Politics & economics - July 6
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The New American Cold War
Stephen F. Cohen, The Nation
Contrary to established opinion, the gravest threats to America's national security are still in Russia. They derive from an unprecedented development that most US policy-makers have recklessly disregarded, as evidenced by the undeclared cold war Washington has waged, under both parties, against post-Communist Russia during the past fifteen years.
As a result of the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia, a state bearing every nuclear and other device of mass destruction, virtually collapsed. During the 1990s its essential infrastructures--political, economic and social--disintegrated. Moscow's hold on its vast territories was weakened by separatism, official corruption and Mafia-like crime. The worst peacetime depression in modern history brought economic losses more than twice those suffered in World War II. GDP plummeted by nearly half and capital investment by 80 percent. Most Russians were thrown into poverty. Death rates soared and the population shrank. And in August 1998, the financial system imploded.
No one in authority anywhere had ever foreseen that one of the twentieth century's two superpowers would plunge, along with its arsenals of destruction, into such catastrophic circumstances. Even today, we cannot be sure what Russia's collapse might mean for the rest of the world.
...More fundamental realities indicate that Russia remains in an unprecedented state of peacetime demodernization and depopulation. Investment in the economy and other basic infrastructures remains barely a third of the 1990 level. Some two-thirds of Russians still live below or very near the poverty line, including 80 percent of families with two or more children, 60 percent of rural citizens and large segments of the educated and professional classes, among them teachers, doctors and military officers. The gap between the poor and the rich, Russian experts tell us, is becoming "explosive."
Most tragic and telling, the nation continues to suffer wartime death and birth rates, its population declining by 700,000 or more every year. Male life expectancy is barely 59 years and, at the other end of the life cycle, 2 to 3 million children are homeless.
...As long as catastrophic possibilities exist in that nation, so do the unprecedented threats to US and international security. Experts differ as to which danger is the gravest--proliferation of Russia's enormous stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological materials; ill-maintained nuclear reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines; an impaired early-warning system controlling missiles on hair-trigger alert; or the first-ever civil war in a shattered superpower, the terror-ridden Chechen conflict. But no one should doubt that together they constitute a much greater constant threat than any the United States faced during the Soviet era.
Nor is a catastrophe involving weapons of mass destruction the only danger in what remains the world's largest territorial country. Nearly a quarter of the planet's people live on Russia's borders, among them conflicting ethnic and religious groups. Any instability in Russia could easily spread to a crucial and exceedingly volatile part of the world.
There is another, perhaps more likely, possibility. Petrodollars may bring Russia long-term stability, but on the basis of growing authoritarianism and xenophobic nationalism. Those ominous factors derive primarily not from Russia's lost superpower status (or Putin's KGB background), as the US press regularly misinforms readers, but from so many lost and damaged lives at home since 1991. Often called the "Weimar scenario," this outcome probably would not be truly fascist, but it would be a Russia possessing weapons of mass destruction and large proportions of the world's oil and natural gas, even more hostile to the West than was its Soviet predecessor.
Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University, is the author (with Katrina vanden Heuvel) of Voices of Glasnost: Conversations With Gorbachev's Reformers and, most recently, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (both Norton).
(21 June 2006)
The struggle for energy resources is a red thread that runs through this sobering analysis of US-Russian relations. More articles by Cohen.
Tom Englehard discusses this article and more in his recent essay on TomDispatch: Playing the Destabilization Card at Home and Abroad
Running on Empty
The United States’ real problem with oil and energy policy goes beyond rising prices
David Moberg, In These Times
With gas prices pushing $3 a gallon, drivers aren’t just digging deep into their pockets. They’re getting angry—not just with oil companies and President Bush—and they think Democrats can do better. Yet converting those sentiments into electoral victories, let alone effective legislation, may not be so easy.
According to several polls taken in late spring, Americans rank gasoline prices slightly ahead of the Iraq war as a major issue, believe Bush has no clear plan for lower prices, and regard Republicans as far more influenced by big oil companies than Democrats. They think government can—and should—do something about the price at the pump.
...Democrats face a political dilemma in dealing with gas prices. If they promise much lower gas prices, they will be both politically dishonest and promote bad policy. But they can realistically promise that Americans can travel where they want for less money and less environmental damage—if the country pursues more efficient energy technologies and alternative energy supplies.
...The United States needs to reduce, even eliminate, the need for all oil as a fuel, not just foreign oil. As long as the U.S. economy depends on oil, it will be subject to the prices set by a world market vulnerable to disruptions.
...An alternative strategy, which has backing in principle from the United Auto Workers, would provide U.S. automakers with incentives for domestic production of new, more efficient vehicles. Despite the appeal of hydrogen fuel cells, electric vehicles or even diesels, the main transition engines will likely be hybrids that combine gasoline and electric engines (or plug-in hybrids that can also recharge batteries from the main power grid while parked). They’re already available and can more easily use existing gas stations to deliver fuel.
In one leading proposal for transition financing, introduced by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), auto companies that volunteered to invest in new hybrids and other fuel-efficient technologies would have a portion of their health care costs for retirees (roughly $1,500 per car for General Motors) paid for.
...So Democrats could promise that they will help create a new domestic auto industry that can deliver better, safer, more efficient vehicles that cost less to operate, rely more on home-grown sources of energy, minimize harm to the environment and create good jobs. The Apollo Alliance—a coalition of unions, environmental groups, social justice advocates and businesses—has long advocated such an inspirational project. Now the Democrats simply need the courage to assert that government can and should take on the task for the common good.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. Recently he has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.
(3 July 2006)
"In These Times" is a news publication in the tradition of the New Deal. Author Moberg probably is a good representative of U.S. liberal-labor-left thinking about energy; for him, the question is how to make the transition to a more efficient auto fleet, using substitutes for oil. He quotes Amory Lovins and recommends the Apollo Alliance. Interestingly, the position is not that far from Thomas Friedman and the "geo-greens" who promote energy independence for national security.
A more comprehensive approach is Energize America program, coming out of the Daily Kos community. -BA
Serious About Energy Security?
Ethan Heitner, TomPaine.com
Next week's meeting of the world's most powerful nations, the annual G-8 conference, will take place in St. Petersburgh, Russia. The theme of the meeting will be "energy security." Last year's meeting, at Gleneagles, as you recall, was all about debt relief and helping poor nations. (You remember how well that worked, and how the G-8 subsequently ended poverty in Africa, right?) In any case this year the big eight are looking out for themselves.
So I was looking forward to some insightful and sobering talk from The Financial Times when I saw that they were planning a series of articles on energy security. I admit, being the liberal-arts-major humanitarian softy that I am, sometimes I get great pleasure out of seeing my views echoed by "grown-ups" over at The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal. Surely, I think, these masters of the universe know what the game is.
The series has been disappointing so far, though. It started Tuesday with the startling analysis that people are worried about global fuel disruptions—and then dismisses the analysis of Colin Cambell, the head of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.
"Globally, discoveries peaked in 1964," he says. "We are not replacing what we use, and that has been the case since the early 1980s."
FT refuses to make the argument that moving off of oil would be the logical conclusion. Instead, it uses the language of the industry:
That should be the conclusion of the St Petersburg summit: both sides need a huge investment programme to tap new energy resources more efficiently.
In other words, find new places to drill and build more refineries.
The second piece, running yesterday, was a perfunctory analysis of the fragiliy of energy networks and their vulnerability to political instability.
However, the story becomes a little more interesting in today's installment, which looks at the hollowness of Bush's "energy independence" talk.
But like several other initiatives since the January speech, the tightening of the so-called Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in March was more smoke than fire. The slight increase in the average fuel economy required for popular sport utility vehicles and light trucks—to 24 miles per gallon beginning in 2011, up from 21.6 mpg—was largely offset by the continuation of loopholes aimed at keeping Detroit carmakers happy.
The pattern is one that has repeated itself even as rising petrol prices and the possibility of confrontation with Iran have pushed energy security to the top of the administration’s agenda.
The White House has promised aggressive initiatives in alternative fuels, more efficient technologies and fresh exploration for conventional energy. But it has shied away from any measures that might significantly reduce energy consumption in the short term
Still, it is distressing to see that The Financial Times, which generally has a well-earned reputation for seeing through the conventional wisdom and facing the hard truths, won't explore the alternatives to a growing energy crisis.
Like perhaps a more radical push towards meaningful energy independence?
(6 July 2006)
"Our" Real Addiction:
Capitalist Waste in Transportation
Michael Dawson, MRzine
...to say that "America is addicted to oil" is to misdiagnose the problems at hand, to treat a symptom as a cause.
In reality, as political analyst and historian Kevin Phillips observes, in America, the non-automotive use of petroleum "is small stuff next to transportation." "Cars and trucks," Phillips notes, "burn an overwhelming two out of every three barrels of oil used in the United States." As Phillips says, this means that "the critical yardstick" for realistically thinking through our purported "oil" problems "must be automotive." Cars, not petroleum barrels, are the object of "our" debilitating dependency in truth.
...The core truth there is that, contrary to long-standing dogma, it is capitalists, not commoners, who cannot live without the perpetuation of autos-über-alles in America. No other capitalist product could possibly sustain the status quo like the car.
To understand why this is so, it helps to realize that all capitalists have faced what I call "the problem of products." This is the reality that only certain things make good capitalist wares (a.k.a. "commodities" in Marx's term).
...So, how is an enterprising investor class to reap large, growing, sustained profits, the raison d'etre of capitalist endeavor? What products are really ideal as commodities?
The answer is: products that are as large, complex, and prone to as frequent repair and replacement as possible, within the limits of keeping customers happy enough to keep using and buying.
...Speculate all you want about ordinary Americans' "love affair with the car," but the institutional fact stands that the triumph and perpetuation of an automobile-intensive way of getting around town in the United States has long been, in the words of the National Association of Manufacturers, the "lifeblood" of capitalism in the United States and around the globe.
...And the icing on this capitalist cake? The peculiarly large fetishizability of cars: by altering the size, style, and features of cars, capitalists are able to churn out a wide array of methods for encouraging ordinary people to perceive their automobiles as important extensions of their personae.
...the genuinely breakthrough in our democratic debate will come only when we start to acknowledge and discuss the reality that capitalists are addicted to making and selling automobiles, whatever the general costs and dangers of doing so may be. Like hard-core junkies, unless and until we intervene, our business overlords simply will continue to push their product-of-choice, the private automobile, the world be damned.
Michael Dawson works for pay as a paralegal and sociology teacher in Portland, Oregon. He is presently writing a book, Automobiles Ueber Alles: Corporate Capitalism and Transportation in America, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.
(5 July 2006)
Even though this essay has a Marxist perspective, I don't think the main point is especially controversial. Any business person or economist would agree with the essay's main point -- that the car is essential to the modern free-market (capitalist) economy. MRzine is associated with Monthly Review, a long-running magazine of independent socialist thought. -BA