Saturday, August 21, 2004


LI is in NYC for the moment. We wrote a one sentence post that Blogger, somehow, didn’t register. We would play by play this visit, except that that information is privileged: we are using it to embody the life of one of the characters in the novel we are writing. We have also considered the topic of NYC on the eve of Bush’s tropic of cannibals convention, but we would only say the expected: given our own political and cultural prejudices, and those of our friends, we did not meet, shall we say, with a lot of receptivity to the idea from Gothamites.

So no, just a small note about economics. The NYT published an article about the oil price shock Friday that encapsulated current Wall Street wisdom. That wisdom scoffs at the idea that an oil price spike, in a semi-deflationary climate, is going to do much to this economy. What amazes us about such wisdom is that the same people who are continually ranting about globalism seem so unable to apply it to such things as oil price spikes. Here’s the deal, as we see it – the oil price spike’s effects on this country will come via China and Japan. Those countries, as the price of oil goes over 50 dollars a barrell, are going to have to divert the money they have been spending to buy dollars – to buy T-notes, for instance -- to buying oil. What this means is that the dollar will go down while the U.S. government will be forced to increase interest to attract buyers of its debts. This is a perfect double whammy. The odds of it increase as oil moves upwards. The U.S. has relied heavily, for the last three years, on Asian banks to float our fiscal mismanagement. As the contrarian investors like to point out, this is because the U.S. has no savings. We are a black pit of debt, with the credit card taking the place of the social welfare state. The importance of the oil price spike isn’t in the effect it will have on the American motorist, but the effect it will have on Asian banks. Is this so hard to see?

As usual, Gretchen Morgenson in the Times gets both the cw and what’s wrong with it:

“A throng of strategists on Wall Street argue that rising crude prices do not hurt as much as they have in the past because the economy is not as energy dependent as it once was. The amount of energy needed to generate $1 in gross domestic product has fallen by roughly 50 percent in the past three decades, according to Morgan Stanley.”

But Morgenson is not buying this story. Her take is a traditional one: regardless of the weak labor market, regardless of the continuing oversupplies that are pushing down certain consumer and durable goods, high oil prices mean spreading inflation through the whole bloodstream of the economy. And that is a recipe for recession:

"No one knows, of course, where oil prices could go. But Mr. Roach [Stephen Roach, a Morgan Stanley analyst] said that recent levels are approaching oil-shock territory. And that makes the United States economy especially vulnerable to a recession.

Mr. Roach said the price of oil must stay at current levels for between three and six months to produce a true energy shock. It may not. But if it does? In the past, Mr. Roach found that oil shocks have always been followed by recessions.

What all three [recessions] had in common, Mr. Roach said, was that the economy was stalling when the oil shock hit. In both 1973 and 1990, the economy was growing 2.2 percent annually. In the second half of 1979, growth was even weaker, averaging 0.6 percent, annualized. An oil shock, he said, "rarely comes at a time of economic strength and resilience when we can shrug it off and keep growing."

At a time when deep structural damage is being made to America's post-war economic culture of a kind to revolutionize the middle class -- by dumping them into the revolutionary/reactionary class of the exploited and immiserated -- the newspapers focus on the tussle between Kerry and a bunch of reactionary vets. It is a sign, surely, of how bad things are. It is also a sign of what bad advice Kerry is getting -- this is a one day phenomena that could easily be stopped by Kerry stepping out of the faux hero persona, which fits him like a cheap suit on an obvious cutout, and telling, briefly, what he did, and asking voters to compare it with what George Bush did. Period.

And then we can get to the real issue of debating the disastrous choices with which we have been landed by the malignacy of the crew which presently holds power in Washington.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004


The reductum ad absurdum happening among Shiite tombs outside of Najaf shows, among other things, how absolutely blind D.C. still is to its war and where it is fighting it. There are no editorials asking the question they should be asking: why are we in Najaf? Indeed, a complicated question. Is it because Sadr’s thuggish militia has invaded a sovereign town? Hmm, sounds like – well, sounds like what is happening in Kirkuk with the Kurdish militias. Sounds like what we agreed to in Fallujah. Sounds, indeed, like what we promoted in bringing Chalabi and his men into Baghdad. So let’s think up a different reason. The original reason – to get rid of a minor irritant to Paul Bremer’s proconsulship – has slipped away into history. The story that Sadr was a minor and unpopular leader, much purveyed among the embedded press in April, has slipped away with the Bremer era. The new story is that the inhabitants of Najaf welcome the American intervention. That might well be true – but alas, Najaf is not Iraq. It is not Sadr city in Baghdad. It is not the Shiite South. It is a city in which the respectable make good money on the piety that sends endless streams to Najaf.

The LA Times has a think piece on the subject today by Tyler Marshall – who seems much less credulous of the American military’s wishful thinking than Alex Berenson at the NYT. Here is the heart of the article:

"Is it better for Iraq and the political process and for democracy to embrace these people or suppress these people?" said political analyst Khudeir Dulaimi in Baghdad.

"It is better to engage the country [including] his followers, who are very great in number. If we suppress them, they will emerge again."

Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist who had sought the prime minister's job, agreed. "Despite the hundreds killed in Najaf and other cities, the sense I get ... is that people are more sympathetic to Muqtada than ever before," he said.

Analysts believe that a key to Sadr's political clout has been his emergence as the only national symbol of defiance to the massive U.S. military presence that remains in Iraq despite the formal hand-over of sovereignty. As the U.S. presence grows more unpopular, Sadr's aura gains more luster.”

This is from Bush’s interview with Tim Russert on February 7 of this year:

“The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me as I look back was it was a political war. We had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to the set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War.”

There’s a DJ in Bush’s mind that does the scratching. Scratch compassion and gaybaiting, scratch conservativism and spending like a drunken sailor, scratch tax breaks for small this and that and 200 million dollar tax windfalls for members of America’s fortunate set. Here, the cutting between thinking and doing has achieved a truly historical status of dumb. Dumb and Dumber, it appears, is as premonitory of the current phase of American history as the Marriage of Figaro was of the French Revolution. While the comment on Vietnam is mostly nonsense, there is a core of sense to it: there are wars in which the strategy that Americans have embraced since Ullyses Grant – massive manpower, massive firepower, crushing movement – doesn’t work. In fact, it doesn’t work except in wars of a scale like the Civil War. The war in Iraq is a politician’s war par excellence in Bush’s confused terms – its starts and stops are dictated not by tactical advantages, but by strategic ones. We are throwing American bodies into the fire in battles that are unnecessary, and from the results of which we have to retreat. The strategy is being set by a set of ignoramuses in D.C., quintessential corridor politicians. It is a strategy that seems, every day, to be more independent of, and contradictory to, the tactical encounter with reality in Iraq. That encounter is full of an angry population that responds to house to house searches, checkpoints, surgical missile strikes on wedding parties and the like with rage. It is full of gaps – a doomed search for non-existent WMD, and an inability to guard the arms depots from which we know the Iraqi guerrillas get their weapons; stop and start occupations of towns in coordination with a half fictitious Iraqi army; the painting of creaky schoolhouses by soldiers in a country of 40 to 60 percent unemployment, as an effort to win the hearts and minds of students who have all vivid memories of their fathers face down in the dust, spreading them for another army raid on a suspected terrorist nest.

And now, as a legacy tribute to Paul Bremer, we are attacking one alleged murderer, Muqtada Sadr, on behalf of another one. This is playing out in that scene of dumb and dumber glimmer and glamor, the arrogant and, for most of the last year, useless, negligent, and propagandizing American media, where pundits get giggly talking about the “tough” – i.e. murderous – Allawi, the man who blew up civilians in terrorist incidents (like setting cars with bombs in them in public squares) in the fight against Saddam. Such are the joys of bringing democracy to Iraq.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004


Nicholas Lemann’s interesting Talk of the Town piece pokes through the ashes of one of the great original Cold War threatmongering sets, The Committee on The Present Danger. That Committee, formed in the McCarthy era to wrest anti-communism from the vulgar and demagogic and relocate it on a higher echelon – namely, Harvard – was headed by James Conant, the great patron of Thomas Kuhn, and one of Harvard’s “forward looking” presidents. Lemann points out that the first Committee was formed to advocate for a universal draft. And one of Conant’s assistants on this ultimately quixotic quest was John Kerry’s father.

Lemann’s history lesson backgrounds the spurious reconstruction of the Committee on The Present Danger, run by your usual assortment of neocon Post Office Wanted types: Joe Lieberman, Newt Gingrich, and the rest of the breathy, self-regarding crowd. They generated a little excitement by hiring an ex Reagan admin. employee who had been capturing a stream of revenue for his little ones by fronting for Jorg Haider’s neo-Nazis in D.C. Unfortunately, in a display of callousness towards the rules of the capitalist game, after word leaked that Peter Hannaford had fed on Haider’s leftovers, the man was tossed. But, according to the CPD, this is no time for distracting controversies. No, we have at least two more wars to drum up under the indefatigable leadership of George Bush. The Committee wants us to be aware of the militant Islamic threat. And the two major threats are, you guessed it, the Palestinians and the Iranians.

D.C. has been described as Hollywood for ugly people. These ugly people are, in fact, exceedingly Hollywoodish, having contrived one absolute bomb – the occupation of Iraq – and moving on to the occupation of Iraq 2: Iran, the evil twin. One’s faith in Kerry, who seems unable to mount a critique of the worst foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam war, wavers – until we realize what goodies the Bush culture has hidden up its sleeve. In another lifetime -- say, in 2000 -- I would dismiss that as stupid threatmongering of another order. Sure, extremists hang around the Republican party, but the outlines of foreign and domestic policy don't change that much. Now, of course, that isn't true. It is only too easy to see Bush charging into Iran, with an inadequate force, and killing tens of thousands of Iranians, and thousands of Americans, in pursuit of the Crusade: to make the world safe for Christianity.

This is not an election between two of the best and the brightest, but between a mad evangelical gunslinger and the town’s creepy High Church minister. What we need is to paint everything in America red -- a la High Plains Drifter -- and elect a willing midget president.