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The New American Pessimism

Charles Simic, New York Review of Books
I can’t remember when I last heard someone genuinely optimistic about the future of this country. I discount politicians, investment bankers and generals since their line of work requires that they offer upbeat assessments of everything from our deteriorating economy to our suicidal wars, and assorted narcissists accustomed to shutting their eyes to the plight of their fellow Americans. The outright prophets of doom and gloom among our friends and acquaintances tended to be a rare breed until recently. They were mostly found among the elderly, whose lives had an inordinate share of tragedies and disappointments, so one didn’t take their bleak outlook as applicable to the rest of us. One encountered inveterate optimists, idealists, or even Niebuhrian realists in the past; now, one finds people of all ages and backgrounds eager to tell you how screwed up everything is, and, on a more personal note, what a difficult time they are having—not just making ends meet, but understanding why the country they thought they knew has become unrecognizable.

… It must be difficult for any hostess nowadays to stop her dinner guests from reciting to each other over the course of an evening the endless examples of lies and stupidities they’ve come across in the press and on TV. As they get more and more wound up, they try to outdo each other, losing all interest in the food on their plates. I know that when I get together with friends, we make a conscious effort to change the subject and talk about grandchildren, reminisce about the past and the movies we’ve seen, though we can’t manage it for very long. We end up disheartening and demoralizing each other and saying goodnight, embarrassed and annoyed with ourselves, as if being upset about what is being done to us is not a subject fit for polite society.

In an atmosphere of growing anxiety and hysteria, in which the true causes and the scale of our dire national predicament are deliberately concealed and obfuscated by our political establishment and by the corporate media, no wonder there’s confusion and anger everywhere. As anyone who has traveled around this country and talked to people knows, Americans are not just badly informed, but downright ignorant about most things that affect their lives. How nice it would be if our President leveled with us and told us that our deficit is caused in significant part by the wars we are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the hundreds of military bases we are maintaining around the world, the huge tax breaks for the rich, and the bailout of Wall Street. As we know, we are not about to hear anything of the kind.

By the president’s calculation, telling the truth to the American people would doom his reelection campaign, since he would not be able to raise the billion dollars he needs this time around.

… The reason pessimists are multiplying is that we dishonor the intellect and the knowledge of history in this country by refusing to admit that corruption is the source of our ills. It takes no great mental effort to realize that there’s no effective political forces either in Washington or locally that are able to do anything serious to correct our self-delusions about being the world’s policeman, because any sensible solution would seriously cut into profits of this or that interest group.
(10 March 2011)

Kunstler interview: The old American dream is a nightmare

Kerry Trueman, Grist
… Kunstler has long warned of the horrendous hangover we’re going to wake up with after our “cheap oil fiesta,” but he’s not gloating as global instability and climate destabilization become the new not-so-normal. Unlike some dystopians, he’s motivated less by the desire to say “I told you so” than by the hope that we might still manage to reinvent the American dream on a scale that better suits our current circumstances.

… Q. Is “smart growth” the antidote to sprawl, or just a developer’s disingenuous oxymoron?

A. “Smart growth” started as a polemical retort to the “dumb” growth of suburban sprawl. It happened that dumb growth was utterly entrenched in all our local land-use laws, and in the sectors that served them – especially the construction trades and our lending practices. The zoning laws mandated a car-dependent outcome, and the builders furnished it, exactly as specified.

By the way, it’s important to understand that suburbia was not dreamed up by the devil or any of his agents among us. It just seemed like a good idea in the America of the 20th century. We had the material and capital resources to build this empire of comfort and convenience, so we did. And all this implies a powerful cultural consensus — a broad agreement that this way of living is okay.

Eventually, of course, it became embedded in our national identity as a late incarnation of the American Dream. All well and good — and over! Because our circumstances have changed drastically now. We face the awful predicament of peak oil, and the global contest over the world’s remaining resources, and reality is telling us very loudly that we have to live differently — we have to get a new American Dream.

… A. I’ve said many times that we can expect delusional beliefs to rise in proportion to the economic hardships we experience. That is exactly what’s happening.

So, it’s necessary to remind people that life is tragic and history won’t shed a tear for us if we make poor collective decisions, or adopt beliefs that are inconsistent with reality. We are proud of declaring ourselves to be a “free country.” Alas, this leaves us free to pound our civilization down a rat-hole, which is what we’re doing.

Or to be more precise about it, we are mounting a foolish campaign to sustain the unsustainable, to defend our previous investments in things like suburban living, instead of making new arrangements.

… A. The Middle East blew up very impressively a mere month after I predicted it. The situation gives every sign of spreading and getting worse. Despots ruling resource-rentier economies are falling like dominos. As I write, Mubarak in Egypt is gone, Gadhafi is under siege in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman are in an uproar.

Egypt does not produce much oil but Libya does and production is shut down, including a substantial amount of the world’s available export oil. Algeria is rumbling, too, and they are significant oil exporters. The price of crude has gone over $100, so it’s entered the zone where it tends to crush economies in the OECD nations.

We have reason to fear that these uprisings will infect Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a physically ill 87-year-old King with an even sicker 86-year-old successor. Good luck with that.

One thing we also need to be concerned about is that a lot of the oil production infrastructure could end up getting smashed as these people settle their hashes.
(9 March 2011)

Degrees and Dollars

Paul Krugman, New York Times
It is a truth universally acknowledged that education is the key to economic success. Everyone knows that the jobs of the future will require ever higher levels of skill. That’s why, in an appearance Friday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Obama declared that “If we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.”

But what everyone knows is wrong.

The day after the Obama-Bush event, The Times published an article about the growing use of software to perform legal research. Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.
(6 March 2011)

A new poll that shows independents warming to the role of government could signal an important shift

Charlie Cook, Natinnal Journal
… One of my favorite questions tests public attitudes toward government’s role. The version that Hart and McInturff use gives respondents a choice between “Government should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of people” or “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” The order is alternated to prevent bias.

Back in 2007 and mid-2008, the government-should-do-more camp was a slight majority, in the 52-55 percent range; the government-doing-too-much position was in the 38-42 percent range. Starting a month after Lehmann Brothers collapsed in September 2008 and when credit markets seized up, the results tightened up. The more skeptical view of government pulled ahead in the September 2009 poll, 49 percent to 45 percent. In the national exit poll taken by various news organizations on Election Day 2010, the government-should-do-more response dropped to 38 percent, and the more antigovernment attitude soared to 56 percent.

However, in the latest NBC/WSJ poll of 1,000 adults (including 200 by cellphone; overall margin of error plus or minus 3.1 points), conducted from February 24-28, 51 percent of respondents said the government-should do more and 46 percent said the government was doing too much. One could conclude that the antigovernment bandwagon certainly isn’t picking up speed.

More important—and I have to give NBC Political Director Chuck Todd credit for pointing this out to me—independents shifted significantly.

… Why is this important? Because independent voters are the ones who matter most in American politics. More than 90 percent of Democratic voters can be expected to vote Democratic, just as more than 90 percent of Republicans reliably vote Republican.

… One poll isn’t a trend, but the responses to this key question will be worth watching closely.
(10 March 2011)