By James Howard Kunstler
on December 27, 2010 3:06 AM
A little ways off the curb on the Boulevard Henry IV here in Paris, you can see the memory of the Bastille outlined by a course of masonry in the pavement, in particular one of the bulbous towers of the old fortress-prison. It marks one of those threshold moments in history when things got out-of-hand - in the late afternoon of July 14, 1789 - and by the time a mob had detached the head of Warden Bernard-René de Launey from his shoulders and paraded it around on a pike, everyone in the city knew that they had crossed into the politically unknown frontier of Revolution.
Seeing this residue of history put me in mind of a riddle that one of my college professors presented to us one day years ago: why did Achilles drag Hector around the city of Troy three times? We came up with dozens of reasons ranging from conjectures out of the text of The Iliad to lame bits of Hippie numerology, but nobody could furnish the answer that the prof was looking for, which was eventually revealed:Because he [Achilles] was just that pissed off.
This was the idea that dogged me in the winter twilight of Paris late on Christmas Day as I pondered the fate of my own country back across the cold cold sea. A lot of Americans are beaten down and discouraged these days. They've lost not only jobs, incomes, and houses, but also a sense of purpose, and perhaps faith in the essential fairness of the American venture - as the propane runs out, and families try to subsist on Froot Loops, and the re-po squad turns up to haul away the Ford F-150 Raptor. Meanwhile, in their last remaining refuge from harsh reality, TV, they glimpse the likes of Jamie Dimon, Chloe Kardashian, and Jay-Z emerging from limousines looking hopelessly bored with wealth beyond imagination. When will the folks out there move from shame and despondency to being really pissed off about the disposition of things?
Isn't that a question, though?
The French Revolution arose first from a financial crisis that turned into a political crisis. The rule of law had been vested in a class of pampered imbeciles while the price of bread doubled, and sometimes there was no bread at all for the growing masses, or functioning law to govern the country. This was where the rising middle-class of the dawning industrial-commercial age stepped in to straighten things out - people such as Jean Paul Marat the itinerant physician (ahem), thief, sewer rat, and newspaper columnist, and Maxmilien Robespierre, lawyer. They had the example ten years earlier of the successful American Revolution, which Louis XVI had helped finance, and which helped bankrupt the French Treasury. But the new French political class botched the crucial part: a constitution that actually worked. The whole enterprise sank into a morass of absurd utopianism and, finally, paranoia. The guillotine turned out to be the perfect machine for that dark moment: efficient, elegant, and terrifying. The bloodthirsty competed with the incompetent for the soul of the nation until finally a twenty-eight-year-old artillery officer said (in effect), "Look here, fuckers! This will be quite enough of your shenanigans." After Monsieur General Bonaparte entered the scene, that was all she wrote for the revolution....
Which brings me to the subject of our own financial crisis, soon to mutate into a political crisis. There really is no "solution" to our problem of debt except to become a less affluent society. You can get there via the path of compressive deflationary depression (no money), or hyperinflation (plenty of worthless money), but the destination is the same. In the meantime we're stuck with the extremely uneven distribution of hardship and luxury. Whole classes of formerly working people face the prospect of genuine ruin while an ultra-pampered class of celebrity clowns and professional swindlers fob off with whatever's left on the national buffet table. The real politics of all this are so far from being sorted out that sheer contemplation of what lies ahead leaves the mind harrowed and feeble.
The Jacobins of 1793 France were basically the Left. It took only five hundred or so of them to bully a nation of 30 million. The Jacobins of the USA in 2011 are basically the Right Wing, followers of Senator Jim DeMint, the mind-slaves of Rush Limbaugh and "students" of Prof Glenn Beck, and, of course, the worshippers of Sarah Palin. Their brand of politics might be labeled Nostalgic Sentimental Paranoid Know-Nothingism. They're proud and loud, pious and ignorant, so deeply insecure that they depend on flag lapel pins to remind them to care about their country, full of righteous anger about their own sexual impulses, the religious notions (or not) of other people, and the possible introduction of the rule of law in banking matters. They pretend to represent the folks freezing in their mobile homes who subsist on Froot Loops, but they're really protecting the country clubbers, the corporate poobahs, the fraudsters on Wall Street, and every other racketeer in the land - including their own class of political grifters.
The Obama Democrats, the putative Left Wing, are analogous to the pro-monarchy center of revolutionary France. Their ethical sanctimony is fake while they do everything possible to keep the rule of law out of money matters. They are most of all ineffectual and impotent, capable only of grandstanding hyped up Great Compromises that accomplish nothing, and probably doom the party to be chewed up by the machinations of their bloodthirsty adversaries on the right. It's hard to shed a tear for them, their performance has been so purblind and wimpish.
History has its own momentum and it is carrying the psychotic Right Wing into power. Fear not. After they stomp the moderates and the Left, they will themselves end up in an orgy of political cannibalism before somebody as yet unknown - perhaps some field brigadier just now in Afghanistan - steps up to say, "Look here, fuckers...." Meanwhile, America may have its own Bastille moment when something goes too far, some poor functionary at the Treasury Department gets scalped by a gang of 99ers, or a distressed physician goes after Glenn Beck in the student union of a Bible college, or... Gawd knows what.
Meanwhile, you are sleeping and it's morning here in Paris. I get the feeling that we're at the end of the great era of tourism. Europe has been the world's premiere tourist theme park for half a century. Given Europe's bloody, riotous history, it's been a remarkable period of peace and affluence. Since the 1960s, everything here in Paris got buffed up to perfection. Notre Dame's white stone façade gleams in the winter sunlight. The Louvre, the Opera, the Conciergerie, the Tomb of Napoleon are all fixed, re-pointed, re-gilded. The café and restaurant scene operates like one great gastronomic machine, effortless and masterful. I'm already nostalgic for it.
In the background, Europe's money situation is disintegrating, and with it probably the easy order that has reigned in this period. They are going broke, too, just as surely as America is, and they are responding in pretty much the same way:a game of extend and pretend (with some prayer as the cherry-on-top). Meanwhile, the price of oil has breached the $91 dollar line. If it goes just a little bit higher, and the winter weather stays harsh, you can bet that some airlines will be going down the drain. Combine that with the vanishing disposable incomes of the middle class and you get an ill-fated recipe for the tourism business - with perhaps some home-grown mob action waiting in the wings around Europe, not to mention friction between age-old enemies.
I was fortunate to see Europe at its best in my time, and now we are entering a new time of great uncertainty and travail. I'll be back home next week with the usual gruesome forecast for the new year. And yes, I am aware that the Dow Jones Industrial Average did not settle around 4000 points, as I predicted a year ago. Obviously 2010 was a year of fabulous prosperity in the USA - just ask the people running out of propane with their bowls full of Froot Loops.
US Mobilized for the Possibility of War on Korean Peninsula
The United States government made preparations for the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula amid North Korea's continued provocations.
Columnist David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday that the Obama administration's recent foreign policy moves included "contingency plans for North Korea."
Ignatius reported that just three weeks ago US President Barack Obama warned Chinese President Hu Jintao over the phone that North Korea is a "nuclear nation" whose recklessness threatens the US.
Meanwhile, White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs said on Sunday that major changes with Obama's cabinet are not likely but that it is very likely that President Obama will seek re-election in 2012.
Gibbs added that the job market has improved since President Obama took office which the American President wants to continue.
How a freak diversion of the jet stream is paralysing the globe with freezing conditions
By Niall Firth
Last updated at 12:53 PM on 22nd December 2010
* It's snowing in Australia and California yet 'warm' in Greenland
The freezing conditions that have blasted Britain are being blamed on a series of weather patterns that are bringing Arctic temperatures to much of western Europe, California and even Australia.
One of the main factors is a change in the position of the jet stream - the fast-moving current of air that moves from west to east, high in the atmosphere.
Changes in the jet stream's path can cause massive changes in weather conditions across the globe and may be why Australians are now shivering their way through summer and the current freezing conditions in California.
In a normal British winter - when conditions are mild and soggy - the jet stream lies over northern Europe, at an altitude of between 35,000 to 50,000 feet.
Daily mean temperature anomalies around the world between 1st December and 20th December
Daily mean temperature anomalies around the world between 1st December and 20th December compared with the 30 year long term average between 1961 and 1990
During these grey winters, Britain's prevailing winds come from the west and south west, and bring with them warm and moist air from the sub-tropical Atlantic.
This year a high-pressure weather system over the Atlantic is blocking the jet stream’s normal path and forcing it to the north and south of Europe.
The areas of high pressure act like stones in a stream - blocking the normal flow of milder air from the west and instead forcing colder air from the north down across the UK.
In California more than 12 inches of rain has fallen in parts of the Santa Monica Mountains in the south and 13 feet of snow has accumulated at Mammoth Mountain ski resort.
And Australians expecting to bask in early summer sun this Christmas are instead shivering as icy gusts sweeping up from the Southern Ocean have blanketed parts of east coast states New South Wales and Victoria with up to four inches of snow.
When the jet-stream is blocked by high pressure it dips southwards and lets freezing air flood in from the Arctic regions.
Other weather patterns are also causing havoc across the may also be affecting the weather, such as the current in the tropical Pacific Ocean, called La Nina, which is disturbing the jetstream over the north Pacific and North America.
A combination of our usual wet Atlantic weather systems striking these freezing cold fronts results in huge amounts of snowfall – and brings Britain grinding to a halt.
A Met Office spokesman: ‘The problem is we are not getting the warmer Atlantic air that normally keeps our winters mild.’
‘We can see that it is unseasonably warm over Canada and Greenland, this is where warm air has been diverted.’
He said that any change in the pressure over the Atlantic would need to last for several days before we would notice any change in the weather in Europe.
Freezing-cold winters and milder winters tend to cluster in groups, as the jet stream changes its path.
Experts are still unsure why this is but suspect it may be related to the EL Nino weather system as well as changes in sea temperatures and solar activity.
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 20, 2010 8:50 AM
At this time of year, who can fail to understand the wish to forget all the woes and fiascos of our time, and to retreat into the cozy firelit nooks of Christmas, where a pint or so of grog, or egg-nog, or even seven fingers of Williams 'Lectric Shave in an empty jam jar might avail to wash away the frightening specters of debts, and banks, and, trade imbalances, and countries with economies composed mostly of losses?
For now, America is a rug stretching from Maine to California, under which we've swept the filthy detritus of money matters and governance. It worked most of the year, though the rug has grown as lumpy as a landfill. Nothing is more important for the moment than provoking millions of people with no means for carrying their current obligations to ply the malls in search of Christmas merchandise, so the little ones will not be disappointed on the Great Day. Who could fail to understand this, too, since the sorrows of children only magnify the failures of the adults who love and fear for them.
President Obama's tax deal with the corn-and-pork-fed mental defectives of the Red States has been spun into an historic act of political ju-jitsu - a sharp trade to great advantage for the slick city operator against the avaricious rubes - but to me it was just another act of Santa Claus Theater. You have to love the conceit that all this fuss about money is finally settled. So we can settle back in the raptures of flat screen high-def 3-D TV and imagine that we're like the characters in Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life - which, by the way, in case you never noticed, is a story about a banker who gets into big trouble financing the first larval manifestations of suburban sprawl. If only Frank Capra had lived to see the Federal Reserve's Maiden Lane portfolio, a sack of shit so monumental it would make the fabled swag-bag of Kris Kringle himself look like the descending colon of a pygmy marmoset.
Anyway, both parties are vying for a place in the graveyard of politics, and this is how it should be. Life is tragic, nothing lasts forever, and these two hoary old orgs are so far gone in corruption and cupidity that it would be hazardous to not bury them as fast as possible. If the USA is as resilient and resourceful as it pretends to be, then we can confidently come up with something better. In fact, I hasten to make a positive proposal: calling Howard Dean (former Vermont governor and head of the Democratic National Committee) to take the helm of a new Progressive Party (or whatever you want to call it) in opposition to the morbid histrionics of the Tea Baggers. It's not written on the wind that this country must be governed by morons and sell-outs. Governor Dean is the only character I see out there with more than half a brain who won't bend over for Weepy John Boehner and the minions of Goldman Sachs. I'm sorry that the cable networks juked him back in 2004, with the ridiculous charge that he had somehow lost his mind by raising his voice at his Iowa Caucus victory party.
As I have averred more than once before, this period of US history resembles the 1850s, when the established political parties could not wrap their minds around the salient issue of the day, slavery, and so went out of business. Anyway, when Abraham Lincoln came along rather late in the day, nobody knew, fer gawdsake, that he was going to turn into Abraham Lincoln. We kind of forget that the Civil War, which began almost the instant he took office, was a prolonged fiasco that looked fatal for the nation until very near the end - at which point Lincoln, who had been mocked more harshly than any president to that time, was transformed into a monument by 240 grains of lead.
In this previous historic convulsion the issue was slavery; today the issue is the rule of law - the absence of which from banking is destroying the USA as effectively as a foreign invasion. Poor President Obama looks more like Millard Fillmore reincarnated every day, an empty figurehead servling of less-than-benevolent interests hiding in plain sight. What will become of this Republic when he puts his Santa suit away for the year, nobody knows (and many people dread).
I'll be writing from Paris, France, next week - if the next ice age doesn't close down the airports, and if no trouble-maker manages to get on-board my plane with a Semtex suppository hidden in his vitals. I sincerely wonder if the European banks will implode before the holiday runs its course, but I suppose the folks in charge will be too drunk all week to even play Grand Theft Auto on their cell phones. I've got a sad, nagging feeling that this may be Europe's last year as the world's tourist theme park. They've gone through that before, too, by the way - history does repeat in patterns, if not in exact story-line - in the roughly century-long lull between Waterloo and the Guns of August, 1914. The memory of the Long Peace is why the First World War was so demoralizing to Western Civ. God knows what mischief awaits when the current game of Bank Back-stop Hot Potato comes to its certain end in Euroland.
All that said, I take a certain consolation in the fact that Julian Assange is at large!
Merry Christmas everyone, and to all a jolly week of schmoozing, boozing, gifting, grifting, and joy to the world! (Oh, and don't rob the house.)
More from the run thru east Texas yesterday... Detroit itself is not worth the drive...not an epic fail by any stretch, but if you are looking for massive amounts of decay like that found in Honey Grove/Paris you will be disappointed...but there are some nice little things to be found wandering around going and returning that made the day...little oddities like the "Git Ur Done" gas station and store - brings whole new meaning to the word redneck...LOL...and then there's the Chapman Aircraft recovery business...hehehehehehe...its all good!
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 13, 2010 9:31 AM
I overheard a conversation between two employees over at the Price Chopper supermarket last week. (The Price Chopper logo is a picture of a Mercury dime with an ax cleaving into Mercury's head; in other words, an ax murder.) The supermarket employees were both middle-aged women.
First: "I'm going home to a cold house."
Second: "Why don't you turn up the heat?"
First: "I don't have no money for fuel."
Meanwhile, 175 miles south in Manhattan somewhere, Lloyd Blankfein's personal shopper is trying to figure out whether to buy Lloyd's favorite niece a Fabergé egg themed Memories of Azov or a Jaguar XK convertible.
Maybe the catch here is that the anonymous supermarket workers are only freezing this Christmas season. If they were freezing and hungry, it might be a different story. But, working in a supermarket, a person might find a way to cadge a few tidbits here and there (whoops, we broke a bag of Cheetos on the loading dock) - the catch there being you could get fired for stealing the merchandise. O sorry nation!
But don't fear! The president and congress are looking out for you, O nation of freezing supermarket employees (and flummoxed personal shoppers, and wily mega-bank CEOs)! They have fashioned a deal that we might call Stim-u-rama. Everybody gets a tax cut! Everybody! Not just Lloyd B but all you toiling and moiling shelf-stockers and check-out cashiers. Plus, you will get a reduction of several percentage points in your payroll deductions - a redoo in the dedoo! - which must be good for at least one Justin Bieber action figure (if there are any left!) in these waning days of the Yuletide consumer frenzy.
Meanwhile moreover, CBS 60-Minutes showed a segment Sunday night on the rip-roaring economic miracle of Brazil - "a little bit bigger than the USA geographically and loaded with natural resources" - as if to rub it in that we have become a sorry nation of losers to a bunch of no-account beach layabouts. As usual, the 60-Minutes reportage was full of lies and misrepresentations, for instance, that Brazil's offshore oil discoveries are so huge and so easy to extract that they will save industrial civilization.
The sights and smells of Christmas usually put me in a mellow frame of mind. But this year there's an acid edge in the mulled wine, an off-taste in the plum pudding, a disconcerting odor of rot in the piped-in holiday potpourri.
Obviously, the government tax deal along with the Federal Reserve's recent QE announcements represent a mighty effort to stuff some spendable lucre into this shuddering, doddering beast of the American economy. The people running things don't know what else to do. We find ourselves in a decelerating system, hopelessly over-complex (and scheming, even, to add additional layers of complexity!), with money-making activity shifted from producing things of value into a runaway Wall Street machine dedicated to something-for-nothing rentier exploitation of interest rate differentials, arbitrages, short-sales, outright swindles, and other activities based on no creation of value whatsoever. While capital piles up in the salons of Central Park West and the cigar cellars of the Hamptons, social capital hemorrhages every day as masses of formerly-working Americans forego the acquisition of any useful skills, or forget old ones, or opt to lose themselves in the transports of methadrine, "reality" TV, and tattoo art. To put it perhaps a bit indelicately, our shit is falling apart.
It's fascinating that in the background of all this the price of oil is fibrillating around $90-a-barrel - and nobody is paying any attention to that. We seem to have forgotten the lesson from back in 2008 that when oil gets above the $80 mark, things in this land of Happy Motoring and the Warehouse-on-wheels don't work so well. No wonder President Obama and congress are trying to stuff the country full of sugar plums just to get past the horror of a Christmas holiday when not a few working people will be freezing in their homes, if they have homes.
And in not too many days ahead we'll get a peek at those Christmas bonuses landing in the laps of Lloyd Blankfein's minions at Goldman Sachs and the rest of the geniuses in the engine room of prosperity.
When I was already a grown-up young newspaper reporter thirty-odd years ago, I never dreamed I'd see a revolutionary moment here in the USA - even with old Nixie pulling one fast one after another, before heading off to that helicopter for his last wave to the people who elected him. Now, I'm not so sure.
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 6, 2010 9:57 AM
The clarion cries of "recovery" cut painfully through the crisp pre-Christmas air while the now-perpetually unemployed huddle in their tents around the Sacramento delta, and the state AGs slug it out with the foreclosure goons, and not a few mortgage payment drop-outs enjoy luxury living in McMansions with no monthly carrying costs, and the minions of Goldman Sachs (with fellow squids) groom their beaks waiting for the massive chum slick of bonus checks to be dropped by helicopters in this the third holiday season since Wall Street committed suicide by an overdose of Ponzi.
It's pathetic to hear the wan cry of "recovery" issued by the high priests and tribunes of this land. Do the president and his train of wizards really suppose that all the necessary pieces are in place to re-start the economic dynamics of, say, 2003? A million busboys and lawn service lackeys lining up for half-million dollar liar loans at the Countrywide office? BCA, Citi, and all the other big banks pawning off bundles upon bundles of these worthless obligations to insurance companies, pension funds, foolish endowment fund managers and any other reckless entity desperate for yield? A hyperbolic consumer economy pyramid resting on a base of empty promises to repay?
Sorry. There's no way the USA can ever "recover" to that lush breeding ground of swindling, fraud, and childish irresponsibility. The hardships of today do not represent a dip in some regular cycle of financial push-me-pull-you. This is a systemic, structural change in the socio-economic ecology of human life. Those who have been shuffling from one office to another with their dog-eared resumes, and clothing pressed under the mattress while sleeping, are bound to be disappointed. The very idea of a "job" may be obsolete, in the sense of bureaucratically organized endeavors complete with a "human resources" department that can just plug in human components like diodes in an engineered system.
Among the surprises I've suggested over the years is the idea that people used to spending long hours in cubicles staring at video screens may, at some point ahead, begin to spend their days in the fresh air, cultivating food crops. I'm sure this sounds outlandish. But we begin to see the new dynamic of this world resolving in the nexus between a crisis of capital, climate change, and peak oil.
Food is getting scarce. Worldwide grain reserves stand at unprecedented lows. Droughts in Russia and Australia mean that basic foods will be in short supply on the margins - that is, the impoverished countries we used to call "third world" that depend on grain imports. The American supermarket aisles still groan with every conceivable staple and delicacy, but note the prices of things. A buck and a half for four little onions. $1.18 for one apple. $4 for a jar of jam. Compare these numbers with the wages that have not gone up effectively since around 1970.
As I write this morning, oil is 11 cents short of $90 a barrel. That's well into the price range that destroys economic activity in the USA. Why is the price of oil creeping up relentlessly in a structurally impaired economy? My guess is the beginning of hoarding on the grand scale, as nations slowly wake to the reality of the world production peak, and scramble to max out their tank-farm capacity. By the way, the price of oil could easily crash again - and, I believe the period just ahead will be marked by extreme volatility in oil prices - but if it goes back down to $20 a barrel we'll probably be in a situation where nobody has any money to buy it even at bargain basement prices.That was exactly the situation 70-odd years ago during the Great Depression: plenty of everything; but no money.
The crisis of capital still has many acts to play out. The current installment taking place in Europe is a game of musical chairs played by nations who cannot pay their debts or the regular bills. The Euro was on its way sliding into oblivion a week or so ago when the European Central Bank and the IMF came up with a few billion to cover bond interest for deadbeat countries through the Christmas season - at the same time that Ben Bernanke's Fed offered up a $75-billion-a-month bid for US Treasury bonds (and god-knows-really what other sort of dodgy paper, based on the Fed's track record of hosing up every distressed instrument on the landscape, including the notes on cheap chain hotels). The Euro bounced back, at least in relation to the US dollar. The same darn skit will have to be replayed in the first quarter of 2011 and my guess is that German voters will pull the IV-line of financial support out of its terminally ailing neighbors. The net effect will be stupendous economic confusion and a lot of bad feeling. This is the year that Europe ceases to be a theme park and reverts to a continent of dangerous squabbles and beefs.
America has appeared to be a bystander to that spectacle - apart from all the European banks and insurance operations that Ben Bernanke dropped TARP money on, it was revealed last week - but the US financial situation is every bit as sketchy as Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and we have no idea how we're going to cover our obligations after Christmas.
This idea of "recovery" promulgated by authority figures who ought to know better is the cruelest swindle of them all, and perhaps the final one. If you want something like gainful employment in the years ahead, don't rely on the corporations, the government, or anyone with a work station equipped cubicle. Start reading up on gardening and harness repair. Learn how to fix a pair of shoes. Volunteer for EMT duty if you're already out of a paycheck, and learn how to comfort people in medical distress. Jobs of the future will be hands-on and direct. I have no idea what medium of exchange you'll get paid with, but a chicken is a good start.
Am just a hack with skilz!
I'm 60, semi-retired, and live in Texas. I have had the pleasure of being in 39 different countries around the world, many of them for extended periods of time.
I am one of those that still believes in the awesome power of film, but increasingly am shooting in digital...I shoot what I like that I see...and am apt to use whatever cam is available to do the job...these days I am usually shooting with a Canon 50D, but still enjoy dragging the large format gear out every now and then...We have a small studio and a full service darkroom here at the house which helps us to keep costs down...
Locally my work has been featured in McKinney Living magazine, Gusto Guide magazine, and Southern Vanity magazine, as well as McKinneyNews.net...