Saturday, January 31, 2009

Free Market Deja Voodoo

The cause of Great Depression II is identical to the cause of Great Depression I -- a financial speculative feeding frenzy that progressed from a boom, to hysteria, to true, clinical insanity, then collapsed, leaving only a black hole of debt in its wake.

In both cases the catastrophe was enabled by Republican administrations who adopted a "hands-off" approach to the frenzy while it was in progress because the REAL government -- the corporate and financial institution honchos who remain in the shadows pulling the strings of dwarf marionettes -- Coolidge and Dubya -- extended their mandate to rule only as long as their puppets carried out their wishes. These things are understood in the upper echelons of government, and don't even have to be spoken out loud.

So that's twice in less than 80 years we've gone through this same disaster. Different decade, same old shit, you might say. How many more times will we have to do this? As long as the American media is imprisoned in its Babylonian captivity, we could do it again any number of times.

After all, ABC is owned by Disney, all the various NBC networks by General Electric, CBS by Westinghouse, CNN by Time-Warner, etc. etc., so their primary objective is to coat the inside of every American head with propaganda and truthiness rather than information. Even when the news anchors ask questions, the effect is to spread propaganda, for example, Should the state of our economy be determined by the "natural" processes of "free markets," or should the government be "allowed" to "interfere" in the process?

Karl Marx observed 160 years ago that we can no longer live with this ruling class because its continued existence is incompatible with the continued existence of any kind of orderly society. But most people still have not gotten wise. Maybe 200 years and three great depressions are the magic numbers.

A Shining Yurt Upon a Hill

On another forum I frequent, a correspondent writes: some helpful advice on how to best help the U.S. economy by spending your stimulus check wisely:

If you spend that money at Wal-Mart, all the money will go to China.

If you spend it on gasoline, it will go to the Arabs.

If you purchase a computer, it will go to India.

If you purchase fruit and vegetables, it will go to Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala (unless you buy organic) .

If you buy a car, it will go to Japan.

If you purchase useless crap, it will go toTaiwan. And none of it will help the American conomy.

We need to keep that money here in America . You can keep the money in America by spending it at yard sales, going to a baseball game, or spending it on prostitutes, beer (domestic ONLY), or tattoos, since those are the only businesses still in the U.S.

I think he's right about keeping that money here and stemming what used to be called, in ancient times when I was a little kid (and dinosaurs roamed the earth), "the dollar drain."

I will become a child of the earth. I'll live on bread baked domestically out of grain grown here, and cheese from Tillamook, Oregon, and organic fruits, vegetables, and eggs. I pretty much do that already.

Gotta have my Ethiopian coffee, though. Ethiopia needs the money anyway.

I'll wear second-hand clothing. The first buyer is sending money to faraway Latin American and Asian nations, but the second buyer is usually contributing to a worthy, American cause (Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul). And I'll buy a used van -- same principle.

I shall erect a little yurt (a bonafide domestic product) in the west. I just need somebody to help me keep my yurt warm.

Gonna get me a shotgun
Just as long as I am tall;
Gonna load up that shotgun
With a ten-inch iron ball.

Gonna put up my yurt
On a mountain far away;
Gonna live there with my true love
Till we both shall pass away.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Listen Up!

Yeah, they laughed when he sat down at the piano...

Back in January of 2007 at the annual conference of economic maharajas in Davos, Switzerland, an unknown associate professor of econ from NYU named Nouriel Roubini predicted that the high-flying U.S. and world economies were headed for disaster.

Nearly everyone at the conference disagreed at the time, and some ridiculed this glum forecast. But today Roubini is no longer unknown.

At the World Economic Forum two years ago, Nouriel Roubini warned that record profits and bonuses were obscuring a “hard landing” to come. “I really disagree,” countered Jacob Frenkel, the American International Group Inc. vice chairman and former Israeli central banker.

No more. “Roubini was intellectually courageous, and he called the shots correctly,” says Frenkel, whose AIG survives only on the basis of more than $100 billion of government loans. “He gained credibility, and he deserves it.”

This week, New York University’s Roubini returned to the WEF and the Swiss ski resort of Davos as the prophet of the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression...

Actually, it's a stretch to call Roubini "the prophet." There were others making similar forecasts, most notably James Kunstler, who was predicting the catastrophic mortgage meltdown of 2007 as early as 2005.

So what's Roubini saying at this year's World Economic Forum? He's pessimistic, as usual.

Roubini remains more pessimistic than economists elsewhere. The IMF forecasts global growth of 0.5 percent this year and bank losses from toxic U.S.- originated assets of $2.2 trillion. By contrast, Roubini sees the global economy shrinking this year, and banks writing down at least $3.6 trillion -- compared to the $1.1 trillion disclosed so far.

While the U.S. government is resisting nationalizing its biggest banks, Roubini says it will have no choice because they are now “effectively insolvent.” And the outcome may be even worse than even he anticipates if governments fail to take aggressive steps to recapitalize banks and revive their economies, he says: “The risk of a near-depression shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Roubini, who’s now working on a book about the crisis, says he takes no particular pleasure in his role as Dr. Doom or the attention it brings him.

Two aspects of Roubini's commentary should jump off the page at any conscious reader. The first is that Obama and Tiny Tim the Tax Dodger ought to be preparing to nationalize the banks right now, because there's no way in the long run they can avoid it, and the sooner they do it the less damage will be inflicted on the lives of ordinary citizens.

The second is that those of us who are pessimistic about our current prospects don't take any pleasure in our point of view. I'm not at all reassured by what I believe, and I don't like the pain that's coming down the road at me better than anybody else does. There's a big difference between what I would like to see happen and what I think is going to happen.

The only pleasure to be got out of the situation comes with the opportunity to remind people who's been right in the past, and who's been wrong. It really makes absolutely no sense to pay the least attention to idiots who are wrong about everything all the time -- William Kristol for example. It's not magic -- Nouriel Roubini doesn't have some kind of mojo; he's just a calm, rational analyst, as opposed to a hysterical, shrieking cheerleader like the brain-dead Lawrence Kudlow, who for some reason is given massive air time on CNBC each day. Maybe it's because he tells people what they want to hear instead of the truth.

People often say, "I hate to say I told you so," but they're lying.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Forgotten Ancestors

Today I learned for the first time that my great-grandfather, Timothy Brice of Pavo, Georgia (1838-1910) was the son of Francis Calvin Brice and Elizabeth Annie Murphy, dates of birth and provenance unknown. But I'd wager both were born in the first decade of the nineteenth century, or shortly thereafter.

Pondering this fact caused me to realize that we can never know our ancestors, except for the closest ones whom we knew personally. And even they sometimes seem like alien beings.

Part of the problem of knowing our ancestors stems from there being so many of them. We each have two parents and four grandparents, but by the time we take that out to the seventh generation, each of us is looking at 128 direct ancestors -- 128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

Then there's the unique nature of the time we live in. If I could get in a time machine and be able to travel to where Francis Calvin Brice, one of my 16 great-great grandparents, now resides, what would he and I have in common to talk about? There would be a lot about him I'd be curious to know. Was he literate, and if so, how much? Did he fight for the slaveocracy in the Civil War? How many kids did he have (his son Timothy and wife Mary Susan Fall had 13)?

There's simply no way I could ever intimately understand my ancestors who lived down there in rural Georgia in the 1800's. The gulf in the ways we experience the world is way too wide. This reflects on the problems we have trying to accurately re-live history in our minds -- it can't be done.

I might have a little more to talk about with another of my great-great forebears, Elizabeth Carrico (a Portuguese name), who lived in western Kentucky, not far from the Ohio River. Very few women you see in nineteenth century photographs are anywhere near attractive by today's standards, but my great-great grandmother was an exception, and she must have been famous, at least in her neighborhood, for her unusual beauty. Photographs taken of her about mid-century or shortly thereafter reveal a spirited and possibly defiant young woman whose brash confidence added to her striking beauty. Elizabeth had a face made memorable by large, dark eyes that stare unintimidated at the photographer hiding behind his enormous apparatus, challenging him to faithfully record what he sees, if he dares to look.

I'd like to ask her how she came to end up with my great-great grandpa Benjamin, who looked like a full-on hillbilly. But is there any way I could ever know who this woman really was? Did Ben turn her into a baby factory and break her spirit?

There are lots of things I'd like to know about my ancestors, and maybe someday I'll find out more. But I don't think any of us can ever answer the most pressing question -- who were those people?

Perpetual Growth

The content in this space has been changing lately because I've been having trouble coming to grips with anarchy.

Anarchy is what you get when authority disappears. Countries, economies, and bank accounts might still exist, but only as rudderless vessels, tossed about on the waves and currents like so many corks.

We still have leaders, and the legally constituted authorities are still in their places, looking serious in black suits and frowns. But the current crisis seems to have short-circuited their central processing units, and the practical effect is that the civilized world is now led almost exclusively by leaders attempting to manipulate their own hallucinations, mirages born out of fantasies. And a delusional leadership is no leadership at all.

Case in point (from Bloomberg): Gloom is deepening among business leaders and economists, casting a pall over this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“We cannot underestimate the challenges the global economy faces,” Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley Asia’s chairman, said today, predicting the world economy may contract in 2009 for the first time since World War II.

Concerns over the economic outlook are virulent as executives from JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon to Stephen Green of HSBC Holdings Plc join more than 2,500 counterparts, academics and policy makers in the ski resort for five days of soul-searching and deal-making.

Just one in five of 1,124 chief executives in 50 nations said they were very confident about prospects for revenue growth in 2009, down from half last year, and more than a quarter said they were pessimistic, a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP showed. The sentiment was the worst since the accounting and consulting firm began tracking the CEO outlook in 2003.

The world economy is hurtling deeper into recession as banks add to more than a $1 trillion in writedowns and governments tighten their grip over the financial system.

I have a just a few questions for the "business leaders and economists" now gathered at that cushy Swiss resort to commiserate with each other and cry perplexed tears into their Chateau Margaux '95.

1. Do you really think perpetual growth is possible? Hint: in order for that to be possible, two other things would also have to be possible: a) perpetual growth of productivity, which would depend in turn on b) perpetual growth of population. And if it was possible, do you think perpetual growth would be a good thing?

2. Do you believe that real growth is possible without a corresponding increase in production?

3. Do you know who Thomas Malthus was? Do you know when he lived and what he wrote, and what his argument was? What do you think of his argument?

4. Did you know that because the supply of the one critical resource we depend on for life is diminishing and will never grow again, that the situation in which we now find ourselves is much worse than even the pessimist Malthus ever imagined?

5. Have you ever read Ecclesiastes 3?

6. Why do you meet in this plutocratic bubble, behind these walls patrolled by security guards with dogs, instead of, say, the Holiday Inn in Stockton, California, where you could find out how real people live, and breathe the same foul air as they do? Have you been in a convenience store lately?

7. What the fuck's the matter with you? Are you on LSD?

As Bubba Gump said, that's about it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Guitar Talk

The Story of an Orphan Guitar, and the Boy Who Loved Her

D1: This thing plays so pretty it breaks my heart.

D2: Well, you don't want a guitar that breaks your heart. A song, maybe...

D1: Except for where it says "Lyle" on the headpiece it's exactly like the Gibson (Hummingbird).

D2: Yeah, it's why they call a lawsuit copy. I'm sure the Gibson Company would like to bring a lawsuit against Lyle for making it.

D1: Did you say you picked this guitar up for 60 bucks?

D2: Yeah...but like I told you, it was falling apart. The top was coming off; it was filthy and it had stickers all over it; the bridge was broken. It was out of adjustment and the tuners were crumby. The neck was warped and the frets were worn...(laughs)...have I made my point?

D1: Yes, I think so.

D2: I knew when I got the neck straightened out that it was gonna be OK, and that's when I realized that it's a really great guitar. It's a happy guitar now. It lives a sumptuous life in its brand-new guitar case instead of banging against the wall in a pawn shop.

D1: (Plays a few bars of "Back South" by Scrapper Blackwell.) I never did learn how to play that kind of stuff -- those difficult blues picks like Scrapper Blackwell used to play. He used to play those so's simple stuff, but it's hard to play.

D2: Well you have to be playin' it all the time. Like those rolls and stuff, you gotta play 'em all the time or you become stale.

D1: I'll learn it eventually...Am I keeping you up?

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Judge He Pleaded?

Anybody who's ever sung in a covers band has probably spent untold hours undergoing the torture of trying to decipher badly articulated, semi-drowned-out lyrics from top-40 rock records. But hearing and transcribing rock lyrics is shooting fish in a barrel compared to trying to do the same with ancient blues tunes. Besides having to unscramble the Ebonic dialects of the more rural singers, the transcriber often has to deal with a scratchy, low-fidelity product, especially if the song you're trying to learn was recorded on the Paramount label. Charlie Patton, one of the very best of the old-time bluesmen, seems to have gone out of his way to sing a peculiarly mushmouth style (Son House said Patton "sounded like he was choking"), and also recorded for Paramount, which never adopted electrical technology and produced all its discs using the cheap, acoustic methods that had been around since the birth of recording.

Try listening to Patton's "Screaming and Hollering the Blues" some time, where, under a layer of scratchy static, he sings "Vicksburg's on a high hill; Jackson just below," twice, then mutters an inaudible correction before the last line of the verse -- something about his having supposed to have sung "Natchez" instead of "Jackson" (which is right -- Natchez, not jackson, lies just below Vicksburg). You'll see what I mean.

In the case of "Viola Lee," written by Noah Lewis, the harmonicist with Cannon's Jug Stompers, and recorded by the group in 1928, Lewis's vocal is, by old blues standards, fairly easy to transcribe. But the song became garbled when it was covered by
the Grateful Dead in the mid-sixties, and Bob Weir later joked when asked about the lyrics by an interviewer, that that it went:

Read it and eat it, turkey crowed it;
Down de levee, candy coated.
Read it and eat it, candy coated down;
If you miss jail sentence, it's your own damn fault.

Judge the original lyrics for yourself by listening to the MP3 of the first version of this wonderful song. To review it briefly, I find Noah Lewis's vocal to be straightforward, crude, well-articulated and straight from the heart. The lyrics are sometimes confused (judges don't plead -- that's the defendant's job), but they work. The best thing about the record is Lewis's harp work; he was a top-notch player, and achieves a tone here sweet enough to die for.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not Working

I keep forgetting I'm not working. OK, I don't really forget, it's just a pretty easy thing to take for granted. You get used to not working in a hurry.

I don't even know if I could hold a job any more. Working wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that in addition to working you, they often try to make your whole life miserable too, as if that was part of the deal. Sometimes you have to learn elaborate courtesy rituals in order to mesh with weird Byzantine hierarchical structures and pecking-order behaviors, and that sort of thing is just too much monkey business for me to be involved with, as the song says.

I'm doing okay not working. It's all right for right now. So please don't rattle my alarm clock at five in the morning. I get up slowly and peacefully at five as it is, but it takes me three hours to get ready to face the day. Seriously.

But don't think I'm lacking ambition. I've got plenty of that. I want to make a CD with my buddy from long ago and call it Tudaves and play guitars while singing and play drums and be a big music star and on the cover of the Rolling Stone. And also we should make a video and put it up on YouTube.

Thinking about it makes me feel like a productive citizen. It's just what the world needs, now more than ever -- another YouTube video.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Lord's Burning Rain

...It seems like this whole town's insane;
On the thirty-first floor
A gold-plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain.

--Gram Parsons
"Sin City"

It's with some amusement and no small degree of schadenfreude that one contemplates the elaborate and painful contortions of ideologues trying to paint the ongoing economic meltdown and the onset of the second Great Depression in rosy hues.

For example, there's Donald Luskin's recent op-ed in the Washington Post in which he asserts that "Things today just aren't that bad. Sure, there are trouble spots in the economy, as the government takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and jitters about Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, amply demonstrate. And unemployment figures are up a bit, too. None of this, however, is cause for depression -- or exaggerated Depression comparisons."

No less an authority than George W. Bush himself has called the catastrophic revelation of bottomless bad debt now paralyzing the economic system "a crisis;" 2.6 million people were thrown out of work last year, and the best this spinning dervish can come up with is that unemployment is "up a bit?" However, before you ask whether he's nuts or just stupid, ask yourself whether he's got an agenda. "Show me where a man gets his cornbread," said Mark Twain, "and I'll show you where he gets his politics."

He not only has one, but there's even a name for it: "agnotology."

The word was coined by Stanford professor science history Robert Proctor, and Wired's Clive Thompson (via Barry Ritholtz) explains it this way:

Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

Agnotology defined, then, is "Culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth."

Please note that Donald Luskin is employed as chief investment officer for Trend Macrolytics LLC, a consulting firm providing investment strategies, macroeconomics forecasting, and research for institutional investors, if there are any left. He's also a frequent contributor to National Review Online, according to Wikipedia.

My advice is to pay absolutely no attention to these powdered and painted-up whores working the streets of our financial districts. They've already had their chance, and having been in charge for the past eight years, look what they've done. "By their fruits you shall know them" says the Gospel verse, and you can smell the fruits they left behind before you see them.

And their agnotological mumblings no longer carry any weight; the public in its misery and anxiety finally has their number, and the only people left as ignorant as Don Luskin only remain that way through acts of supreme will.

Meanwhile, despite the sanguine outlook maintained by clowns and trained seals like Luskin, the Dow Jones average sank another 2.5 percent this week, and is down eight percent for the first 23 days of the new year.

Illustration by Max Winni.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sacrificial Lambs

Since yesterday I haven't been able to stop thinking about Gram Parsons, and trying to figure out who he really was and whether his short life and somewhat obscure work can teach us, the survivors of that era, anything of value.

Parsons' short, intense life and his death in 1973 at age 26 from an overdose of morphine and alcohol are almost period cliches. He joined Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin in creating work of demonstrated longevity, living fast, and dying young. Was it the case that the best among our generation were unable to live in a world gone wrong? Or were Parsons and the rest of them simply spoiled, self-indulgent wastrels, overgrown adolescents who happened to have creative gifts?

Rather than reproduce Wikipedia's biography of Parsons here, I'll simply recommend it to any reader interested in learning more. From that source I found that Parsons is ranked eighty-seventh in Rolling Stone's roster of the 100 greatest rockers of all time, which would seem to indicate that he was and is more a cult figure than a major star. Certainly the main thrust of his work, an attempt to fuse country music and rock 'n' roll, never did catch on as a pop phenomenon, and Parsons was always to some extent a musicians' musician. His approach gained favor with other cult groups with limited appeal such as The Grateful Dead, but none of his stuff ever broke into the AM rotation.

However his best work ranks with the most outstanding examples of creative genius produced in an era that saw a lot of it. In particular, the song "Sin City" (see yesterday's post) displays a subtlety that imparts tremendous power to what would otherwise have been a pompous and hackneyed message. But by embedding his apocalyptic vision in the self-effacing "just folks" diction of a country gospel song and using vaguely Biblical-sounding, "see how the mighty have fallen" imagery, he amplified and authenticated the song's images of a lightning-struck skyscraper and a fouled, polluted earth. "Sin City" is a lesson in the power of understatement.

Parsons left several obscure but lasting monuments, most notably his collaboration with Byrds on the album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and the towering "The Gilded Palace of Sin," the first and best effort by his band The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was on that album cover that Parsons wore a Nudie suit embroidered with marijuana leaves, an emblem he hoped would help establish his country music authenticity.

For it was authenticity above all else that drew him to country music, and authenticity as well as beauty he sought when he became infatuated with performers like Merle Haggard. And in the end, he did his best work just before he died, in tandem with a bonafide country singer he discovered in Birmingham, Alabama, EmmyLou Harris. Her flawless, penetrating voice and uncanny ability to instinctively and effortlessly produce perfect harmonies was the ideal counterpoint to Gram's soft and pleasing tenor, and those qualities have served her well to the present day.

It fell to Harris, the supposed amateur on that final tour, to act as den mother to Parsons and the other musicians, to make sure they showed up on time, had set lists, and maintained enough relative sobriety while performing so as to avoid vomiting or falling down on stage. But in the end Parsons could only hold things together for a few last songs, and his work with EmmyLou was his encore.

People sometimes ask me about the drugs in the '60's and early '70's, and why we found it necessary to be that wasted. Maybe "wasted" is the wrong word. I always tell them that to understand the drugs you have to take them; to understand the time you had to be there, and that I remain convinced that without the drugs and other excesses of the period, we never would have been able to escape the straitjacket in which we were bound and tied prior to 1965, and would never have had the vision. Because the '60's may be over, but the vision is still alive. It survives wars, depressions, and even monsters like George W. Bush and Dickman.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sin City

Headline and subhead: Banks sink deeper into crisis on Obama's first day: Bottom falls out of bank stocks as investors expect need for far more aggressive bailout steps

Sin City
(by Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons)

This old town's full of sin;
It'll swallow you in
If you've got the money to burn;
Take it home right away;
You've got three years to pay,
and Satan is waitin' his turn.

This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poorhouse;
It seems like this whole town's insane,
On the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burnin' rain.

The scientists say
It'll all wash away,
But I don't believe them any more.
So we've got our recruits,
And our green mohair suits;
Just leave your I.D. at the door.


A friend came around
And tried to clean up this town
As I did, made some people mad.
But he trusted his crowd,
So he spoke right out loud,
and they lost the best friend they had.


Hear an outstanding 1973 live performance version of this wonderful and prophetic song sung here by EmmyLou Harris and Gram Parsons.

Existential Void

One day this painful, existential void in the center of my life will be gone. I don't know who or what, or what combination of people, places and/or things will fill it, but I'll be among people and armed with a purpose.

The Indian author A.G. Mohan observes that "All of us have experienced times when it felt as though everything was coming apart, disintegrating around us into so many pieces, and we were without a way of holding them together. Yet often what is most fragmented and chaotic about the situation is not the events themselves, but the state of our own minds."*

He goes on to talk about "reintegration," the restoration to a state of mind in which we are able to see things clearly, and experience an underlying sense of order.

Nearly all of us do a lot of damage to ourselves over time, and the toxic society we're living does us damage as well. Healing the damage takes a conscious effort, and the breaking of old habits of body, breath, mind, and food. It may require changes in our environments, both social and physical. Plus the old, discarded habits have to be replaced with new, beneficial behaviors.

I'm at an advanced age to be embarking on such an ambitious undertaking, and I may never finish it. It took years of work and solitude for me to become as discontented as I am now, and a lot of water under the bridge to establish that dead emptiness that fills my insides. I'm embarking out of necessity.

*A.G. Mohan, "Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind: A Guide to Personal Reintegration;" pps. 3-4

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cottage Grove, Oregon

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree: And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Off Road Vehicle

Got off the road at last about three hours ago. It feels great to be back.

Washington weather today was the best I've seen during this whole disaster of a road trip, and the sombre old pine trees lining both sides of most roads a welcome sight.

My body can't do the long distance road thing any more. The bones squawk too loud. Anyway, the yellow bug has enough miles on it now to retire from marathon running -- time for the old Nsecto to get turned out to pasture and just do short hauls henceforth.

I think I'll be staying put for a while.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ullus Locus

Where am I? I could be anywhere. Anytown, USA.

Outside the window of my motel room is a parking lot, with a souvenir shop on the edge of it, and a fast food joint on the other side of a blacktop divider.

The traffic hums by on the freeway a few yards away. I've been driving for two days. Actually, I've driven seven days out of the last eight.

Life begins to take on the appearance of a continuum. There's a nervous, somewhat frantic and semi-continuous movement up and down the coast. Winter fogs alternate with summer sun, but the roar of the diesels and the bumpy, hypnotic rhythm of the ribbon of asphalt remain the same.

But one day this pointless and escapist movement will stop, and life will stick to a spot. And near that spot will be a parking lot with a souvenir stand or an espresso stand or a row of newspaper racks on the edge of it, and a fast food joint on the other side of a blacktop divider. There is never any escape from the present.

Illustration by the late, great Saul Steinberg, for many years a frequent cartoonist and cover designer for the New Yorker magazine. See more samples of his work here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Poo Air

When I crossed the Tehachapi Range and started the descent into Bakersfield and the Central Valley yesterday, the sky was brown. I've never seen it or smelled it that bad before. Bakersfield has the worst air in the country on many days throughout the year now, and is in hot pursuit of Los Angeles for the top spot on the majority of days, a dubious distinction indeed.

Smog in large parts of California has now gotten so bad I seriously don't know how people can stand it, and the current air inversion in the San Joaquin must be a record-setter for parts per million and all that. It's a bona fide ecological disaster, and undebatably and emphatically of human origin. Besides auto exhaust and (in Bakersfield) the effluvia of oil refining, the San Joanquin's smog also contains a lot of pesticides and, at certain times of the year, the herbicides farmers use to defoliate cotton.

It's a vicious, dangerous cocktail, and today it extended all the way from Bakersfield to Sacramento, nearly 300 miles of brown sky . In some places it was so bad that buildings appeared as hazy silhouettes, and it stank all the way to the point, a few miles beyond the Sacramento airport, where the sky once again began to appear more blue that gray or brown.

I look at the smog and wonder whether California will remain an anomaly, or whether it's the template for most of the world to come.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Blue Funk

It was a mistake to drive down to the desert; I knew it was the wrong thing to do as soon as I left Bakersfield.

The desert was my Waterloo, a locale saturated with massive karmic accumulations of heartache and sorrow, and I should avoid the place. Being there makes me feel all hollowed out inside, like an empty eggshell, not to mention scared.

I have to accept that I'll never get over That Woman and never get over cigarettes, and it's insane to ever revisit either of them. I might be able to get over both of them if I was 20 years younger. Older people aren't as resilient, and don't bounce as well as the younger ones.

I have to accept I'll always have that hole in the center, and go on from there, and never look back. The road beckons.

But sometimes I feel like I'm asleep at the wheel.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Right Tool for the Job

Now that unrestrained and unregulated capitalist speculators have run the world economy into the ground for the second time in 80 years...

In the earliest days of agriculture, back in neolithic times when our ancestors were digging in the mud with pointy sticks, trying to make deep enough furrows to plant in, one of them saw a wild bull and thought, "If only I could use that animal's muscles to pull this stick..."

But the animal was too wild, too dangerous, too full of piss and vinegar.

However, our ancestors, having the advantage of large brains (which we, their descendants, seem to have lost at times) figured out a way to castrate a few of those bulls. And lo and behold, the bull became an ox, and the ox was more docile than the bull, and cooperated in learning how to pull a plow.

Capitalism is a wonderful and powerful and creative tool, but it's also wild and uncontrollable if unaltered. We need to do the same thing to capitalism that our ancestors did to the wild bull.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gritty City

I'm back in the city today, hanging in the old nabe, but for some reason it doesn't seem as glamorous as it did just a few months ago. Don't know if it's actually changed, or whether my perceptions of it are different now, but it seems awfully gritty and trashy.

It's still beautiful, though, in a run-down, God-forsaken way. And still prohibitively expensive.

And it's going to be a gorgeous day. When you get to California it's time to take off the long underwear and enjoy the tee-shirt weather.

Tomorrow I'll take a run down the coastline on famous State Route 1, through Santa Cruz, then hang a left through Castroville to the Salinas Valley for a stop in San Miguel, whose beautiful Spanish mission has been closed since late 2003 due to earthquake damage. Maybe it will reopen one day; maybe not. Either way, it's my own personal sacred spot.

Wednesday will find me in Desert Hot Springs.

I left California a little over 90 days ago, and the country has changed perceptibly since then. We are now a scared, angry, and confused people. Nobody knows what will happen to us, but most everyone has a feeling it won't be good. People are hanging on to whatever they have and eyeing the clock with mute apprehension. Katrina, a real-time event, was also a metaphor, and the new government appears to be facing the oncoming tsunami with a series of four-foot dikes.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On the Road Again

Made a little over 500 miles today in about eight hours, so it's late (and light) posting today. I feel the effects of ageing more intensely with every passing month, and after six hours in the car I'm fried. But I had to push on to stay on schedule.

Arrived exhausted at the motel (which shall remain nameless) only to find after chekcing in that their internet router is down. That seems to be the case in about half the little burgs along the road, and if you turn to the desk personnel for help getting on line you might as well be talking to a beast of burden.

Good thing they have a public computer in the lobby. And at least I have a lot of big beds (that's just one of my little jokes, thankyouverymuch; I'm not staying in the room in the picture, and have only one, normal-size bed).

Tomorrow's drive will be easy: 300 miles to San Francisco. This will be kind of a sad visit. Rachel is packing up her apartment and getting ready to move. She's been at that corner in the Haight-Ashbury District a long time, and I have a lot of happy memories of that place and that neighborhood. Also, I'll have to say good-bye to Jawad who owns and runs the wonderful coffee shop across the street. Jawad has a nephew in Gaza, and I almost dread asking him if there's any news from there.

I'll be in Desert Hot Springs by Wednesday. I don't know if it's a mistake going there or not. Guess I'll find out.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Diagnosis and Prescription

Karl Marx was a brilliant social analyst, sort of a social M.D. you might say. His diagnosis of the ills of capitalism remains the best I've seen, but his prescription was way off base, because its foundation is an erroneous view of human nature.

Consider these nuggets of analysis from "The Communist Manifesto (1848):"

Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other...

The bourgeoisie
(i.e., the capitalist ruling class) cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.

Whatever happened to U.S. Steel? Where has Detroit gone? Why does the milkman no longer come to my door?

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.

Nowadays we call that either "globalization" or "The Iraq War."

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

They're smoking Marlboros and watching "Walker, Texas Ranger" in Shanghai.

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

Marx is speaking here of the periodic contractions that afflict our modern day societies, crises in which millions are thrown out of work and thousands of businesses collapse. And he observed in 1848 that we can no longer live this way, even though we have continued to do so since then (160 years!).

And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

Unfortunately, Marx's prescription for the ills of capitalism derive from the enlightenment tradition of laying all blame for the evils of society on evil institutions. If only the Church and aristocracy were done away with, Voltaire claimed, France would become a just and equitable society. But the French Revolution, ending as it did with Napoleon, was neither just nor equitable, and portions of it brought out the very worst in human nature.

Likewise, Marx's prescription -- abolishing the bourgeois ruling class and replacing it with proletarian rule -- would do little to usher in a society in which resources are evenly and fairly distributed, and if experience is a guide, such a society would be just as vulnerable to corruption, greed, and violence as the present state of affairs.

If we didn't learn anything else from the horrors of the twentieth century's two great wars, we should have perceived that our problems do not issue from corrupt institutions or social arrangements, but from dark and destructive instincts at the center of the human soul. Hitler, Stalin, and the bomb dropped on Hiroshima were tokens of evil impulses which are as much a part of us as the instinct to love.

We can no longer live with this ruling class, true enough. But can we learn to live with ourselves? Before we can do that, we must learn to know ourselves.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Wooden Ships

Communism and socialism made enormous inroads among the American population in the early days of what used to be called the Great Depression, and the thousands-strong "Bonus Army" of veterans demanding government relief was swept from the streets of D.C. by armed and mounted U.S. troops under the command of Douglas MacArthur.

Then FD Roosevelt stepped in like Superman to defuse any moves toward open revolt. The New Deal co-opted the revolution.

Then came the war, the fifties, and the rise of the mega-corporations and the warfare state.

Forty years ago, a lot of us echoed David Crosby saying, "We are leaving; you don't need us," and attempted to drop out of an American society we had come to regard with horror and revulsion.

But not enough people took part in that movement, and those of us who did shortly became faint of heart and dropped back in. We should have stuck to our guns, or maybe I should say, our carrots.

At the time we might be heard to say that "The system has become a machine, and the machine is out of control." But it's difficult to be so right when you're young, because being inexperienced, you can never be sure of yourself.

But now I see how right we were, and that America has become a gigantic, out-of-control monster robot, fueled by war and endlessly reproducing the mindless capitalist cycle of recovery, boom, mania, panic, and collapse.

The revolution will come because it's inevitable. It's inevitable because we can't live this way. As Karl Marx observed, we can no longer live with the continued existence of this ruling class, because its continued existence is incompatible with society.

He meant it's incompatible with orderly, functioning social organization of any kind, and he was right.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


"Disillusioned" and "disillusionment" convey a darkly negative connotation, which is odd because they denote, literally, one's shedding of illusions.

Unpleasant as it is, disillusionment, unless it's accompanied by despair, makes us stronger, more mature, and more susceptible to apprehending reality than the "illusioned" person.

Take, for example, a young person swept away by transports of infatuation and the adrenaline surge of sexual attraction, declaring perpetual love with the sincerest oaths imaginable.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
'Love has no ending.

'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

'I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

'The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.'

But what happens when perpetual love proves temporal? When the nation which one has idealized, motivated by a pure and honest patriotism, shows itself to be a cannibalistic predator? When the glow and energy of youth dissolves into the boredom and ennui of middle age, followed by the pain, multiplying ailments, and loss of vitality of the sunset years?

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

'Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.

Disillusionment is negative because it carries a strong connotation of disappointment. But if I could choose not to be disappointed by the knowledge that time "coughs when (I) would kiss," I'd be more aligned with the true state of affairs than when I mistakenly think that "I'll love you till the salmon sing in the street."

'O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

The disillusioned person wonders how he could have gotten where he is. "Where has my life gone?" he asks in utter bafflement. "How could this have happened to me? I thought I was doing all the right things."

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

'O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

(W.H. Auden [1907--1973], British poet, wrote and published "As I Walked Out One Evening" in 1940. In his later years he divided his time equally between the U.S. and Austria.)

Graveyard of Empires

President O has a reputation as a scholar, but he demonstrates an inadequate grasp of history with his plan to ramp up the Afghan War. Not for nothing is Afghanistan well known among global historians as "The Graveyard of Empires."

Now Bob Herbert of the New York Times has written a piece explaining why Mr. Obama should reverse that decision, and the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan while the getting's good.

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, wrote an important piece for Newsweek warning against the proposed buildup. “Afghanistan will be a sinkhole,” he said, “consuming resources neither the U.S. military nor the U.S. government can afford to waste.”

In an analysis in The Times last month, Michael Gordon noted that “Afghanistan presents a unique set of problems: a rural-based insurgency, an enemy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, the chronic weakness of the Afghan government, a thriving narcotics trade, poorly developed infrastructure, and forbidding terrain.”

Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan both recognized that Afghanistan was seemingly designed by God to favor guerilla fighters, and after getting bloodied there, avoided the place. The Afghan mujahadeen, with U.S. assistance, delivered the coup de grace which dispatched the Soviet Empire.

Are we really so determined to go the way of the USSR? sometimes it seems so.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Hey, Mister, Is Thatta You Topia?

Ecotopia is the only part of the former USA worth living in, as far as I'm concerned. I've lived in all the parts of it except for the section formerly known as Oregon. I've lived in Anchortown, Soggy Seettle, and the Capital city too.

For a while I lived on the very southern edge of Ecotopia, and that wasn't as good. Then I moved south into Aztlan, and wished I hadn't. It's different down there. A big strip mall is what it is.

So now I'm back in the heart of my beloved country. Tonight I'll design a flag, one with a duck on it, and take a stab at writing the national anthem, "Ecotopia, Our Cornucopia."

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Ah, my dear Lady C., you're right, of course when you say we're not doing a bang-up job of re-inventing our way of life, and appear to be clinging to the past. But keep in mind that necessity is the mother of invention. We'll only stop eating greasy hamburgers when there are no more greasy steers.

I have faith that just as our ancestors rode horses, our descendants will ride bicycles. What choice will they have? So it's not really faith, it's a belief based on evidence. Peak oil is here, despite the recent price drop due to demand destruction, and peak oil is not going to go away.

Americans may not believe this at the moment. They tend to think that the wild oscillations in the price of oil are the result of some sinister manipulation or scam. But as Philip K. Dick the science fiction writer said, "Reality is the one thing that when you stop believing in it, it doesn't go away."

Bicycles are better than cars or horses, because they don't consume petrol, don't eat hay, and they poo not.

The other thing we need to give up besides cars is golf, a bourgeoise preoccupation that results in the wasting and toxification of good agricultural land. And fortunately, gardening is the new golf.

The golf car is another matter, however. That little item should stay and prosper.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


The world is shut down today. Took this picture of mom's back yard at low tide, showing the stillness of the water on a cold, windless day. Nothing moving nowhere.

Went to the recycling center where paper and plastic was piled high in front of the already-overfull dumpsters. No recycling today or tomorrow. Try again next week.

No commercial activity beyond minor purchases at a convenience store. Nothing moving until Monday. I'm beginning to wonder if the world will start back up even then. I'm sure there are parts of it, in malls and financial centers, that are now shuttered for good.

Everybody laying off workers. Those lucky enough to still have jobs are looking at reduced hours. We're downsizing life for the foreseeable future when it starts up again, but right now life is on hold.

The world has been suspended for the longest time. Mom died, then it snowed and the world froze. Then it was Christmas and everything stayed stopped. Then it was the week leading up to the New Year, then the New Year which fell on a Thursday, and now, the weekend after.

Tempus Fugit, but only sometimes. Other times it crawls.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Ponzi Nose Snotreel

Here we are in the pink flush of a brand new year, about to get a brand new president, and one who speaks English. Everybody is hoping for an uptick in our shattered economy, and the turn of the calendar seems auspicious. There's a pleasant little kerfluffle going in the stock markets, and gas prices are way down from what they were just five months ago.

Don't let it fool you. This is the false dawn of the real disaster, which will be coming at us full throttle by May. For what, I ask you, will be the end result of Hank Paulson and the boyz shoveling enormous piles of monopoly money into the black hole of debt that the banking and finance "industry" has become? Paulson knows the answer, but he's not tipping his hand. The ultimate collapse he's cooking up, the collapse of the dollar, is deliberate. He wants the floor to fall out from under the currency, because after all, if you're trillions in debt, as Uncle Sam and Aunt Bank of America are, and you've borrowed real dollars, it's a lot easier to pay back with really cheap ones.

That's why Paulson and the Fed have turned the Almighty Dollar into history's biggest Ponzi scheme!

People may not want to hear this kind of scary news, but everyone who both knows what he or she is talking about and has the capacity to be honest will tell you the same. For example, there's R.Dan at The Angry Bear:

Since our society cannot go forward carrying every currently existing debt ($50T++) – (this figure does NOT include unfunded liabilities) unwinding unwise credit expansion means insolvency or inflation. There are few true creditors in our society – being a debtor is far more universal. The Federal Government, State Governments, Wall St., Banks, homeowners, consumers, leveraged investors and many other groups would benefit (in a lesser of various evils sense) from the debt reducing power of inflation.

Inflation is on vacation at the moment – but it is the end game. Fiat money requires at least some net positive inflation and a determined Central Bank can Quant-Ease (plus Gov fiscal) some of our problems away – with many side effects to be sure – but someone has to go over the top rope – and it is going to be savers and not debtors.

At some point we will have what may be called A Recovery – but it will really turn out to be A Reflation and collapse again – just like in the late 1930s. Inflating our way out of trouble may also crash into Peak Oil – creating Check Mate and Lights Out.

(The emphasis is mine.)

So if you're one of those rare people who has money rather than debts, you need to take steps now to secure your position, otherwise you'll arrive at Christmas, 2009 with just as much money as you've got now, but at least half its value gone. Now would be a good time to invest in agricultural land near a promising small town.

Jim Kunstler admonishes us to expect to see more and more impoverished, newly unemployed ex-commuters moving out of the suburbs and into small towns, and quotes Andres Duany's contention that "Gardening is the new golf." Then he adds in his usual cheerful tone, The government -- and anyone badly in debt -- benefits much more from inflation than deflation, so every effort will be made to avert the latter. The trouble lies in the government's dumb incapacity to control dangerous things that it sets in motion, so that an inflationary campaign to avoid compressive deflation can so easily lead to a fiasco of super or hyper inflation -- the kind that kills governments and turns societies into murderous monsters. I'll forecast the that the US dollar is worth 40 percent of its current value by next Christmas.

I would strongly caution anyone who may be reading this to pay close attention to financial matters during this extraordinarily dangerous time, to take appropriate action, to trust no one, and to listen for advice only to people who have an established record of having made accurate predictions in the past. Do not listen to morons like Lawrence Kudlow and William Kristol. Seek out people who know what they're talking about -- Kunstler, Krugman, Barry Ritholtz, and this guy R.Dan at The Angry Bear.

If you have a job at a grocery store or a restaurant, keep it. People have to eat. And if hand weeding between the lettuce rows is not what you went to college for, at least it's honest, hard, dirty, low-paying work, which is more than a lot of us have right now.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Clearing Away the Past

I'm only now resolving myself to the necessity of dealing with the infinite complexity of the Victorian clutter by which I'm surrounded, but the resolution inspires visions of a simpler, more satisfying life, beyond the pointless and obsessive busyness of the wallpaper. It's time to let go of dead matter, past relationships, and outmoded ways of thinking.

There will be five eclipses in the heavens in 2009, just as there were five on earth in 2008. Eclipsed these past 12 months were our debt-fueled, Ponzi-driven, overheated economy, the American Hegemony Project, the Republican Party, Hollywood as the paradigm of stylish behavior, and the ascendancy of mindless, reactionary religiosity. Eclipses are, according to one astrologer, like "keyholes in time where a sudden insight or change of circumstances can propel you in a new direction."

Enormous numbers of people are being thrown out of work. I sense a shift brewing in our relationship patterns. Can the newly impoverished continue to sit in their houses, isolating themselves from their fellow-sufferers and zoning out with "American Idol?" Or will they discover a common bond and learn to act in concert to demand change?

Just as it's essential for me to work through the clutter of daily existence, time and energy intensive as that is, and open my mind to new possibilities, it's essential for us as a people to unite to work through our present difficulties, with an eye to what positive outcomes they may lead to. Hand weeding rows of lettuce on an organic farm may not be what we went to college for, but it's an honest way to make a buck.

I can feel renewal pushing against our skins from the inside, waiting to be born with pain, blood, tears, and great difficulty.