Monday, June 30, 2008

Remembering Tunguska

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska Event, perhaps the most kinetically cataclysmic event initiated from outer space in recent times.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Germany-Iraq Comparison

There's an active debate going on between Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall on one side, and Max Boot, on the other, about whether the current occupation of Iraq can meaningfully and usefully be compared to the U.S.'s historical occupation of Germany after WWII.

To begin with, it's worth noting that any historical analogy can be illuminating up to a point, and thereafter is misleading. The key analytical question in the use of historical analogies, is whether the historical similarities are more revealing than the historical dissimilarities are misleading.

In the comparison of the current Iraq occupation to the post-WWII German or Japanese occupation, it seems to me as if the dissimilarities far outweigh the similarities. The ongoing combat situation in Iraq is one key dissimilarity, which most of the Marshall-Sullivan-Boot discussions has focused on.

But another key dissimilarity is that for Germany, the occupation was tolerated by the local population and elites in large measure because they were afraid that a worse occupier--namely, the Soviet Union--was the only other option. No such more pernicious occupier threatens Iraq. Indeed, the key "outside force" that the U.S. is worried about, namely Iran, is one that many if not most Iraqis regard as a preferable partner to the U.S. This was certainly not the case in Germany.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Corpse

Robert Novak quotes a disgruntled GOP operative:
The Republican Party is a dead rotting carcass with a few decrepit old leaders stumbling around like zombies in a horror version of "Weekend With Bernie," handcuffed to a corpse.
I guess the corpse in question must be George Bush himself, and handcuffed to him indeed is the GOP.

Novak's whole column is worth reading, as it explains why Obama is likely to wipe the floor with McCain in November. Anyone who by now doesn't realize how badly George Bush has misgoverned this country, leading it to defeat and ruin, is simply unhinged from reality. (Alas, if we look at Bush's approval ratings, that would appear to still include well over half of the GOP rank and file.)

People across the political spectrum are in the mood to punish the GOP. Intellectually honest members of the GOP know that such a fate would be not only deserved but probably salutary for both the country and, in the long run, the party itself. And one sign of how bad it is for the GOP is that the people with most on the line--that is, GOP politicians up for reelection this Fall--are beginning to realize that if you can't beat Obama, it may be better to join him.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The end of cheap energy, and much else, perhaps

I'm reading a fascinating book right now, Reinventing Collapse, by Dmitry Orlov, which argues that the United States is on the verge of a political and economic collapse largely similar to the one experienced by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He proceeds from the insight which I first tentatively proposed in Mandarins of the Future, and which was developed in magnificent detail by Odd Arne Westad in The Global Cold War, namely that the United States is in essence a "modernist" twin of the Soviet Union, both of which built vast complex societies based on boundless faith in physical and organizational technology.

In a variety of symbolic and material senses, the two lands shared a faith in the capacity of men to improve social conditions via technological progress. They raced each other to see who could most successfully dominate space, build the most insanely large military establishment, jail the vastest sector of their population, manage the most widely hated evil empires, squander the most natural resources and commit the worst globally-significant ecological crimes--and, most crucially, borrow the most from abroad to fund these endeavors. While the Soviets were more poorly organized than the United States, and hence collapsed first, Orlov argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union in fact was only the first half of the collapse of this broadly shared modernist vision of state and society.

While the Russians realized by the 1980s that idea of modernization is a mirage, the U.S. has yet to do. Orlov argues that the U.S. too will give up the modernist ghost in the machine when we (soon) experience a similar collapse. An old "peak oil" hand, Orlov argues that what will precipitate the endgame for the U.S. liberal faith in modernization is the end of cheap energy supplies, which will render the entire American way of life untenable, and indeed collapse the American dream's fundamental belief in the classlessness of American society. The U.S. today, like the Soviet Union in the 1980s, is sustaining itself only for one last gasp by running up huge foreign debts to import energy. When the energy exporters finally refuse to subsidize American energy consumption, the game will be up.

I recommend the book in the strongest terms, if only as food for thought.

In the meanwhile, to get a foretaste of how it will feel to watch this version of the American dream collapse, read this article in the New York Times about how high energy prices are causing the economic (and soon social) collapse of far-flung suburbs, which are simply unaffordable to commute in and out of. The Times concludes, "Life on the edges of suburbia is beginning to feel untenable." And with it, Orlov would argue will collapse the American Dream itself.

The early indicator on this process is that the "house price collapse," which is generally described in the media as a universal and largely uniform process, is in fact a highly differentiated one, that is affecting outlying areas, exurbs, and minor cities far more than central city locations. Again, the Times:
Across the nation, the realization is taking hold that rising energy prices are less a momentary blip than a change with lasting consequences. The shift to costlier fuel is threatening to slow the decades-old migration away from cities, while exacerbating the housing downturn by diminishing the appeal of larger homes set far from urban jobs. In Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis, homes beyond the urban core have been falling in value faster than those within, according to an analysis by Moody's

Some now proclaim the unfolding demise of suburbia.

“Many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s — slums characterized by poverty, crime and decay,” declared Christopher B. Leinberger, an urban land use expert, in a recent essay in The Atlantic Monthly [available here].
If we buy this scenario, then consider the political implications. First, let's note that these are the same areas of the country that voted Republican in droves over the last several electoral cycles. Now they will pay the greatest social and economic price for the failed imperial policies of those they foolishly voted for. Between the establishment of a permanent higher equilibrium price for energy, and the inevitable collapse of what my friend Steve Weber refers to as the Texas-Tienamen bargain, life for all but the very richest in the United States is about to get a lot bleaker. As Paul Volcker famously announced when he assumed the reins of the Federal Reserve in 1979, "the standard of living for the average American has to decline." In the best case, the U.S. will be in for a massive Volcker-style shock therapy. The question is whether the advent now of permanently higher energy prices mean, unlike the U.S. in the 1980s, the patient will never recover. The return of cheap oil after 1983 bailed out Volcker's approach, but this time it seems unlikely that a get-out-of-high-energy-price-jail-free card will magically appear.

If that's the case, then the logical question to ask is whether President Obama may end up as the Gorbachev of the United States--the man who sees the problem with the current system starkly, but in attempting the necessary radical reform, only hastens its collapse. Alas, it's certainly not all that hard to imagine Obama in such a role. The other option is to continue with the Konstantin Chernenko-like McCain, which will only delay the inevitable a little and make the eventual necessary adjustment more severe and painful.

Mission Accomplished, George!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NIC looks at climate change

The National Intelligence Council delivers a classified 58 page assessment to Congress on the "National Security Implications of Global Climate Change to 2030." It's a "what if" document. This puts climate change in the same category as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and so on. Listen to the NPR podcast, which quotes a variety of specialists familiar with the document, many of whom echo the same points Small Precautions has been making for years, namely that the places which will be most badly effected will be places that re already unstable, poverty stricken, and poorly government. "It's Bangladesh, not Holland, we're worried about," says one official familiar with the content of the report.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

No coattails for Obama

The latest polling data suggests that Obama's victory over McCain will be smaller than his party's overall victory against the GOP. In other words, no coattails. And that will make it hard for Obama to push any particular legislative agenda.

I'm writing a longer post on which previous presidency the Obama presidency is most likely to resemble. Part of the answer depends on whether Obama is able to correctly perceive the proper historical antecedent. Is he most likely to folow the path of Reagan, Carter, or Kennedy?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Esquiring minds want to know

Esquire asks, "Is John Yoo a Monster?"

I don't think there's any doubt that the answer, basically, is yes. All of the hedging he does in this article about having sanctioned torture only in a limited way, and only if "experts" at the CIA did the torturing, and only for Al Qaeda suspects... well all that hedging only disgusts me more.

The very fact that there has been a debate about the legitimacy of torture -- to say nothing of the fact that the pro-torture squad has won the debate -- is the most appalling thing to befall this country in my lifetime.