Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle

Commentary on the Flux of Events

by Jim Kunstler

(November 7 2005)

The American public's failure to pay attention reached supernatural levels this week as our mass media gloated over falling gasoline prices - down 24 cents, average, to pre-hurricane levels. The news media took this to mean that all the end-of-the-summer trouble is over with and things can now get back to normal, including especially an economy based on trade in suburban houses.

What they failed to notice is this: since the hurricanes shredded our Gulf of Mexico oil and gas capacity, Europe has been sending us two million barrels of crude oil and "refined product" a day from its collective strategic petroleum reserve. The "refined product" includes 800,000 barrels of gasoline, plus diesel, aviation, and heating fuel. Meanwhile, US domestic production has fallen to around four million barrels of conventional crude a day. America uses close to 22 million barrels of oil a day. Bottom line: post-hurricane, total imports have accounted for eighty percent of America's oil consumption.

Now, the important part of all this is that last week the International Energy Agency (IEA), Europe's energy security watchdog, declared that it would now end the two million barrel a day shipments to the US. Not because they are hateful meanies, but because, after all, it is Europe's strategic reserve and they can't sell it all to us because, well, some strategic emergency might come up for them, too.

It will take a few weeks for the last of Europe's tankers to offload supplies and for the various fuels to work their way through the US fuels retail system. With US production and refining still crippled, we can look forward to watching the price of gasoline, heating oil, diesel and aviation fuel kick back up through Thanksgiving and on into the heart of the Christmas shopping season. At the same time, homeowners will be getting their first substantial heating bills of the season.

This will be very bad news to the guys in charge. The Hooverization of George W Bush will resume and accelerate.

Meanwhile, the new uprising of Islamic youth in France shows no sign of letting up and, in fact, is growing in both intensity and venues. If it continues along the same upward arc, the authorities may soon start making martyrs out of the young car-bombers. The action could spread to Holland, England, and elsewhere across Europe. The potential for wider scale insurrection and systematic terror operations such as bombings is obviously huge. Anybody can get instruction in bomb-making off the Internet now. People and materials move easily over a united Europe with fewer border controls than in the old days.

Europe knows it can ill-afford antagonizing the Jihadi factions beyond its borders. With the North Sea oil fields depleting at rates as high as twenty percent a year, Europeans have little local production to fall back on if, say, regular tanker shipments of Middle Eastern oil through the Suez canal were to be interrupted for some reason. England's methane gas production is at especially alarming low levels.

Europe - France and Germany in particular - have enjoyed the luxury of laying back since 9/11 and allowing the US to rumble with the Islamic world, while the Europeans enjoyed a comfortable sense of moral superiority about their supposed peaceableness. Those pretenses seem to be reaching an end. So now that Europe has gallantly spent down its strategic petroleum reserve for our sake, it will be interesting to see how soon they may need it themselves.

I wouldn't venture to guess whether the young rioters of France are getting help and encouragement from somewhere outside, but there certainly are enough Jihadi professionals and cheerleaders on the sidelines to support this new frontal action in Old Europe. It is going to be an interesting holiday season all around the western world.

(October 31 2005)

The cry across the land grows increasingly shrill: "THEY LIED TO US!"

For going on three years, the American public, especially on the political left, has been complaining that the Iraq War was some kind of a shuck-and-jive. The Bush government pulled the wool over everybody's eyes. They ran a vicious propaganda operation. We were fooled by all those fairy tales about WMDs, Saddam and Osama, and African radioactive yellowcake.

Now, through the fog of the Valerie Plame affair and the indictment of Scooter Libby, the cry is reaching a crescendo: "THEY LIED TO US!"

Being a Democrat myself, and therefore nominally in opposition to Bush-and-Cheneyism, one has to contend with all sorts of embarrassing nonsense emanating from one's own side. In Sunday's New York Times op-ed section, for instance, Nicholas Kristoff wrote: "Mr Cheney, we need a stiff dose of truth". I'm sorry to tell you this Nick (and the rest of my homies), but what Jack Nicholson's character said in that court martial movie some years back still applies: you can't stand the truth.

If the American public could stand the truth, we would stop calling it the Iraq War and rename it the War to Save Suburbia. Of all the things that Bush and Cheney have said over the last six years, the one thing the Democratic opposition has not challenged is the statement that "the American way of life is not negotiable". They're just as invested in it as everybody else. The Democrats complain about the dark efforts by Bush and Cheney to cook up a rationale for the war. Guess what? The Democrats desperately need something to oppose besides the truth. If they would shut up about WMDs for five minutes and just take a good look around, they'd know exactly why this war started.

When the American people, Democrat and Republican both, decided to build a drive-in utopia based on incessant easy motoring and massive oil dependency, who lied to them? When tens of millions of Americans bought McHouses thirty-four miles away from their jobs in Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Dallas, who lied to them? When American public officials adopted the madness of single-use zoning and turned the terrain of this land into a tragic crapscape of strip malls on six-lane highways, who lied to them? When American school officials decided to consolidate all the kids in gigantic centralized facilities serviced by fleets of yellow buses that ran an average of 150,000 miles per year per school, who lied to them? When Americans trashed their public transit and railroad system, who lied to them? When Americans let WalMart gut Main Street, who lied to them? When Bill and Hillary Clinton bought a suburban villa in farthest reaches of northern Westchester County, New York, who lied to them?

You want truth, Progressive America? Here's the truth: the War to Save Suburbia entailed an unavoidable strategic military enterprise. Saving Suburbia required that the Middle East be pacified or at least stabilized, because two-thirds of the world's remaining oil is there (and in case you haven't figured this out by now, Suburbia runs on oil, and the oil has to be cheap or we couldn't afford to run it). The three main oil-producing countries in the Middle East, going from west-to-east are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. We had serious relationship problems with all of them at various times, and they with each other, leading at frequent intervals to a lot of instability in that region, and consequently trouble for us trying to run Suburbia on cheap oil (which they sold us in large quantities).

After nineteen religious maniacs from the Middle East, mostly Arabs (though unaffiliated officially with any state in their actions) flew planes into our skyscrapers and a big government building, we had to kick someone's ass. We decided to start by kicking the ass of Afghanistan, where one particular mischievous maniac, Mr bin Laden, had set up operations connected with 9/11. It wasn't enough. We never could find Mr bin Laden, Afghanistan wasn't really in the Middle East, and whatever else they were, the Afghans weren't Arabs. We had to find somebody else's ass to kick to reinforce the idea that religious maniacs unaffiliated with any particular state could not pull off lethal stunts like 9/11 without bringing substantial pain down on their own home places. To put it plainly, we had to kick some Arab ass. We picked Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Not because he had anything to do with 9/11 - which we couldn't pin on any Muslim nation - but because Saddam's Baathist regime was Arab, and the same general religious brand as the guys who did 9/11, Sunni Muslim, and because Saddam had already proven to be a freelance mischievous maniac quite in his own right over the years, worth getting rid of, and most of all (from a strategic point-of-view) because Iraq was the perfect place geographically to open a US police station in the Middle East. It was right between those two other troublemakers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and setting up an American military presence between them, it was hoped, would moderate and influence their behavior, and discourage them from doing anything to interfere with the indispensable supplies of oil that we desperately required to run our beloved, non-negotiable Suburbia. It was even hoped, by a band of extreme idealists in the US Government, that in the process of setting up a military presence in Iraq, we could convert this troubled, fractious nation into a peaceful, cohesive, beneficent democracy, establishing a shining example, blah, blah ... But such is the nature of idealism.

I apologize for taking two long paragraphs to tell you the true origins of the War to Save Suburbia, but it was, after all, only two paragraphs, and the truth is sometimes not so simple. The American people have gotten exactly the war that they bargained for. The outstanding obvious question is not by what wicked and recondite means the War to Save Suburbia got started, but how come once started, we did such a poor job of resolving it, specifically why, after nearly three years, our vaunted technological mastery couldn't get the electricity running more than a few hours a day in Baghdad, why we let squads of redneck moron enlisted personnel beat up on prisoners and videotape their own antics, and why we can't even get the oil equipment in good enough shape so the Iraqis can sell us the oil we still need to run our non-negotiable way of life?

So, as a card-carrying Democrat and as a Progressive who would like to see his country successfully adapt to the changing realities of the world, I propose we stop making ourselves ridiculous by whining about being lied to, because we've only been lying to ourselves. We walked into the War to Save Suburbia with, as the old saying goes, our eyes wide shut.

(October 24 2005)

Readers of my stuff and audience members at my college blabs have been complaining lately that I wrote The Long Emergency as a wish-fulfillment fantasy because I hate suburbia. So perhaps it's a good time for me to clarify my thoughts on suburbia.

First, we need to recognize its origins. Even the Romans had suburbs, and the wish to inhabit the borderlands (to borrow John Stilgoe's term) of the largest cities is not a new thing. But in America the pattern evolved to an extent never before imagined. America's cities emerged hand-in-hand with industrialism, and by the mid-1800s the industrial city was regarded as undesirable. As soon as the convulsion of the Civil War was over, railroad suburbs were created for the very well-off, and systems for designing them were innovated by the likes of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, creators of New York's Central Park. There were very few of these special places, and they formed the basis of what would be known as the American Dream.

The idea behind these suburbs was simple and straightforward: country life as the antidote to the horror of the industrial city, with its moiling slums, its noise, congestion, bad air, disease, and obnoxious industrial operations. One could access the city by day for business and be back in a rural villa for dinner thanks to the railroad.

The suburb of the streetcar era was an elaboration of this pattern for a growing upper-middle class (and the streetcar era was relatively brief). It allowed a finer grain of suburban development because the stops could be much closer together.

The Model T Ford was introduced in 1907 and built on assembly lines in 1913, which made them cheap and affordable. When the disruption of the First World War was over in 1918, the automobile permitted an extenstion of the suburbs far beyond (and between) the streetcar lines. The great boom of the 1920s was largely a result of all this activity. This project was interrupted by the Great Depression and the Second World War, and then furiously resumed when the war was over. Up until the 1970s, suburbia was a kind of accessory to America's manufacturing economy. But as industrial production moved overseas, the creation of suburbia itself insidiously replaced it as the engine of the US economy.

This brings us to where we are today, with an economy driven by a land development pattern and a system for delivering it that is hugely destructive of terrain and civic life. Since it depends utterly on reliable supplies of cheap oil, we can assert that it has dubious prospects as both an economic enterprise and as a living arrangement. The obdurate refusal to recognize its limitations begins to have tragic overtones for our society.

Having directed so much of our post-war wealth to constructing the infrastructures of suburban everyday life, we are now trapped in a psychology of previous investment that makes it impossible for us to imagine letting go of it. This is expressed in Dick Cheney's tragic phrase that the American way of life is non-negotiable. Now, circumstances will negotiate it for us.

It is true that I hate what the suburbs have done to my country. But the assault on our landscape and the withering of our civic life was an obvious evil before the specter of peak oil signaled an absolute end of suburbia. What I certainly despise as much as suburbia itself is the stupid defense of it by people who ought to know better, such as columnists for the New York Times. I also believe that this stupid defense will continue and spread and become a tremendous, tragic exercise in futility for a people who could be putting their minds to a much better purpose in finding other means to carry on the larger project of civilization.

(October 17 2005)

When the Museum of Bad Ideas is built by Steve Wynn in Las Vegas (designed by Frank Gehry), surely one of its remote galleries will contain this week's cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the suburban homebuilding racket titled "Chasing Ground". The story focuses on one of the nation's leading large production builders, the Toll Brothers, based in Philadelphia, and "ground" is their own cute phrase for the parcels of meadow and cornfield that they magically convert into suburban housing subdivisions all over the nation.

The Times brings its usual magisterial lack of critical thinking to the subject. Among the conclusions: that the suburban sprawl housing bubble will continue indefinitely into the future, and that the price of houses will continue to rise, probably forever, too.

"Indeed, Toll seemed certain that firms like his - with an expertise at finding and developing land - would become increasingly successful. The company expects to grow by twenty percent for the next two years and fifteen percent annually after that."

Philosophically, the story is grounded in Times columnist David Brooks's concept that suburbia is a good thing because people seem to like it. But it's the Times's ignorance of practical matters that's really breathtaking. The nation's oil predicament is barely mentioned (and obviously only as an editorial afterthought, since the story was no doubt filed before Katrina and Rita shredded production in the Gulf of Mexico). Anyway, the issue is cavalierly dismissed. Missing altogether is America's even more dire predicament over natural gas, which is used to heat half the houses in America and 99 percent of the brand new ones. Since the story focuses on large luxury houses over 3500 square feet, featuring cathedral ceilings and yawning lawyer foyers, you'd think the question of heating these behemoths might arise, but no. The price of natural gas has quadrupled since 2002 and is still going up.

But it's the story's willingness to embrace uncritically the Toll Brothers' credo of reckless and destructive greed that is most amazing

"What happens when New Jersey reaches build-out? 'We've been trying to build it out, but we can't get our hands on it', [Toll] said. 'We could sell every square foot that we could build on. I mean, anything within fifteen minutes of Interstate 78 could be built and sold. Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, all the way to New York City. And it's all sitting there.'"

The assumption, clearly, is that America will be a happily car-crazed society forever and that nothing might interfere with that. The interstates will keep humming along. The consumer sector will keep generating high-paying management jobs. The "boomburbs" of Arizona and Nevada, in particular, will continue to expand and thrive.

Here's the real dope on the situation. The big corporate production home builders, including the Toll Brothers, are selling their own stock like mad lately because they realize that the game is over, that they are in a twilight industry. (The Times left this out.) Home heating costs are going to crush the public this winter, and even the supposedly well-off in big new houses are going to feel the pain, because the truth is that many of them are leveraged up to their eyeballs to be where they are, and supernatural utility bills will push them over the edge just when the national bankruptcy laws have been revised to make wiggling out of debt much more difficult and punative. The price of gasoline will keep ratcheting upward from where it is now like a medieval torture device, and will combine with home heating costs to make the public's collective head pop like a winter melon.

Meanwhile, the mortgage industry, a mutant monster organism of lapsed lending standards and arrant grift on the grand scale, is going to implode like a death star under the weight of these non-performing loans and drag every tradable instrument known to man into the quantum vacuum of finance that it creates.

And is there anything to be said on behalf of the mutilated American rural landscape itself? Such as: might we actually need it to feed ourselves when the great Cheez Doodle sector of the economy craps out from a shortage of cheap fossil fuel "inputs?"

It's sad to see a once-great newspaper go through the motions of pretending to be intelligent.


I recommend this excellent essay by my excellent correspondent Dmitry Podborits: "On Dangers of Being an Insect with Wings and a Mysterious Instance of Mass Mailing",

Bill Totten


  • A good insight on part of the problem - the need for oil (and heating gas) that suburbia requires - but other factors also drove the massive invasion(s) of Iraq... and next Iran?

    The Federal Reserve creates "money" out of nothing, and because of the strong US economy's ability to crank out stuff the world wanted (especially cars!) it had value and was the world standard for money (replacing the real stuff of intrinsic value, gold and silver). But out industry has declined, being exported to cheap labor places (esp China!) and we need to import more oil, and so far others have been willing to hold dollars, but as the supply increased they lose value... the US $ is really very over valued. Then Iran and Iraq moved toward selling oil for Euros, not dollars, which would drive down the dollar's value and create $ chaos. So, the first major nation to stop selling oil for US dollars had to be stopped.
    That nation was Iraq... and it got hit!

    But even that is secondary to the real game afoot here. ISRAEL isn't just a nation, it is a global conspiracy of powerful manipulators in their own "gang" linked by bloodline. Memebers of the gang are powerful in banking (the Fed. Res. is privately owned by banks they own), the media (most networks are owned or controlled by them), education, and direct funding to Congressmen via AIPAC. Israel wanted its nearby anti-Israel enemies crushed. Iraq was first, and now they are hot to get Iran. (Note that ISrael has many nukes, so even if IRan builds them it only levels the playing field.) See the Mearsheimer & Walt book "The Israel Lobby" out last month. (The initial report they wrote really infuriated Israel & its minions of Jews, associated pro-Israel Zionist Christians, and any Congressman taking money they give selectively to Congressmen obeying their orders.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:53 PM, October 02, 2007  

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