Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, January 31, 2011

Darwin Was Right

We are descended from monkeys. There is no other explanation.

by Fred Reed

Information Clearing House (January 13 2010)

Pondering Whither America, I reflected on a story, probably apocryphal but which I am going to believe because I like it, about catching monkeys. Tribesmen somewhere craft a heavy pot with a hole in it large enough that a monkey could insert an open hand, but not withdraw a closed fist. They then put monkey food in the pot. The monkey reaches in, grabs the food and, refusing to let go when the hunters approach, is caught and eaten.

Here we have our politics in a paragraph. The American national monkey can't let go. The party is over, boys and girls, but we aren't going to adapt.

For example: When people recently found that they could no longer afford the SUVs, the McMansions, the buying of absurdities in a frenzy of competitive consumerism, they just put it on the credit card. The monkey can't let go. And now they are screwed.

Same-same domestic policy. The US has played War-on-Drugs for half a century, with no results but to make drugs an integral part of the economy. The evils engendered are great. Yet the monkey can't let go.

It is [known] internationally that the monkey principle really bites. The country is well on its way to being a merely regional power militarily, economically, and diplomatically. Short of a miracle, short of a conceivable but unlikely catastrophe in China, Americans will soon be medium potatoes. There is nothing we can do about it, but we will bankrupt ourselves trying. We can't let go.

If you look beyond the Reader's Digest patriotism of Fox News, and the high-school cheerleading of little Sarah Palin, if you look beyond the national borders, all of this is obvious.

By Chinese standards, America is a small country, having a quarter of its population. Their economy grows at close to double digits. Yes, it may slow down, or it may not. Short of unforeseen disaster, the question is not whether but when the Chinese economy will dwarf the American economy. Tell me why this is not true.

All power springs from economic power. While America decays, plays, and sucks its thumb, China invests. Everywhere. There is nothing unprincipled in this. It is just intelligent commerce.

Do not underestimate these people of the epicanthic fold. I have lived among the Chinese, in Taiwan years ago. I liked them, and still do. I know them to be smart, disciplined, studious, practical - as well as nationalistic and very racially conscious. No, we do not think these attitudes proper. It doesn't matter what we think.

Note that China has that perfect government, an intelligent dictatorship concerned with advancing the country. The American government consists of self-interested lobbies and Wall Street looters. China is run by engineers, America by lawyers. Watch.

The US is midway through an inexorable suicide. If a country does not manufacture things, it does not have an economy, and manufacturing has fled American shores. Ship-building, steel, consumer electronics, railroads: gone. You may think your HP laptop is an American product, but in all likelihood every component was made overseas and it was assembled in Taiwan.

The country as a whole, as always, looks inwards and doesn't understand, doesn't know what stirs without. Communism no longer protects America from Chinese competition.

America is the world's greatest debtor nation, China the greatest creditor. We cannot possibly repay what we owe, so we must either default or inflate. If another choice exists, I am unaware of it. And yet the government spends, spends, spends, and borrows, borrows, borrows. No one is in charge. No one cares. All line their own pockets. Wait.

Rationally, this would seem a good time to let go of unaffordable luxuries. But no. The US continues to buy things it can't pay for, to play roles it can no longer maintain, because it pains the national vanity no longer to be the biggest kid on the block. The monkey can't let go.

The millstone around the American neck is the Pentagon. The direct cost alone of feeding the military contractors is almost mortal to a sinking economy: $720 billion this year, plus another $120 billion requested for the unending wars, plus huge black programs, the Veterans Administration, and so on. A trillion wilting green ones, call it. The more perceptive note the opportunity cost of wasting so much engineering talent, so much money for research and development, on martial zoom-wowees.

China, Russia, the Moslem world, Latin America and all the rest who detest the US must be enjoying the spectacle. Spend on, spend on, oh round-eyed fools ...

Vanity. We do not garrison South Korea because Pyong Yang may send its troops across our common border into Arkansas. We do it because we think it our birthright to rule the world. The monkey cannot let go.

Our practical choice is between retracting the military or going down hard. But we cannot retract. Once you have made your economy dependent on huge unproductive expendititures, there is no quitting. It might seem wise for example to reduce the military rolls by the 30,000 troops in South Korea. But they would simply increase the rate of unemployment, already dangeorusly high. Since most of the military contributes nothing to the defense of the United States, releasing all unneeded soldiers into joblessness would probably precipitate an armed rebellion.

There is worse. Towns spring up around large bases to supply the troops and their families. Close the bases, and the towns die. Closing Camp Lejeune would kill Jacksonville; Fort Bragg, Fayetteville; Fort Hood, Killeen. Further, huge companies - Lockheed-Martin, much of Boeing, and dozens of others - being unable to compete in the civilian economy, have become obligate military suppliers. Cut their big programs and you unemploy tens of thousands for whom there are no civilian jobs.

The federal bureaucracy is much the same, employing vast numbers yet producing nothing. Politicians drone about wanting "smaller government". How? Eliminate the Departments of Education, or Housing and Urban Development, or Commerce - and where do the people go?

We can pretend that the current recession is temporary, and not a manifestation of dying opulence, just as a fading beauty can pile on the make-up and hope that men don't notice. We can spend while others grow, buy their goods on credit - for a little while longer. The monkey ca
n't let go.

And any who say that we ought to put our house in order and come to terms with reality? They will be said to Hate America. Well and good, until the bill comes due.

Visit Fred's blog at

Bill Totten

The year of living dangerously

Rising commodity prices and extreme weather events threaten global stability

by Michael Klare

Le Monde diplomatique (January 25 2011)

Get ready for a rocky year. From now on, rising prices, powerful storms, severe droughts and floods, and other unexpected events are likely to play havoc with the fabric of global society, producing chaos and political unrest. Start with a simple fact: the prices of basic food staples are already approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks, that year when deadly riots erupted in dozens of countries around the world.

It's not surprising then that food and energy experts are beginning to warn that 2011 could be the year of living dangerously - and so could 2012, 2013, and on into the future. Add to the soaring cost of the grains that keep so many impoverished people alive a comparable rise in oil prices - again nearing levels not seen since the peak months of 2008 - and you can already hear the first rumblings about the tenuous economic recovery being in danger of imminent collapse. Think of those rising energy prices as adding further fuel to global discontent.

Already, combined with staggering levels of youth unemployment and a deep mistrust of autocratic, repressive governments, food prices have sparked riots in Algeria and mass protests in Tunisia that, to the surprise of the world, ousted long-time dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt extended family. And many of the social stresses evident in those two countries are present across the Middle East and elsewhere. No one can predict where the next explosion will occur, but with food prices still climbing and other economic pressures mounting, more upheavals appear inevitable. These may be the first resource revolts to catch our attention, but they won't be the last.

Put simply, global consumption patterns are now beginning to challenge the planet's natural resource limits. Populations are still on the rise, and from Brazil to India, Turkey to China, new powers are rising as well. With them goes an urge for a more American-style life. Not surprisingly, the demand for basic commodities is significantly on the rise, even as supplies in many instances are shrinking. At the same time, climate change, itself a product of unbridled energy use, is adding to the pressure on supplies, and speculators are betting on a situation trending progressively worse. Add these together and the road ahead appears increasingly rocky.

Breadbaskets without bread

Let's begin with food, the most important and volatile of these commodities. Food prices declined in October 2008 after the onset of the global financial crisis, but that seems to have been an anomaly. The December 2010 index of global food prices compiled by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) hit a record 215, one point higher than in the spring of 2008. (In that index, based on a "bundle" of food staples, a baseline of 100 represents average prices in 2002-2004.) In fact, some food products, including sugar, cooking oils, and fats, are now trading substantially above their 2008 levels; others, including dairy products, grains, and meat, are inching perilously close to record levels.

As 2011 begins, food experts fear that, within months, prices for key staples will climb above the 2008 threshold and stay there, causing extreme hardship for poor people around the world. "We are at a very high level", said a worried Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist at the FAO. "These levels in the previous episode led to problems and riots across the worl".

Of particular concern to Abbassian and his colleagues is the rising cost of corn, rice, and wheat, the staple crops of billions in many of the poorest countries. According to the FAO, by the end of 2010 international corn and wheat prices were already approaching their 2008 peak levels (about $260 and $340 per metric ton, respectively).

Analysts attribute the rise in grain prices to growing demand in both developed and developing nations, along with a number of cataclysmic weather-related events and speculation by investors. An extreme drought and fierce fires last summer destroyed a large percentage of the wheat crop in Russia and Ukraine, while heavy flooding in India and the inundation of twenty percent of Pakistan damaged significant parts of the grain output of those countries. At the same time, unusually hot and dry weather suppressed production in a number of other key farming areas.

What makes the picture look so worrisome today are indications that the severity and frequency of extreme weather events appear to be on the rise. In the past few weeks alone, several such events point the way to serious supply problems ahead. Most significant has been the unprecedented rainfall and flooding in Australia that put an area more than twice the size of California largely underwater, significantly disrupting wheat cultivation there. Australia is one of the world's leading wheat producers. Unusually dry conditions in the American Midwest and Argentina have also hinted at future problems in grain and corn output. It's still too early to predict the size of this year's grain and corn harvests, but many analysts are warning of a shortfall in supplies, along with sky-high prices.

Mainstream analysts and government officials are loathe to attribute this traffic jam of extreme weather events to global warming. Huge variations in rainfall can be normal, especially in places like Australia that are susceptible to El Nino/La Nina ocean-temperature oscillations, and politicians are fearful of assuming responsibility for a problem as massive as climate change. But climate change theory has long suggested that the warming trend - 2010 tied 2005 for the warmest year on record and nine of the ten warmest years have come in the last decade - will be accompanied by an increase in the frequency and severity of storms. It's hard to escape the conclusion that recent events, including those Australian floods, are tied to rising global temperatures.

The energy crisis returns

Soaring food prices are being driven as well by speculative investments and the rising price of oil. Partly in response to the diminishing value of the dollar, some investors are sinking their money into food futures (along with gold and silver) as a speculative hedge. At the same time, the price of oil is edging toward the $100 mark, making it increasingly profitable for farmers to switch from growing corn for human consumption to growing it for the manufacture of ethanol, which in turn reduces the amount of farm acreage devoted to staples. Oil would have to fall below $50 per barrel to make the cultivation of corn as a food product competitive with ethanol production - and that's not likely to happen. So even if more corn is produced this year, less will be available for food purposes and the price of what remains is bound to rise.

The precipitous rise in oil prices has startled the experts. Not so long ago, the US Department of Energy (DoE) was projecting a price range of $70 to $80 per barrel in 2011, but as the year began oil was already trading above $90 a barrel and some analysts predict that it will reach $100 before the year is out. A few are even talking about the $150 barrel and gas prices at the pump of $4 or more. If prices climb above $100, global consumer spending could take another nosedive.

"Oil prices are entering a dangerous zone for the global economy", says Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency (IEA). "The oil import bills are becoming a threat to the economic recovery".

As with food, the rising cost of oil is a product of growing demand, insufficient supplies, and speculative investments. According to the most recent projections from the IEA, daily global oil consumption in 2011 will average 87.4 million barrels, an increase of about two million barrels from the first quarter of 2010. Much of the extra demand is coming from China, where a newly-minted middle class is buying automobiles at a record clip, as well as from the United States, where previously cautious consumers are slowly returning to pre-2008 driving habits.

At a time when the oil industry is experiencing declining rates of output at many existing oil fields and finding it ever more difficult to add production, even two million extra barrels per day can be a daunting challenge (and greater demand is expected in the coming years). In the United States, for example, much hope was placed in oil exploration in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and offshore Alaska, but in the wake of the BP disaster, this seems like a forlorn prospect. Production in Mexico and the North Sea, two bright spots of recent years, is facing a sharp decline, while other key producers, including those in the Middle East, are struggling to maintain current output levels at existing fields.

Many energy analysts believe that the world is at (or will soon reach) peak oil - the moment when global petroleum output achieves a maximum sustainable daily rate and begins a long-term, irreversible decline. Others contend that higher levels of output are still possible. Whatever the truth of the matter, at this moment the oil industry is finding it increasingly difficult, and ever more costly, to boost output above current levels. This, combined with insatiable demand, is driving prices skyward.

Under these circumstances, speculators are again being drawn into the oil market as a rare sure bet. Such speculators helped push oil prices to a record $147 per barrel back in 2008, but fled the market when prices crashed as the American economy headed to a meltdown. Now, they're coming back. "Hedge funds and private investors are buying up financial instruments tied to the price of crude, and thereby helping push up oil prices", the Wall Street Journal reported in late December.

Most analysts are expecting a price surge this spring or summer when American motorists hit the road. "We will have a spring rally that will take us to between $3.10 and $3.50 a gallon for gasoline at service stations in the United States", predicted Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

The rising price of gas will, in turn, hurt consumers just as they show signs of opening their wallets again. No less worrisome, oil-importing countries like the United States, Japan, and many in Europe will face soaring bills for fuel imports, further enfeebling economies already suffering from profound weakness.

According to some calculations, oil prices added another $72 billion to America's mammoth balance-of-payments deficit last year. Europe had to cough up an additional $70 billion for imported oil and Japan $27 billion. "It is a very telling story", says the IEA's Fatih Birol of recent oil-price data. "2010 rang the first alarm bells and 2011 price levels could bring us to the same financial crisis times that we saw in 2008".

Rising food prices leading to riots, protests, and revolts, mounting oil prices, mammoth worldwide unemployment, and a collapsed recovery - it looks like the perfect set of preconditions for a global tsunami of instability and turmoil. Events in Algeria and Tunisia give us just an inkling of what this maelstrom might look like, but where and how it will next erupt, and in what form, is anyone's guess. A single guarantee: we haven't seen the last of resource revolts which, in the coming years, could reach an intensity we scarcely imagine today.


Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet (2008).

More by Michael Klare at

(c) Le Monde diplomatique - all right reserved

Bill Totten

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Last Days of Democracy

How Big Media and Power-Hungry Government Are Turning America into a Dictatorship

by Elliot D Cohen and Bruce W Fraser

Paperback, Prometheus Books 2007

Book Description

In this chilling account of an America in political and cultural decline, media critics Elliot D Cohen and Bruce W Fraser show how mainstream media corporations like CNN, Fox, and NBC (General Electric) together with giant telecoms like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have become administration pawns in a well-organized effort to hijack America. Cohen and Fraser show in blunt terms how incredible power, control, and wealth have been amassed in the hands of an elite few while the rest of us have been systematically manipulated, deceived, and divested of our freedom. Calling attention to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a carefully devised plan for international dominion launched by high officials in the Bush administration, this book tells the story of an America quietly being stripped of its democratic way of life on its way to becoming a full-blown authoritarian state.

The authors detail how mainstream media have failed us in covering issues crucial to the survival of American democracy - the Bush administration's domestic spying program; the facts about the September 11 attacks; presidential election fraud; the events leading up to the Iraq war; and the selling out of Internet freedom, to name just some. They reveal how corporate media have systematically attempted to dumb down and distract us from reality with sex and violence; how government has used corporate media to "shock and awe" Americans into surrendering their constitutional rights in the name of the "War on Terrorism"; and how media personalities have been complicit in the mass deception.

The final chapter points out important ways in which Americans can counter the erosion of democracy by relying less on mainstream media and more on independent news sources, through grassroots activism, peaceful assembly, and exercising their free speech, and by using critical thinking to expose the dangers we face.

Elliot Cohen has political x-ray vision that cuts right through the turgid bullshit of corporate media ca-ca. Buy several copies and hand them out on street corners: This book could save America.

-- Greg Palast, author of Armed Madhouse (2006)

The Last Days of Democracy is a compelling and alarming last call to awaken the slumbering promise of our Constitution - or to watch our freedom slither away forever. Corporate media has enabled tyranny to prevail over the truth, because they value profits over patriotism. This book is a wake-up call to save us from the final descent into an Orwellian world from which we will not be able to return.

-- Mark Karlin, Editor and Publisher of

How can America survive in the information age without any information? For too long, and at far too great a cost to the country's way of life, America's mainstream media have grasped at higher profits by sinking to disgraceful lows in standards and performance ... Cohen and Fraser reveal the caustically unprincipled impostors of our industry, the owners and managers they shill for - and the damage they have done. Read this book. Get mad as hell and let's make certain we don't take it any more.

-- Arthur Kent,

Review: Are We in the Last Days of Democracy?

by Carol Hoenig

Huffington Post (June 14 2007)

There are those who take umbrage with the suggestion that President Bush's tactics are comparable to Hitler's. Yet, Elliot D Cohen and Bruce W Fraser show the similarities between the two men in their recent book aptly titled, The Last Days of Democracy: How Big Media and Power-Hungry Government Are Turning America into a Dictatorship. The authors write,

In Nazi Germany, there was a systematic program of indoctrination and brainwashing in place. Radio, newspapers, movies, and all other forms of media were carefully monitored by the government to make sure that the German people read, saw, and listened to only what the Nazis wanted the people to read, see, and hear. There was also an officer of disinformation (a 'minister of propaganda') - not unlike our own Karl Rove - whose job it was to make sure journalists toed the Nazi line.

Cohen and Fraser do not pull any punches: The index cross-references the president with the word dictatorship. Over the top? Well, let's see: If he behaves like a dictator and rules like a dictator, well then ... the cross reference is justified. What is just as culpable, though, is the media allowing the president's actions to go unchecked.

The book is not a liberal attempt to bash a conservative president. Instead, it's a warning for all Americans, and the title says as much. The reader is reminded that the media has "become a docile lapdog of government" while "failing at keeping Americans informed". Unfortunately, it's a matter of preaching to the choir here on the Huffington Post, especially since the appendix includes this site as one of the few independent online news sources. However, one wonders if those who stay tuned to Fox News, CNN or any other corporate-owned news source realize that the bottom line is what determines "newsworthy" without having the public's interest in mind.

Just a few decades ago, how we got our news was radically different. This was all the more apparent when I was watching a recent documentary in honor of Walter Cronkite's ninetieth birthday. One moment in history that the program recalled was when Cronkite reported on CBS Evening News that there wasn't a role for US troops in Vietnam anymore. Former President Lyndon Johnson responded: "That's the end of the war".

Often, Cronkite is praised for his journalistic integrity. How sad that he has to be an anomaly. Yet, reporters today should remember that it wasn't so much the man, but the message he carried that made the difference. After all, "that's the way it is" meant simply that, rather than, "that's the way we want it to be".

Now when the mainstream media reports from Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere around the world, including here in the United States, it is in cooperation with the government. How different it was when Cronkite was reporting to how it is now where reporters kowtow to the administration without questioning its actions. Americans have to work especially hard to get to the truth in order to make informed decisions. We have to educate ourselves to see the difference between propaganda and real news. The question is, are we willing to do so? Or will we surrender, like A J Soprano, because it's just easier?

Many people are still talking about the last episode of The Sopranos. For me, the scene that had the most impact was when A J, who had begun to take a political interest in the world around him, reverted to his apathetic state. Slouched once again on the couch in front of the TV, he laughed at footage of rappin' Rove dancing with David Gregory. Like A J, many Americans find that it's easier being entertained rather than investing ambition.

The Last Days of Democracy is an unsettling albeit informative book. Instead of cowering in hopeless fear of "what if", it provides ways to combat what could be the inevitable. In other words, independent journalists must be relentless in doing the work the mainstream media has abandoned, since the authors caution, "Without a functioning media, there is no stopping government from divesting us of our freedom".

Review by Emma Coleman

Berkeley Public Library, California

School Library Journal

Adult/High School - This book has a lot to offer teens, major consumers of mass media. Its point of view is that the political far right and corporate ownership of the media deeply influence what we see, hear, and, ultimately, know. However, readers are expected to follow the authors' rhetoric without necessarily coming to it equipped with extensive background information. References to the US Constitution, Aristotle, Marx, and so on are thrown in, but with explanations. The authors also provide a valuable service by discussing net neutrality, a subject anyone who uses the Internet needs to understand. The book is at its most timely and chilling when Plato's Cave is introduced and compared with the effects of modern mass media. The hyperbole is heavy and idioms like "tow the line" and "lockstep" are overused, but the book is alarming and informative. Some readers will be put off by the vitriolic language, while others will find their fears and anger confirmed. A list of alternative media outlets is appended.

Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten

'US empire' will fall due to lack of faith ...

... not finances or war, author warns

by Nathan Diebenow (January 27 2011)

As many in America longingly talk of "recovery" from the most devastating economic condition since the Great Depression, others have begun thinking in a very different direction, urging fellow citizens to prepare for the worst.

Dmitry Orlov, author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects (2008), is one of the latter.

Soon, he told Raw Story in an exclusive interview, Americans will "stop expecting anything of Washington", turning the US into more of a "banana republic" than a super power.

Orlov, who witnessed the Soviet Union's collapse from within, lamented that America's condition is so severe there is "absolutely nothing" most can do to keep it alive or hasten its demise.

"Basically the people in this country are powerless", he suggested. "So they should probably focus on things closer to home".

Orlov, born in Leningrad (now known as Saint Petersburg), moved to the United States at age twelve and became an engineer. In his book, he detailed his experiences with the Soviet collapse on numerous visits to Russia in the late 1980s, early 1990s. He covered similarities between the two superpowers in their twilight and suggested ways for Americans to adapt to their new environment.

Amid horrid unemployment and a national deficit soaring past World War Two levels, Orlov theorized that the US would eventually collapse - not from finances or war, but from a lack of faith in the system.

It would happen over three overlapping stages, he said: financial, political and commercial.

"We're fairly far along in the financial collapse trajectory while political collapse has now really only started with the last election", he said.

By the next election cycle, Orlov figured, the United States would be in the throes of a "banana republic" such that the voters would exchange one inept political party for another inept political party while expecting different results.

While nothing constructive would result from this behavior, he said, the next meaningless shift in 2012 may be the last straw.

"That will run its course where people walk away in disgust and stop expecting anything of Washington", he said.

Environmental and social catastrophe

As the financial collapse runs its course, Orlov said, people can expect some imports to be cut off. Energy, above all cheap oil, will be the most important import to dry up. Transportation fuels will also become scarce, bringing on the next stage of social collapse: the commercial sphere, he noted.

"People will lose access to various products that they need", Orlov said.

Much has already collapsed in the commercial sphere. Vacant strip malls and deserted grocery stores clutter the landscape in many parts of the country.

"You also have people whose only source of food is food stamps", he said. "That's becoming predominant in a lot of communities".

But let's not fail to mention an overemphasis on military expenditures and unused industrial areas, Orlov insisted, describing them as mis-investments made by both empires.

"To this day, the former Soviet Union is littered with abandoned or semi-abandoned industrial sites just as the United States is", he noted.

By Orlov's estimation, the US military will never voluntarily quit being the world's largest oil consumer and largest polluter. Moreover, any plans suggested to the military to end its oil dependency in thirty years are an act of "desperation", he said.

"They have set their hair on fire and are running around in circles. That's their drill right now", Orlov quipped.

But what really seemed to rock the Soviet empire to its foundations, Orlov explained, was devastation of Russia's physical environment as a result of industrialization. The prime example was the nuclear reactor accident in Chernobyl in 1986. To this day, the site continues to produce very high levels of childhood leukemia, cancers and other diseases.

"[The Chernobyl accident] caused a great number of people, including people in some positions of authority, especially in the scientific community in Russia, to seriously mistrust the government, and [they] started doing their own research, making their own observations that disquieted them even more", Orlov explained.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost" policy allowed enough truth out to undermine the remaining Soviet authority to the point where those who operated the system lost interest in perpetuating it, Orlov said.

While likening the Chernobyl disaster to the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico on his blog, Orlov said that he expects no hearts of American leaders to bleed over their destroyed environment any time soon.

"I don't see the elite in the United States at quite that level of desperation quite yet - probably because they are a little bit less attuned to what's going on", he said. "They are a little bit more sheltered from the public at large. But that might change."


With editing by Stephen C Webster.

Bill Totten

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Can America Be Changed?

The political economy, not the mythical America, is really what defines America

by John Kozy

Global Research (January 24 2011)

If the American people ever hope to take back their country, they need to understand America's political economy so the parts of it that are morally offensive and economically ineffective can be repudiated. Only then will Americans be able to make the changes that are needed to make Lincoln's dream of a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people a reality. But unfortunately no one studies political economy as it was studied in the eighteenth century, so change has become very difficult.

During his final week in office, George Bush claimed: "There's still an enemy out there that would like to inflict damage on America - Americans ... The most important job [for] the next president is ... to protect the American people from another attack". I doubt that many people who heard or read this claim noticed its subtle ambiguity. America is equated with Americans. But are the two really synonymous?

For instance, who or what was really attacked on 9/11? The most specific answer is the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Neither separately nor both together can be equated with America. Were the people in those three buildings attacked? In a sense, I suppose they were, but who were they and how many were there? The question is almost impossible to answer accurately. Why?

In one report, which is typical of many, the writer claims that, "Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives ..." This statement too is ambiguous. I suspect that more than 3,000 Americans died on 9/11, but not all of them died as a result of the airplanes that were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Furthermore, the people who did die as a result of these events fall into different groups - those who were in the buildings before the planes crashed into them, and those who responded to the crashes, and all who were in the buildings before the planes crashed were not all Americans. So how many Americans in the buildings before the crashes died as a result of the crashes? Well, considerably fewer than 3,000.

How near to 3,000 is nearly 3,000? I don't know. Perhaps +/- ten? Or twenty-five? What about 50 or 100 or 500? What about almost 1,000? If you search for a list of the victims, you'll find different numbers reported.

One report cites these numbers:

Two thousand seven hundred and fifty two victims died in the attack on the World Trade Center. But 343 were firefighters and 60 were police officers, totaling 403. Although it is true that they died on 9/11 after responding to the attack, they themselves were not directly killed by those who attacked on 9/11 which leaves 2,349 who possibly were. They were killed by the buildings' collapse.

One hundred eighty four people were killed in the attack on the Pentagon. Now the total comes to 2,532. But wait, this number includes nationals of over seventy countries, 67 of whom were British, one was Turkish, two were Irish, one was an Israeli, one was German, one was El Salvadorian, over 201 were Indians, and one was Nigerian. This comes to 275 from eight countries. But the report claims that there were victims from more than seventy countries. So there must have been at least 62 more foreign victims which brings the total of foreign victims to at least 337. Now the total number of Americans killed directly by those who attacked on 9/11 comes to 2,195. A similar analysis of another report produces the number 2,033. Neither of these numbers seems like nearly 3,000 to me, but "nearly 3,000" seems a lot more compelling than "at most 2,033" to someone trying to use a number to justify going to war. Is that why getting an accurate count is so difficult?

All of the people who were killed on 9/11 were not in the buildings that made up the World Trade Center or the Pentagon and all were not Americans. Most of the people in those buildings before the crashes were uninjured. The others who were killed were killed by the collapse of the buildings. It is doubtful that the attackers expected that to happen. After all, no skyscraper had ever before been destroyed by an airplane striking it. And when demolition experts bring down buildings, they place the explosives at the bottom, not the top. The ambiguity over who was killed how is remarkable. Propagandists love ambiguity, and almost everything we know about 9/11 is ambiguous.

But okay, say 2,000 Americans were killed by the attackers on 9/11. America then went to war and according to the Washington Post, at least 5,848 members of the American armed forces have been killed. So almost three times (2.9 times actually) more have been killed in the wars than were attacked and killed on 9/11. When I was a boy, we called this kind of situation, biting off one's nose to spite one's face.

But who were these 5,848 soldiers?

Well think about it. After all, the war is being fought to "protect the American people from another attack". To say that Americans are being protected by sending Americans off to be killed is a strange oxymoron. (Oh, I know. It happens in every war.) If Bush's claim, however, has any truth at all, the wars are being fought to protect America and not Americans. But what then is the America that is being protected? Well, consider this:

Many people think of America as a set of values, those values that America stands for. You know!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

[T]hat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth".

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances ... The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seize.

Every schoolboy knows these, but the Congress and the federal judiciary seem to have forgotten them.

But wait! Lincoln knew that no nation of the people, by the people, and for the people ever existed, and what has never existed cannot perish. This view of America is pure myth, and the Congress and the courts know it. Neither can something that has never existed be protected. So this is not the America that the wars are being fought to protect. What then is?

Early in the seventeenth century, the term "political economy" was introduced by Antoine de Montchretien when he published his Traite de l'economie politique in 1615. The term denoted a branch of moral philosophy which studied production, buying and selling, the distribution of national income and wealth and their relations to law, custom, and government, all of which have moral implications. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx considered themselves political economists. The economist, Edwin R A Seligman, described it nicely in 1889, "Economics is a social science, that is, it is an ethical and therefore an historical science ... It is not a natural science, and therefore not an exact or purely abstract science". After Alfred Marshall published a textbook in 1890, the term "economics" began to replace "political economy" and the term has now disappeared from common usage in America.

But political economy differs from economics in that politics and economics are studied together, being inextricably linked. Furthermore, political economy has a strong moral component while economics does not. Today, economists like to pretend that economics can be studied independently even when they recognize that it can't. The proof is that economists fall into sects that are clearly political. We have conservative economists such as the late Milton Friedman and liberal economists such as Paul Krugman, and politicians clearly hold economic views. Although not admitting it, economists try to bend their theories in ways that make their theories and political views compatible. Furthermore what economists call laws must be enacted into law for any economy to work. Economists routinely attempt to influence government to enact laws and implement policies that are needed to make the economies that economists favor work. Economies do not work in the absence of governmental action. As distinct from political economists, economists now study merely the ways that society uses to organize the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services without taking into consideration morality or how political views affect these. Economists take their political views for granted and refuse to subject them and the economic policies that their political views generate to scrutiny. Whereas political economy deals with the relations between production, law, custom, and government in an attempt to understand how political institutions and economic practices influence each other, economists like to pretend that economic laws are not influenced by political institutions. But look at this: "It is ridiculous to argue that the inequality in the US is simply the result of free markets. Markets are structured by governments."

In a sense, when considered as a descriptive activity, a nation's political economy describes exactly what a nation does, how it does it, and thus what it really stands for. The political economy of a nation can thus be compared to what it says about itself to determine if it walks a walk that matches its talk.

In short, there is no such thing as an economic system that is not defined and protected by some legal system. That's why politics and economics cannot be separated. But oddly enough, the US Constitution mentions no specific economic system as Justice Holmes recognized in Lochner. So how did Capitalism become the American way? Partly by accident and partly by judicial fiat.

When the English colonists came to America, they brought with them the English political and economic system, the English political economy, which was enshrined in English common law. When the nation was created in 1789, the federal courts were given the responsibility of adjudicating legal disputes between the states. The justices did so by incorporating the relevant aspects of English common law into case law. They could have used ordinary moral principles instead and fulfilled the framers' desire to "establish Justice" (found in the Constitution's preamble) but they didn't. They codified English common law into American law by means of mere judicial decree. Thus the economic aspects of English common law became the basis of the American commercial code. Furthermore, people like Lewis F Powell Junior, who later became an associate justice of the Supreme Court, warned the Chamber of Commerce that the nation's free enterprise system was under attack. He urged the Chamber to assemble "a highly competent staff of lawyers" and retain outside counsel "of national standing and reputation" to appear before the Supreme Court and advance the interests of American business. And Robin S Conrad, the executive vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce's litigation unit claimed that, "Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change". So throughout the nation's history, the Court has written a Capitalist economy into case law even though nothing in the Constitution required it. Yet English common law is a moral abomination; it always favored the English aristocracy.

So America's political economy consists of something like this: In addition to the makeup of the national government as described in the Constitution, it consists of the rules for how candidates are selected (mainly the laws regulating primary elections in the several states), how elections are financed, how votes are tabulated, how elected officials are paid, how each chamber in the Congress enacts legislation, how enacted legislation is enforced and adjudicated, how case law which contains the rules governing economic activity is written and enforced, how governmental agencies are related to the three Constitutional branches and are overseen, especially those agencies whose actions are kept secret, how non-governmental groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission among others are allowed to influence governmental actions, and how the Supreme Court has usurped the Constitution, and a lot more.

This political economy, not the mythical America, is really what defines America and is what the War on Terror is meant to protect. Americans were not the targets of those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the economic and military aspects of America's political economy were. Although most Americans don't know any of this, the President, the members of Congress, and the justices of the federal courts know it very well, and consequently they have no qualms about restricting the values America is supposed to stand for, including our Constitutional rights. General Smedley Butler was aware of all of this when he wrote,

War Is a Racket ... The flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag ... I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism ... I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

Butler understood political economy.

Legal experts have suggested that the Patriot Act erodes elements of several parts of the Bill of Rights, citing the following parts of the Constitution: the First Amendment (freedom of speech and assembly), the Fourth Amendment (freedom from unreasonable search and seizure), the Fifth Amendment (right to due process of law), the Sixth Amendment (right to speedy, public, and fair trials, right to confront accusers, and right to a criminal defense), and the Eighth Amendment (freedom from excessive and cruel and unusual punishment). Of course, passage of the Patriot Act is not the first time the government has restricted civil liberties. During every major American war, the government has imposed restrictions on civil liberties. The specified reasons have been varied, but the common aim has always been to quell dissent, to silence criticism of political decisions.

It should be obvious that wars are not fought to protect the lives of Americans, since in wars, Americans are sent to die. It should be equally obvious that wars are not fought to preserve the values enshrined in the Constitution, since in wars, those values are routinely restricted. The only alternative then is that wars are fought to preserve those institutions and practices that make up the political economy. Its preservation becomes all consuming and neither people nor the nation's values are allowed to interfere with that goal. In short, the War on Terror is being fought to protect the status quo both politically and economically.

A nation's political economy is also what makes meaningful change difficult if not impossible; meaningful change would require abandoning much of the legal system. If the American people ever hope to really be free, they need to understand America's political economy so the parts of it that are morally offensive and economically ineffective can be identified. Only then will Americans be able to make the changes that are needed to make their country truly theirs and make Lincoln's dream of a nation of the people, by the people , and for the people a reality. But unfortunately no one studies political economy as it was studied in the eighteenth century anymore, so change has become very difficult, very difficult indeed.


John Kozy is a retired professor of philosophy and logic who writes on social, political, and economic issues. After serving in the US Army during the Korean War, he spent twenty years as a university professor and another twenty years working as a writer. He has published a textbook in formal logic commercially, in academic journals and a small number of commercial magazines, and has written a number of guest editorials for newspapers. His on-line pieces can be found on and he can be emailed from that site's homepage.

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Bill Totten

The Last Industrial Civilization

by Peter Goodchild (January 22 2011)

Both the US and China seem good candidates for the Last Stand of industrialized humanity, but the two countries have almost opposite problems. It's a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, of whether it is better to suffer from one syndrome or another.

In its favor, the USA has a relatively good ratio of population to arable land: 170 people per square kilometer (CIA, 2010). On the negative side, it has huge private and public debts, although in the post-oil world defaulting will be an easy matter, until eventually money ceases to be a meaningful entity and there will therefore be no debts. It has an enormous military budget (about $1 trillion annually) spent on enterprises of dubious benefit, an inefficient and dishonest government, and a wasteful bureaucracy. It also has no manufacturing base, although a nation of "service industries" is eventually a nation of paupers.

In some ways, China seems better off. It is a creditor nation, not a debtor. It has an efficient if undemocratic government and an excellent manufacturing base. Perhaps most importantly, it has both the money and the determination to seek control of the world's remaining oil supplies. On the other hand, China has a severe shortage of water and food. It has a disastrous ratio of population to arable land: 927 people per square kilometer, twice that of the world average (CIA, 2010), which is already bad enough. The water table is falling rapidly, and the topsoil is saline from over-irrigation. Four-fifths of China's grain harvest depends on irrigation, and the fossil aquifer of the North China Plain maintains half of China's wheat production and a third of its corn, although a fossil aquifer cannot be rejuvenated when its level is allowed to fall. As a result of the depletion of water, Chinese annual grain production has been in decline since 1998 (Brown, 2008; UN Environment Program, 2007).

China also has a serious problem with domestic supplies of fuel. With about twenty percent of the world's population, it produces only about five percent of the world's oil (BP, 2010, June). It uses up coal so quickly that its reserves will not last beyond 2030 (Heinberg, 2009; 2010, May). Relying so much on coal, the pollution problems are horrendous.

China has always been a land of famine. The worst famine in history was during China's Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1961), when thirty million died, with lost births of perhaps 33 million. Of course, a bad track record does not in itself prove that China will be unable to create an industrial renaissance, but the fact remains that its fundamental problem of overpopulation has never been solved, even with a tyrannical approach to birth control. Since 1953, the year of the first proper Chinese census and approximately the start of concerns with excessive fertility, the population has gone from 583 million to over 1.3 billion. For that matter, since the official starting of the one-child campaign in 1979 the population has grown by over 300 million (Riley, 2004, June).

The question of whether China can create a "renaissance" or a "new Chinese Empire" is partly a matter of definitions, or rather hairsplitting. An analogy would be the latter days of the Roman Empire: Did the Roman Empire survive until 410, when the city was sacked by the Goths, or did it end much later, in 1453, when Constantinople was sacked by the Turks? It comes down to the rather trivial question of what one means by "survive". As in the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", one must ask whether losing two arms and two legs constitutes a mere flesh wound. Even if a new Chinese Empire could arise, to what extent would it be able to exploit the rest of the world when everything must be transported to Beijing in wooden carts?

The last industrial civilization will be a bizarre, crowded, dirty, impoverished world, with most of its population squeezed into cinder-block apartment buildings, black smoke curling up from the chimneys in winter. Perhaps at the moment there is no indisputable evidence for the winner, but my intuition tells me I'd do better holing up in Montana than in Beijing.


BP. Global statistical review of world energy. (2010, June). Retrieved from

Brown, L (2006, June 15). Grain harvest. Earth Policy Indicators. Retrieved from Earth Policy Institute website:

Brown, L (2008). Plan B: Mobilizing to save civilization. New York: Norton & Co.

CIA. World factbook. (2010). US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Heinberg, R (2009). Blackout. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society.

Heinberg, R (2010, May). China's coal bubble ... and how it will deflate US efforts to develop "clean coal". MuseLetter #216. Retrieved from

Riley, N E (2004, June). China's population: New trends and challenges. Population Reference Bureau. Population Bulletin, 59 (2).

UN Environment Program. (2007). Global environment outlook 4. Retrieved from


Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians (1984, 1989), published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is

Bill Totten

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Onset of Catabolic Collapse

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (January 19 2010)

I've commented more than once in these essays on the gap in perception between history as it appears in textbooks and history as it's lived by people on the spot at the time. That's a gap worth watching, because the foreshortening of history that comes with living in the middle of it quite often gets in the way of figuring out a useful response to a time of crisis - for example, the one we're in right now.

This is all the more challenging because the foreshortening of history cuts both ways; it makes small but sudden events look more important than they are, and it also helps hide slow but massive shifts that will play a much greater role in shaping the future. Recent increases in the price of oil, for example, kicked off a flurry of predictions suggesting that hyperinflation and the sudden collapse of industrial society are right around the corner; identical predictions were made the last time oil prices spiked, the time before that, and the time before that, too, so the traditional grain of salt may be worth adding to them this time around. (We'll most likely get hyperinflation in the US, granted, but my guess is that that will come further down the road.) Look at all these price spikes and notice that the peaks and troughs have both tended gradually upwards, on the other hand, and you may just catch sight of the signal hidden in all that noise - the fact that providing industrial civilization with its most important fuel is loading a greater burden on the world's economies with every year that passes.

The same gap in perception afflicts most current efforts to make sense of the future looming up ahead of us. Ever since my original paper on catabolic collapse {1} first found its way onto the internet, I've fielded questions fairly regularly from people who want to know whether I think some current or imminent crisis will tip industrial society over into catabolic collapse in some unmistakably catastrophic way. It's a fair question, but it's based on a fundamental misreading both of the concept of catabolic collapse and of our present place in the long cycles of rise and fall that define the history of civilizations.

Let's start with some basics, for the sake of those of my readers who haven't waded their way through the fine print of the paper. The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain. What we are pleased to call "primitive societies" - that is, societies that are well enough adapted to their environments that they get by comfortably without huge masses of cumbersome and expensive infrastructure - usually do so in a fairly small way, and very often evolve traditional ways of getting rid of excess goods at regular intervals so that the cost of maintaining it doesn't become a burden. As societies expand and start to depend on complex infrastructure to support the daily activities of their inhabitants, though, it becomes harder and less popular to do this, and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society's stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can't be covered by the resources on hand.

It's what happens next that's crucial to the theory. The only reliable way to solve a crisis that's caused by rising maintenance costs is to cut those costs, and the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster. That's rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff. Thus the normal rhythm of history in complex societies cycles back and forth between building up, or anabolism, and breaking down, or catabolism. Societies that have been around a while - China comes to mind - have cycled up and down through this process dozens of times, with periods of prosperity and major infrastructure projects alternating with periods of impoverishment and infrastructure breakdown.

A more dramatic version of the same process happens when a society is meeting its maintenance costs with nonrenewable resources. If the resource is abundant enough - for example, the income from a global empire, or half a billion years of ancient sunlight stored underground in the form of fossil fuels - and the rate at which it's extracted can be increased over time, at least for a while, a society can heap up unimaginable amounts of stuff without worrying about the maintenance costs. The problem, of course, is that neither imperial expansion nor fossil fuel drawdown can keep on going indefinitely on a finite planet. Sooner or later you run into the limits of growth; at that point the costs of keeping wealth flowing in from your empire or your oil fields begin a ragged but unstoppable increase, while the return on that investment begins an equally ragged and equally unstoppable decline; the gap between your maintenance needs and available resources spins out of control, until your society no longer has enough resources on hand even to provide for its own survival, and it goes under.

That's catabolic collapse. It's not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because each burst of catabolism on the way down does lower maintenance costs significantly, and can also free up resources for other uses. The usual result is the stairstep sequence of decline that's traced by the history of so many declining civilizations - half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you've got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.

It's easy enough to track catabolic collapse at work in retrospect, when you can glance over a couple of centuries of decline in an evening with one of Michael Grant's excellent histories of Rome in one hand and a glass of decent bourbon in the other. Catching it in process, though, can be a much more challenging task, because it happens on a scale considerably larger than a human lifespan. In its early stages, the signal is hard to tease out from ordinary economic and political fluctuations; later on, it's all too easy to believe that any given period of stabilization has solved the problem, at least until the next wave of crises rolls in; late in the game, as crisis piles on top of crisis and cracks are opening up everywhere, your society's glory days are so far in the past that it's surprisingly easy to lose track of the fact that calamity isn't the normal shape of things.

Still, the attempt is worth making, and I propose to make it here. In fact, I'd like to suggest that it's possible at this point to provide a fairly exact date for the onset of catabolic collapse here in the United States of America.

That America is a prime candidate for catabolic collapse seems tolerably clear at this point, though I'm sure plenty of people can find reasons to argue with that assessment. It's considered impolite to talk about America's empire nowadays, but the US troops currently garrisoned in 140 countries around the world are not there for their health, after all, and it requires a breathtaking suspension of disbelief to insist that this global military presence has nothing to do with the fact that the five percent of our species that live in this country use around a quarter of the world's total energy production and around a third of its raw materials and industrial products. The United States has an empire, then, and it's become an extraordinarily expensive empire to maintain; the fact that the US spends as much money on its military annually as all the other nations on Earth put together is only one measure of the maintenance cost involved.

That America is also irrevocably committed to dependence on dwindling supplies nonrenewable fossil fuels also seems clear at this point, though here again there are plenty who would dispute the point. Even if there were other energy resources available in the same gargantuan amounts - and despite decades of enthusiastic claims, every attempt to deploy other energy resources to replace a significant amount of fossil fuels has run headfirst into crippling problems of scale - the political will to carry out a transition soon enough to matter has not been present, and the careful analyses in the 2005 Hirsch report are among the many good reasons for thinking that the window of opportunity for that transition is long past. The notion that America can drill its way out of crisis would be funny if the situation was not so serious; despite dizzyingly huge government subsidies and the best oil exploration and extraction technology on Earth, US oil production has been in decline since 1972. As the first nation to develop a commercial petroleum industry, it was probably inevitable that we would be among the very first to hit the limits to production and begin slipping down the arc of decline. As for coal and natural gas, the abundance of the former and the glut of the latter are the product of short term factors; while press releases aimed mostly at boosting stock prices insist that we'll have supplies of both for centuries to come, more sober analysts have gotten past the hype and the hugely inflated reserve figures and predicted hard peaks for both fuels within thirty years, and quite possibly sooner.

That being the case, the question is simply when to place the first wave of catabolism in America - the point at which crises bring a temporary end to business as usual, access to real wealth becomes a much more challenging thing for a large fraction of the population, and significant amounts of the national infrastructure are abandoned or stripped for salvage. It's not a difficult question to answer, either.

The date in question is 1974.

That was the year when the industrial heartland of the United States, a band of factories that reached from Pennsylvania and upstate New York straight across to Indiana and Michigan, began its abrupt transformation into the Rust Belt. Hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America's then-prosperous working class, went away forever, and state and local governments went into a fiscal tailspin that saw many basic services cut to the bone and beyond. Meanwhile, wild swings in markets for agricultural commodities and fossil fuels, worsened by government policy, pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered. In the terms I've suggested in this post, the US catabolized most of its heavy industry, most of its family farms, and a good half or so of its working class, among other things. It also set in motion the process of catabolizing one of the most important resources it had left at that time, the oil reserves of the Alaska North Slope. That oil could have been eked out over decades to cushion the transition to a low-energy future; instead, it was pumped and burnt at a breakneck pace in order to deal with the immediate crisis.

The United States was not alone in embracing catabolism in the mid-1970s. Britain abandoned most of its own heavy industry at the same time, plunging large parts of the industrial Midlands and Scotland into permanent depression, and set about catabolizing its own North Sea oil reserves with the same misplaced enthusiasm that American politicians lavished on the North Slope. The result was exactly what history would suggest; by embracing catabolism, the US and Britain both staggered through the crisis years of the 1970s and came out the other side into a breathing space of relative stability in the Reagan and Thatcher years. That breathing space was extended significantly when the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, beginning in 1989, allowed American and British economic interests and their local surrogates to snap up wealth across Eurasia for pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, in the process imposing the same sort of economic collapse on most of a continent that had previously been inflicted on the steelworkers of Pittsburgh and the shipbuilders of Glasgow.

That breathing space ended in 2008. At this point, I'd suggest, we're in the early stages of a second and probably more severe round of catabolism here in America, and throughout Europe as well. What happened to the industrial working class in the 1970s is now happening to a very broad swath of the middle class, as jobs evaporate, public services are slashed, and half a dozen states stumble down the slope that will turn them into the Rust Belt equivalents of the early 21st century. Exactly what will happen as that process continues is anybody's guess, but it's unlikely to end as soon as the round of catabolism in the 1970s, and it may very well cut deeper; neither we nor Britain nor any other of our close allies has a big new petroleum reserve just waiting to be tapped, after all.

It's crucial to remember, though, that catabolism is a response to crisis and at least in the short term, much more often than not, an effective response. The fact that we're moving into the second stage of our society's long descent into catabolic collapse doesn't mean that America will fall apart in the next decade or so; quite the contrary, it strongly suggests that America will not fall apart this time around. As the current round of catabolism picks up speed, a great many jobs will go away, and most of them will never return; a great many people who depend on those jobs will descend into poverty, and most of them will never rise back out of it; much of the familiar fabric of life in America as it's been lived in recent decades will be shredded beyond repair, and new and far less lavish patterns will emerge instead; outside the narrowing circle of the privileged classes, even those who maintain relative affluence will be making do with much less than they or their equivalents do today. All these are ways that a society in decline successfully adapts to the contraction of its economic base and the mismatch between available resources and maintenance costs.

Twenty or thirty or forty years from now, in turn, it's a fairly safe bet that the years of crisis will come to a close and a newly optimistic America will reassure itself that everything really is all right again. The odds are pretty high that by then it will be, for all practical purposes, a Third World nation, with little more than dim memories remaining from its former empire or its erstwhile status as a superpower; it's not at all impossible, for that matter, that it will be more than one nation, split asunder along lines traced out by today's increasingly uncompromising culture wars. Fast forward another few decades, and another round of crises arrives, followed by another respite, and another round of crises, until finally peasant farmers plow their fields in sight of the crumbling ruins of our cities.

That's the way civilizations end, and that's the way ours is ending. The phrasing is deliberate: "is ending", not "will end". If I'm right, we're already half a lifetime into the decline and fall of industrial civilization. It can be challenging to keep that awareness in mind when wrestling with the day to day details of getting by in an ailing, sclerotic nation with a half-failed economy - or, for that matter, when trying out some of the technologies and tricks I've been discussing here in recent months. Still, it's worth making the attempt, because the wider view arguably makes it a bit easier to keep current events in perspective and plan for the future in which we will all, after all, be spending the rest of our lives.


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America {2} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World (2009), and the forthcoming The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered. He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star's Reach, his blog/novel of the deindustrial future {3}. Set four centuries after the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our descendants tomorrow.





Bill Totten

Life after Capitalism

by Robert Skidelsky

Project Syndicate (January 19 2011)

In 1995, I published a book called The World After Communism. Today, I wonder whether there will be a world after capitalism.

That question is not prompted by the worst economic slump since the 1930s. Capitalism has always had crises, and will go on having them. Rather, it comes from the feeling that Western civilization is increasingly unsatisfying, saddled with a system of incentives that are essential for accumulating wealth, but that undermine our capacity to enjoy it. Capitalism may be close to exhausting its potential to create a better life - at least in the world's rich countries.

By "better", I mean better ethically, not materially. Material gains may continue, though evidence shows that they no longer make people happier. My discontent is with the quality of a civilization in which the production and consumption of unnecessary goods has become most people's main occupation.

This is not to denigrate capitalism. It was, and is, a superb system for overcoming scarcity. By organising production efficiently, and directing it to the pursuit of welfare rather than power, it has lifted a large part of the world out of poverty.

Yet what happens to such a system when scarcity has been turned to plenty? Does it just go on producing more of the same, stimulating jaded appetites with new gadgets, thrills, and excitements? How much longer can this continue? Do we spend the next century wallowing in triviality?

For most of the last century, the alternative to capitalism was socialism. But socialism, in its classical form, failed - as it had to. Public production is inferior to private production for any number of reasons, not least because it destroys choice and variety. And, since the collapse of communism, there has been no coherent alternative to capitalism. Beyond capitalism, it seems, stretches a vista of ... capitalism.

There have always been huge moral questions about capitalism, which could be put to one side because capitalism was so successful at generating wealth. Now, when we already have all the wealth we need, we are right to wonder whether the costs of capitalism are worth incurring.

Adam Smith, for example, recognized that the division of labor would make people dumber by robbing them of non-specialized skills. Yet he thought that this was a price - possibly compensated by education - worth paying, since the widening of the market increased the growth of wealth. This made him a fervent free trader.

Today's apostles of free trade argue the case in much the same way as Adam Smith, ignoring the fact that wealth has expanded enormously since Smith's day. They typically admit that free trade costs jobs, but claim that re-training programs will fit workers into new, "higher value" jobs. This amounts to saying that even though rich countries (or regions) no longer need the benefits of free trade, they must continue to suffer its costs.

Defenders of the current system reply: we leave such choices to individuals to make for themselves. If people want to step off the conveyor belt, they are free to do so. And increasing numbers do, in fact, "drop out". Democracy, too, means the freedom to vote capitalism out of office.

This answer is powerful but naive. People do not form their preferences in isolation. Their choices are framed by their societies' dominant culture. Is it really supposed that constant pressure to consume has no effect on preferences? We ban pornography and restrict violence on TV, believing that they affect people negatively, yet we should believe that unrestricted advertising of consumer goods affects only the distribution of demand, but not the total?

Capitalism's defenders sometimes argue that the spirit of acquisitiveness is so deeply ingrained in human nature that nothing can dislodge it. But human nature is a bundle of conflicting passions and possibilities. It has always been the function of culture (including religion) to encourage some and limit the expression of others.

Indeed, the "spirit of capitalism" entered human affairs rather late in history. Before then, markets for buying and selling were hedged with legal and moral restrictions. A person who devoted his life to making money was not regarded as a good role model. Greed, avarice, and envy were among the deadly sins. Usury (making money from money) was an offense against God.

It was only in the eighteenth century that greed became morally respectable. It was now considered healthily Promethean to turn wealth into money and put it to work to make more money, because by doing this one was benefiting humanity.

This inspired the American way of life, where money always talks. The end of capitalism means simply the end of the urge to listen to it. People would start to enjoy what they have, instead of always wanting more. One can imagine a society of private wealth holders, whose main object is to lead good lives, not to turn their wealth into "capital".

Financial services would shrink, because the rich would not always want to become richer. As more and more people find themselves with enough, one might expect the spirit of gain to lose its social approbation. Capitalism would have done its work, and the profit motive would resume its place in the rogues' gallery.

The dishonoring of greed is likely only in those countries whose citizens already have more than they need. And even there, many people still have less than they need. The evidence suggests that economies would be more stable and citizens happier if wealth and income were more evenly distributed. The economic justification for large income inequalities - the need to stimulate people to be more productive - collapses when growth ceases to be so important.

Perhaps socialism was not an alternative to capitalism, but its heir. It will inherit the earth not by dispossessing the rich of their property, but by providing motives and incentives for behavior that are unconnected with the further accumulation of wealth.

Bill Totten

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bright Frenetic Mills

by Thomas Frank

Harper's Magazine Easy Chair (December 2010)

Although it scarcely seems believable today, I originally came to journalism as a practical, responsible career move. It was the mid-1990s, I had just finished a PhD in history, and I was toiling away as a lecturer at a college in Chicago. Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted. Friends of mine all told the same stories of low-wage toil, of lecturing and handing out A's while going themselves without health insurance or enough money for necessities. Our tenured elders, meanwhile, could only rarely be moved to care. What was a predicament to us was a liberation to them - a glorious lifting of their burden to teach. For the university, which was just then discovering the wonders of profit-making, it was something even more fabulous: a way to keep labor costs down.

I got out I discovered that I could earn as much for a few stories in an alternative newsweekly as I could for an entire semester of Civil War to Present, and so I left academia forever.

Now it is journalism that is collapsing. Ad revenue is in decline. Newsgathering staffs are decimated Distant bureaus are closed. Print editions shrink or disappear. It is next to impossible to make readers pay for online content. There is no point in denying it. The industry is dying.

And when it's not dying by more or less natural causes, it's being hustled into the grave by bright entrepreneurs with big new ideas. Consider the poor Tribune Company, publisher of the floundering Chicago Tribune, the shrinking Los Angeles Times, and a collection of other once-trusted household names. A few years ago it was bought out by Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell, who planned to rescue the papers from disaster. People needed to understand, he said in 2008, that "if we keep operating the way we've been operating in the past, there is no future".

Mr Zell's bold solution to this crisis was to install at his company's helm one Randy Michaels, a former radio executive famed for applying the "principles" of McDonald's to the airwaves, along with a cohort of Michaels's loutish radio pals. Churlishness is the ticket to success nearly everywhere else in business these days. Why not here? According to an account by David Carr in the New York Times, Michaels and his merry band of Babbitts proceeded to declare righteous war on journalistic professionalism, closing career opportunities to the qualified and conspicuously blending advertising with editorial. And although these radio execs were almost entirely innocent of newspaper experience, they were masters of the art of the grab, pulling down millions in bonuses while the company slogged on through bankruptcy proceedings.

And - need I say it, reader? - all this was done in the name of revitalizing the business by constructing, as a missive from Mr Michaels put it, "a fun, non-linear creative environment". (Mr Michaels announced his intention to resign a few weeks after making this claim.)

Quality journalism is not, of course, a function of newsprint. It can theoretically work in other media just as well, and by now there are enough examples of bloggers breaking big stories to put the paper-based argument to rest. The problem is not the end of the newspaper; it's that professional newsgathering organizations can no longer be supported by the for-profit system. Either the profit must go or the professionalism.

It's easy to predict which course the market will take. Just look at journalism's greatest foul-up of recent years: its almost complete failure to warn the public about the collapse of the subprime bubble. In that case, the convergence of journalism and profit meant journalists had trouble suspecting anything might be amiss.

Or, looking to the future, consider the example of Demand Media, a so called content-mill, which uses a vast collection of Web-recruited freelancers to generate articles for about $15 per 300-word item; copy editors are said to get $2.50 for each piece they correct. The outfit's editorial direction is charted by what the company's prospectus calls "our proprietary algorithms", which is to say, equations that mainly weigh two factors: what people are searching for on Google and what advertisers might pay to associate themselves with a given topic.

According to Demand's manifesto - yes, they have a manifesto - all this is merely "listening to the customer", an "incredibly liberating" development that "guides" not only the "content we create" but "the communities we nurture". Its competitor, Associated Content, actually calls itself "The People's Media Company"; on the occasion of its purchase by Yahoo!, Associated's founder claimed he had in mind "a democratization of content".

How egalitarian. Of course, the real source of the mills' magic would have been familiar in the nineteenth century: an inventive way to minimize labor costs. The content-mill is like a temp agency for writers, a literary maquiladora. It automates not some part of the creative act but rather the context in which it takes place: it deprofessionalizes journalism. You can see the results for yourself on, one of the friendly showplaces of Demand content, where you can find out "How to Make Your Eyes Look Bigger" or "How to Replace a CV Joint on a Chevy Avalanche", the latter penned by a fellow who, according to his bio, "is widely published on numerous writing websites and runs a his [sic] small writing business out of his home in Marietta, Ohio" {*}.

* You can also read content-mill text on
USA Today's website, which has outsourced the writing of certain travel features ("Family Road Trip Planning") to Demand and its army of freelancers. Other newspapers have followed suit.

Columbia Journalism Review
recently put a giant hamster wheel on its cover to bemoan this state of affairs, this frantic race to the bottom, this coming journalistic war of all against all. As for the entrepreneurship involved, one thinks back to the days of the robber barons, when a deluge of life's goodness went to, say, the innovator who figured out how to make his workers live in company towns so he could deduct rent from their paychecks. One thinks of the immortal words of utility baron Samuel Insull: "My experience is that the greatest aid to efficiency of labor is a long line of men waiting at the gate".

Nowadays we don't speak as plainly as old man Insull. It is the convention of our age to look at situations like this and declare that people are actually empowered by standing in that long line, that queueing up there frees them to engage in some kind of synergistic community-building - and that, come to think of it, the hamster is a noble beast. Democracy-talk has long provided the cover for the latest advances in rapaciousness, and a natural hostility toward elitism has furnished the official explanation for the great project of transferring the country's wealth to the uppermost one percent. And it is plain that the rise of the content-mills today merely advances the strategy launched years ago by the founder of USA Today, whereby focus groups were used to steer news coverage, critical attitudes were stigmatized as cynicism, and all of it was done in the name of "listening". At the time, you will recall, this was known as the "journalism of hope".

This might be the worst time ever to attend journalism school. And yet if you cast about in those high places where the flame of the profession is supposed to be guarded, you will discover that almost no one has an idea for tackling the big problems in a way that stands a chance of preserving journalism. The looming catastrophe has merely furnished an opportunity for repeating, in an ever-higher register, the management-theory cliches of the past two decades. Years from now, only a handful of professional newsgathering organizations may remain, but you can rest assured that the leaders of the nation's J-schools will still be talking about the need to "listen to the audience", trilling wondrously that we must "embrace change", and writing ecstatic little odes to "entrepreneurship".

Let us note, before proceeding, that the Editorial Advisory Board set up by Demand Media back in February includes, among others, Kevin Z Smith, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists; Ernest James Wilson III, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California; and Teri Schwartz, dean of the School of Theater, Film, and Television at UCLA.

Jeff Jarvis, a well-known blogger and management author, was also asked to join the board; he declined. ("Demand is uniquely controversial right now", he explained.) Mr Jarvis would have been quite a catch: he was recently named the head of the brand-new Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York (Tow and Knight are the names of the foundations bankrolling this particular hamster-training facility). Although Mr Jarvis is willing to listen to critics of the content-mills, he also maintains, on his blog, "that we should not miss the key insights and lessons in Demand's model", which he describes as "finding new ways to listen to what readers and the market want ..." - ahh, listening to the audience - "and second, cutting content creation into its constituent elements and creating a market for creation to find new efficiencies".

What makes the content-mills so innovative, so worth studying, in other words, are the very aspects of their operations that make them so toxic to the form of professionalism the J-schools exist to protect.

And should you be wondering what J-Schools will teach in the future, or on what grounds they will continue to admit students, simply heed the direction taken by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which was moved by the crisis, back in 2006, to appoint as its dean one John Lavine, a newspaper marketing expert. Chicago magazine called him a "campus revolutionary" for his announcement that "I'm blowing up the whole curriculum", though the only thing he seems to have blown up is the division between journalism and marketing, the latter of which, he assured an audience of journalism educators in 2009, is "essential to news and every other aspect of what we do". (Apparently that's because marketing is really a form of etiquette, a way of "being respectful to your audience".)

Otherwise, to judge Mr Lavine by what information is publicly available, all that is remarkable about him is the guilelessness of his techno-optimism, a sort of gadget-love I haven't seen since I stopped going to management conferences in 2000. In that speech from last year, which you can watch yourself thanks to the awesomeness of the Internet, Mr Lavine can be seen enthusing over the awesome new miniature computers that are coming, the awesome new GPS devices, the awesome new videoconferencing technology, the awesome new digital billboards, and his awesome Kindle, which reads what is left of the newspaper to him as he drives along in his car.

Maybe it's too much for Mr Lavine to imagine that these admirable, friendly machines might have a role in making life impossible for his student hamsters. And so, in the reassuring manner I associate with the Sunday schools of my youth, he tells his fellow journalism educators not to worry too much, that "be it strategic communications, or marketing, or journalism, or whatever ... know we're going to get through it. We are going to get through it. Because people are going to want what we all represent."

I sincerely hope that Mr Lavine is right. But I'm not counting on it. What you find as you explore the tweets and blog posts of the profession's leaders is that the failure of newspapers has brought with it a cognitive failure as well, in which a handful of superstitions have come to obscure what is actually happening in the world. So powerful is our desire to believe in the benevolent divinity of technology that it cancels out our caution, forces us to dismiss doubt as so much simple-minded Luddism. We have trouble grasping that the Internet might not bring only good; that an unparalleled tool for enlightenment and research and transparency might also bring unprecedented down-dumbing; that something that empowers the individual might also wreck the structures that have protected the individual for decades.

Jay Rosen of New York University, for instance, is a smart and lively journalism professor. He has for years taken as his special commission the taunting of writers he calls "curmudgeons", by which he seems to mean those who express misgivings about blogging, Twitter, "citizen journalism", and so on. When insulting these doubters for their old-fashioned cluelessness he can be clever and satisfyingly vicious. But put Mr Rosen face to virtual face with a master of the new-media world - say, Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of Demand Media - and a more conciliatory man seems to take his place, Mr Rosen had been calling Demand nasty names before interviewing Mr Rosenblatt online in December of 2009, and this was his opportunity to smite the villainous organization. Here was his most direct question:

Someone who follows my work and knew I was interviewing you told me to ask you this: Do you love the Web? The implied question there is: If you love the Web, then why are you doing this, running these content farms ...?

Do you love the Web. Because if your love was true - if your heart was pure - you couldn't possibly do such a thing. This is the sentimental check-and-balance, the safety catch that is supposed to protect us. All it will really protect, of course, is the Web itself.

Just to rub it in, here was Mr Rosenblatt's reply:

OMG. My entire career and life has been about the Web. Trying to innovate and create value where open spaces exist. We do not have a content mill as we discussed but an efficient method to get people the information they need when they want it. That is improving the Internet and I am proud of it.

Quite a bit has happened since the Web-crazy days of the late Nineties. We have lived through bubble after bubble after bubble; endured waves of accounting fraud so open they might be called fads; seen political entrepreneurship work its wonders on Washington's K Street; tasted the spoiled fruits of deregulation; watched the destruction of American manufacturing, the sinking of the middle class, the slow demise of labor unions, and so on. But the myths of the magic market persist as though nothing had happened to shake our faith in all those intervening years.

"Now that the commercial system of journalism is disintegrating ... our journalism schools for the most part appear clueless", the critic Robert McChesney wrote me recently. "The fact that the market is voting emphatically that journalism is no longer a profitable exercise, or at least profitable enough to provide the level of journalism our nation requires, simply does not compute".

Old Samuel Insull might be plenty pleased by that. Let the line grow long at the factory gate. Let the hamsters compete to make the wheel spin, cranking out their $15 stories and tweeting their little tweets while the Republic goes to hell. And by all means let the professors teach the wonders of "entrepreneurship". We all know what answer lies at the end of that line of inquiry: The only real solution to the hamster-wheel problem is to be the guy who owns the pet store.


Thomas Frank will now be writing each month's Easy Chair essay.

Bill Totten