The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: February 2010 Page 1 of 2

The Beach

I don’t remember arriving at my Grandmother’s for the first time. By counting down the years I know I was about five years old at the time, a tiny blond child with cornflower blue eyes. My Grandmother lived in a house on the shore. From the living room on the second floor one could look down past the sea wall, a concrete walkway about the height of a man, to the beach. It was white sand with a scattering of driftwood, framed to the east and west by black rocks glistening with seaweed, scrapey with barnacles and clusters of mussels, gleaming wet and hot rock dry. Those rocks were to become one of my favourite places. For a five year old child they were the perfect playground. The barnacles and the height made them seem dangerous and their secret valleys contained odd creatures left by the retreating tide: crabs, molluscs, strange eel like creatures, and tiny fish darting through pools of water cradled by stone.

And the beach always changed. It changed with the season, from summer swarms of strangely fleshy adults lying passively like crusty bread on their multicoloured towels, to the fall driftwood pickers in their black and yellow rubber, to winter’s crashing storms which would smash against the sea wall and send spray into the sky. Just at the edge of my vision, near the horizon, was a series of small islands. To me those islands were fantastic and faraway places, the Tir-na-Nog of my childhood, places where strange creatures lived, where wondrous magic was to be found, places which could only be seen: never reached. In the winter I would often stare at them for hours, nose pressed against the living room window, spinning stories of the Sea Queens and Kings who lived upon them; of the robots who were their knights; of a thousand things. And I would see the ships, huge freighters mainly, like massive castles, which would steam by and I would wonder where they had been, what they had seen. I never thought of them as machines, but rather as huge beasts with a life of their own, creatures to be tamed that they might bear you away to dreams.

Perhaps my favourite change of all was simply the tides. Low tide was the best: as the sea withdrew it would reveal a wonderland of sand bars, troughs of water and a trove of sea shells and small darting creatures caught in the pools it left. I would intrepidly investigate. During the winter months on went the gum boots, in summer I splashed about in trunks. The tide was my test, too, for it was jealous of its treasures, always coming to cover them again, and I took great pleasure in outsmarting it and the currents as the tide came back in. With a practiced eye I watched the gulf between my sandbars and the shore and like an eel I took to the water to make my passage back when the sea’s return could be ignored no longer.

The beach was my preserve, others came on it, but it always seemed somehow mine . . . mine and the seagulls. There are those who dislike seagulls, but I have always had a deep fondness for them. My grandmother loved them and I learned that love as well. Sometimes I would feed them, stale crusts of bread tossed on the wind, a whirlwind of seagulls, their strident cries ringing out, descending upon me. Other times I would just watch them, the spiral of their flight lovely in itself. Their squabbling and sudden flight, their long swooping glide with that final tilt as they landed, their sharp eyes as they watched me. The beach was their fief, and mine, for they allowed me on—perhaps in pity for this big flightless graceless thing who could never feel the wind lift him, who could never look down on the sparkle of the sea, who could never fly a wingspan above, watching it flash beneath.

I have never returned to that beach, nor will I.

(This is a reprint.)

Lowest Bank Lending since

Whoever would have expected? (h/t Agonist)

U.S. banks posted last year their sharpest decline in lending since 1942

Of course, this is exactly what we warned would happen.

Can you say Japanification?  Sure you can.  Banks are impaired.  Badly.  So they don’t want to lend.  To get lending going again it was necessary to take over bankrupt banks, to siphon off bad loans, to force both bondholders and stockholders to take their losses.

Larger banks are doing better than smaller banks, which should be no surprise as they’re the ones the Feds concentrated on bailing out because if you bailed out small banks they couldn’t be bought up for cents on the dollar by Geithner and Bernanke’s friends in the financial industry.

Refusing to do the right thing has consequences.  This is one of them.

America’s Future: My Baseline Scenario

1) employment is not going to recover to pre-great recession levels for at least a generation, maybe more, in terms of % of people employed.  The late Clinton economy is the best you or I will see in our working lives.

2) Politics will continue to be dominated by monied interests and that dominance will increase, rather than decrease.  They will use their power to fight over the shrinking pie, rather than to increase it, and will make any real systemic restructuring of the economy essentially impossible.

3) a right wing “populist” will get in after Obama.  Since the only sort of stimulus they can do is war stimulus, they will pick a war with someone.  Who, I’m not sure.   In economic terms they will have all the wrong solutions to various real problems.

4) Under both Democrats and Republicans the deterioration of civil liberties will continue.

5) Median standards of living will take at least a 20% drop within 10 years or so.  Maybe more.  Not sure exactly when, but if anything, the % may be an underestimate.

6) Resource nationalism will continue to rise as will 1/1 deals between countries.  China has already restricted rare earth sales, for example.  Countries will start insisting on doing the value add in their own countries rather than shipping raw materials overseas, if they have the ability to do this.

7) As state and local governments loose their ability to govern (a process which will proceed in cycles), there will be cyclical of cuts in basic services, including police, road repair, schooling and so on.  Get thee to a very affluent neighbourhood, if you can.

8) Entitlements will be cut, perhaps openly, perhaps through statistical tricks, but it will be done.  There is a bipartisan consensus on this, and when Republicans get in charge they will be able to find enough Dems to sign off this time.  (If Obama can, he’ll do it before then, but Republicans want to use this against him.)

9)  There will be another major economic crisis, probably within 8 years.  In principle it could happen within a year, the timing depends on political actions I’m not sure how to predict.  I consider this nearly inevitable.

10) I expect an end to the war on some drugs, because States are going to want to tax the drug trade and need to.  Likewise the prison-industrial complex is likely to suffer.  Its constituency is not as powerful as some other important constituencies.

11) New Oh yes, I should mention that I expect an actual population decrease when things get really bad, a la Russia’s collapse.

In the longer term I expect severe water shortages, for both people and crops, in large areas of the world including big chunks of the US, China and India.  Climate instability will continue to increase, and in about 10 years (according to a friend whose judgement has been good on this) various sinks will be overloaded and we’ll start seeing some really serious global warming increases on top of the instability.  Expect food to be short and much more expensive, expect inland areas to devolve back towards local manufacturing and for megashops to start collapsing.  Expect coastal vs. inland to a big division, until global warming starts wiping out coast areas.

Americans will put off cutting the military, I think, till they’ve gutted virtually everything else.  I expect the military will probably win the fight against financial interests when the moment comes, though we’ll see.

There will be various break-points along the way, where decisions can be made which will make a difference but I think it’s close to impossible to avoid a failed Obama presidency and a right wing backlash against that Presidency.  Once the right wing fails, there will be another chance, a slight one, to turn things around.

The Modern American Way

Let’s talk about the American way in the context of the assassination strategy used against the Taliban, for the last 8 years.

First, a simple fact: this strategy hasn’t worked worth a damn against the Taliban. They’re winning, the US is losing.

The argument for it would be that killing leaders messes up the Taliban. This is marginally true at best.  Loss of a leader may cause a slight delay and occasional fights within the Taliban, but it doesn’t stop them from getting stronger and continuing to win.

Americans think that good leaders are hard to come by because modern America produces bad leaders regularly, and rarely produces even marginally competent leaders.

Or, to be more accurate, average leaders are not sufficient to make anything in America work because America is set up to force people to do the wrong thing and people who care about doing the right thing are systematically kept out and forced out if they make it in.

The Taliban doesn’t need brilliant leaders, all it needs is leaders able to execute its strategy, and its’ strategy is simple enough that your average leader can implement it, whereas the US strategy couldn’t be executed by a Napoleon.

Killing leaders at the cost of bombing weddings and funerals and killing civilians does not work in the context of counter-insurgency unless your strategy is scorched earth, which the US’s is not. There is also an opportunity cost to anys treategy.

This is the same strategy the Israelis have used for decades against the Palestinians and Hezbollah

You’ll notice that the problem has not gone away.

Americans think leaders matter far more than they actually do. In the context of an actual ideological movement with substantial popular support, there’s always another one. And, in fact, he’s somewhat more likely to be competent than whoever he replaced.

Take a look at the evolution of Hezbollah’s leadership to see how this works. The leadership keeps getting more competent, not less competent, as does the organization. The Israelis act as a nice Darwinian force, making sure the most able wind up on top and that strategies which don’t work end, because the people executing them die. Likewise the Taliban is more deadly now than it was 2 years ago, 2 years ago it was more deadly than 2 years before that, and so forth.

The war should have ended years ago, and the assassination strategy is not producing results.

But by all means, keep trying a strategy which hasn’t worked for 8 years. It’s the American way, if at first, second, third, fourth, tenth a strategy doesn’t work—do it harder. Doesn’t matter whether it’s taxes, warmaking, healthcare or anything else: the easy stupid way is always the right way, even after it hasn’t worked, over and over again.


The Fed’s Increase in the Discount Rate

As you may have heard, the Federal Reserve had decided to increase the discount rate: the rate at which short term loans are made to banks.

The primary effect of this is to strengthen the dollar.  That will help reduce effective resource prices and make it easier to export to the US.    Both of these things are what the US’s most important creditors (aka: China and Japan), want.

A quarter point increase won’t make much difference, the question is if this is a signal that the Fed intends to continue tightening.  Doing so is likely to strangle the incipient, but extremely weak, recovery.  One can only conclude that losing more Democratic seats is ok by Bernanke, and quite likely by Obama as well.  It is possible that now that Bernanke has been reappointed he’s biting the hand that fed him, but given Obama’s actions since before he was elected, it’s at least as likely that Obama is onside for this.  Keeping creditors happy is important if the administration wants to make another run at the financial play.

The bottom line is this, as I’ve been saying for some time: the plan is Japanification.  Except that since the US is not a net exporter, Japanification will not work nearly as well in America as it did in Japan—and it sucked in Japan.

Once more, the percentage of Americans employed will not recover to pre-Great Recession levels in at least a generation and probably more.  This is a deliberate policy choice and everything Obama and Bernanke has done—from refusing to take over banks, to refusing to force lending at reasonable rates, to engaging in an inadequate stimulus, to refusing to make Banks recognize their losses, to doing everything they can to encourage slashing Social Security and Medicare, has had the effect of making Japanification more and more likely.

Unfortunately Japanification is not a stable solution set for the US.

Oh well.

The assassination question

Would it be ok for the Taliban, which is at war with the US, who invaded their country, to bomb a wedding or funeral the President, a cabinet minister or other US leader was at, even if that meant many innocent civilian casualties?

The assassination strategy

The debate about the US’s penchant for murdering people in foreign countries has become tiresome. At this point, with no meaningful declaration’s of war, a “war” against a tactic, the assumption the US can kill anyone anywhere, who cares?  The US is just the biggest bully on the block, declaring “we can violate international law and sovereignty, and kill tons of civilians during our assassination attempts, because we’re too strong for you to do anything about it.”

Oh, and so many “leaders” of “al-Qaeda” have been killed over the years that I always put quotation marks around both words in my head.

America is very good at assassinating people.

So’s Israel.

I notice that neither of them are succesful at solving the actual problem they’re supposedly trying to address.

Maybe the US should stop copying tactics and strategies that don’t work.

Not Having Kids

Amanda Marcotte has up an article on why women’s happiness has dropped relative to men’s over the last 30 years.  I think she has some interesting observations, but I don’t think the piece quite comes together.  But I wish to tackle a side issue: an anecdote about a woman being told by a man that not having children is “selfish”.  Amanda and the author she’s referring to, Ariel Gore, seem to think this has something to do with being female, but I’ve been told this multiple times, and I’m a guy.

Instead, this is the default assumption in large parts of society that your goal as a human being is to have and raise children, and that by not doing so, you’re selfish.

And maybe you are, because the research on happiness and children is unequivocal: couples with children are less happy than couples without children.  They are happier before they have kids, and when the kids leave the house, their happiness soars back up to pre-happiness levels.

Oh sure, parents will tell you that kids make them happy, are the best things that every happened to them, etc… but when you actually ask them how happy they are, day in day out, without referring to their children, they’re less happy than before they had kids, or couples without kids.

So perhaps not having kids is selfish, assuming kids are necessary (which, I guess, in certain numbers, they are.)

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