Archive for May, 2010

The Blame Game, Gulf oil spill version.


There is a lot of finger-pointing going on right now over who is to blame for the horrible disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which is already the largest oil spill in U. S. history.  Suppose we find the person(s) responsible.  Will that change what has happened?  Will affixing blame prevent what has happened from happening again?  Probably not, in both cases.  And the real blame lies with American consumers, who steadfastly refuse to give up driving by themselves everywhere that they go, paying any amount for the gasoline they need, and turning a blind eye to the future.

The only reason that BP was drilling a well nearly a mile under the surface of the ocean was because they stood to make a profit from it.  With gasoline selling for nearly 3 dollars a gallon, oil companies are willing to try to extract crude oil under any conditions.  The hot new area for oil exploration right now is off of the coast of Brazil, in 10,000 feet of water.  The oil deposits lie nearly 3 miles beneath the sea floor, which means having a stick of pipe nearly 5 miles long.  The oil that is recovered is going to be very expensive, but the demand is so great that profits are assured.

The only way to stop this insanity is to reduce our consumption of petroleum products.  As long as huge profits are in the offing, people will do anything to be part of the gravy train.  More regulations won’t help, tighter supervision won’t help, greater accountability won’t help.  In many ways, this is very similar to the war on drugs.  All that we have accomplished by cracking down on drugs is to make selling and producing them even more profitable, which means that someone is ready to step up every time someone else gets busted.

The oil companies are like pushers, trying to get us to use as much of their product as possible, while trying to keep the competition from making any gains in their turf.  We could reduce our dependence on oil substantially, but that is the last thing that the oil companies want us to do.  They want us willing to pay any price for a gallon of gas, willing to stand in long lines to purchase this miracle substance, willing to buy vehicles which get poor mileage.  They don’t want us deciding to ride the bus or the train instead of driving, or carpooling, or riding our bicycle, or walking, because the oil companies can’t make a profit on those activities.

Big business wants the government to do everything possible to keep energy cheap, even if it threatens our survival.  We will do almost anything, pay almost any price, for the illusion of freedom that comes with owning a car.  So we created the demand for oil that induced BP to drill for oil in 5000 feet of water.  We are the ones who are pressuring the government to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil production, not the oil companies.  We are the ones who are willing to buy oil from people who want to destroy us.  Changing our lifestyles to ways that are sustainable, which do not degrade the planet, is the only way to stop the oil companies from creating more disasters.  The government can’t do it, special interest groups can’t do it, religion can’t do it.  Every time that we drive a car, we are voting for more exploration, greater acceptance of risk, higher gasoline prices.

All we have to do is to leave the car at home when we commute to work, or to school, and we would reduce the demand for oil considerably.  And we should do so anyway, just to get ready for the days when we can no longer afford all the gasoline that we want.  Because things are going to change, and we will have to change in response.  It is much easier to make a change willingly than it is to be forced to change.  We need to have alternatives in place for when gasoline is just too expensive.


Spaced out


Recently, three Apollo-era astronauts, including the first man to walk on the Moon, attacked the new program of space exploration proposed by the Obama administration.  They contend that terminating the Constellation program to build a new rocket for carrying Americans into space is wrong, and that the proposed reliance on private space companies to send astronauts into space is flawed and unworkable.

The United States is on the brink of an abyss, a time when there is no American spacecraft to carry our astronauts to their work.  This happened before, during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, between the Apollo spacecraft and the space shuttle.  The space shuttle is being grounded, because NASA does not have enough money to fly it and to do anything else.  The costs have not increased, the money that Congress gives the agency every year has stagnated, and inflation has reduced the ability of the dollars to buy what they used to.

When President Bush announced the Constellation program, it was expected that the new rocket would be ready by 2015, so there would only be a 4 year gap in our space faring ability.  But, because of the new kind of rocket that is to be used in the Constellation program, delays have mounted, and the earliest that it would carry people into orbit had been pushed back to 2018.  Plus, the capsule that was supposed to ride the new rocket into space, the Orion, had been too heavy to begin with, and so the number of people it was supposed to carry shrank from 5 to 3.

The Constellation program had become so expensive that NASA was considering shutting down the International Space Station 5 years early to free up money for Constellation, something which our partners in the space station were not likely to agree to.  NASA was proposing to build a rocket that would have nowhere to go, at least until the year 2020, when a new, larger rocket was supposed to make it possible for people to go to the Moon.  But there had been no money in the budget for developing the equipment needed to explore the Moon, so we would again have a rocket with nowhere to go.

What the three Apollo astronauts did not say was that we are not spending enough on space exploration.  They avoided mentioning budgets, and focused on prestige and scientific standing.  But the sad fact is that we are losing our ability to go into space, unless we reconsider the decision to stop flying the space shuttle.  The Constellation program would not have solved that problem, because there would still have been nowhere to send the rockets once they were finally built.  Our current budget for manned space exploration, including development of new spacecraft, is about 7 billion dollars.  We could double that amount and still not approach what we spend on the War on Drugs, for instance.

Without space, the prospects for the human race are bleak, because we will be trapped in a petri dish, stuck in a closed system, more and more of us competing for a finite amount of resources.  Without space, our consumption of energy will eventually destroy our environment.  Without space, the pie that everyone wants a bigger piece of cannot grow.

We want to inquire about your greed.


Congress can never be said to avoid taking action, because every crisis and major decision sees some form of commission, committee, or dog and pony show created do provide guidance.  The congress itself is too busy running for re-election to actually study the issues, so they delegate someone else to do it.  This tactic is especially popular when unpopular decisions are needed, because the legislator can always say that they just followed the recommendations of the body which was responsible for that action.  This is, of course, out and out denial of the congress members duty to take responsibility for their actions.

Responsibility is what the commission that sparked this diatribe is investigating;  who can get the credit for the American economy collapsing around the remainder of Wall Street.  Somewhere, there has got to be a person or persons whose decisions were instrumental in causing tho worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, or so the thinking goes, apparently.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is charged with establishing just what caused the best party the rich had enjoyed in centuries to come so suddenly to an end.

But, over and over again, executives state they were following sound business practices, and that it was unstoppable market forces which overwhelmed them.  They had no responsibility for all the bad things that happened.  We should not be surprised, because it would take some too dim of wit to survive on Wall Street to stand before a commission and say, “We were greedy, and got in over our heads.”  Which is what the whole crisis amounted to; greed distorting the judgment of everyone from home owners to heads of multinational banks.

How ‘sound’ is a business practice which is based on the market continuing an unprecedented surge, or the willingness of others to loan money?  It sounded great when the money was rolling, but people were so busy putting it in their pockets that they didn’t set any aside for an overcast day.  The smallest disturbance could threaten multi-billion dollar companies with extinction, it worked out, as dominoes fell one right after another, until the whole thing went right off a cliff.  How can you expect to see a cliff when you are driving 100 miles per hour?  The profit taking was so supercharged that no one even considered easing up on the gas a little.

Well, it was nice while it lasted, and some people made a lot of money, but most of us ended up with less.  Is it our money that those people got?

Crawling off to die?


Many animals will seek a secluded place to pass on from this life, which indicates a possible foreknowledge that their time has come.  Amazingly, many elderly people have an urge to leave where they are and to wander about in confusion.  This was a prime way to get killed for our ancient ancestors, as many predators, some of them animals, would attack a dazed, elderly person.  Dogs, raccoons, rats, and many other carnivores have been known to attack infants and elderly people.

What I am about to say seems off the wall, and very morbid, but I believe that there is some evidence that this widespread ‘disorder’ in elderly people is a survival trait of the race, not of the individual.  Extremely old people are a difficult burden on a small tribal group, because compassion will force the others to help provide for them, as well as to care for them, cleaning them up, feeding them, cleaning them up, putting them to bed, cleaning them up… well, you get the picture.

Commonly, elderly people talk of ‘wanting to go home,’ even when they may be living in the only home that they have ever known.  Wandering out on a January night in much of the Northern Hemisphere is going to be a quick way of solving the problem, because hypothermia will take the very elderly in short time spans.  Perhaps, on some deep level that is beyond expression with words, elderly people don’t want to be a burden on the ones that they love anymore, and decide that it is time to go ‘home’, back into the pool of Life.

I can imagine that everyone would always put themselves at risk by flying out into the night, the woods, the snow, to look for that loved one who had wandered off, but I would bet that many times the person was not found in time, or even for a few days.  So the living are hesitant to put themselves at great risk for someone who is about to pass on anyway.  All of this means that when the spark of life is dim and flickering, when every thing takes somebody to help, when the pain won’t go away, there was a way to end it.

This seems so contrary to our instincts, which goad us to keep on struggling, to believe in the future, to know that things can get better.  But we will not survive forever, and somehow, some of us know that the way to get home is to leave where we are.  When people display a trait over a broad range of cultures, geographic area, and ethnicity, you can bet that that trait is something that has been bred into our genes.  It is called evolution, and it selects for survival traits which express themselves over thousands of years.

Crawling off to die may be a survival trait, similar to jumping into a river to save a child.  Removing a burden which will not go away without loss can be a means of  increasing the chances that the descendants will survive.  What is considered ‘dementia’ may be ‘instinct’ instead.  Decoupling the urge to survive from our actions requires extreme measures, so fogging the thinking might be the way that evolution has made it possible for the elderly to wander off to help the children while they look for home.  It is not lying down and dying, or throwing yourself into a butter churn, but it is a way to possibly shorten your life.

The future by default?


Attention is focused on Greece right now, as efforts to prevent the country from collapsing into bankruptcy rise to a crescendo.  Such a bankruptcy might bring about a cascade of additional implosions, if investors shun sovereign debt from Portugal, Spain, and Ireland.   Iceland is already in bankruptcy, the result of wheeling and dealing by two Icelandic banks.  The United States is running unprecedented deficits, which are only partly a result of the economic crisis.  The only country which seems to have its economic house in order is China, which has been financing the American economy for nearly 10 years.

Why is it so difficult for countries to live within their means?  How can governments expect to borrow money endlessly, without ever having to pay back the loans that keep them afloat?  Is it fear of losing power that drives officials to promise what cannot be afforded?  The consequences of continuing the path that we are on are growing steadily more dire, yet no one seems to be suggesting that we change our course.  World trade stands in jeopardy, because who will sell goods to a bankrupt country?

The people of Greece have been living an illusion, fostered by governments which were willing to extend every possible luxury to stay in power.  Civil service workers could not be fired, most workers received 14 months of pay every year, and retirement benefits exceeded the income made while working.  But Greece is only the tip of the iceberg.  Nearly every developed country coddles their people, sheltering them from the true costs of living.  Budget deficits have become standard operating procedure around the world, not just in the U.S.

Even amidst widespread unemployment, some people are gaining more wealth.  Are we all being hoodwinked so that a few can continue to rake in the dough?  It seems like it.  Consumer spending has been the engine that keeps the world economy growing, yet consumers have been borrowing to spend.  If consumption were to decline to sustainable levels, who would suffer the most?  The people who have to put up with a 10-year-old car, or the car companies?  If we were forced to buy shoes that could be repaired, instead of spending nearly a week’s wages on disposable shoes, wouldn’t we be better off?  Probably, but the industrialists who have been getting rich selling us shoes over and over again would not be.

Most people have not seen their income increase for nearly ten years, yet the wealthiest people have been getting wealthier the whole time.  Consumer debt is at unprecedented levels, while income growth is ground to a halt.  If taxes are raised enough to pay the costs of government, consumers would be unable to consume.  Instead of raising taxes, governments have resorted to borrowing to meet their costs, trying to keep consumption going.  But it cannot go on.  Consumption is going to decline, tax revenues will follow suit, and then governments will be forced to default on their debt.

We are all headed for the poorhouse, because some people have been getting rich while the rest of us are just scraping by.  Wages have not even come close to growing in proportion to productivity.  Instead of paying shareholders cash bonuses, corporations should be paying their workers wages that reflect the value of the work that they do.  Then consumers would have the money to pay higher taxes and still be able to buy new goods.  But greed has blinded the boards of corporations, and the wealth that the workers create goes to people who do nothing to help create it.

American workers are so productive that they could be paid full-time wages for working half days, allowing full employment.  But that would mean that the wealthy would not get wealthier as fast.  So, the workers are earning what they did when they were much less productive, and unemployment is widespread.  Workers who cannot work don’t buy things that they don’t desperately need, which means that consumption declines, and tax revenues diminish.

We could have avoided all of this pain, but doing so would have cut into the profits that a small number of individuals have enjoyed.  As a result, all of us, wealthy and poor, are going to suffer.  Maybe we can get it right next time.  If there is a next time.