March 14, 2009
No matter how broadly I try to read, readers always identify new and provocative lines of thinking and analysis. Here is a sampling of recent reader commentary; I will try to post a more complete accounting this weekend.
Real life and online life are a zero-sum situation; real life has taken much of my time recently, (carpentry for friends, babysitting, etc.) severely limiting computer time, and as always I apologize for the tardy email responses.
I couldn’t agree more to the upcoming slow dissolve from overconsumption forced upon the unsuspecting public. I follow the 7/93 rule on this one; 7% of the population understands what the “Great Disruption” will mean and is preparing themselves as best possible. The remaining 93% are in denial or unable to remove themselves from their debt/cost-of-living serfdom.
Personally, my response to the slow train wreck playing out before our eyes is to purchase land that has good soil and water. My social security will comprise of home grown food, a chicken house and a couple of freezers and a root cellar. Perhaps I’ll tip my hat to our California Yankee and call it “Greenspan Acres”.
Two points I would offer. First are that Federal insolvency and the tumble of the American dollar will create a disruption more abrupt than the soft fall from over-consumption grace. Fine exports quickly become out of reach (the re-birth of the America car company?) and oil cost slips a little higher. (Exxon would be one of the few companies to be able to ride the exchange rate up).
Second is more a psychological shift, one deeper than the endless transactions in the age of affluence.
Many of today’s evangelists equated successful living with prosperity. Not saying that the well-off are not generous but I’m speaking instead of the mega-church’s embrace of personal salvation as a path to financial reward. Not to dive to deep into the pool here but I keep thinking of the post-modernism threat talked of in the 50’s that the messenger and its cleverly-packaged delivery would replace content and concreteness of truth.
I have long said that the sophistication and ability of marketers outpaced our societies’ intellectual growth starting in the 60’s. I think the climax of this movement occurred with Fox News. I know they simply took right wing radio to video but its impact was that it completely separated the integrity of journalism (what is left of it at least) to a group-think preference of what you would rather believe.
Do you see the subtle parallel with what happened to the evangelism movement? It became something to serve our wants not address our needs. We need spiritual clarity and self-honesty; we also need informed people snooping around the workings of business and government. Both journalism and church transmuted into instruments for financial gain and market share. We simply pampered ourselves with the luxury to stay in big homes grossly uninformed and easily persuaded until we saw the raging grass fire headed toward our backyard. Some are still staring at it convinced it will get the neighbors house but not ours.
To me the Great Disruption will be a tearing away of the façade. We shall all find out that food doesn’t simply come from the grocery store and that civilization is a thin veener. That when governments fail they fail on a mammoth scale (they are indeed “not too big” to collapse but only too big to survive). The success isn’t measured in dollars but in happiness. Do you know what makes me happy? Not big expensive toys and adventures, not fine cloths, not expensive cars. I’m halfway through my life and all I want to do is build and grow things. Build my love for my children and wife, build my intellect, and grow my food and my curiosity of the world around me. America will awake to find that all that stuff the right wing talked about in their hot button and superficial mantra of “family values” is about the only thing they can afford.
In Thoughts on the USA – 1968 to 2009 (March 4, 2009) John Kinsella wrote:
I now knew that America had definitely changed. New Orleans still bore the scars of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the city at the end of August 2005, and a new urgent hedonistic form of tourism had taken over; drink, shout and be merry for tomorrow the fun could suddenly end. A twenty-four hour Casino drew the not only tourists but also a good number of the citizens of New Orleans, who by the appearance of many could certainly not afford to lose the little money they possessed.
Sounds like the NOLA I visited back in 1990 a few weeks after Mardi Gras. A place where when the lights went out for a few seconds city-wide, you could already hear the whooping, cheering, and hollering. You waited for the sounds of breaking glass and sirens. A place where hotels had 20 foot tall concrete security walls. Streets where lone drunks wandered around with their bottles in paper bags at 6am. The city where I saw my first knife fight and a family member was mugged for his last $20.
Sadly, all Katrina did was knock the entire plate off the table of a city where the pieces were already quite jumbled on a good day. The plate had been on the edge for quite some time and falling off the table and breaking was going to happen one way or another.
So it was with great interest that while in Iraq I saw NOLA fall from Katrina and it became a sort of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" for an administration, gov't, and people. I wondered to myself how would people react and more importantly: how would they pick up those shattered pieces?
And life went on, just not as how we had expected and not like the time "before". It's different there now. My wife visited NOLA post-Katrina. I have not. I can transpose Baghdad with a broken infrastructure and few services to NOLA with little difficulty. All I have to do is subtract the suicide bombings and the Iraqi city's far more violent body-count to have a good idea of what life is like in NOLA now.
How much will any other broken American city in the future resemble NOLA post 2005 or today's Baghdad? Hard to tell. Depends on how the people themselves react and interact.
You've taken a contrarian position on a subject ( Could Cities Be Safer Than Suburbs?, March 11, 2009) which is near and dear to the hearts of tens of millions of people, one which is contrary even by your own standards (but not without merit either).
One thing that you didn't bring up as possible fodder for suburban/exurban deterioration, is the attitude of entitlement that pervades throughout. Violence on different levels may be more likely when people feel that something has been taken from them, something they "deserve" for what ever reason. So where most people in urban centers and rural areas may be content with food, shelter and being a part of a truly functional community (rural or urban), suburbanites live lives mirroring the TV life, with all kinds of perks like expansive homes, top schools, SUVs, and more prosperous neighbors--amid faux community.
Not only is there a lot more to lose in the suburbs from a material standpoint, but there's also a less intimate connection to the community and it's people than is typically seen in urban neighborhoods and rural communities. The combination makes it easier to get ugly in the attempt to claim one's "rightful share" of the American dream.
RE: Retooling the Education Factory (March 5, 2009):
I have no idea what the official definition is now of special needs (http://www.concordspedpac.org/WhatIEP.htm), but it includes ADD, ADHD, and very mild forms of autism as in, "I know these kids well and would never have guessed that there was anything amiss with them."
At my first parent night when the staff was introduced, I was floored at how many people there were to serve grades K through 2. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, one librarian specifically for K-2, reading tutors, etc. The next night covered 3 through 5. There is even a small group of kids that gathers for lunch to practice social skills. When my child's class picture came home, I asked my daughter who are all these adults? I obviously knew what her teacher looked like and the student teacher. But there were other adults that I had never seen before. My daughter nonchalantly replied "this one helps Matt and this one helps ..."
So hyper kids who can't sit still get a personal aide. Some of these kids find school boring and have trouble concentrating, it has nothing to do with their intelligence or ability to learn. A child who was deemed three months behind in reading is pulled out of the class room for special reading tutoring.
In Massachusetts it is called an IEP - Individual Education Plan. Instead of being embarassed that their child needs one, parents bend over backwards trying to get their child an IEP so their child can have individual tutoring. Or in some cases an excuse as to why their child isn't an exceptional student.
As for the schools, it is all about the MCAS exam (Massachusett's standardized testing). My niece's first year of teaching they gave her a class with no IEPs. We thought they were taking it easy on the newbie. Turns out the reason was that they gave her all the good students who would do good on the MCAS exams regardless of what kind of teacher she turned out to be. By the way, since house prices correlate to how good the schools are, your house price rest on the backs of these kids.
As the parents demand higher and higher test results not realizing that you get to a point of no return more quickly in some districts than others, the staff simply points to the number of IEPs in their schools.
I asked my husband what he thought would happen when the school budgets get cut dramatically over the next couple years. He said that the parents with the IEPs will be the squeakiest wheels.
Followup observation via second email:
I was a parent helper one day in the classroom as the parent volunteers were presenting a program. There was one kid in the classroom who literally got up every minute or two to wander around, then he'd sit down and a minute or two later would get up again and wander. The teacher said nothing, his personal aide said nothing, the kids weren't distracted by him as apparently this is the norm. Whenever the person leading the lesson asked a question, this kid did have the answer, so despite getting up to browse a book and poke at various things in the classroom, he was listening and absorbing the material.
These parents send their kids to Boston for neurological testing and have a range of neurological diagnoses. One parent told me that her son's brain literally shuts down when people talk to him.
Currently class sizes range about 18 to 22 kids. And most parents believe that is way too high and are stunned when they can't get me riled up about it. Now with the budgets the way they are, there are rumors of class sizes of up to 30 kids in the future. How will the teachers handle multiple kids like this within the classroom then?
RE: John KInsella's Thoughts on the USA – 1968 to 2009 (March 4, 2009):
"is this the end capitalism as we know it? Is it the end of America? The response is certainly no, but what I have seen does show the way to a future world where things will be very different. The kind of freewheeling capitalism that has dominated US economic policies and society is almost certainly a thing of the past."
This is a misconception shared by many, many people around the world. It's kinda late here, but I just cannot let this go unsaid. What the US has been practicing for the better part of the 20th century is not capitalism - certainly not of the "free market' variety. It is a "managed" form of capitalism - a managed economy - managed by the powers-that-be comprising the US Govt. and the Federal Reserve. Free markets ended a long time ago with the establishment of the Central Bank in the US.
When the money supply is in the hands of a central authority, it means that the authority can direct the resources wherever it wants for the benefit of maintaining it's own power, causing massive misallocations throughout the economy - such as war and pork projects. The real estate bubble in US was a direct result of the Fed manipulating the interest rates, and not caused by the free market.
Now granted that the US is a less managed economy than, let's say, the Soviet Union, but managed nevertheless. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the collapse of a more managed economy in the face of a less managed one. But the reason's behind the current collapse in US are similar to the reasons behind USSR's collapse - Central Planning. What the Fed and US Govt. are doing openly now - acquiring stakes in banks and deciding which company/industry gets the bailout money - is just a formal recognition of the former's control over the latter.
RE: How to Play the Oil "Head-Fake" or, The Saudis Strike Back (March 2, 2009)
First of all, this version of the position of Saudis would make sense only if their declared oil reserves are real. There are a lot of evidences they are wildly exaggerated. In fact, they may be 2-3 times lower than the official figures Saudis publish. Also for Saudis conventional oil is their practically only reserve unlike for Russia or Iran whose natural gas reserves are much more significant or even Venezuela who has huge reserves of heavy oil. In this situation it would be very stupid for Saudis to crash the price of their only reserve just to cause some damage to rivals who have more significant backups.
Second, IMO the following passage makes no snese: "The Saudis are certainly grateful that the U.S. helpfully removed Saddam from power and acted to create a buffer state between Iran and the Sunni states."
Saudis know very well that Saddam WAS such a buffer state. That's why they supported him during the Iran-Iraq war (together with USA). They also know that Iraq as a Shi'ite nation is a fait accompli (thank you, Bush). The only ones who may be grateful are Iranians.
In terms of geopolitical benefits for USA, these are also very questionable. Yes, the oil crash came after the failure of Georgia to capture its brake-away provinces. (A war, in which USA invested huge amount of money and its geopolitical influence.) The failure demonstrated the vulnerability of the BTC pipeline. This came on top of the burial of the plans for natural gas pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
But orchestrating the crash to punish Russia for these two failures of American geopolitics would be at least stupid. Yes, low oil prices do cause a crisis in Russia, but the hardest hit countries are Eastern European allies of USA. The economies of Ukraine and small Baltic states are practically destroyed, Ireland, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are not much better. Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia are all in worst shape than Russia. (Note, most of American allies in Iraq war are on this list.) At the pace Russia uses its foreign currency reserves it can go on for two more years with no severe consequences.
Beside this, both Russia and Iran have much higher natural gas reserves than oil reserves. Venezuelan economy may be hit quite hard by low oil prices, but in the long run Canada may suffer more than Venezuela.
On top of all this, current low prices damage R&D in oil industry, which is the best insurance of oil shortages within the next several years. This will damage oil importers much more than Russia, Iran or Venezuela.
Thank you, readers. As always, please note the views of readers are their own and do not reflect my own views, though I am constantly influenced by readers' experiences and analyses. It is the policy of this site to purposefully reprint commentary which runs counter to views I have put forth as a way of broadening a healthy skepticism and debate on important issues.
What's for dinner at your house? has been updated with a new recipe: Classic Chili and Cornbread.
NOTE: The serialization of my new ebook "Survival +" starts March 21.
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Operation SERF, Part 11
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Saturday, March 14, 2009
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