkering yields--> Frankenvirus
Fossil fuels yield --> Global Warming
Cable TV yields --> Fat-assed, brain-dead social entropy
Computers yield --> currency and derivitives speculation-induced depression
Factory Animal Farming --> new and improved influenzas, mad cow disease
June 11, 2002
I don't know about you, but I'm strangely un-reassured by the capture of 31-year-old Abdullah al-Muhajir, a.k.a. Jose Padilla, suspected of plotting to set off a so-called radioactive dirty bomb in Washington. I'm not reassured because to me it only signifies that a very nasty idea is now in play and that there could well be many more skulking Padilla-al-Muhajirs out there rigging up containers of obsolete medical isotopes, or somesuch, to bricks of C-4 plastic explosive. What do you do? Arrest every brown-skinned man on K Street carrying an attache case from now until. . . ?
This represents further the extreme vulnurability of our open social networks to sabotage, as much as our physical nfrastructure. And if the West -- America in particular -- loses confidence in the idea of open social structures, then the Clusterfuck begins in earnest. It would mean farewell to the networks of economic relations that we've come to call the global economy. It would most certainly propel us into Great Depression II.
On a slightly different subject, my wife Jennifer and I had a debate over supper last night. I maintained that there is next to nothing that President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan can do to halt incursions by Islamic terrorists into India. Jennifer said that Musharraf's desire to for stature among world leaders would inspire him to at least try to control these characters.
She might be right about "trying," but trying ain't doing. Many of the terrorists operating out of Pakistan are outlaw Taliban and their follows who have fled in from Afghanistan. If they're under anybody's control, it would be Mr. Osama bin Laden or his successor, and that faction has a positive interest in creating as much trouble as possible.
My conclusion: I expect another terrorist attack on India within a month, to which India will respond immediately with massive conventional air strikes followed by ground troops.
June 10, 2002
Anybody wondering why the national discussion about our economy is so lame need look no further than yesterday's New York Times Sunday Magazine. Said the unsigned lead-in, "many of the worst excesses of the 90's can be traced to an obsesseion with corporate earnings growth."
Oh, is that what it was? A minor attitude problem vis-a-vis accounting practices.
Well, I'll admit that accounting isn't what it used to be. But have any of these Times writers actually gone outside Manhattan and looked at the way America functions these days?
It's called mis-investment. Our national wealth lies visible smeared all over the American landscape in the form of a drive-in utopia designed to last fewer years than the lifetime of the average house-cat.
Ask yourself: what do you think your local commercial strip will be like in fifteen years? Think we'll still be importing radios from China at five bucks a pop? Think the average family will still be making eleven car trips a day to buy groceries and shuttle the kids around to play-dates? Do you think Islam will still be selling us oil at the equivalent of $26-a-barrel? Do you think AIDS cases in Asia and Africa will stop doubling? Think we'll still be eating Happy Meals at the mall?
Perhaps the stupidest article was David Brooks's repulsive disquisition ("Why the US Will Always Be Rich") about how discount shopping makes us a great nation. The piece utterly lacked any sense of what a temporary situation we're in, nor of the horrendous diminishing returns produced by this national behavior -- the destruction of local economic communities in particular. Melanie Thernstrom's article ("The Inheritance That Got Away") about how her grandmother gave some family artwork to a museum, was very nicely written, but is it a serious national economic issue that Melanie will now not be able to buy a condo in the vicinity of Dean & Delucca?
The feel-good lead-in also declared, "Still, this is America, and we'll shake off the cobwebs and boom again,"
All we need to reach Nirvana is 2,314 more WalMarts.
June 6, 2002
There's bad hoodoo in the air.
The Indians seem determined to put an end to the dangerous monkey business emanating out of Pakistan.
Al Qaeda, now regrouped within Pakistan, is organized and determined to commit further provocative incursions against India across the so-called Line of Control, as the border there is called. Anything that creates more disorder in Pakistan -- including the complete disintegration of the state itself -- will be a boon to the Qaeda if they can steal off with a warhead or two in the confusion. (Anybody interested in learning what a clusterfuck Pakistan has become ought to read Robert Kaplan's excellent book: The Coming Anarachy.) Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf not only can't act against Qaeda, or prevent them from doing anything, but elements in his Army and Intelligence commands actively support Al Qaeda's project. So, Pervez is between a rock and a hard place with a red-hot poker several centimeters from his rectum, and perhaps a coiled cobra somewhere about his feet.
All this is to say that I believe India will begin operations against its neighbor in a week at most. They will have to secure Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad at least. Peshwar and Quetta out near the Afghani frontier may lie beyond their abilities to control. Kashmir will end up as a mere sideshow.
Some basic questions stand out.
Can Pakistan actually deliver a nuke, and would they once a conventional Indian operation began?
Would the Indians mount a specific commando-type operation to gain physical control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? And could they succeed?
Some Indian officials have expressed, shall we say, non-western attitudes about the use of nuclear weapons. One foreign ministry officer was quoted in the news services a few days ago to the effect of (I paraphrase) "we all have to die sometime. . . what does it matter whether it is by nuclear weapon or some other means?"
It made my skin crawl.
Meanwhile, back home, the fiction that our "economy" is about anything other than suburban mal-investment, credit-card binging, and corporate creative accounting, is being discounted by a relentlessly grinding bear market that now has the DOW well below 10-K with perhaps 5-K of running room in the southward direction. The monetary chickens are also coming home to roost around a sick US Dollar. It looks to me like we are headed into the Mother of All Workouts.
An India / Pakistan nuke debacle would greatly accelerate and multiply the economic catastrophe by disrupting the global supply chains that the US (and therefore everybody else) is utterly dependent on. God knows what the other characters in the Asian neighborhood might do if mushroom clouds sprout on the subcontinent. Iraq, Iran, Syria in some combination could foolishly attempt to use the India / Pakistan fireworks as a cover to unleash a major attack upon Israel -- in which case Israel will transform these ancient precincts into ashtrays.
In the event, I can see the US, Europe, Russia, and China all standing goggle-eyed at the margins, their mouths hanging open in mute impotency.
Before the height of summer we could see both the end of Globalism as it has been known for a generation, and the commencement of Great Depression II. After that, all politics are local for a long long time.
June 3, 2002
Over the weekend at the West Point graduation ceremony, President Bush spoke of the "dark threat" facing our nation -- meaning foreign terrorists who want to kick our ass for one reason or another. What troubles me at least as much as the legitimate fear of bombings, bio-terror, and suchlike by peevish foreigners is the dark threat of our own insane current national lifestyle apropos of the difficult project of remaining civilized in the United States.
Circumstances took me recently to the asteroid belt of big box commerce two miles outside my town and, as always, I was shocked to rediscover what passes for normality these days. What you get in these environments is a human habitat so devoid of meaning, grace, and spiritual reward that it would be impossible for its denizens to form any coherent idea of a life worth living. Indeed, this is the dark threat that disturbs my dreams -- that a nation of TV Zombies lost in the narcotic raptures of infotainment and compulsive shopping will drift over the tipping point of diminished returns into an abyss of internal political disorder, economic strife, cruelty, hatred, scapegoating, and eventually bloodshed. Evil foreigners are not even necessary to bring this about.
For instance, where did Americans really spend Memorial Day weekend? In their cars. Because that's all our national life is about these days. The suburban wastelands where most Americans live have no civic environments worth being in. Even if we weren't facing the imminent prospect of chronic oil market disruptions (and eventual resource scarcity -- despite the quack stories you might have heard about the earth's mantle being soaked with oil), why would Americans want to continue living this way?
The answer is that we've simply sleepwalked into a cul-de-sac of bad choices, laziness, complacancy, and habit that will be very difficult to get out of when events happen to wake us up. We are our own dark threat.
May 30, 2002
The diminishing returns of technological solutions to the problems of life continue to impress me. I was on a radio talk show by phone last night out of Sante Fe. The host -- a friend of mine -- is a forward-looking fellow who likes to remain optimistic about the gathering clusterfuck and how we Americans might handle it. But he surprised me by whooping it up for the new hybrid cars that are beginning to come on the market.
Hybrid cars -- that is, cars that run partly on gas and partly on electricity (or any other kind of new-and-improved engine) -- carry with them the huge diminishing return of allowing Americans to believe that we can continue our current suburban living arrangements. Since I believe that events will compel us to live in more compact, mixed-use, walkable towns, the hybrid car strikes me as a terribly unfortunate distraction from the larger task of downscaling our activities to fit the realities of the 21st century.
I had another brush with the diminishing returns of technology yesterday when I brought in a computer jock (at $80-an-hour) to wipe out my hard drive in order to replace Windows-98 (the Mother-of-all-Hairballs) with Windows-XP. The transition went all right, and most of my programs are running again, but my Minolta slide scanner will not run with this operating system. A call to Minolta's tech support line confirmed this in unambiguous terms. I paid over $700 for the scanner back around 1997. So, now I have a (supposedly) stable operating system, but I no longer have an operating slide scanner and sooner or later will have to replace it.
Anybody want a Minolta Dimage Dual slide scanner?? Works fine with Windows-95 or 98. Requires scssi card with a db25 interface connector. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
May 22, 2002
Assuming that there really is such an organization as al Qaeda -- which I do -- then they may achieve one of their goals in damaging US economic life without actually conducting any further attacks here. Just by continuing to issue threats they can very efficiently direct large flows of US government money into financing massive homeland defense operations. They can close down airports, bridges, nuclear generating plants, banks, government offices and interrupt a lot of business. Just this week, the Pentagon was moved to resume costly air force surveillance flights over New York City. These costs are going to add up and join all the other mounting externalities in our national life that are moving us toward the Clusterfuck tipping point.
We head toward a most dangerous summer. As India and Pakistan prepare to joust, Russia and China look on in the background, trying to measure their future hegemony over the Central Asian oil reserves. With whom, in this, does radical Islam side? Well, not Russia, which has been battling Chechen muslims for ten years, and Afghanis before that, not to mention all the other aggrieved Islamistans of their former empire surrounding the Caspian basin. And, of course, the India-Pakistan / Russia-China contest leaves a sizable US expeditionary force stranded, more or less, at the Asian epicenter in Afghanistan. General Tommy Franks starts to look a little like the Sundance Kid surrounded by Federales in a provincial Mexican plaza.
If Pakistan and India exchange nuclear strikes, their war may be very short, but it would be follow by disease outbreaks at least as severe in terms of human life.
Meanwhile, is the US losing its nerve to disarm Saddam Hussein? Sooner or later he'll possess some workable nukes. I believe he would attempt to use it on Israel at the first opportunity, if only to establish his name in history as the one who struck the hardest blow against the most hated of all infidels. The Israelis, in turn, have the ability to turn the capital cities of all their antagonists into ashtrays.
The Europeans don't want to go near Iraq. They have not really recovered from the trauma of World War Two and they want no part of World War Three. Can you blame them? The US doesn't want to go near Iraq during the summer because the military brass feel constrained to encumber US ground forces in chemo-biohazard suits that would parboil a soldier wearing it in summer weather.
In any of these cases, there may be little that the US can actually do. Will we retreat back into our corner of the Western Hemisphere and wait for the dust to settle.
Do the crude oil supplies keep a'coming? What becomes of the Global Economy? Is Merrill Lynch still bullish?
Sooner or later, a walking human smallpox bomb is going to turn up in an airport somewhere.
And where in the world is Osama Bin Laden?
Amid all these tensions and global anxieties we drift on a raft of infotainment
May 20, 2002
I have at hand a weighty marketing folio produced by the Pyramid Company of Syracuse, New York, for a mighty super-mega-mall they are proposing to build there called DestiNY. Get it? This "tourism destination" would be a six-level 3.5 million square foot addition to the already existing 1.5 million square foot Carousel Center Mall on the shore of Onandaga Lake about a mile north of downtown Syracuse. It would include a 900,000 square foot food court called "the Theatery Winter Garden, an indoor Erie Canal" featuring such historically challenged chain restaurants as the Rainforest Cafe, PF Changs, and Bahama breeze. Also 4,000 hotel rooms, a convention center, an aquarium, and a rock-climbing wall.
As if the United States needs an alternate mini Las Vegas in Syracuse. As if citizens of Worcester, Mass, and Allentown, PA, are going to drive five hours to buy their sneakers and enjoy a basket of fried mozzorella sticks in upstate New York.
The devil himself could not have cooked up a more baleful and ruinous scheme for poor seedy, beaten-down, Syracuse.
If ground were broken tomorrow, this monstrosity would open as the world passes the historic global oil production peak -- meaning at a time when life in our nation is due to change drastically. The Syracuse city officials have completely bought into this insane fantasy. It comes with something like $30 million dollars of federal brownfield remediation money and a shitload of tax abatement for the developer. This is the kind of idiocy that our nation is wasting its time and energy on, instead of rebuilding a decent passenger railroad system, or promoting import replacement to revive pitiful, moribund cities like Syracuse.
The Pyramid Company is one of the most ruthless and venal in the nation. Back in the 1980s, they were cited by a New York State government ethics commission for attempting to buy off the Poughkeepsie city council (in order to guarantee approvals for a mall). They were the pioneers in destroying local retail economies all over New York state the past twenty-five years. It's appropriate that they are based in Syracuse. In the end it will be seen that they had less regard for their own hometown than any other place in the US.