Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Sarah Palin's sister-in-law arrested for burglary

Police say Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's sister-in-law is accused of breaking into the same home twice to steal money.

Deputy Wasilla Police Chief Greg Wood says 35-year-old Diana Palin was arrested Thursday after she was confronted by the homeowner in the governor's hometown of Wasilla. She faces two counts of felony burglary and misdemeanor counts of criminal trespass and theft.
This is really something else. Can a week go by without something happening in Palin World that doesn't show how close we came to dodging that bullet?

You can take the girl out of the trailer park...

April Four

This song has meant a great many things to a great many people over the years, but somehow this year it all seems to resonate so much more.

Rock on.

A Modest Proposal

Must Reads

David Michael Green: Regressive Hypocrisy (Yawn…) Again

Christopher Brauchli: Witches, Condoms and the Pope

The Rude Pundit: Glenn Beck Put Barack Obama in a Nazi Uniform in His Magazine

Susie Madrak: Was Frontline Documentary Edited to Reflect Health Insurance Industry Interests?

Armadillo Joe recommends...

driftglass: Punish The Monkey

President Obama's Weekly Address - April 4, 2009

The Challenges of Our Time

...on Air Force One. How cool is that?


by Armadillo Joe

Saw this on Olbermann last night, but can't find the video. From the White House transcript of Obama's town hall in the Rhenus Sports Arena in Strasbourg, France:

as an American who is proud as anybody of my country, I am always jealous about European trains. And I said to myself, why can't we have -- (applause) -- why can't we have high-speech rail?
I ask myself that every single day, Mr. President.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Vive La Trains!

by Armadillo Joe

"Institutional Memory" -- my response to B'way Carl's response to my other post "Protected Class" about the unfairness of the treatment of the UAW workers with regards to their contract when compared to the Obama Administration's response to the AIG contracts -- wound up being as much about those contracts as the larger economic picture for the United States, the planet and the manufacturing sector in a world where energy is getting expensive and the climate is changing.

So, when The Big Guy (that'd be Mr. The Broadway Carl, the proprietor of this'n here establishment) responded to "Institutional Memory" with a lengthy comment addressing the two prongs of my original post, I decided that my response to his response to my response to his response to my original post should also break into two parts.

Therefore, I give you, dear Blog-O-Mania reader...
"Public Transportation and You: Our Future Without Cars -- Part One, about that road trip you mentioned..."

(Part Two, about unions and contracts and social justice in a post-Dubya America, will appear later)
FAIR WARNING: this blog post is long and has many charts and pictures and links. It will probably make your eyes glaze over.

First, some charts & some history.

In 1949, Dr. M. King Hubbert -- a noted geophysicist of the day -- published an academic paper entitled "Energy from Fossil Fuels, Science" in which he predicted that the era of fossil fuels would be very short-lived, which in the car-happy at the dawn of the 1950's was largely ignored outside of university circles. Then, in March of 1956 -- at the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio, Texas -- Dr. Hubbert, now in the employ of the Shell Oil Company, presented the same idea to the petroleum bigwigs of the American Petroleum Institute, with the added doom and gloom that U.S. petroleum production (i.e. - Texas oil production) would peak in 1970 and thereafter decline. Later in life, he predicted that global oil production would peak sometime between 1995 & 2000 and had consumption not declined due to increased efficiencies driven by the energy crises of the 1970's, we might have reached global peak right on Hubbert's schedule. As it is, Hubbert began to be proven right as Texas began capping wells in 1972. A gathering consensus in the scientific community (outside the manipulative employ of the petroleum industry) firmly believes that we have already reached Global Peak Oil in either 2005 or 2006.

The oil shocks of the early 1970's, caused as they were by OPEC manipulating the market, were one result of that loss of control over our own energy policy. If the reserves of the vast North Sea oil fields off the coast of Scotland hadn't come online between 1970 & 1975, and then the Alaskan North Slope done the same in 1977, it wouldn't have been so easy for the political right to belittle the Carter Administration's attempts at a more prudent energy policy as a response to the OPEC shocks and we may not have seen the rise of Reagan here and Thatcher in the UK. Needless to say, our collective history and that of Europe over the last 35-40 years would be very, very different had Scottish & Alaskan petroleum not come available just in the nick of time and enabled the magical thinking on a global, civilization-wide scale we've seen since 1980.

We won't be so lucky again.

The civilization-saving discoveries in Alaska and the North Sea were the last of their kind, a sort of Eureka! moment for those involved, I'm sure, that has not been repeated since. No new large-scale petroleum reserves have come online since North Slope in 1977. Yes, some super-giant fields have been discovered (including Bakken, right underneath our very own Dakotas, and several off the coast of Brazil) but discovering them and bringing them online are two different matters altogether. Yes, Bakken is gi-normous, as are the Brazilian fields, and the Peak Oil deniers point to them as proof that we can keep driving our cars indefinitely, except that for very complicated reasons which amount to the physics of geologic formations (in the case of Bakken) or location, location, location (in the case of the Brazilian fields -- which are in the deep, blue water off the continental shelf), knowing that oil is there does not automatically lead to simply being able to effectively extract it for processing. The vast majority of oil wells aren't "gushers." While such things were once real and somewhat common, and also make for dramatic scenes in movies, they bear as much resemblance to the real world as a Hollywood gun fight. Most of the oil in Bakken is locked up in sedimentary rock or that siren call "oil shale." Until someone invents an undersea oil drilling platform, we don't have the technology to get to the Brazilian oil either. However people may imagine it to take place, actual oil-extraction is not like turning on the spigot in your bathroom: just punch a hole in the ground and let the "Texas Tea" flow forth and then maybe some newfangled contraption can just slurp the rest of it out of that huge, oil-filled cavern in the earth's crust like a milkshake and drink it up. Sorry folks, but that type of oil ran out decades ago. The petroleum left in the ground now is more akin to blood from a stone than from an artery.

What does all this oil mumbo-jumbo really mean? Well, it doesn't mean that the gas pumps will run dry tomorrow forcing us to live with Mad Max beyond The Thunderdome in a Road Warrior existence of a war of all against all -- by this time next year. Not initially, at least.

What we are talking about is Peak Oil.

Simply put, Peak Oil is a general term for the complicated array of ideas surrounding the general principle that global petroleum production is limited by the naturally recoverable supply available in the ground and that, at some point, half of that recoverable oil (the easy-to-get half and not just the available oil) will have been withdrawn, leaving behind it the degraded, hard to extract residue which will be increasingly economically unviable as the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Investment -- ERoEI or EROI) ratio shrinks to the same levels as ethanol, biofuels and solar. Extracting oil from the Bakken Formation, as oil rich as it is, is so complicated that many knowledgeable people think it will never really come online as a reliable source of domestic crude oil production. Eventually, oil companies won't be able to turn any kind of profit trying to extract shale oil or clean coal or some other pie-in-the-sky cockamamie chunk of magical thinking technology about how to maintain our grossly inefficient, fossil fuel existence. When that happens, one hopes we'll have something in the pipe (so to speak) to replace it as an energy source.

However, don't hold your breath on that, because these guys in lab coats we imagine to be diligently working day and night to figure out how to turn corn sugar into an unlimited energy source aren't actually out there, mixing beakers of brightly-colored liquids together to create some magical oil substitute from corn ethanol or magic sparkle pony dust. We are running smack dab into the limits of basic physics here, the first law of thermodynamics and, even more specifically, the law of conservation of energy, which states that...
...the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant. A consequence of this law is that energy cannot be created or destroyed.
The sun has been pouring energy onto the earth's surface for billions and billions of years and a great deal of that energy has been absorbed by plants or absorbed by animals upon eating those plants, all of whom subsequently died and slowly changed over millions of years into the magical black goo we call "oil." Locked up inside the molecular carbon bonds of this magical black goo is all that accumulated solar energy, which we release when we burn it in an oil furnace or an internal combustion engine. Thus, voilĂ ! An isolated system wherein our energy remains constant, converting from potential energy stored in a molecular and chemical bond to heat energy in an explosion inside an internal combustion engine which converts to kinetic energy through whirling & spinning metal parts into rubber wheels carrying an automobile on a road. The vast geologic timescale and sheer amount of energy input at the front end of this whole process -- the millions of years of sunlight converting via plants and animals into petroleum, etc... -- is what makes petroleum the poster child for non-renewable resources. Once it is gone, it is gone forever, at least as far as we frail little humans are concerned.

What we will need instead is an infrastructure that can effectively use the renewable energy sources that don't destroy the environment and will effectively and efficiently move people and goods around our enormous landscape. And that infrastructure is (say it with me now) SUPERTRAINS!

Either way it goes (easy or hard) the internal combustion engine driving rubber wheels on concrete or blacktop roads to transport humans or goods with maximum convenience directly door-to-door between broadly scattered points on the map is an unsustainable and ultimately failed model for organizing the transportation of a nation's resources. Just because people like the convenience of door-to-door travel won't make it any less environmentally destructive or prohibitively expensive once oil become so expensive to extract, transport, process and distribute that only the very, very wealthy and powerful can own cars or fly in airplanes. Even the rich and powerful keeping fossil-fuel vehicles remains a questionable prospect since the whole petroleum-processing enterprise requires enormous economies of scale to remain viable. Who else could afford to maintain such a vast and expensive oil-processing infrastructure but governments, specifically militaries?

Which is why I believe that, over the next few decades as the last of the oil runs out, the rest of the planet's oil will increasingly be used up by the world's War Machine. This is why the U.S. Army & Marine Corps is in Iraq, folks: because there's no such thing as a solar-powered tank and you can't run a fighter jet on bio-diesel. Our military is there to conduct Blood for Oil, but the oil ain't for you and me to get a cheap flight to Orlando to visit Grampa. The Pentagon is the single largest consumer of petroleum in the United States, which is itself the largest consumer of petroleum in the world, and a juggernaut that rapacious will not easily surrender its stranglehold. In 2004 alone, the United States military, all by itself, used 144 million barrels of oil, more than the entire country of Greece in the same period. Exact numbers are hard to come by, though, because (like the Pentagon budget under George W. Bush) the DESC (the Defense Energy Support Center), the organization tasked with keeping all those tanks and Humvees and jet planes and ships fully gassed-up, keeps its exact consumption numbers classified, presumably for national security reasons. Like a junkie in the last throes of addiction, the gaping maw that is the War Machine of the United States will only release it's deathgrip on the world's oil supply when someone else pries its cold, dead fingers from the spigot. The last drops of fossil fuel on God's green earth aren't going into the car of any civilian, no matter how wealthy. The very last teaspoons of oil used in an internal-combustion engine on planet earth will be burned by a war machine, probably a tank driven into a village somewhere in the American Midwest at the request of the local warlord to suppress a food riot.

Quite an ugly picture, eh? If we don't take steps now to address the broader needs of the next century, then we could be going into this looming mess in just such an ugly way. We have the means with fossil fuel-burning trucks and bulldozers and such to build our rail infrastructure now, right now, and can thus still have a way to move people and materials around this country after the bottom falls out of petroleum as our principle energy source. If we balk at this opportunity now and just build more roads and car-centric infrastructure, those roads will be of absolutely of no use to anyone except the highway robbers raiding caravans of pilgrims journeying between isolated camps of shivering and frightened humans scraping out a meagre existence amid the dead and the dying in the decaying former metropolis' of a post-oil-America that will look a great deal like modern-day Detroit.
"The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed."
To be clear, though, instead of an overnight "Road Warrior" nightmare, I predict we'll probably see over the next decade or couple of decades a slow winding down of the industrialized fossil-fuel capitalism that has dominated the globe for over a century, particularly the rapacious American-style industrialized fossil-fuel capitalism that has dominated Life on Earth since the end of World War 2. Gradually, consumer goods manufactured abroad or even domestically but in a different time zone will get gradually more expensive and eventually vanish from store shelves altogther, people will travel less and lead more localized lives, economies will get more regionalized and localized by necessity as the constant human need for food and clothing won't abate, a need someone will have to address locally, as well as making and selling other basic consumer goods, since the oil-burning container ships from China won't be able to deliver cheap socks to the Wal-Marts anymore, and people everywhere will wind up living slower, quieter, more intimate and local lives.

Put another way, the world of happily motoring with yourself and one other person across hundred of miles just because it is fast and personally convenient for you will someday be a fantastic tale we'll tell our grandchildren, about that magical time when all those rusting hulks in fields everywhere called "cars" were shiny and new and went Zoom! Zoom! while metal tubes full of people soared through the air, transporting people to far away places, even across oceans! Because, and this statement is a result of my passion for the hope of rail transportation, a happy medium between more trains and fewer cars just so the remaining car owners can enjoy better traffic conditions for themselves is a losing proposition.

Mr. The Broadway Carl says in his comment that:
There will always be a need for automobiles and hopefully in the future less dependence on them, but they will never become obsolete even with the best railway system.
My response is, well, yes there will always be a need for automobiles but that need doesn't logically translate into a guarantee of their continued usefulness. In a world of $40/gal gas, or $50 or $60, who would drive even to the store to get milk and bread? Who would have been able to afford to deliver that bread and milk to the store in the first place, at least with our current transportation infrastructure? A rail alternative could perhaps make a cheaper option, even if it is less convenient with stop-overs and circuitous routes, should such a network even exist in the first place. Rail will not be the curious boutique travel option for people with a fetish for European-style living that its detractors accuse it of being, but rather it will be, wherever it exists, an essential transportation option as gas prices shoot off the charts.

We have a narrow and rapidly closing window now, right now, where we have the petroleum technology of trucks and bulldozers to build a large and (hopefully) less petroleum-intensive transportation network before it becomes too expensive and environmentally destructive to do even that much. Many people will complain that the trains don't serve very well where they live or want to travel, something that makes the Point-A to Point-B abilities of cars unmatched by any other transportation technology and which makes hybrids seem to car-centric thinkers as the solution to our current dilemma of how to maintain the door-to-door convenience of a happy motoring lifestyle. Hybrid cars are manifestly not such a solution because they answer the wrong questions, though the reasons why are numerous enough to merit addressing at another time in another blog post, but the shape of my eventual answer should be obvious from everything else I've written here, today and earlier.

Once again, re-phrased, the inability of trains to be convenient for everyone everywhere in every far-flung place they choose live or visit is not a failure of trains as a technology, but a failure of land-use policies in the United States and a failure of the way we've organized our cities and towns. Even here in New York City, with the best public transportation network in America, so many areas of the five boroughs are choked with cars because the subways aren't close enough to where some people choose to live and the buses are slow and stop too much -- because they are stuck in happy motoring traffic. Sadly for our automobile-drivers (confession: I keep a car even though I live in Manhattan), cities are crowded by definition and something like an automobile is destructive to the fabric of a healthy urban environment for a great many reasons, also to be enumerated later in another blog post. Historically, without the availability of cars when those areas of the five boroughs were laid out, areas away from transportation nodes wouldn't have built up in the way that they did, if ever at all. Of the five boroughs, mostly Staten Island and swaths of Queens are victims of this sort of development, settled and built up as they were in the car-loving decades following World War 2, when Robert Moses -- who, in a twist of historical irony, never had a driver's license -- thought the automobile and an infrastructure to support its widespread use could and would solve all our "problems" (which for him meant poor, dark-skinned people).

But, despite hating-on-cities-and-the-poor-people-who-live-in-them visionaries like Robert Moses, if the options for the citizenry were 1.) walk a long way to the train station to get to work or 2.) walk a short way to the train station to get to work or 3.) walk to work or 4.) ride a bicycle or, um, that's it (period. not negotiable), people would live closer to the train station or walking- or cycling-distance from work. Sure, due to he law of supply & demand, apartments will be smaller and inside taller buildings and the areas around the stations will be more densely-packed, but that's the whole idea. Not everyone gets a 3000 sq/ft house on 1.4 acres, I don't care how much people may or may not like it. The time is coming when they, we, all of us won't have a choice about that because the technology that makes such resource-intensive, short-sighted land-use on a large scale even conceivable is called an automobile and the energy source that makes that technology possible is running out.

Hence my constant carping about cities being walkable and human-scaled. It is much easier to simply build a city this way in the first place, let's face it. Retro-fitting the spread-out sprawl of a place like Phoenix or Dallas or Atlanta to be dense and walkable and less car-dependent is more likely to result in the whole place being abandoned for easier pickins by those who can get out and broken up into small, discreet and economically impoverished townships by those left behind.

Rising petroleum costs will eventually make cars and trucks a thing of the past. We can either, as I said in my previous post, go easy into this post-petroleum world by building a robust train network, reducing sprawl everywhere (not being afraid to just write-off altogether places like the one on the right) and making every attempt to re-localize whole vast sectors of our economy.

Or we can go hard into this post-petroleum world by building more car-friendly roads and freeways and automobile bridges and parking garages with our diminishing natural resources, resigning ourselves to sprawl and thinking of it as natural just because people like it and that's the way we've always done it and never forcing the international corporations that control our economy to re-localize and thus leaving whole regions without sufficient means of food production, clothing and essential consumer goods manufacturing once the easy profit of a petroleum economy evaporates.

Which brings me back around to the whole question of what to do with GM and Chrysler. They are large entities with a vast store of knowledge about how to build machines. Yes, those machines are environmentally destructive exercises in rampant egotism, but nevertheless they are machines.

As I said in my previous posts, the large-scale machine-building know-how within GM & Chrysler are what must be preserved to make the machines we'll need to still have a functioning economy in the approaching post-petroleum world.

So, with all of the above in mind, I'd like to address the Peak Oil-related portions of Broadway Carl's comment point by point:

I know that you're big on having an amazing railway system and I'm with you on that. But I can't get from point A to point B without auto manufacturing in the picture. And frankly, neither can Europe. Just because they have an awesome railway system doesn't mean they stopped manufactuing cars.
I agree. Cars are nice. The convenience of door-to-door travel is certainly preferable to waiting on a train platform in the rain, but if convenience is the sole criterion for evaluating the value of a transportation method, why not helicopters? It's the 21st Century, dude, where's my flying car? Naturally, a sane person would reply that the fuel consumption and threat to public safety presented by general helicopter (or flying car!) usage rightfully keeps the spread of such transportation technology in check. When considered against the backdrop of a global oil shortage, I must put cars in the same category. Thus, what I'm concerned about here specifically is the future -- not the past.

Over the last 50-60 years -- as America doubled-down on a car-centric, Happy Motoring lifestyle made possible by wide-open spaces and cheap, cheap, cheap oil -- Europe was largely forced by its compact size and already existing urban density to find other, better ways to move people and goods. Today, as our petroleum economy enters its end game, Europe's happy accident of forced rail infrastructure is going to pay dividends. Yes, Europe has still had cars all this time (and some nice ones), but The Continent's economy functioned rather well prior to the oil economy, which gives it an infrastructure that will be relatively adaptable afterwards.

I think you're also dismissing the fact that the new Obama budget is proposing 21st Century rail transportation as part of the stimulus package. Still, new rail isn't going to happen overnight, and in my estimation, even if we got everything we wanted, I still can't see a world without autos in it. There will never be door to door service by rail across the US. It's feasibly impossible.
I'm not dismissing Obama and the Democrat's nod to the need for railway spending in the 2010 Budget and the stimulus packages. I know that money is there, but I'm arguing that it is not nearly enough to solve our current crisis, to say nothing of countering the looming calamity of Peak Oil. It isn't just what is currently being spent -- and believe me, any money is better than no money -- but correcting our decades-long mis-spending on infrastructure will take a herculean effort. Estimates are that we spend about 97% of our transportation infrastructure dollars on roads and car-supporting technologies. 97%. The current spending plan is even worse, actually. Some estimates are that about $100 billion is set aside for transportation infrastructure, but the stimulus package only sets aside about $1 billion for rail. That 100:1 ratio has got to change.

I understand that a world without cars in it is hard to imagine, but imagine we must. Believe me, changing my thinking was extremely difficult for me because I grew up in the wide open spaces and horrifically space-inefficient land-use of North Texas and Dallas. Oil is only going to get more and more scarce in the approaching decades and while I agree with you that internal combustion engines driving rubber wheels will never disappear completely as method of transport, their viability as the chief means for moving people and goods in America will be forced to end because continuing on the enormous, continental scale we currently do will simply become cost-prohibitive, both economically and ecologically. We can wean ourselves from Happy Motoring willingly with a better rail network and better land-use policies or we can be forced out of our cars when the oil runs out, which is not in the "so distant its practically sci-fi" future, but in the forseeable lifetimes of just about every living human on the planet.
So why can't we have both? The only way a sustainable auto industry will survive is by making cleaner, fuel efficient cars (that's the retooling that needs to happen). Along with that, more job creation can happen on the rail front by making a concerted effort to upgrade and install a new rail system that can alleviate traffic, make daily traveling faster and more affordable and give people a choice of transportation. This can happen in major cities and traveling from city to city, but it'll only get you so far.
The ugly realities of Climate Change and Peak Oil will dictate to us that we can't have both, at least not long term. During the approaching decades, which will be viewed as the era of the post-petroleum transition by future historians, a mixed approach will be the only option.

I have argued in previous posts that the auto industry will not survive as a car-making enterprise, even if they make cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars, we're still in the position of using our rapidly vanishing resources to fetch milk and bread from the 7-11. The auto-makers need to become train-makers to have a future in a post-petroleum world. Their forced re-structuring, happening right now, is an opportunityto make those difficult changes while we still have a window of opportunity. Furthermore, the point of a rail system is not to make life for people who choose to still drive cars easier by alleviating the traffic congestion around them. The point is to move people and goods as efficiently as possible to reduce pollution and carbon footprints and conserve precious energy, wherever we may get it: fossil fuel, solar, hydro-electric, nuclear, etc... In general, for the sake of the planet and the human life on it, people must be forced out of their cars.
Here's an example. Yesterday I drove from Gettysburg, PA to Cincinnati, OH. It took me 8 hours including a stop for dinner. Gettysburg will never have an upgraded fast rail service. Never. But maybe Harrisburg will. Will that connect me to Pittsburgh and then to Columbus, OH and then to Cincy? Can it do it in 8 hours? There will always be a need for automobiles and hopefully in the future less dependence on them, but they will never become obsolete even with the best railway system.

As someone who grew up driving everywhere to do everything all the time, I understand the seductive convenience of the Happy Motoring lifestyle. It is convenient, very convenient, to be able to drive (at a time of your choosing) from a door in Gettysburg, PA to a door in Cincinnati, OH with only yourself and one passenger -- a feat rail could never hope to replicate -- but that convenience multiplied across the whole of the U.S. economy in a nation of 300+ million people sprawling over an entire continent is unsustainable and utterly destructive to the environment.

In the train-oriented future I imagine, that same trip would involve a complex, over-lapping network of jitney cabs, local street-level rail, passenger regional rail and heavier inter-regional rail. Chances are that a high-speed link would never be built between Gettysburg and Cincy, I admit. But, a bullet train running from New York to Seattle with stops in Pittsburgh and Chicago would connect you to regional networks that would provide a further link to Cincy. Much like our airline industry, but on steel rails and without burning so much fossil fuel. Yes, that kind of travel is less convenient with so many changes and stop-overs, but as a diminishing fossil fuel supply drives gas prices up into the double digits, door-to-door travel will simply be too expensive to continue supporting with our precious infrastructure dollars.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The 1031 Project

I lost my shit when I caught this awesome Glenn Beck smackdown by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central.

Closing Thoughts

by Armadillo Joe

So, I'll be handing the reigns back over the Mr. The Broadway Carl today, but I hope that I have done a fair job of maintaining yawl's interest and maybe highlighting a thing or two which helped someone to see something in a new way.

I know that the bulk of what I wrote about centered around trains and public transportation, but I want to leave you with a somewhat larger sense of how I see things.

Some time ago, I got in an friendly disagreement with a buddy of mine who had admonished me for having such a bleak image for mankind's near future. I had been describing to him what I thought to be the true measure of the converging disasters of Climate Change and Peak Oil and how that was going to bring the civilized world as we know it to a crashing halt. I had said that we can go easy or we can go hard and it seemed to me we were doing a fair job of collectively choosing to go hard into this looming, pervasive and ongoing global calamity.

He accused me of being pessimistic.

I naturally took exception and reminded him that the way in which we currently relate to the planet we live on and the other lifeforms on it is simply not a long-term solution in any sense of the word. What are we to do instead, I asked him, simply keep going ever onward, just doing what we're doing now until the planet is one enormous, trash-covered, used-up, overheated husk -- a burned-out cinder drifting lifeless and polluted through space? At some point, we have to choose to stop or we will be made to stop by forces beyond our control. I told him that I didn't think my vision was pessimistic at all, but rather the end of our current system of production and distribution and consumption would be a good thing for human life and the health of the planet. Sure, it would be enormously unpleasant for a great many people for perhaps a long time, but we have to pay the metaphorical piper at some point and to do it now when some hope of continued life is possible is much better than having some other, greater life-destroying disaster overtakes the whole of life on this planet.

But then I'm just a Dirty Fucking Hippie.

So, then, what is right? What ought we do?

Well, as many of you have guessed, trains are part of the solution. The energy-used/freight-moved ratio is better for rail than for any other means of transport -- by orders of magnitude -- but to take advantage of rail we must re-arrange how and where we construct our houses, change how we furnish them, re-consider the way we stock them with food. We've a great deal of work to do.

In the meantime, the problem of the current hegemony remains in place. Powerful people have become rich off of this system of ours and they have a vested interest in maintaining it, pollution, violence and injustice fully intact. But an ever-expanding economy is an illusion, the "money" we've made in the last 10, 20, 30 years or more is largely a mirage created by moving other money around. Measuring economic health by rate-of-growth is a formula for failure but is sadly the principle means for evaluating success in our current form of capitalism. We must invent and learn new ways to measure economic health as a function of sustainability. Sustainability is the watch-word of the emerging world.

To quote Maggie Jochild over at the Group News Blog (the re-constituted assembly of the great and sorely missed Steve Gilliard's old blog pals):

I'm sick to death of reading progressive blogs reporting on the drek coming from the liars and manipulators whom they damned well know are such -- it's not enough to know, you also need to stop giving them any attention whatsoever. No reinforcement at all.

What I already understand is enough to help me chart a new course:

  1. The system of growth at all costs has failed. Sustainability is now upon us.
  2. There was never as much money as they pretended there was in order to keep making profits from manipulating money. It ain't coming back.
  3. If we stop being the world's consumers, we have to come up with another reason why we are valuable. I vote for integrity, pluralism, and human liberation, how's that sound?
  4. If we give up the addictions of consumption and overstimulated attention spans, we have to choose recovery and work it instead of the Dubya method.
Obama is not FDR. He's doing some things well, others less well, and comparing him to Dubya is pointless because I have a used tampon which could do a better job than Dubya did. Obama and the folks he's choosing as administrators of his vision are not going to come up with a new way of doing things. He was crystal clear about that all along. He will find practical ways to keep things as they are, more functional but essentially unrevised. The good part of his methodology is that it will keep folks from starving and dying, a trend the Bush administration absolutely was not going to ever intervene to stop. This will buy some time for real visionaries to create and implement change. That's us, the Peanut Gallery. So don't get caught up in the minutiae of this period -- stoke your coals for the long haul and the big dreams.

Better than I could have said it.

Keep up the good fight, yaw'l. I'll be around, still, though. Thanks for reading this week.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Joyeux anniversaire, tour d'Eiffel

by Armadillo Joe

Sorry I missed this one yesterday, caught up as I was in all that Detroit versus Wall Street stuff, but yesterday, March 31st, was the 120th Anniversary of the opening of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

Some years back, the observation deck way up at the tippy-top was the place I asked Mrs. Joe to become, well, Mrs. Joe and I did it way before Tom Cruise did. As a result, it is more than just a convenient symbol for the city of Paris to the two of us. It is the magical place where I asked and she said yes.

I also spent a couple of months in France a few years ago for work. I took the picture at the left on my last day in Paris as I zoomed around the city trying to take in all the things I had missed in the previous weeks due to, well, working the whole time.

I snapped this picture on a blind whim as the Metro train I was riding raced across the Seine. In all I had about 30 seconds from her first appearance outside my window until she vanished behind a building - and I still had to unpack and turn on the camera! It turned out to be one of the best out of the hundreds I snapped while I was there. Note the silver orb in the middle section: the Rugby World Cup was in full swing while I was there (France got her ass kicked in the first round) and it was there as a promotional stunt.

I love this picture. It is completely spontaneous, not framed or planned at all and once you know it was taken from a moving train, you get the sense of motion in the picture, too. As well, I think this photo is just so evocative and haunting as the Iron Lady basks in that beautiful light of a late September afternoon, the sunset of my final day quickly gathering behind me. I always thought that would make a great title for a novel: "My Last Day in Paris".

Some of my favorite factoids about The Eiffel Tower:
  • She was built as the winning entry in a contest for the 1889 World's Fair -- the Paris Exposition -- also a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the French Revolution.

  • She became the tallest building in the world -- a title taken from the Washington Monument -- from 1889 until the Chrysler Building opened in New York City in 1930.

  • She was openly despised by the Parisian glitterati of the day. Novelist Guy de Maupassant hated it so much that he ate at the onsite restaurant every single day because it was the only place in Paris where he wouldn't have to look at it.

  • Originally slated to be torn down after 20 years, she was by then in use as a platform for a radio transmission tower and thus preserved for commercial purposes.

  • The French Resistance cut the elevator cables before the Nazis took Paris. Due to war time shortages, they were not replaced until after the war and Adolph Hitler never visited the observation deck. He ordered her demolished as the Nazis evacuated Paris, an order that was mercifully ignored by General Dietrich von Choltitz, the Nazi military governor.

  • The Eiffel Tower has been painted "Eiffel Tower Brown" since 1968. Prior to that, she was painted -- from bottom to top -- red, orange & yellow to enhance the sense of height. Eiffel Tower Brown is actually three shades of the same brown that do the same thing.
She's a mighty beautiful sight, La Dame de fer, and the slide show from at this link pays tribute.

America, 2009

Posted by Fraulein

Some astonishing reporting this week by the always-excellent McClatchy news service on a town in California with a 41 percent unemployment rate. This is a must-read:

"It's reminiscent of the Depression," said Silva, Mendota's mayor. "In those days you had soup lines, now you have food lines. This is a disaster area."

Signs of poverty and desperation are everywhere.

Many people in Mendota are turning to alcohol to battle depression, said Amador, the council member. And some single-family homes are occupied by two or three families, in what Amador described as "basically labor camps."

"It's a violation of city code, but you don't want to put these families out on the streets," he said.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Double Standard

by Armadillo Joe

That uneasy feeling of a double standard I referenced in my previous couple of posts about the sanctity of the budget-busting contracts in the AIG bailout situation as opposed to the flippant expendability of the UAW contracts in the GM/Chrysler bailout situation was given voice last night by none other than David Sirota on The Rachel Maddow Show:

Because the guy Obama decided to put in charge of the auto bailout is a real-life Gordon Gekko:
President Obama appointed [Steve Rattner] to head the White House team now overseeing the auto industry (and don't say you weren't warned).

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Rattner's strategy is to use the government's leverage to try to specifically crush auto workers and force them to accept even more contract concessions than they've already agreed to:
DETROIT -- President Barack Obama's recovery plan for General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC appears to take aim at union retirees, a usually reliable Democratic constituency. After studying the plight of the companies, the president's auto task force concluded GM and Chrysler's survival is dependent on greater concessions from the United Auto Workers union.

when you put Gordon Gekko in control of government policy overseeing an industry, you are inevitably going to get a policy that assumes workers are the big problem. If you had a different kind of team, you may have a policy that says, for instance, we have to create a robust universal health care system before throwing retirees off their existing health care.

As I said, the way in which all of this is being handled speaks volumes about the priorities of the Obama Administration. Even if the intent is somehow fundamentally honorable (and I'm not convinced it is), the net result out here in the world outside the Beltway is that this government is simply viewed as more of the same, especially when so many people are being pushed out of their houses by law enforcement personnel while the Wall Street Masters of the Universe who created this mess get to not only keep their jobs, but get bonuses amounting to orders of magnitude more money than most American will ever make in their lifetimes.

Definitely not a government By, Of and For The People.

It's disgusting and the Ruling Class should be more afraid of us.

Institutional Memory

guest-posted by Armadillo Joe

The proprietor -- Mr. The Broadway Carl -- and I had the following exchange in the comments to my previous post:

Broadway Carl said...

Hey Joe,

I'm not exactly sure why you're riled up about this considering that bailout based on a feasable restructuring plan was always on the table.

"...the UAW needs to swap equity in the companies for 50 percent of the companies' cash contributions into a union-run trust fund for retiree health care. GM owes roughly $20 billion to its trust, while Chrysler owes $10.6 billion."

I get the fact that this sounds like a raw deal, but if I'm reading this corectly, 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

March 30, 2009 7:09:00 PM EDT

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...

I understand that all of these things have been on the table from the beginning, and frankly, apart from seeing my union brothers and sisters taken care of in a way that strengthens the labor movement -- not vice versa -- my love for trains and a rail transportation network over cars makes me hope Obama forces them to invest their vast resources into a new passenger and freight rail system.

I guess it has more to do with the perceived double standard. I file this one under the "Punch a DFH in the Face" strategy for street cred with The Villagers. He should be going for the "Pitchforks & Torches" strategy, but The Villagers don't trust anyone who wants to punch a banker in the face.

I think Obama may be going for his "Sister Souljah" moment, which was ugly and despicable when Clinton did it and its ugly and despicable now.

March 30, 2009 9:46:00 PM EDT

Broadway Carl said...

Well, I'm wondering what the response would have been had the government handed yet another truck full of money to GM or Chrysler without adhering to the stipulations set forth a few months ago, or just let them go bankrupt.

I'm guessing it's more a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't moment.

March 30, 2009 11:13:00 PM EDT

I bring this exchange out into the open to highlight the fact that I wasn't terribly clear in writing the "Protected Class" post in what I meant in raising objections to the different treatment of the automakers versus Wall Street.

So let me be clear now.

Whole regions of our vast nation, and not insignificant chunks of our overall economy besides, all depend on automobile manufacturing. Some of it is unionized, U.S.-based and predominantly located in the so-called Rust Belt (the great-great-grandparents of whom remained collectively loyal to the United States) and some of it is non-union, Germany & Japan-based and located mostly in Dixie (the great-great-grandparents of whom committed treason against the United States in defense of human chattel slavery). We fought a couple of wars in the 1940's and the 1860's and the good guys supposedly won on both occasions, though it is curious to me that the losers of both conflicts collude now to undermine one of the pillars of strength that girded the American Experiment in the 20th Century: a healthy, unionized Middle Class.

Now, when we talk about manufacturing in the United States, we don't really do much of it anymore. In fact, as a nation, we don't make much of anything anymore except movies and otherwise just dream up new technology for people in other countries to go and build and sell back to us. But our large, complicated world requires technology to run and we have been steadily losing the ability to stay ahead of the curve not at the leading edge, where all the coffee-house-dwelling super-creative types dream up iPods and printable solar cells, but down in the boring, gut-level nuts-and-bolts where engineers with horn-rimmed glasses and pocket-protectors along with a skilled workforce with calloused hands really do the scut work of making things. It's boring and brain-deadening and at the end of the day not nearly as fun as sitting around in a Starbucks with your laptop riffing with friends about what kind of rendering to use in generating the texture-mapping for the skin on the monsters in the next level of your video game you hope to sell. Unfortunately, we can't become a nation of aspiring video-game programmers serving each other coffee and hamburgers in the meantime. This is the unsustainable tail end of the magical thinking embedded in the silly service economy we heard so much about in the 1990's: a strong economy must have some underlying manufacturing base, period.

Because, over time, the accumulating value of institutional memory is the most vaulable asset any collection of people have, whether a small company, a whole industry or an entire nation. Indeed, it is the thing that makes us human, the passing on of knowledge, and -- relatively speaking -- we have been getting stupider as a country for quite a long time. I point to the continued existence of the GOP as my Exhibit A. The reasons for this turn of events are complicated and not entirely the result of the natural evolution of people and institutions; I'd argue that it has been somewhat by design, though that is another blog post for another time. For now, I point to another industry where we've been getting collectively stupider and it will come back to bite us on the ass in next few decades: farming.

One of the many disastrous consequences of our petroleum-intensive energy regimen these last sixty years has been the rise of industrial farming. Write all the glowing paens to the alleviation of hunger you want about the vast yields of industrialized farming, the net result has been that fewer and fewer people in this country actually know how to farm anything. This is not necessarily a problem when you have fleets of fossil fuel-burning trucks whizzing back and forth across the continent delivering food into our sprawling metropolitan areas, but as petroleum gets more expensive and our food-delivery network grinds to a halt, eating locally will become less a boutique lifestyle choice and will instead be forced upon us by outside events. Who will grow our food? Who, apart from a few farmers in the Upper Midwest and perhaps in Pennsylvania, actually know how to grow food on the small and sustainable scale that will be demanded by a world struggling with more expensive fossil fuels?

Which brings me back around to Obama's treatment of the auto manufacturers. In a world where more expensive fossil fuels discourage a Happy Motoring lifestyle, cars will be less in demand. However, the mechanical and engineering know-how to manipulate metal and rubber and glass into functioning machines, and the bureaucratic integration required to keep it all together and running smoothly, takes years to pull together and make whole and it doesn't take very long for it all to dissipate once pulled apart, for the institutional know-how to simply evaporate. It is much easier to make an existing enterprise change course (GM-built tanks & Ford-built airplanes in World War 2 come to mind) than to try to resurrect them or start from scratch.

What I am advocating here is not the survival of General Motors and Chrysler as car makers, but as machine-making entities that can become the kernel of a new industrial concern in the United States -- trains: light & heavy, passenger & freight, street-level omnibus & inter-regional bullet train. Thus far, Obama's rhetoric and the proposed policies of his administration seem to treat them and their Wall Street counterparts as co-equal intitutions, simply as widget-making financial entities that employ some people who do things, which is fine for an economic theory-class in business school but is disastrous as a basis for erecting public policy. Because the folks employed by one are collectively less politically connected, they get all the tough-love rhetoric and the other, more-connected group gets the kid-glove wrist-slap. It is a double-standard, but worse than that it signals to everyone from the highest-flying investor in lower Manhattan to the lowliest bolt-sorter on an assembly line in Michigan where the government's priorties lie.

My problem with all of it is that the rhetoric coming from the Obama Administration signals that the money of the already wealthy is more important and more worthy of protection than the livelihood of a whole sector of the nation's economy, one that I believe is indespenible in the coming years as we try to fix what is fundmentally broken in our economy.

I hope that makes it clearer. Thoughts?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Protected Class

guest-posted by Armadillo Joe

So, I'm just a bitter, dim-witted populist who don't much cotton to all that high-finance tomfoolery too good, but it seems to me that Obama's push to squeeze the automakers (who are keeping blue-collar union jobs and manufacturing of actual tangible goods alive in these United States) and NOT the Wall Street Masters of the Universe (who spin money castles in the air and drive up real estate prices for the rest of us) is a move to once more protect the interests of the wealthy ruling elite at the expense of the rest of us. Obama seems to be choosing sides in the on-going class war in this country, and it isn't the one a majority of Americans voted for when they pulled a lever for Barack Obama.

A direct quote from our president today:
"If they're not willing to make the changes and the restructurings that are necessary, then I'm not willing to have taxpayer money chase after bad money."

Yeah, he's talking about GM and Chrysler, not AIG and Citigroup. Thanks for the tough love, Big O, but that ship has already sailed. A few billion to help hundreds of thousands of financially struggling working class Americans involved in the last large-scale manufacturing concern in the United States versus hundreds of billions to keep a few hundred already wealthy, sociopathic, self-styled cowboys rolling in it (not all of them U.S. citizens, BTW) is an insult to the people who put you in office.

We know who really runs this country, and it sure ain't the people who voted for Obama. He reveals himself to be fully at the mercy of the monied class -- societal changes will only go as far as they allow and they are already getting nervous -- however much we may not want him to be or wish he wasn't. A revolution is coming and the ruling class is doing everything exactly wrong in trying to prevent it.

Like I said a couple of days ago, our ruling class should be more afraid of us. The overlords are so insulated in their gated communities and have been for such a long time that they see this kind of treatment as their birthright. They really do think this country, all of it -- this country's government, its Treasury, its natural resources, its people -- all belongs to them.

They should be more afraid of us.

(H/T Susie Madrak, C&L)

(less than) superTRAINS

by Armadillo Joe

In an example of public policy FAIL, the braintrust at NJ Transit has decided that extensions to some of their existing rail lines should follow several major freeways in the state.

Nice try, but missing the point:
NJ-1 would run down the median of Route 42 and the Atlantic City Expressway to Williamstown. NJ-2 would run down the median of Route 55 to Glassboro. Both of these alignments may or may not relieve congestion along these highways, but they would almost certainly have another, less desirable impact -- increasing pressure to convert open space and fertile farmland into sprawling development, much of it in environmentally sensitive areas.

Only NJ-3, which would run along an established rail line through the center of several historic Gloucester County towns, along the Conrail right-of-way, would be a win-win for the region and its residents. Not only would this routing relieve traffic congestion on area highways, but it would promote the revitalization of these historic centers by encouraging walkable, mixed-use development around the stations.
Stuck in the box, very car-centric thinking. Giving people who live in sprawling suburbs train lines won't make them use them. It will simply create more snarl around the stations as car drivers hunt for parking. The idea is not to encourage continued use of existing suburban car-centric and ecologically destructive sprawl, but to give older, neglected areas with solidly built, older housing stock and supporting commercial (and walkable) infrastructure better transportation options.

The six-decade long Great National Build-Out has to stop. The outward growth of cities must cease so that we can backfill the land-use we've already enacted. Revitalizing trains with infrastructure funds and discouraging car use with fees and tolls is the only way to do this.

(H/T Atrios)

Beavis And Butthead Republicans

by Armadillo Joe

I was re-reading my post about the Rethugli-goons' collective response to that global call for a symbolic act of responsible stewardship of the planet we all share and must bequeath to our descendants -- Earth Hour -- a collective response that amounted to, when tasked with collaborating on a class project of, say, making a dinosaur or race car, to eating the Play-Doh®. I was going to update it with this picture on the right, when I read the ever-awesome digby, who wrote the following:
Beavis And Butthead Republicans

by digby

I'm beginning to think that Limbaugh is doing this in order to make clowns like Cantor and Steele look statesmanlike by comparison. It's working.
In fact, I love that title so much that I'm creating a new tag so that we keep such stuff collected in one spot.

What have you guys got? Anything that qualifies as a "Beavis & Butthead Republican" moment?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Checking In

Just stopped by to see what was going on and sonofabitch! Not only is Mr. The Armadillo Joe minding the store, he's restocking the shelves, rotating the stock and sales are going through the roof! You go, you bad motherfucker! Hope you don't blow your wad on the first day.

Things are good here in the lovely fields of Gettysburg. The Mrs. and I along with our in-laws stopped in to the Jennie Wade House (the only civilian killed during the battle of Gettysburg) and spent last evening fine dining at an excellent restaurant call The Herr Tavern. Today we spend the bulk of the morning and the beginning of the afternoon in the newly renovated Gettysburg Museum and Visitors Center and then started touring the battlegrounds. Luckily my father-in-law is a huge Civil War buff and gave us a run down of the battles during the first day of fighting in Gettysburg, July 1, 1863. His detailed information, from what brigades fought where and what leaders made what decisions is pretty damned impressive.

The only problem we've encountered so far is the weather. It was kind of misty yesterday and we had light rain this morning. During today's battle ground walk we were blessed with a little sunshine but were quickly overtaken by a thunderstorm. Apparently, there's a tornado that touched ground about 35 miles northeast of us in Lancaster, so I can't complain.

We'll spend our second day on the grounds recounting the events of Day Two's battles. We'll also check out the cemetery. (One of my favorite things to do is explore cemeteries... I don't know why, it just is.) In the meantime, I'll leave you in the capable typing fingers of Mr. The Armadillo Joe.

By the way, yes, I read the Gettysburg Address in the room reserved for that at the museum, along with some criticism from the day's Lincoln detractors. Some of the newspapers wouldn't even reprint his speech " to spare the reader insult." It only reminded me that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Earth Hour

guest-posted by Armadillo Joe

I've often said before that being a Rethugli-tard (or a conserva-doofus, generally) is the manifestation of some kind of personality disorder, likely of the sociopathic variety. Something about subscribing to a political philosophy that tells people that they don't have to give a shit about the well-being of other people, especially people who look different or talk different than you -- those people you can actively root for harm to befall them -- but also that you can be as selfish an asshole as you want, drive like a dickhead, act like a glutton and a waste and otherwise simply never, ever sign on for anything that requires group action, because cooperation is wimpy. Hollywood has provided a raft of action flicks to naturally prove this point, because Chuck Norris and Rambo can provide oh so many helpful hints about how to deal with neighbors and co-workers for these arrested adolescents.

You know the type, right? He was that dickhead at the back of the class who, when the poor, beleagured English teacher finally got the class to see past the arcane words into some of the beauty in the poetry of Shakespeare, would rip a fart. He was that piece of shit who, in science class when the teacher finally got some students to understand the basics of reproductive theory, would snicker about penis' and vaginas. He's the douchebag who, when a bunch of people within earshot express how much they liked a particular - say - talky European film, loudly declares that it didn't have enough gun fights in it.

You know the type.

Well, those assholes behave this way when the rest of us try to do something about our global energy predicament (via Bob Cesca):

Last night at 8:30 was Earth Hour when everyone around the world was supposed to turn out their lights for one hour in order to raise awareness of the climate crisis.

But throughout the wingnut blogotubes, they decided to turn on all of their lights as a too-clever way of canceling out Earth Hour. Here's another wingnut who's offering a list of suggestions for how to go about doing this. Utterly brilliant suggestions like:
8. Burn tires
Smart! Your neighbors will enjoy the fumes and odor coming from your hillbilly bonfire.
24. Leave your oven open
And maybe climb in.
34. Turn on your air purifier

End of Days

guest-posted by Armadillo Joe

I don't think it's one of the signs of the apocalypse, maybe it's one of the ancillary affects of hellfire and brimstone -- B. Hussein is our president afterall -- but upstate New York is having something of a problem with black vultures.

And they are vile, disgusting creatures.

The manlinest name on the inter-webs, Lance Mannion, reports from the front lines:
Their feathers were black, not brown. Their bald heads and bills were gray, not red and bone-white.

Passing through the next town, we came across more of them. These were prowling the side of the road and, closer up, I could see that, big as they were, they were smaller than turkey vultures, squatter too. They struck me as uglier and meaner-looking as well, although that might have been an effect of there being so many of them together, pooling their ugliness and meanness.

"What kind of birds are those, Dad?" the Mannion guys and their mother wanted to know, as if I am the unimpeachable source of all things ornithological, an idea they picked up from their old man's habit of showing off the little bird lore that he has memorized.

"Beats the hell out of me," I said. "Definitely not turkey vultures though, unless they're a rare subspecies that works the coal mines."

I think at least two of my passengers were impressed that I knew what turkey vultures looked like well enough to spot that these weren't turkey vultures. The third passenger just harrumphed knowingly and went back to reading her magazine.

We were on our way to visit Mom and Pop Mannion and as soon as we arrived I hopped on the internet and called up Cornell University's Ornithology Lab's website, All about Birds.

Yep. Definitely not turkey vultures.