Monthly Archives: February 2005

Jared Diamond's Collapse

I don’t want to be the kind of person that comments on a book before I’ve finished reading it. In fact, in the case of Collapse, I’m about one-eighth of the way through, so I won’t be making any comment on the central thesis of the book yet.

I just want to note that the chapter in the beginning on the political, environmental, and social challenges facing the Bitterroot Valley of Montana are not much different than the last two places I’ve called home and the flipside is expressed in the place I grew up.

In a chapter in Collapse, Diamond uses his own narrative as well as the words of locals to discuss the problem. The old time farmers can’t make money because their land can’t produce enough profit because all of what they grow is grown cheaper elsewhere. Outsiders move in for the natural beauty making new land prohibitevely expensive. The conservative climate hates taxes and government, so there are few rules to control the growth, which may ultimately stifle even the demand for the natural vistas. The locals who are left there are poor and need to work several jobs to stay afloat and can’t realistically afford local housing. Most people’s children move away.

With very few differences, this could describe Hawaii or San Luis Obispo. I imagine in can describe almost anywhere in our post-middle class era.

Another town I used to live in, Apple Valley, California, just like Las Vegas, with its massive influx of people priced out of southern california (and Hawaii) reprsents the overflow where people go when they are NIMBY’d out of the other places. Now both of these places are likewise overflowing to the point that the the infrastructure is deteriorating or entirely overstretched.

(BTW, this is an excellent book!)

The Indignation Fire Must Be Fed

No doubt suffering culture war blue balls due to the Academy’s decision not to nominate “Fahrenheit 9/11″ for Best Picture, the Conservatrons have decided to erupt their perpetual indignation on “Million Dollar Baby.” I have not seen this flick, but according to Conservatron # 23 Maggie Gallagher in the final act it dehumanizes individuals by having a character choose to die rather than live as an invalid.
I begrudge no one their opinion, but the coordinated attack against “Baby” is not about myopic members of society being unable to deal with a movie that dare present choices that are not plain and simple (as Frank Rich suggests); nor is it merely a piece of art that has elicited discussion. Rather, it is one of the countless small necessary battles used to keep the Conservative movement whole.
The twin pillars of modern conservatism are religious fundamentalism and the belief in the fictitious “free market” (which really means using government to intervene for large business but not anyone else, but I digress). These two beliefs conflict in the realm of entertainment. The dull blather of violence and sex that the religious wing of the party decries is just a case of the market delivering the product that the most consumers want. Rather than cannibalize one their big business bedfellows by trying to change this paradigm the religious conservatives focus on Hollywood as the source of the bad taste rather than as the delivery vehicle for the lowbrow entertainment the market deems profitable. Keeping this fury fire burning requires constant fuel, and to fit the myth of Hollywood elites forcing their immoral tastes on everyone else it must be possible to tie the offending product to the fallen people in the city. Thus, “Baby” gets singled out just now, several weeks after its release, because it has been nominated for several Academy Awards thereby showing how much “they” favor it. It’s also a Clint Eastwood product and he may seem like he is one of us, but he has been living with them for a while now and you now how it is with them!
To further prove that “Baby” is but another log being fed to the perpetual cultural inferno witness a recent episode of the violent Fox product “24.” Terrorists are about to cause a nuclear plant to melt down. The surrounding area is being evacuated, but the elderly immobile mother of a minor character in the Counter Terrorism Unit is going to be left behind to face the radiation fall out. The CTU worker tries to pull some strings to save his mom, but there is nothing he can do. He calls his mother. She says that she understands that death by radiation sickness will be horrible, but she has lived a full life and will happily end it on her own terms rather than face a long, agonizing certain death.
There, smack dab in the middle of the Conservatron lions den, is an argument for assisted suicide! While the illness that will probably (someone could still save the day this week) be brought to the mother is caused by a sudden act of terrorism, it is still a painful terminal sickness. Many cancers are likely brought on slowly by exposure to harmful elements in the atmosphere. Is a person dying from radiation sickness any different than a person dying from pancreatic cancer?
The good movie “Open Water” ends when the protagonist chooses to stop staying afloat and drop her whole body into an ocean teeming with sharks after her husband has died and there is no hope for rescue. Which finale honors life more: the one the producers chose, or having the woman helplessly fight a pack of vicious sharks as they tear her body apart until the last beat of life leaves her heart and the sharks feast on her mangled bloody corpse?

NHL RIP

There might have been some story for the sporting press if Gretzky and Mario teamed up once again to “save” the NHL, as they apparently had planned. Too bad it didn’t work.

What I can’t understand is why the players simply don’t form a co-op league. Any situation where you have a union with large capital available, why not take out the middle man? I’m sure it’s not as simple as I’m making it sound, but all they would need to ensure victory is the assignment of the right to play for the Stanley Cup by Lord Stanley’s trustees, and that may or may not be taken away from the NHL this year. (The Cup has to be awarded every year, according to the trust.)

Anyway, the players chickened out, or at least some of them did, and as a result, the owners will probably get a pretty low cap come next year, if there is going to be a league at all.

ESPN may back out of carrying NHL games. If not enough season ticket holders renew, some teams might have to fold. A domino effect could simply wipe the league out.

If it were up to me, the league would lose 4-8 teams and 2-4 or so would move to Canada. Move Phoenix back to Winnipeg. Move Nashville to Hamilton. Move Carolina to Windsor. Move one of the Florida teams to Quebec City after people forget about having won the Cup in Tampa.

Do that, and put a Cap in Canadian dollars, and you might have a league.

Social Security Jujitsu

Democrats and a few sane Republicans have held the line on Bush’s foolhardy, venal Social Security privatization scam and for one of the few times ever El Presidente is making noises about compromising. That he would even make overtures to suggesting a tax increase to pay for his disastrous scheme proves that Bush is already on Plan C.

It’s time for the Democratic Party to go on the offensive and be for something. Now that Bush has put raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for his gambit on the table Democrats should expand on the idea and propose a progressive Social Security deduction to replace the current regressive system and raise enough money to insure the program’s long term stability.

Currently, every worker gets 6.2% of the money they earn up to $90,000 taken from their paychecks and put into the Social Security system. After $90,000 no additional money is paid. This system should be changed so that zero percent of wages up to $20,000 are deducted for Social Security, and then just 1% for dollars 20,000 through 29,999 and the 2% for dollars 30,000 through 39,999 and so on until 6.2% of dollars 90,000 and above to infinity are deduced for Social Security.

Here’s the kicker: if enough money is raised through this system it may be possible to give workers some “house money” in ADDITION to their Social Security benefit to invest as they see fit. In this way private accounts will be a new supplement to the Social Security benefit, not a rejiggering of it. If the stock market crashes, plain ‘ole Social Security will still be there to prevent the elderly from becoming destitute just as FDR intended. Meanwhile, the poor and middle class will have a tax cut and private accounts will be created without further ballooning the deficit. The only ones who will have to pay more are the economic elite. If an “ownership society” is what they truly crave than they should be perfectly willing to do so.

Speculation on the NHLPA's failed gambit

The 11am deadline has passed. The season, apparently, will be cancelled. This is only really news because there was apparently an 11th hour attempt to make a deal. The players caved on the cap.

Why? All of the players interviewed last night were stunned. If a cap was ok now, why wasn’t it ok seven months ago. Why am I playing for beer in Bulgaria?! I can only speculate that the players never really meant to close a deal, they just wanted to make it clearly look like the owners’ fault.

If the players cave to the cap, then the owners don’t meet them in the middle, it looks like the owners’ fault the season is cancelled. Maybe that’s why, maybe not. If there isn’t some plan behind this, I think you can expect a mutiny in the players’ union shortly.

Despite the so-called evidence that Calgary in the finals meant the old CBA worked, that model was not sustainable. Without salary caps, teams face the choice of perennial loserdom or deficit spending. Of course, the smarter ones deficit spend with the hope of a miracle run to recoup some of the losses. But that’s livin’ on a prayer. It’s not sustainable, and, it clearly can’t work in a 30 team league.

There had to be a cap of some kind; there had to be. I once calculated that the average NHL player’s salary would not decrease at all under a $36M cap; only the most highly paid players would be paid less. As they do not represent a majority in the union, it’s quite silly to not get paid that same salary for the seven months you’re locked out.

No, despite whatever Larry Brooks says, this lockout isn’t about breaking the union. It’s about The Bobby Holiks and the Martin Lapointes being able to get their jackpots for skating a wing on the third line and racking up penalty minutes. That gives the average players false hope that some day, they too will be overpaid. (It’s just like getting poor people to vote for tax cuts for the rich–one day it could be me!!!) It’s also about Whine-omir Jagr and his gambling habit, Peter Forsberg and his lack of commitment to the NHL, Alexei Yashin and whether’s he mailed it in today. Clearly, the salary cap would impinge upon the right of these players to earn more than $10M per year.

It’s not about the average NHL player. It’s not about Andy McDonald or Andres Lilja or people like that.

It’s not that the owners are saints, but they are losing money, and if they close up shop, there’s no NHL either.

Social Security

Social Security is a Democratic Party issue, not necessarily a progressive one.

It’s the last significant remaining pillar of the New Deal. But the New Deal itself was–hard as it might be to believe now–essentially a compromise. The reform of the social contract, so to speak, where one party (the government, and industry) gave a little so that the people wouldn’t revolt and ask for larger change.

Despite the 70 years of conservative whining, despite the New Deal, America emerged from the Great Depression the least transformed of any industrial democratic nation. Most of Europe was swept up in the reverberation of the Depression’s effects in Germany. Nowadays, most of Europe consists of social democracies, with free health care, education, jobs programs, yet they still have capitalist economies and most have little or none of the oppression associated with communistic regimes.

Here in the States, even in the jumping-the-shark late 60s era of the New Deal, America had a smaller safety net, more government oppression in many categories, more bellicose foreign policy, and, after 1973, a steady loss of middle class jobs.

Without any evidence, I’ve guessed that economies that have saftey nets benefit from the safety nets in ways that some people haven’t considered. People are more willing to do their jobs with integrity, since termination doesn’t mean the end if their livelihood. Some people are probably also more likely to take risks starting businesses since the worst that can happen is the social safety net catches you; here, on the other hand, we have to scrape and claw, because if we fall, there is little or no forgiveness.

Social Security is supposed to be our big, generous entitlement to keep old people from eating dogfood. There’s nothing intrinsically progressive about the generation transfer tax structure, instead of any other way, and there’s nothing intrinsically progressive about limiting it to retirees, or whatever.

To me, it’s just a further expression that in America, citizens that aren’t independently wealthy are supposed to work during their best years, until they are old, and then thank god they have a small pittance to get them through until they die.

What a country.

Kerry won the nomination, but Dean now leads the party

Poor James Carville. He whines about the race for DNC chair “Somebody should have fixed this damn thing in November. . . This is supposed to be a rigged deal. You think the Republicans would do it this way?”

It’s this precise mentatlity that has put the Democrats out of power. Who gives a shit how the Republicans would do it? When the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency between 1993 and 1995, the Republicans didn’t get them out by becoming diet Democrats. They won by moving to the right.

This isn’t an argument for or against the Dems moving to the left–it’s just an argument that what the Republicans do should be irrelevant.

You don’t win wars by continuing to follow your losing generals. Everyone that’s been a leader in the Democratic party for a long, long time has only won Pyrrhic battles when they have won (Clinton’s victories were all Pyrrhic in retrospect, were they not?) so it’s stupid to continue to follow them. That means you Daschle, Gephardt, Carville, Clintons, Kerry, Kennedy–the whole lot.

There are all sorts of reasons why people are against Dean. He’s controversial, the scream, etc. At this point, though, he can’t do worse, can he?

Hopefully Dean can capitalize on what the Republicans capitalized on — a groundswell for change. I could write a book on this, but in a nutshell, it seems like the Republicans managed to blame every single social ill on the governing philosophy of New Deal Democrats–poverty, crime, inflation, joblessness, and military failures.

Now that all of these things (replace crime with terrorism) are the responsibility of the GOP, maybe the wheel will go round again. But it won’t go round if you keep affirming the leadership of the bad generals.

Global Oil Peak and the Bush Social Security Scheme

In trying to create momentum for his venal Social Security Privitization gambit Bush has warned that the system will face a crisis in forty years if action is not taken to “save it” now. Geologists and other experts, who are far more credible than Mr. Bush, warn that global oil production will peak in forty years if not much sooner – perhaps in fewer than five years.

Previous “artificial” oil shortages, that were caused by turmoil in the Middle East rather than an actual decrease in the amount of oil available, had immediate disasterous consequences for the American economy. Setting aside all of the other reasons why Bush’s plan is a horrendous idea, it would also tie Americans’ retirement to the fortune of the stock market at a time when the life blood of the global economy, oil, will face a permanent crisis of scarcity. Given the Bush Administration’s hostility to green energy and incorporating the principles of sustainability into the American economy, “the great economic collapse,” as Roger Waters once put it, could be rapid and harsh unless wiser leaders chart America on a dramtically different energy course in the near future.

Assuming there is a spectacular economic decline shortly after oil peaks it would certainly be advantageous to have reliable social security money available to the elderly to guarantee that they have at least enough income to subsist. Such a gurantee would probably even make the economic decline a bit less harsh.

This was but one of the many lessons of the Great Depression that our society can forget at its peril.