Friday, September 23, 2005

Journey Through the Mind of a Phan: Phaltering, or Phaithful?

That was... epic.

I missed the comeback--or rather, I was watching Battlestar Galactica and taping it for Annie, and kept flipping back during breaks. I'd seen the last out of the Reds 8th, keeping the score at 10-6 Cincinnati right before the show started, saw "Rollins, Lofton, Utley" due, and thought... well, maybe. Sure the Reds had scored nine unanswered runs to wipe away a 6-1 Phils lead and inject a serious bummer element into my evening; yes, I'd increasingly switched away from the worsening game to watch West Side Story (TCN) and The Usual Suspects (AMC) through the 9pm hour. But it was just four runs, top of the lineup due, and...

Nah. Not again. Twice in a week? Uh-uh.

Against the Reds, who dashed our hopes two hours ago, knocked us out of the playoffs 29 years ago, and started the spiral toward eternal infamy for a Phils team 41 years ago? No. The lefty Kent Mercker will do the job on us, cementing Wade's lifelong impetus to possess him. He'll probably strike out Ryan Howard to end it, and then this winter they'll be traded for each other.

Show comes back on, the VCR is running, I'm trying to put it out of my mind. It's a really, really good show, Battlestar; tonight was the season finale, and might have been the best episode they've ever aired. I think to myself, I have to let the Phils go.

Commercial break and I flip back to ESPN to check. It's now 10-9. There are two outs. Nobody on base. Howard vs. Mercker.

No. Frackin'. Way.

Count goes to 2-0. I'm flipping back and forth between every pitch, in part to make sure I'm not missing the show, in part because each pitch is a ball and thus whatever I'm doing seems to be working. It's obvious by 2-0 that Mercker won't give Howard any meat, and the kid is too disciplined to go fishing ahead in the count, down by a run and nobody on base. Ball four.

Commercial break's ending. Bell comes to the plate. I figure: No. I know how this one ends. I'm not doing it to myself. I turn back to SciFi.

(Though the thought also crosses my mind that, if they come back to win this game and then go on to... well, you know... if all that happens, then THIS is the moment that might live forever. Could I live with missing that?)

So be it. They scored the three runs with my not watching; the last scoring I'd seen had been the Reds' 9th. I'm letting it go.

15 minutes or so later, Battlestar breaks again. I flip back to ESPN; the ballgame is over, college football is on, and there's no ticker at the bottom of the screen. ESPN2 is on a commercial break, and is also showing college football in any event. Back to SciFi. If only I knew the past tense of "que sera, sera."

The show breaks one more time--this is the last one till January, rich in hints and cliffhangers and complications, even closing holes left by earlier episodes this season--and then I switch to ESPN2 watching the ticker. There's the final: Phillies 11, Reds 10. S: Billy Wagner (35)

So be it. But what had happened? I get online, go to, read through the entire game thread, smiling and cringing through 9-6, not sure how the Reds scored that 10th run but recognizing the "resigned, but not leaving" tone of late game threads when the team is behind. Then an Utley 3-run bomb, his second of the game, just as we'd all given up on his for this year as exhausted and spent... wow, but I figured someone had probably done that since I'd seen two outs, none on, one run down in "real time."

An Abreu strikeout and his ejection, along with Cholly Manuel... gut punch. The best player on the team, obviously injured, already having endured a bad game--this was his fourth strikeout of the night. Then he's tossed. Burrell follows with a bad AB, not that much of a surprise. Howard's walk, which I'd seen.

And then David Bell continues down redemption road with a two-run bomb; a ten-page orgasm on PhilliesPhans, with Scott Graham's home run call audio. By now, my wife is home; I call her in for the repeat playing.

I'm not sure whether my "letting go" was rewarded by the win, or whether my lack of faith was punished by my missing such a moment. Either way, I feel much in the grip of larger forces at work.

Quite an evening.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Big Dog on the Hunt
Bill Clinton evidently returned to politics over the weekend. I didn't see his appearances on "Meet the Press" or other shows, but he set the blogworld abuzz--check out these observations (two very different variations on a common theme) by Bull Moose and The Rude Pundit.

This was enough to send me to the transcript, where I found the following brilliant little frame:

...just think what would happen if the Chinese--we're pressing the Chinese now, a country not nearly rich as America per capita, to keep loaning us money with low interest to cover my tax cut, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Katrina and at the same time to raise the value of their currency so their imports into our country will become more expensive, and our exports to them will become less expensive. And by the way, we don't want to let them buy any oil companies or anything like that.

So what if they just got tired of buying our debt? What if the Japanese got tired of doing it? Japan's economy is beginning to grow again. Suppose they decided they wanted to keep some of their money at home and invest it in Japan, because they're starting to grow?

We depend on Japan, China, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Korea primarily to basically loan us money every day of the year to cover my tax cut and these conflicts and Katrina. I don't think it makes any sense. I think it's wrong.

This was in response to a question George Stephanopoulos asked Clinton about what the Democrats should do in response to the White House refusing to back down on tax cuts to pay for disaster relief. Clinton effortlessly ties this into a larger narrative that hits on the illogic of our policy toward China; the risk we incur thereby; and the larger unfairness of Bush's economic approach ("my tax cut," which he'd referenced earlier).

The guy is unbelievable. It's nice to see him back in the game.

On a housekeeping note, I proudly announce two additions to my blogroll on the left side of this page:

  • The Smiling Nihilist: newly launched blog by my itinerant college roommate Greg D--fixer of flailing tech companies, gluttonous consumer of high and low entertainment, lover of many women, fighter of real and virtual evil (in video game action at least), and, um, a smiling nihilist.

  • 826NYC: a Brooklyn-based nonprofit group that helps school-age kids with their creative and expository writing skills. It's modeled after 826 Valencia, the San Francisco-based center founded by Dave Eggers among other s. I'm tutoring there this fall one day a week and excited to be working with kids again. The center is nestled in the back of the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, a great place to browse if you ever find yourself on Fifth Avenue of a sunny afternoon.

Monday, September 19, 2005

True Confessions of a Right-Wing Toady
I'm obviously a fan of what's sometimes known as the "progressive blogosphere." Look at the links to the left of these words, and you'll see a handful of sites that have a distinct and consistent take on the issues of the day. Even better, the proliferation of community sites with a strong liberal perspective has allowed wave after wave of new, heretofore totally unknown writers to find audiences, informing and inspiring and entertaining as they go. It's good for progressives, and I think it's even good for democracy.

Unfortunately, the echo-chamber tendencies of these sites have some less pleasant side effects too. One, which I wrote about a lot in the wake of the catastrophic defeat last November, is that we as participants leave ourselves open to delusion. There's a clear selection bias at work, and we tend to, as the old song goes, accentuate the positive and eliminate--or at least rationalize away--the negative. Another is the enforcement, or attempted enforcement, of a rigid ideological conformity that's often expressed in very ugly ways.

So it was when I wrote a diary entry on Daily Kos last week titled "Why I'm supporting Bloomberg." As the New York City mayoral primary was just concluded, and already my e-mail box was filling up with requests from the likes of John Kerry himself to send money and support to newly minted Democratic nominee Freddy Ferrer (unofficial motto: "It Takes a Hack"), and the front-page proprietors of dKos were similarly throwing brickbats at "so-called Democrats" who were lining up behind Mike Bloomberg, I figured I'd at least try to set out my arguments, with a little history and background thrown in. I don't want to recap the whole piece here--I thought it was pretty good, and the link is just a few lines up--but basically my points were: I voted and volunteered for Mark Green four years ago, I was really bummed when Bloomberg won, but I think he's done a very good job on balance and I like that he's free of the usual cronyism and political debts that dominate urban politics; and Ferrer, based on his history, his allies, and his campaign to date, IMO would likely be a failure in City Hall.

Here's the first comment I got in response:

Bloomberg Is A Traitor (3.16 / 6)

Therefore so are his supporters.
He is a Republican now.
Furthermore he detained American citizens en masse unlawfully (against court rulings issued in advance) for the Republican convention.

A vote for Bloomberg is a vote for Republican hegemony, and as a fellow New Yorker, I detest you.
I can't say you have no right, but I can say you are a rightwing toady, period, end of story.
Ferrer is competent, you have no excuse.

And it kind of went on from there. Someone else declaimed that I was betraying my country. More recently on dKos, having rejoined this argument in another thread, I was told I should re-register as a Republican. There was very, very little substance offered on behalf of Ferrer.

Most of the complaints follow two themes: "Bloomberg equals Bush," and "Bloomberg mistreated the RNC protesters last summer." (There's also, as the comment I cited above implies, a bit of irrational "thou hast betrayed me" scorn for Bloomberg's apostasy in running as a Republican; to me that's not worth engaging with, for the simple reason that "there's no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole"; at the local level, party label doesn't matter very much.) The second, I guess, has some validity. But frankly, I don't think any mayor, of either party, would have done much different; four years earlier in Philadelphia, Ed Rendell (a Democrat) was similarly criticized.

And to be even more blunt--because we're on my turf now--I suspect a lot of the protesters were looking for the outcome they earned. The cops might have been dicks, but I doubt many of them wanted the extra paperwork and general effort of arresting a bunch of mouthy white kids.

Should they have been treated so harshly? No. Should they have been given a Central Park permit? Yes. But in the grand scheme of things, I fail to see how this is all that big of a deal.

Then there's the Bush charge. It's based on, one, Bloomberg's campaign giving to Bush and the Republicans; and two, that the city hosted the RNC last year. That he contributed to Bush certainly bothers me; I gave a lot of time, money and effort to beat that prick, and it rankles me that my mayor worked against me. In the full context of Bloomberg's philanthropy and a lifetime of political giving, however, the theme of his 2004-cycle contributions is pretty clear: it's "DON'T FUCK OVER NEW YORK CITY." Given the deep bias against our claiming a fair share of state and federal budgets prevalent in Albany and DC, I understand it even if I don't condone it.

As for the RNC, though I myself protested their presence (and--I remember--wrote repeatedly here and elsewhere about how much it bothered me to have them exploiting our tragedy, given their policies), I'm also glad they dropped however many millions into our local economy. If these self-righteous "liberal" jerkasses want to pick up all the schoolteacher, sanitation worker and cop salaries paid for by Republican delegate spending last year, then I'm happy to talk with them. Otherwise, they've got no beef.

Not to mention that Bloomberg, like any smart mayor, wanted *both* political conventions in the city last year. Terry McAuliffe and Ted Kennedy put the kibosh on that one, I think it's fairly safe to say to the detriment of our results last November. Remember, the Democrats had their convention first, as the "out" party; if they'd held it here, they could have made any number of powerful political points: how everyday Republican policies hurt the city they'd come to exploit; how Bush used the tragedy of 9/11 to push a terribly divisive partisan agenda and a war waged under false pretenses against an "enemy" that hadn't been involved with the attacks; even how (as Bloomberg noted in his address to the RNC) the Republican thugocracy distributed homeland security money based on political calculations rather than an honest assessment of risk.

But that gets me pretty far from the thread. And the thread is that these "Better Dead than Republican Red" arguments leave us arguably as badly off, in terms of supporting the public interest, as those on the other side. That so many of those bloviating the loudest don't actually live here--and clearly know nothing about Ferrer, or the deeply corrupt borough-based Democratic machines--just adds another layer of insult.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Politicizing 9/11
It's a beautiful day here in Brookyn. The NFL season is well underway; Annie's best friend gave birth yesterday in Dublin, with mother and child both well; we've gotten tons of things done today; the Phillies are whomping the Marlins down in South Philadelphia.

Four years ago, on another beautiful day, the course of American history changed. The government somehow managed to turn unprecedented tragedy and signal failure into a political triumph; it then took the fruits of that triumph to plunge our country into perpetual deficit, interminable war and, as these facts became apparent to some, bitter polarization.

Having won the election last November, George W. Bush and his band of supporters and enablers saw all their policies and practices justified. The privileging of loyalty over competence, ideology over results, and self-advancement over public service all went effectively unpunished by the electorate. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is only the most glaring, and viscerally painful, evidence of the costs of this approach to governance. There will be others.

But even if you take it as given that the administration couldn't, and shouldn't, have better defended the country on 9/11--a view that's tough to sustain given what Richard Clarke and so many others have told us--let's consider the poison and ineptitude of the response to that attack.

We never got the perpetrator. In fact, he sneers at us from the covers of magazines.

For a group of people so supposedly bound up with honor and martial pride, so praiseful of war and violence, doesn't it seem odd that more right-wingers aren't rabid with fury over the fact that Osama bin Laden remains at learge? That the substitute in terms of militaristic self-gratification has gone so badly awry is almost like injury added to insult. Michael Tomasky issues a reminder in the American Prospect:

[E]ven the disaster Bush has created in Iraq takes a back seat to one overwhelming fact: By the time night falls on September 11, Osama bin Laden will have been at large for 1,461 days.

America vanquished world fascism in less time: We obtained Germany’s surrender in 1,243 days, Japan’s in 1,365. Even the third Punic War, in which Carthage was burned to the ground and emptied of citizens who were taken en masse into Roman slavery, lasted around 1,100 days (and troops needed a little longer to get into position back in 149 B.C.).
Just imagine bin Laden having been at large this long in President Al Gore’s administration. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine, because President Gore, under such circumstances, wouldn’t have lasted this long. You probably didn’t know, until you read this column, the number of days bin Laden has been at large. But I assure you that if Gore had been president, you and every American would have known, because the right would have seen to it that you knew, asking every day, “Where’s Osama?” If Gore hadn’t been impeached, it’s doubtful he’d have survived a re-election campaign, with Americans aghast at how weak and immoral a president had to be to permit those 2,700 deaths to go unavenged this long.

It was briefly a matter of debate in last year's presidential campaign whether or not the Bush administration "let bin Laden get away" in December 2001. General Tommy Franks said no; others, including the Pentagon's own investigators, say yes.

"We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora," Franks wrote in an Oct. 19, 2004, Op-Ed article in The New York Times. Intelligence assessments on the Qaeda leader's location varied, Franks continued, and bin Laden was "never within our grasp." It was not until this spring that the Pentagon, after a Freedom of Information Act request, released a document to The Associated Press that says Pentagon investigators believed that bin Laden was at Tora Bora and that he escaped.

The administration's defenders and apologists have lately become very sensitive about "playing politics" in a time of national tragedy; getting absolutely nailed for transparent ineptitude perhaps has something to do with this change of heart. These were the same people who sold (and bought) photos of Bush on the plane, in his moment of pants-crapping cowardice, the Republican National Committee offered as gifts for generous donors.

As Tomasky implies, had history gone differently and a Democrat sat in the White House on September 11, 2001, it still would have been the Republican Party exploiting 9/11. They just would have been much more justified in doing so.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina as Warm-Up Act?
Last week a friend of mine e-mailed to note that this hurricane came quickly on the heels of last summer's series of big storms in Florida, as well as the tsunami in the south Pacific that struck over the winter. We agreed it didn't seem like a coincidence; and as I noted in a previous post, to me one of the lessons of Katrina is that we can no longer view homeland security, fuel dependence and global warming as separate phenomena: they're inter-related, and so must be an approach to address and mitigate their effects.

This article from Fortune suggests that we'd do well to find some answers sooner rather than later, as storms of this magnitude are becoming increasingly common:

[L]ess than a month before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Kerry Emanuel published a portentous paper in the journal Nature that illustrated how hurricanes' destructive potential has risen dramatically over the past few decades, in tandem with global warming. And a few weeks before Emanuel's paper, the Association of British Insurers issued an equally ominous report on the growing financial risks posed by extreme weather events due to global warming. It predicted that the U.S. may suffer insured losses from single hurricanes of up to $150 billion in 2004 dollars. (To put that in perspective, Hurricane Andrew racked up insured losses of about $20 billion, in 2004 dollars, when it slammed Florida and Louisiana in 1992.)

While the great majority of climate researchers believe that global warming is real (and also that it is partly caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels), no one says Katrina sprang directly from the warming—that would be like arguing that a particular stock's plunge last Tuesday was caused by the onset of a bear market a year ago. But Emanuel and other experts have warned for over a decade that global warming may be creating an environment prone to more violent storms, droughts and other weather extremes, just as a bear market can pave the way for an outsized drop in a particular company's stock price.

Global warming is certainly controversial—while some researchers see evidence that it's contributing to the recent uptick in extreme storms, others argue that the number of bad hurricanes in recent years merely reflects a natural weather variation. But the science of how warmer weather induces violent storms isn't. Hurricanes suck energy from warm waters to drive their winds. So as sea-surface temperatures rise, the storms absorb more energy that gets pumped out in the form of high-speed winds.

To be sure, most of the escalating property losses from hurricanes in recent years stem from the fact that more and more people are putting their homes in harm's way. From 1980 to 2003, the U.S. coastal population grew by 33 million, and is expected to swell by a further 12 million by 2015, according to the British insurers' report.
The British insurance association report, titled "Financial Risks of Climate Change," was similarly cautious: Rising losses from extreme weather are mainly due to the rising number and value of property in harm's way, it states, though the "trends to date (in devastating weather) are consistent with what we might expect as climate change intensifies." But the report's survey of recent weather extremes is anything but reassuring. Among other things, the study found that:

* Each year since 1990, there have been at least 20 weather events categorized as significant natural catastrophes. There were only three years that bad among the 20 years preceding 1990.
* Four hurricanes that hit the U.S. last year racked up a record $56 billion in total losses over a period of just a few weeks, setting an annual record for such losses.
* Last year 10 typhoons hit Japan, four more than the previous record, making it the costliest year ever for typhoon damage there.
* In 2003, Europe suffered the hottest summer of the past 500 years, causing 22,000 premature heat-related deaths. Accompanying wildfires caused $15 billion of losses. Changes in the weather appear to have already doubled the chance of such hot summers.
* The number of severe winter storms in Britain has doubled over the last 50 years.

The report also notes disturbing recent data indicating that Atlantic hurricane activity is on the rise. The data aren't clear cut—hurricane activity goes up and down in decades-long cycles related to changes in ocean currents, potentially masking a long-term rise due to global warming. Still, the average number of hurricanes in the current "up" cycle, which began in the mid-1990s, is higher than during the previous upswing—a indication that global warming is boosting the effects of the longstanding, natural variation in hurricane activity.

There's no political screed buried in here: yes, the Bush administration has totally ignored global warming, but the Democrats haven't been all that much better, and Bill Clinton always seemed to have more energy for voter-friendly "micro-initiatives"--a school dress code here, a V-chip there--than for pushing the sacrifice and change that a robust policy response would have required. The lesson, I guess, again points to our national disinclination toward planning ahead. The likely costs of this tendency are, to say the least, pretty daunting.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Chilling Vision of Things to Come?
One common reaction to hard-to-comprehend events like the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina is to say, "It really makes you think." The elemental struggle of people to survive can, and should, make one feel pretty silly about getting worked up over a car that cuts you off, or a stain on a favorite shirt, or your favorite baseball team losing a game. But there's another sense in which an event like this one, with its different set of consequences and revelations about our world, should probably raise: how vulnerable are the core material truths of our life that we almost never stop to consider.

Today I woke up in downtown Philadelphia, at my dad's home. He drove Annie and me out to the northern suburbs, where we met my mom and uncle for breakfast, and then went to his office, probably spending some 45 minutes behind the wheel. After we ate, my mother drove us up to Trenton, from where we caught a train into Manhattan and then a subway home to Brooklyn. We took a nap in our air-conditioned bedroom. I went to the gym, also air-conditioned, where I enjoyed my iPod while exercising on the elliptical machine and stationary bike. Then I bought some frozen and refrigerated goods at the market, went home and watched TV, turned on lights, went online, microwaved some red sauce, etc.

This banal list is offered not to make some point about my life, but rather to indicate how much we take the easy and inexpensive availability of fuel and energy for granted. Gasoline still feels affordable enough for my parents to drive out of their way getting my wife and me around the Philadelphia area. Energy costs are so low that I'm able to enjoy a lifestyle that depends quite substantially upon audio/visual entertainment or interface. Food is available at any temperature we want, almost instantaneously.

It's all so fucking easy. And we've come to take the means of that ease as an immutable fact of existence, like gravity. There's a moral conclusion to be drawn here, having to do with the complacency and unthinking entitlement many believe characterize the United States vis-a-vis the developing world. But there's also a practical conclusion: that if the cheap and easy energy goes away, we are truly screwed.

James Kunstler is a writer and keeper of the Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle. I'd seen this referenced in passing many times on one left-leaning site or another, and if I clicked through I don't remember it (and, after reading the below, I think I would have made a mental note). He stated the following in a speech earlier this year. The whole thing is a fascinating read; what I've excerpted here only sets up Kunstler's musings on a range of subjects from the coming ruination of Wal-Mart and other mega-retail chains to how our patterns of housing development, public education and "sense of place" will change as a result of what he calls "The Long Emergency": transformation to a world without cheap oil.

The world - and of course the US - now faces an epochal predicament: the global oil production peak and the arc of depletion that follows. We are unprepared for this crisis of industrial civilization. We are sleepwalking into the future.

The global peak oil production event will change everything about how we live. It will challenge all of our assumptions. It will compel us to do things differently - whether we like it or not.
[S]ome of the most knowledgeable geologists in the world believe we have reached the global oil production peak. Unlike the US oil industry, the foreign producers do not give out their production data so transparently We may never actually see any reliable figures. The global production peak may only show up in the strange behavior of the markets.

The global peak is liable to manifest as a "bumpy plateau." Prices will wobble. Markets will wobble - as the oil markets have been doing the past year. International friction will increase, especially around the places where the oil is - and two-thirds of the world's remaining oil is in the states around the Persian Gulf where, every week, a half dozen US soldiers and many more Iraqis are getting blown up, beheaded, or shot.

The "bumpy plateau" is where all kind of market signals and political signals are telling you that "something is happening, Mr. Jones, but you don't know what it is." We'll only know in the rear-view mirror.
The meaning of the oil peak and its enormous implications are generally misunderstood even by those who have heard about it - and this includes the mainstream corporate media and the Americans who make plans or policy. [For an example of major media coverage of the peak oil question,see this New York Times Sunday Magazine article from August. While the reporting seems fine, it gives little sense of just how fundamental the changes will be when the peak oil moment comes.--DJF]

The world does not have to run out of oil or natural gas for severe instabilities, network breakdowns, and systems failures to occur. All that is necessary is for world production capacity to reach its absolute limit - a point at which no increased production is possible and the long arc of depletion commences, with oil production then falling by a few percentages steadily every year thereafter. That's the global oil peak: the end of absolute increased production and beginning of absolute declining production.

And, of course, as global oil production begins to steadily decline, year after year, the world population is only going to keep growing - at least for a while - and demand for oil will remain very robust. The demand line of the graph will pass the production line, and in doing so will set in motion all kinds of problems in the systems we rely on for daily life.

One huge implication of the oil peak is that industrial societies will never again enjoy the 2 to 7 percent annual economic growth that has been considered healthy for over 100 years. This amounts to the industrialized nations of the world finding themselves in a permanent depression.

Long before the oil actually depletes we will endure world-shaking political disturbances and economic disruptions. We will see globalism-in-reverse. Globalism was never an 'ism,' by the way. It was not a belief system. It was a manifestation of the 20-year-final-blowout of cheap oil. Like all economic distortions, it produced economic perversions. It allowed gigantic, predatory organisms like WalMart to spawn and reproduce at the expense of more cellular fine-grained economic communities.
[W]e [can't] replace the current car fleet with electric cars or natural gas cars. We're just going to use cars a lot less. Fewer trips. Cars will be a diminished presence in our lives.

Not to mention the political problem that kicks in when car ownership and driving becomes incrementally a more elite activity. The mass motoring society worked because it was so profoundly democratic. Practically anybody in America could participate, from the lowliest shlub mopping the floor at Pizza Hut to Bill Gates. What happens when it is no longer so democratic? And what is the tipping point at which it becomes a matter of political resentment: 12 percent? 23 percent? 38 percent?
No combination of alternative fuel systems currently known will allow us to run what we are running, the way we're running it, or even a substantial fraction of it.

The future is therefore telling us very loudly that we will have to change the way we live in this country. The implications are clear: we will have to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do.
The implication of this is enormous. Successful human ecologies in the near future will have to be supported by intensively farmed agricultural hinterlands. Places that can't do this will fail. Say goodbye to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

I'm not optimistic about most of our big cities. They are going to have to contract severely. They achieved their current scale during the most exuberant years of the cheap oil fiesta, and they will have enormous problems remaining viable afterward.
All indications are that American life will have to be reconstituted along the lines of traditional towns, villages, and cities much reduced in their current scale. These will be the most successful places once we are gripped by the profound challenge of a permanent reduced energy supply.
We are entering a period of economic hardship and declining incomes. The increment of new development will be very small, probably the individual building lot.

The suburbs as are going to tank spectacularly. We are going to see an unprecedented loss of equity value and, of course, basic usefulness. We are going to see an amazing distress sale of properties, with few buyers. We're going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century. We'll be lucky if the immense failure of suburbia doesn't result in an extreme political orgy of grievance and scapegoating.

The action in the years ahead will be in renovating existing towns and villages, and connecting them with regions of productive agriculture. Where the big cities are concerned, there is simply no historical precedent for the downscaling they will require. The possibilities for social and political distress ought to be obvious, though. The process is liable to be painful and disorderly.
Some regions of the country will do better than others. The sunbelt will suffer in exact proportion to the degree that it prospered artificially during the cheap oil blowout of the late 20th century. I predict that the Southwest will become substantially depopulated, since they will be short of water as well as gasoline and natural gas. I'm not optimistic about the Southeast either, for different reasons. I think it will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and combine with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism.

All regions of the nation will be affected by the vicissitudes of this Long Emergency, but I think New England and the Upper Midwest have somewhat better prospects. I regard them as less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy, or despotism, and more likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at some level.

There is a fair chance that the nation will disaggregate into autonomous regions before the 21st century is over, as a practical matter if not officially. Life will be very local.

These challenges are immense. We will have to rebuild local networks of economic and social relations that we allowed to be systematically dismantled over the past fifty years. In the process, our communities may be able to reconstitute themselves.

The economy of the mid 21st century may center on agriculture. Not information. Not the digital manipulation of pictures, not services like selling cheeseburgers and entertaining tourists. Farming. Food production. The transition to this will be traumatic, given the destructive land-use practices of our time, and the staggering loss of knowledge. We will be lucky if we can feed ourselves.

I'm sure counter-arguments can be made for many of Kunstler's predictions. And there are whole other realms of surmise--how the end of cheap energy will interact with the telecommunications revolution, or popular culture, or evolving gender roles. But through his assertions, he's asking important questions. Unfortunately, the Katrina disaster illustrates, yet again, our indisposition as a people to plan ahead effectively. Sleepwalking into the future, indeed.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Theory of Everything
Maureen Dowd in Saturday's Times skewers the Bush administration:
In June 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, fretted to The Times-Picayune in New Orleans: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Not only was the money depleted by the Bush folly in Iraq; 30 percent of the National Guard and about half its equipment are in Iraq.

Ron Fournier of The Associated Press reported that the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million. But President Bush and Congress agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-filled highway bill with 6,000 pet projects, including a $231 million bridge for a small, uninhabited Alaskan island.

Just last year, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials practiced how they would respond to a fake hurricane that caused floods and stranded New Orleans residents. Imagine the feeble FEMA's response to Katrina if they had not prepared.

Michael Brown, the blithering idiot in charge of FEMA - a job he trained for by running something called the International Arabian Horse Association - admitted he didn't know until Thursday that there were 15,000 desperate, dehydrated, hungry, angry, dying victims of Katrina in the New Orleans Convention Center.

Was he sacked instantly? No, our tone-deaf president hailed him in Mobile, Ala., yesterday: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

It would be one thing if President Bush and his inner circle - Dick Cheney was vacationing in Wyoming; Condi Rice was shoe shopping at Ferragamo's on Fifth Avenue and attended "Spamalot" before bloggers chased her back to Washington; and Andy Card was off in Maine - lacked empathy but could get the job done. But it is a chilling lack of empathy combined with a stunning lack of efficiency that could make this administration implode.

The fact that they were all on vacation is bad politics, but the truth is that this is what rich people do the week before Labor Day; I'd bet that between Bush, Cheney and Card, they haven't worked a month's worth combined over the last week of August in their entire lives. (Rice probably had to work until around when she got that oil tanker named after her.) It's not what they've done this week; it's what they've done for the last five years. I don't know what Michael Brown did to merit consideration for his job, but I'm pretty much mortally certain it had nothing to do with emergency preparedness or disaster management, and a lot to do with political dependability and personal ties to some Bush or other.

To a greater or lesser extent, the same could be said of pretty much everyone in the second-term administration. The somewhat independent-minded folks--Colin Powell, Paul O'Neill--are gone. For that matter, so are those who might have their own political ambitions, like Mitch Daniels (now governor of Indiana) and John Ashcroft, who still probably sees a future president in the bathroom mirror, which hypothetically could have moved them to counter the administration. Only the loyalists are left. Their agenda is Bush's agenda; that's it.

What this means is that there will no voice inside the administration to say what must be said: that three issues of crucial importance to the nation--global warming, homeland security, and energy dependence--are now and henceforth will be inextricably bound together. We're failing to solve any of them, and their combined impact probably represents the greatest threat our country has ever faced.

I haven't seen anything in the news or the blogs connecting climate change to the various water-borne disasters of the last year: the tsunami, flooding in South Asia, Hurricane Katrina. I assume this will come with time, as scientists tend to approach these loaded questions with greater prudence and care than do pundits. What's not in question is that the damage done to the Gulf Coast has sparked an oil shock in the country, on the eve of one of the heaviest driving weekends of the year no less. In the current Atlantic Monthly, obviously written before the hurricane struck, a writer blasts the recently passed energy bill:
Somewhere in the vast spaces of the Energy Policy Act, you might think, room could have been found for actions that actually addressed the two main energy-policy challenges of the next decade: global warming and the national-security implications of dependence on imported oil. But no, the authors of this purportedly comprehensive law mostly chose to concentrate on... urgent battles to win on subsidies and tax breaks for their respective energy-producing constituencies.

The cost of fuel has been rising fairly steadily for the last several years. I don't know (though I've wondered often enough) at what point, if any, it will get high enough to really trigger behavioral change on the part of commuters and corporations; what I do think is likely is that the cascading effect of higher prices, on everything from produce to plane tickets, will make itself felt in our consumption-driven economy. A responsible government would get out in front of this change, encouraging conservation and the pursuit of alternatives; they also would have anticipated the easily predictable problem we're currently facing. (Given the nature of the world fuel supply, the only surprise here is that it was domestic production that was disrupted.) Those who view government as a means of enrichment, on the other hand, will do as they in fact did, larding the bill with giveaways.

I don't pretend to know what the answer is. History suggests that there are no problems we can't solve; from slavery to fascism, we have always--eventually--found an answer and made ourselves stronger. What really frightens me is the notion that the venality and indifference to real suffering that characterize the Bush administration and Republican-led congress--which has announced that it will go ahead next week with measures to repeal the Estate Tax--somehow reflects a rot within the American character that has spread beyond the point where it can be contained. Any criticism of the administration's response to the hurricane will be shrugged away as "politicizing the tragedy"... by the same people who somehow turned their tragic failure on 9/11 into greater opportunity to gorge at the public trough.

From calling on the best in Americans, our political leadership now seems to exist only to exonerate our worst, most selfish natures. While this is the case, how can we rise to the occasion as a people?