Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Polls Apart, America and the World

The world wants change
An international poll confirms what the US's Pilgrim founders first recognised - that the eyes of the world are on America

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Friday October 17 2008 07.00 BST
Article history
So, after eight years of Blair and Brown toadying up to Bush, 65% of Brits want Barack Obama to win the presidential election, according to the Guardian's international poll published today, and only 15% are rooting for the McCain/Palin ticket – and one suspects that some of those would be voting for the racist BNP given half a chance, not least when the numbers indicate that Obama is only supported by the 54% of the lowest socio-economic class, whose neglect by New Labour has left many of them clutching at racist straws.

In every country, opinions of the US have declined to record levels over George Bush's two terms as president. One can understand why 75% of the French would think so, but what do you make of the Swiss, 86% of whom think so, even though not even the Republicans boycotted Helvetian cheese or cuckoo clocks?

The world is showing what it thinks of Sarah Palin and the Bushite know-nothings who have usurped McCain's campaign. So should Americans care? Of course, they should, but more pertinent is whether it could be a factor in the election. At this stage, it could well be important.

Except in times of war, when American foreign policy happens to the citizenry rather than to others, it is often assumed that presidential politics is all local. In fact, the president, as head of state, symbolises their country, and it is important for Americans how he (or, heaven help us at this present juncture, she) represents them.

While it would be easy to dismiss French gall as a natural, well Gallic, prejudice against the Anglo-Saxons, the opinions of close allies like Britain, Canada and the rest are certainly worth broadcasting, subtly, by the Obama campaign. After all, even John McCain has invoked the world's low regard for the US as an important issue.

An earlier poll this August showed that 78% of American voters also believe the United States is less respected by other countries than it has been in the past and that 80% of voters believe that working with major allies, and through international organizations, is a wiser strategy for achieving the US's international affairs goals.

The high international regard for Barack Obama is only a surprise for six-packing evangelist hockey moms like Sarah Palin. She keeps referring to the "City on a Hill" as her vision of America – a phrase she attributes to the Prophet Reagan. And her version is indeed Reaganesque: one of the reasons people used to build cities on hills was because their sewage would fall on the people downhill. The rich usually lived at the top and the poor at the bottom.

But of course the original was from a more distinguished prophet in his Sermon on the Mount, and its American form came through the Puritan divine John Winthrop. Now one may, with justice, consider the Pilgrims to be a dangerously bigoted cult, but they had "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind proper regard for the opinions of mankind."

Winthrop went on to say (somewhat optimistically, with the self-importance of a cult leader) that "the eies of all people are upon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world."

So, far from being a declaration of isolation and disregard for where the city's sewage flowed, Winthrop had a deep regard for the opinions of the rest of the world. The attitude of the freedom-frying Republicans flies not only in the face of their forgotten and erased history, but, happily, runs against the American voters, who do care what other people think about them and their leaders.

And for its part, the rest of the world will little note nor long remember what the candidates said in the debates, here. But it will never forget what the electorate does on November 4.

Dead profitable

Death and credit
From the cradle to the grave, the economic crisis has no end of ramifications. Overcoming it will be a stiff task

Comments (5)

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday October 21 2008 18.20 BST
Article history
There are perhaps not a few citizens of the world disappointed that there have been no credible sightings of erstwhile Masters of the Universe defenestrating themselves from the Temples of Mammon on Wall Street. One reason could be that the windows are now sealed and air-conditioned, offering no access to the ledges.

The other could be that they have looted the "pre-need" funeral plans that would pay for their interment. Last month, a little-noticed casualty of the financial crisis was National Prearranged Services, which shuffled off its corporate coil, leaving in doubt some 200,000 customers who had paid in advance "pre-need" for what the industry equally coyly calls "end of life" services.

Another organisation in Colorado, the Neptune Society was charged with skimming the funds this month.

Paul Krugman took time off from dusting off his tux for the Nobels to make tangential reference to the connection between the death industry and the credit crisis in his blog. He cites the very conservative Daily Mail inveighing against the British labour government because the credit crunch has made it slow in paying out funeral grants to the families of
the impoverished deceased. It highlights the decadence of a welfare state for American conservatives – socialised death care as well as healthcare – no wonder the British Empire fell!

I should declare an interest. I once wrote a column advocating "synergistic dialectical investing" and as a joke invested my annual
pension contribution in Service Corporation International, the world's biggest chain of funeral homes, and Philip Morris, on the grounds that death and taxes are inevitable, and tobacco would help them both along.

As an investment, the joke has paid off six-fold, but SCI has not done as well as I anticipated. This month the credit crunch killed off its takeover bid for the second biggest chain of morticians, Stewart.

From cradle to grave, the credit bust has no end of ramifications. Overcoming it will be a stiff task.

It raises the question about the billions of dollars put aside pre-need by Americans in the confident expectation that it will pay for them to be gutted, pickled in toxic fluids and sealed in expensive caskets with (as I recall in one trade publication) "a lifetime guarantee".

Can they really trust the finance industry not to assume that since you cannot take it with you, we may as well take it from you now? Hoping that someone will follow in my footsteps when we did a quick and clean funeral for my father (at his request), it is not an issue that deeply concerns me, except for the environmental consequences of stuffing sealed toxic capsules below ground in a country where millions are dependent on wells tapping the ground water.

However in the public interest I approached the Funeral Ethics Association whose Lisa Carlson advised pre-needers not to bother, "unless you are reducing assets to the level to get Medicare". Better to plan ahead she said, while her organisation also advocates cheaper, greener, DIY burials - where the law allows.

The death industry in the United States has lobbyists almost as tenacious as Wall Street's in Washington. Embalming, morticians, concrete vaults and all sorts of expensive ghoulish accoutrements are compulsory in different states. Carlson herself is being sued by Thomas Lynch, author and poet of the mortuary slab for comments she has made about the industry and his business.

Ms Carlson does not say so, of course, but if you are not worried about funeral costs, those who are about to die can happily run up huge credit card charges and leave them swinging for the bailiffs to try to shake down the urn afterwards. Now that is real pre-need planning. But do be careful. My father tried it, and paid an insurance premium on his Visa card. They noticed and came a-knocking.

Will the Southern Strategy Go West?

Ian Williams: Let’s hope the race card is no longer a Republican ace
October 26, 2008 12:02 Tribune

ACCORDING to an opinion poll in The Guardian last week, a commendable 65 per cent of British voters would prefer an Obama victory in the US election. In a way, it is almost a shame the long-term project of making Britain the 51st state has not gone so far as to merit electoral votes. However, a sense of perspective is called for. In any European context, the policies of Obama make Tony Blair look like a raving Trot. But, of course, the Democrats are not running in Europe, and looking at how John McCain has embraced the right, let alone the frightening prospect of Sarah Palin being a heartbeat away from the nuclear button, changes the equation.

The launch of the Republican Party’s latest Swift Boat armada at ACORN, a voter registration group dedicated to bringing out the vote, starkly illustrates the choice. Some background is in order. Only just over 70 per cent of white Americans are registered to vote and that number decreases down to a little over a half of Asian-Americans. Those unregistered tend to be poorer – and a disproportionate number are black.

ACORN pays canvassers to get voter registration forms filled and it is clear that some of their employees decided to use their imagination and take the money for bringing in forms with fictitious names and addresses. By law, ACORN has to hand in all the forms – otherwise it would be accused of weeding out, for example, potential Republican voters, but it flagged the suspicious ones. Now it is confronted with false outrage, fanned by Republican officials, who brandish the very forms that ACORN had identified as false, to “prove” electoral fraud. However, what really upsets the conservatives is not the false registrations. It is ACORN’s 1.3 million genuine registrations of people unlikely to vote Republican.

It is highly unlikely that Mickey Mouse will turn up to vote, and the numbers of proven actual voter frauds are infinitesimal, but with the talent for conflation that elides tax breaks for billionaires with reducing the burden on small businesses, those running the McCain campaign are pre-emptively trying to throw the outcome of the election into doubt. They are also shamelessly riding the chimera of voter fraud to do what they do best: voter suppression. Across the states, Republican officials have been piling obstacles in the way of people trying to register and it is no coincidence that many of those are black.

The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln is now, we hope, taking a curtain call on Richard Nixon’s southern strategy – the use of coded racism to win elections. But it has been a major part of the McCain strategy. When Palin speaks of “community organisers” with scorn, her audiences know exactly which community is being organised – and they do not like it. Even though most of the far-too-many poor in the United States are white, when McCain scorns Obama’s policies as redistributive, the resentment that he is inculcating is of black welfare dependency.

There may be racism in Britain, but nothing to match the highly codified and institutionalised form it takes in the US. Obama actually benefits from the foreign-ness of his black origins: he overcame resistance to the allegedly “angry black” from the ’hood of American “indigenous” blacks – and neither he nor his parents had to ride the back of the bus in the Southern states.

The Republican response, for example, through attacks on his church, has been to re-establish the connection, to try to make him black, African-American and so elicit the assured racist response. It is far less successful than it would have been 20 years ago, which is one of the signs of hope in a country that often seems to be retrogressing to medievalism. Nevertheless, the Republicans have not given up hope. While only a few brave voters with the courage of their prejudices say they won’t vote for Obama because he is black, the McCain campaign can now cover them with the more socially acceptable racism of anti-Islam and anti-Arabism. Phone canvassers for Obama report a disturbing number of voters who claim he is a Muslim, Arab or both, quite apart from the attempt to connect him to “terrorism”.

In a country where 70 per cent of the population were convinced that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11 simply by the juxtaposition of his picture with Osama bin Laden and the burning World Trade Centre, McCain’s campaign is pushing the “terrorist” connection as much as it can, knowing this will ignite that undergrowth of chauvinism. McCain’s Nixonian facial tics during the last presidential debate signal a guilty conscience. As the victim of similar sliming efforts when he ran against George Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000, McCain must know how despicable his campaign’s tactics are – and it explains his anger against Obama, whose success has “made” him resort to them. With his nationwide campaign, wide voter involvement and youthful support, Obama signals the rejection of the darker side of American politics. It is understandable that people at the election of a black President of the US would suggest that the long, dark night of American slavery, racism and their corrosive effects might be over. It may not be the second coming, but in evangelical terms, it is the end of the reign of Anti-Christ.

Go Obama - EuroSoc rules

The west is red
While rebuking 'European style socialism' John McCain neglects to mention that Europeans enjoy a higher quality of life

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Monday October 27 2008 12.00 GMT
Article history
John McCain accuses Barack Obama of wanting "European style socialism" in the US. If only.

Apart from the irony that the Bush administration is effectively nationalising the commanding heights of the economy in the course of the current economic crisis, one would have thought that this is - shall we say to be kind - an inappropriate time for a candidate to sing songs of praise to capitalism red in tooth and claw.

Gore Vidal and many others have quipped over the years that the US practices free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich, so what we are seeing now is not really a fundamental change in approach. Money in rich torrents for the banks and finance houses, and thin gruel for those about to be made homeless is on a par with food stamps that passed into legislation as a subsidy to US agriculture.

However, despite a natural tendency to disbelieve anything that McCain says in McCarthy-ite mode, it is indeed a truth that should be universally acknowledged that western Europe, even with the Thatcherite and Blairite hiccups, is indeed social democratic in its outlook. At the end of the second world war George Orwell predicted that western Europe was the most likely to succeed in establishing some form of democratic socialism, and he was right. Since 1950, western Europe has offered its citizens the highest combined standards of human, civil and social rights in world history. The west is red!

It may have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt who coined the slogan about the four freedoms, from fear and want, and of belief and speech, but Europe put them into effect while the US remained bogged down in 19th century laissez-faire.

However, McCain's attempt to conflate Obama with European socialism and both with Soviet-style communism is as self evidently absurd as his conflation of Joe the Plumber's fiscal fate with Exxon-Mobil's. Even European conservative parties are far to the left of Obama in their professed conviction that some things are too important to leave to free markets, that the pursuit of untrammeled greed alone will not benefit society as a whole, and that societies have a collective responsibility to ensure the welfare of their citizens.

Of course, European social-democracy is nothing like the Leninoid totalitarianisms that some on the left still see as the litmus test for socialism. My father, an eccentrically unrepentant fan of Stalin to his deathbed, had it right "that Uncle Joe understood the dictatorship of the proletariat – the workers need a bayonet up their arse".

The Georgian shared this view with American free-marketers who believe that workers will only be productive when forced to work for less money by the threatened lash of unemployment.

But we are at the end of a 60-year-old real-time experiment in the relative success of American laissez-faire and European social democracy. In 1945 Europeans were smaller and less healthy than the Americans. Some 60 years of European socialism later, the Dutch, for example are two inches taller than Americans. Europeans can expect longer life spans, and much less infant mortality than their erstwhile liberators, who are cursed with a free market health system that leaves 45 million people uninsured, and is the least efficient in the industrialised world. Not coincidentally, it is the most expensive – and the most profitable.

Freedom from fear, as Roosevelt advocated in 1945, was implemented to a much larger degree in Europe. Mothers can take serious, guaranteed, paid maternity leave, compared with Clinton's big step forward – unpaid family leave. Those socialist Europeans are guaranteed sick pay for months, years, on end and guaranteed vacation time, which they can take without fear of retribution. And the enterprises in which they work are prospering and solvent on the basis that employees deserve some measure of the prosperity and security that McCain assumes only CEOs need to motivate them.

If Obama and the Democrats were socialists, then Americans could enjoy the nearly universal health care of western Europe, not just in the sense of hospitals and doctors, but the health of the population – they would live longer for example instead of being 42nd in the world longevity league, they would have something higher than the 29th place in the world infant mortality tables.

American workers, who have been on an effective pay freeze since Ronald Reagan took office, could enjoy the steadily rising incomes of their European counterparts. Who knows, maybe the murder rate would drop to civilised world standards and the "socialist" US could relinquish its positions at the top of the world incarcerations and executions leagues.

Even justice suffers. At the time of the first OJ Simpson trial, I remember asking an American defence attorney which courts he would prefer, and he answered immediately, "if I were rich and guilty, I'd want to be tried here. If I were poor and innocent – I'd prefer Europe".

There have been steps backward as European governments persuaded themselves that Washington was showing the way economically. However, one can only hope that Europeans, particularly social democrats, can surely see further than the coast of Alaska and deduce that the main lesson from McCain's United States are negative ones. It is time to put the clock forward in Europe from where it stopped under the baneful influence of Reagan, Thatcher and Blair.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Salvation is at Hand

Ian Williams reviews Larrry Beinhart's Salvation Boulevard

In Larry Beinhart’s novels, the reader is left to wonder how much is a vivid and inventive imagination at work– and how much is simply an uncannily perceptive eye for current affairs and the state of the country combined with a convincing pen for character for his unlikely heroes.
They have deserved a much larger audience than they have had, although American Hero, when metamorphosed into Wag The Dog did indeed reach many more viewers than readers.
The Librarian epitomized the age of Cheney and the Republican Right in its backdrop and the setting for its plot, but like all of Larry's work, eschewed overt didacticism and maintained the standards of suspense and excitement that a thriller needs.
With Salvation Boulevard, he has surpassed himself. It will make a great movie, as long, of course, as he does not allow Hollywood to dumb down his depiction of the grasping Pastor/CEO of the megachurch that features so largely in the book. 

However, while he holds up for excommunication the Evangelical right that has condemned the country to two terms of disaster, he is not the type of militant unbeliever that makes Atheism a new and almost equally as obsessive a creed as the religions it opposes.
He gives us a rounded view of faith, and how important it can be even to his hero, the born again private eye who has indeed benefited from his church and his belief. The Atheist in this story is the victim, almost the McGuffin, and the story articulates his beliefs.

Indeed, even his other characters, the Jewish lawyer and the Muslim victim demonstrate that people's faith can inform and shape their ethical behavior, even if he equally suggests that ethics can, in effect, be freestanding, with no need of belief in the supernatural.

The real danger, his plot demonstrates as it unfolds, is the potential for manipulation of people's best ethical instincts by religious leaders, and indeed political leaders. Under the Kaiser, a German social-democrat, a carpenter as I remember, dressed himself in a officer's uniform, and practically commandeered the town. No one dared question his authority.
Mesmerized by "terrorism," as Larry depicts, at almost every level of American Society from the President down, any abuse can be covered in the "uniform" of anti-terrorism, and far too many will just click their heels and salute.

As Larry's hero races through the mean freeways and malls of the Red States while rediscovering his ethics – and losing much in the process, we get philosophy, gun fights, family drama, shovelfuls of action to help the ethics go down.

I loved it – and emerged a born again atheist, with a revived lack of faith in the supernatural – and a renewed faith in the integrity of ordinary people.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Obama keeps his powder dry
While John McCain threw the kitchen sink at Barack Obama in their final debate, Obama wisely didn't sink to his level

* Ian Williams

o guardian.co.uk,
o Thursday October 16 2008 06.41 BST

If Joe the Plumber went for a leak during the presidential debate, he may have missed one of John McCain's faux folksy invocations, but he was sure to get the many others. It was at least a relief from the relentless attempt by McCain's programmers to avoid issues of substance with ad-terrorem attacks on Barack Obama's fleeting acquaintanceship with a former Weatherman.

Obama was probably right in not responding with questions about McCain's relationships with looney pastors like Rod Parsely and John Hagee or his part in the dry run for the present crisis a starring member of the Keating Five. Unless he had backed up such a riposte with a massive negative advertising campaign, no one would have known what he was talking about.

And it would have diminished his effective points about the GOP's negative campaigning, which McCain substantiated so effectively, even as he denied the charges, by repeating the slurs on television.

McCain several times attacked Obama for his eloquence, perhaps confusing it with the nuance that George Bush disliked so much. Obama was indeed eloquent, and did indeed have nuance, wielding in the debate as in his spending plans the scalpel where his opponent's instrument of choice was the hatchet.

There is of course, as Obama repeatedly spelled out, a profound difference between tax cuts targeted at the rich and those at working families, which can't be buried under his opponent's trite accusations of "class warfare" and "spreading the wealth around". Indeed, except in the unlikely event that the electorate confuses Joe the Plumber with Exxon Mobil, it may be that many of them find the idea of class warfare and spreading wealth quite attractive when confronted with the unacceptable face of capitalism leering at the impending depression.

Equally one of the few sharp rejoinders from McCain - that he was not Bush, and if Obama wanted to run against him he should have done so four years ago - was risking his own base, while sounding unconvincing to anyone who may have remembered that Bush and he share a common party.

Really, apart from this prick, the rapier was clearly Obama's weapon of choice as much as the scalpel – when he suggested that some of his accusers had been watching McCain's attack ads.

The Republican's statement that "I regret some of the negative aspects of both campaigns" was an admission without being an apology, not least since it was part of his negative attack on Obama, whose dismissal of hurt personal feelings in favour of dealing with real issues like the economy was pertinent and telling. As indeed was his masterful non-negative, damning-with-faint-praise assessment of Sarah Palin's great political capability and ability to excite the Republican base.

McCain certainly did his best to follow his coaches' advice to try to look as if he were being nice to his opponent, even if the words belied his contrived bonhomie. He also tried manfully to distance himself, somewhat shamelessly from his party's own president and record over the last eight years. In the end, most voters will doubtless remember that he was still a loyal soldier of the party that, as Obama pointed out, had brought about a record deficit after inheriting from the Democrats an unprecedented surplus.

One could certainly disagree with some of what Obama has to say, whether his un-necessarily complicated health plan, or indeed of deference to Joe Biden's foreign policy expertise, but they did represent clearly honest attempts to deal with issues while his opponent attempted to sidestep.

I could not help but suspect that McCain had been taking coaching from Palin. At times his gauche attempts to ignore the question in favour of his preferred prepared answers was embarrassing. And that may have shown in his appearance.

When Obama faced the camera in direct appeal to the audience, I certainly found it very effective. In contrast, McCain had difficulty focussing, and somewhat disturbingly also had a sub-Nixonian twitch to his eyes that made me suspect that maybe he did, after all, have some of the integrity that has been ascribed to him – and knew that he was eating his own previous words and reputation in public.

If the American electorate has as much sense as polls indicate, the maverick will soon be rounded up and branded as a loser.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Taiwan, China and the missiles

America's missile diplomacy
The US arms sale to Taiwan has simply upset China instead of serving as a catalyst to settle the dispute over the island's status

* Ian Williams

o guardian.co.uk,
o Thursday October 09 2008 21.00 BST

On Friday, Taiwan will celebrate its national day, which is actually the 97th anniversary of Sun Yat Sen's declaration of the old, non-communist Republic of China, whose flag is still the official banner of the island. Beijing gets very upset if Taiwan drops its claim to represent all of China and instead opts to go its own way officially, the way it has done in practice for 50 years.

The Taiwan Relations Act mandates the White House to ensure that the island has the means of self-defence. In fact, it says that "the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means," which one could consider somewhat negated by all those threats and missiles in the mainland.

The Bush administration has refused to sell the F16s that it had earlier promised to Taiwan but never delivered in order to punish Chen Shui Bian, the former president, and his party for wanting to declare independence from China. The majority of Taiwanese no more want to come under Beijing than the Kosovars want to go under Belgrade, but the Bush arms freeze had left Beijing to assume, and no one from the administration has contradicted it, that the US agreed with the PRC's own rigid definition of the One China Policy.

Indeed, Admiral Timothy Keating, the commander of the US Pacific Command, admitted this summer that they had consulted with Beijing about arms for Taiwan, and the state department recently sent out a kow-towing memo to its embassies abroad on how to avoid upsetting the Chinese this Friday by keeping a very low profile at the ROC national day receptions around the world. No wonder the commissars for the Middle Kingdom had become used to accepting obeisance and tribute from the foreign ghosts.

However, now, to reward Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou, who has been trying to kiss and make up with Beijing, Bush has agreed to deliver half of what the Taiwanese wanted, included the much touted but seriously wonky Patriot missile system, but not the submarines and F16s that the Taiwanese had ordered.

The gesture was a little like being half-pregnant as far as the Chinese were concerned. They summoned the American chargé d'affaires to tell him they regarded it as a broken promise and were cutting off military and diplomatic cooperation.

Ma is from the KMT, the old Chinese nationalist party, whose diehards agree with Beijing on one-China, but disagree with the communists about who represents it, and this national day will be more Republic of China, and less Taiwan. Ma has managed some serious political acrobatics. Without disavowing the old nationalists in his party, he had to persuade the electorate that he would stroke the mainland by eschewing showy gestures, while still maintaining effective independence.

The KMT would like the ROC to join the UN as well, without declaring independence, but Beijing's gratitude only goes so far. It slapped down the new government's conciliatory attempt to shelve the UN question by going for representation at the World Health Organisation instead. And since it really does not get this democracy and self-determination thing, Beijing has not foresworn the use of force or moved the batteries of hundreds of missiles pointed threateningly at the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese, who have no ambition whatsoever to invade the mainland.

Of course, with all this electoral rhetoric about supporting democracy, one wonders about the degree of American cooperation with one of the least democratic regimes outside Riyadh, not least when contrasted with the lack of support for a democratically elected government in Taiwan.

We did see democracy at work in Washington, where John McCain supported the full arms package going to Taiwan, but one has to wonder how principled a stand it was when his neocon adviser Randy Scheunemann had had in his lobbyist's portfolio not only Georgia, but also Taiwan and Lockheed Martin, purveyors of the Patriot missiles and F16s. Will the policy change if Beijing makes an offer?

In fact, the Taiwan government has not been pushing as hard as it could on arms sales, not least because they consciously strove to limit the arms budget in order to spend more on things like education and health, which is a good lesson for both presidential candidates in the US. Taiwan really should cancel on those dud Patriots.

A stronger, saner US might be able to parlay possible arms supplies to Taiwan against a Chinese pledge not to use military force to settle the dispute, and to remove all those missiles. But an administration dependent on the Peoples Bank of China to pay for the Wall Street bail-out and lobbyists for framing policy is neither strong nor sane. And neither McCain nor Barack Obama has suggested cutting the defence budget in favour of healthcare and education, which would really be the sanity clause for Marxists and normal humans.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Gas-bagging on Oil Prices

Ian Williams on the price of gas
Speculator, Investor Relations magazine Aug 20008

Over the last few years, as gasoline started costing more and more, I wondered why no one was protesting.

To be sure, Americans are still paying only half what Europeans are accustomed to. Even so, for a long time the steady increases did not induce significant behavioral changes in a population that seemed to think cheap gas was constitutionally guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Instead, even those who accepted that fossil fuels were a rare, disappearing resource, and that their continued use was affecting the climate, responded by buying bigger Hummers or by commuting even longer distances from the outer suburbs.

The invisible hand of the free market can flap with feigned ineffectuality for some time before crashing down like a 50-megaton fly swatter, however. Most predictably, the bottom has belatedly dropped out of the SUV market. The brontosauruses of the road, the Winnebago and other recreational vehicles, are also going the way of all gas guzzlers.

Oil has seeped into every crack of the economy. Recently Kellogg’s reduced the size of its cereal boxes – a disguised price increase. I have written before about the baneful effects of turning food into fuel, but a smaller portion of cornflakes was not what I expected.

House prices in places that involve a long commute have fallen far more sharply than in the cities. Public transport usage is soaring. Freight costs are rising and manufacturers are reopening their mothballed US plants and repatriating production back from China.

Airlines are doing all that they can to lighten their load and reduce fuel consumption, although it’s a lousy excuse to stop serving meals. Some are considering breaking up the longer non-stop flights because it takes so much fuel just to carry the fuel over thousands of miles.

There are clearly seismic effects looming for the world economy. I can’t help thinking that anyone who still owns shares in airlines or car makers – especially US ones – has somehow decided to go down with the ship.

So what is the investment of the future? Forward to the past! We may not be bringing back the horse-drawn carriage, but the long-abandoned electric car is now being raised from the dead by high fuel prices.

Other prematurely abandoned technologies are due for a reincarnation. If flights are going to take longer as planes fly more slowly and stop more often, and it’s too expensive to send cargo by jumbo jet, then surely it’s time to revive the airship. Not the small, albeit creditable version made by Airship Industrie before it went under, but the big passenger and freight-carrying zeppelins: Hindenburgs and R101s with low fuel consumption.

Flying will soon be an expensive luxury, so let’s make it luxurious. Just imagine a stately, silent flight over the abandoned JFK, then mooring to the mast atop the Empire State Building.

It’s a leap ahead, of course, but surely our ingenuity can rise to airships that use all the hot air being generated by – and about – global warming? Watch out for my Hot Air Inc IPO, coming soon.


That was not a debate, it was sequential TV interviews, and as
someone who has coached people in interview techniques, by slick
flack standards she aced it.

I have coached people for media interviews myself. Media trainers coach CEOs, bureaucrats,politicians, to bridge, to take the question and lead to the points
they want to make. Of course, if you have no points to make, the
discerning will note that it is a bridge to nowhere, which is what happened with Sarah Palin.

She is clearly a sharp operator, even though she lacks the
intellectual framework to absorb and use the factoids and FAQs that
her trainers had stuffed her with for the Couric interviews.

But then we come back to the original Palin-drone concep -she was
picked for comfort, not for speed. Her soap opera vacuities and
platitudes, with the grins, winks and small town tropes, "maverick," "outsider,"
"hockey moms," will work with lots of people who would be bewildered
with details of policy. Shame her AIPAC trainers who were on her case
did not get her to pronounce Isreeeal properly - and you may remember
her speech writers knowing Bush had spelled out Newclear for her
convention speech.

Like I said the first time..this election is an IQ test, and I am
pleased to note the US electorate shows signs of passing.

It's a shame Biden and her kissed on Israel and Iran... ominous. Biden failed to make the point that the reason Bush failed on the peace process was his total unwillingness to pressure Israel in anyway to make the concessions to legality and diplomacy needed. Although he is more aware of them than her, Biden showed no signs of offering an alternative. The last people who did were Baker and Bush Snr, who were right, but paid the price. Let's hope, if they are elected Obama and Biden will do the necessary. But they should be encouraged by criticising them now for their pandering.

Radio Rum

At 9 pm Monday 6th October, Catskill Review of Books is on the Radio again with Ian Williams interviewing Tom Gjelten about his latest book on Bacardi and Cuba.
It will be live and archived at http://www.wjffradio.org.