Monday, April 30, 2007

Modern Tribalism

As the rats, in increasing numbers, scamper off the floundering good ship Neo-con, their defensive claims that "their hands were tied" or similar arguments remind me that tribalism, loyalty to a group, is alive and well in these supposedly modern times. In the main, these rats would have us now believe that they were all victims- deserving of our pity, not our scorn.

George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, in his new book, would have us believe that his words were taken out of context- a claim I find plausible, but also laughable. Why, I ask, as do Michael Scheuer, Larry Johnson, and Pat Lang, to name a few, did he wait so long to tell us? If the invasion of Iraq had produced more positive outcomes would he have expressed such consternation at being misconstrued? or would he have continued to bask in the glow of praise as he did upon receipt of the Medal of Freedom.

In similar fashion, Richard Durbin would like us to know that the "intelligence" on Iraq, both before and after the invasion, presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which group he was a member, contradicted the tall tales being constructed for public consumption. Alas, he avers, he was sworn to secrecy- an oath which has conveniently expired now that the tide has turned.

Many on the supposedly anti-war left, some of whom are running for President, would have us believe that if they knew then what they know now, they would not have voted for the invasion. I wonder what the missing bit of knowledge was which would have changed their minds- that there were no WMDs, or that the effects of the invasion would be as they have been?

Bookies and stock brokerages (perhaps I repeat myself) are rarely sympathetic to similar, informed by hindsight claims. How many people would have purchased shares of, for example, EXDS, if they had known the corporation would declare bankruptcy? How sad that the tribe of technology worshippers could not see how things would unfold.

Men, it has been well said, (by Charles Mackay among others) think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one. I would rephrase the wisdom of Mackay thusly; individuals think, the crowd prefers the fleeting safety of numbers.

As Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

Friday, April 27, 2007

A great description of malinvestment (and its cure)

.... see, I’m old enough to remember the ... depression of the ‘20s and ‘30s. That was a moment of greatness for the American people, and indeed for politicians like Roosevelt. I remember Gene McCarthy and I were talking about it once, and he said, “You know, the Depression was the only time when anything worked!” He said, “I’ve got a lawyer now who wants to be a songwriter. I’ve got somebody else who’s supposedly fixing the roof, but he wants to be a painter.” He said, “Nobody does what they should be doing in this society.” This is a guy who’d just run for president, and a very good one, too. Anti-war. And he said, “You know, this is ridiculous. I mean, in those days, you had a carpenter, and he was a real carpenter.” He said, “The post office worked. They weren’t dreaming about being rock stars; they were dreaming about getting the mail out!” And he said, “To watch all the services crumble, and everybody fantasizing about the future, because they’d seen people in the movies who fantasized about the future, and the future came true.” I thought that was wise. And ... I think the fantasies will stop when there’s no longer the leisure, and people will actually get back to work doing whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing, or even what it is they would really like to do. An awful lot of people who want to be painters rather than doing roofs—will, be a painter. Nothing’s difficult anymore; you can get the means for everything rather cheaply. With the Internet and all this kind of interchange all around the world so rapidly, you can make a reputation, I think, rather quickly, and present yourself as a writer, as a poet, as this and that. So, that, I think, the bankruptcy of the United States, which we’re looking at the edges of now, is going to be very useful to {bring} us to our senses. Gore Vidal

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Open email to some fellow golfers/doom-and-gloomers

Dude (et alios)

Let me put on my “doom and gloom” hat (which I rarely remove- must be why I get “doom and gloom” hat head) and join the fray.

As I’m currently in Mark Twain-land, Missouri, I’ll begin with a quote of his, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

The key, in my view, to empire dominance analysis is discerning the factors that gave rise to the dominance and discovering if those factors are currently helping or hurting.

In Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, he argues that the US is the oil empire as Britain was the coal empire and Holland was the wind and sea empire before that. In each case, the dominance in a particular technological form left the nation carrying an obsolete infrastructure as newer technologies and energy realities manifested.

In each case, political leadership, over time, came to rest in the hands of those who owned the infrastructure. Thus, for example, Britain’s coal interests hampered their ability to transition to an oil economy because they were unwilling to write off their investments.

In other words, the earlier alignment of national interest with political leadership’s interest broke down. The political leaders ended up trying to maintain an impossible status quo, dragging the nation down with them.

On a positive note, it isn’t as if the Dutch or British vanished as world powers, they simply gave up the position as driver. Unfortunately, this transition was not a pleasant one.

The die was cast, so to write, on our (in hindsight, foolish, in my view) choice to use the military to try and maintain our oil economy infrastructure when the Reagan administration rolled back the energy conservation legislation of the previous administration.

In the late 70s we imported a third of our oil. We could have (and were then in the process of) made the transition reasonably gracefully then. Now that we import two thirds of our oil, and are predominately led, at a national level, by oil interests, the transition to a world in which oil is not cheap but expensive will be difficult.

The “illegal alien” problem, which is but a mirror image of the, far more pernicious to our way of life, in my view, US corporate wage rate arbitrage (a.k.a. “outsourcing”) is, relatively speaking, and again, in my view, far less of a problem.

Income transfer policies (welfare, et alia) including those to undocumented immigrants are a “cutting the available pie” issue. Choosing, changing and/or maintaining an infrastructure for a way of life is a “size of the pie” issue.

When the pie is growing, how we slice it is less of a concern. Now that it is not growing (or shrinking depending on perspective) we worry about slicing that pie too thinly. A focus on the slicing and lack of concern for the size of the pie is, in effect, leading us to take our eye off the ball. (And as golfers, we know what happens when we take our eye off the ball….. FORE!)

How one slices the pie is an issue of concern to me (and others) but it isn't nearly as relevant to the argument at hand- the decline of the American economy.

We, in the US, as James Kunstler argues, need to give up our dreams of life in the suburbs with an SUV in the garage of our McMansions- a terribly energy intensive way to live. A way of life that made sense in the 50s when we were an oil exporter is silly when we are a large oil importer.

We, in the US, still have tremendous advantages; a well educated (although this too is slipping) population, lots of resources, lots of fresh water (albeit more in the east than in the west where people are moving), a well-connected water transport system and a relatively easily upgradeable rail system. But we need to get to work. And we won’t as long as we think cheap oil is just over the next horizon.

The US media needs to start promoting a new version of the American Dream.

But enough doom and gloom. The weather is (finally) warming and soon we’ll be chasing that little white ball around again. I, for one, plan to do a lot of walking.

Ciao for now

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Brutes playing chess and the Trojan sailors

The President of Iran shook hands with the British hostages this afternoon after announcing he was freeing them.

The sailors will leave Tehran early Thursday and arrive at London's Heathrow airport around 1200 GMT, said Robin Air, father of Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air. Families will be reunited with the crew later Thursday at a military base, he said.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smiled as he talked through an interpreter to several of the men held captive for 13 days in the capital Tehran. One of them was heard to say to him: "Thanks for releasing us. I wish you success.Daily Mail

Before I was forced, by experience, to disabuse my mind of ethno-centric views I thought, like many of my fellow countrymen, I knew what smart people looked like. They were white. They didn't wear robes or other silly clothes. They were like me.

A decade of world travel, including a few years living in SE Asia brought me face to face with smart well-read people who didn't dress the way I expected, nor look the way I expected. Buddhist monks and Islamists wore robes and unlike me, didn't spend their formative years watching Fantasy Island or the Love Boat. Instead they read books. While I could easily have beaten these robe wearing people playing video games, I would likely lose to them at chess. And as much as we Americans might like to think that video game prowess is a sign of future success, world politics is more like a game of chess- and brutes don't play chess well.

I'm not arguing that we couldn't learn to play that game, or even that there aren't Americans who can think strategically- there are. Rather, my point is that the rise of the Neo-Con brutes has shuffled those people to the background in favor of the faux-cowboy bluster of "you're either with us or against us." This is not, in the main, the path by which America rose to become a major player in the world political game. The big stick was meant to be carried more and used far less.

Over the past few days I've been wondering (worrying) if the Iranian seizure of 15 British sailors would open the door to US/UK military action against Iran. The rhetoric was heating up.

But today I see that the ruling Persians are quite adept chess players, and, I believe, wonderful students of history, both ancient and recent.

On the recent history front, the Persians have avoided the trap set for Saddam. A few days prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Saddam decided to open his country to full UN inspections, but his offer, if noted at all in the US press, was considered too little, too late.

Having focused on the captive sailors, the media was primed to tell the tale of any eventuality, in this case, their release. By now, Ahmadinejad's "gift" to the British is set to be the big story in tonight's TV and tomorrow's newspapers.

Here's an example from the BBC: Families describe joy and relief

On the ancient history front, Ahmadinejad's "gift" recalls tales of the Trojan Horse, except in this case, the "city" the gift-givers intend to enter by subterfuge is the hearts and minds of the British. How much more difficult a sell will it be for Tony Blair to argue the case for war against Iran following the release of the sailors, in time for Easter no less?

Of course, the hardened heart of the Vice President is immune to such trickery: In a rare approval of an Iranian decision, President George W. Bush welcomed the promise to free the 15 sailors while Vice President Dick Cheney said it was unfortunate the sailors were taken in the first place and he hoped there would be no "quid pro quo" for their release.

"Once people start taking hostages or kidnapping folks on the high seas and then are rewarded for it by getting some kind of political concession or some other thing of value, that would be unfortunate," Cheney told ABC News Radio.

And so the Iranians demonstrate that others can play the game of divide and conquer as well as we. For a bunch of robe wearers the mullahs of Iran seem to have very ably split the Neo-Cons from both the body politic here in the US and from the Brits. Maybe there's something to reading books and playing chess after all.

Sometimes in a chess match, the appearance of having a Queen, Rook and Bishop to your opponent's few scattered pawns and isolated King is deceiving if during the attempted capture of the King you lose your Queen and Rook while your opponent converts his pawns to a Queen and Rook. Having public opinion on your side is akin, it seems to me, to having those key pieces.

Does this mean there will be no war against Iran? I wouldn't go that far, but if it does materialize, it will not engender the nationalist chest thumping that followed the decision to invade Iraq.

On the market front, the resilience of Gold and Oil to such an event suggests interesting developments below the surface. If we don't have a new war as a distraction, and reason for foreign central banks to continue buying US bonds, we just might have to begin to deal with our domestic economic problems. And that resolution might not involve lower commodity prices after all.

When the War Party ends the bills will come due.