Wassail, traveler, and welcome to The Gable Grey -- a place of retreat, of renewal, and of resistance: a tree-shaded refuge in Dark Times. Now pass the threshold, and rest from journeys! For a cold wind is blowing; and here, if you wish, you may hear tidings of the world without...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

And now, a word from Marcus

"Death is relief from reaction to the senses, from the puppet-strings of impulse, from the analytical mind, and from service to the flesh.  Disgraceful if, in this life where your body does not fail, your soul should fail you first.

"Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple:  it happens.  So keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work.  Strive hard to remain the same man that philosophy wished to make you.  Revere the gods, look after men.  Life is short.  The one harvest of existence on earth is a godly habit of mind and social action."

-- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Becoming a Third World Nation

Published Feb 10 2010 by The Archdruid Report, Archived Feb 11 2010

Becoming a Third World Nation

by John Michael Greer
In the course of writing last week’s Archdruid Report post, I belatedly realized that there’s a very simple way to talk about the scope of the brutal economic contraction now sweeping through American society – a way, furthermore, that might just be able to sidestep both the obsessive belief in progress and the equally obsessive fascination with apocalyptic fantasy that, between them, make up much of what passes for thinking about the future these days. It’s to point out that, over the next decade or so, the United States is going to finish the process of becoming a Third World country.
I say “finish the process,” because we are already most of the way there. What distinguishes the Third World from the privileged industrial minority of the world’s nations? Third World nations import most of their manufactured goods from abroad, while exporting mostly raw materials; that’s been true of the United States for decades now. Third World economies have inadequate domestic capital, and are dependent on loans from abroad; that’s been true of the United States for just about as long. Third World societies are economically burdened by severe problems with public health; the United States ranks dead last for life expectancy among industrial nations, and its rates of infant mortality are on a par with those in Indonesia, so that’s covered. Third World nation are very often governed by kleptocracies – well, let’s not even go there, shall we?

There are, in fact, precisely two things left that differentiate the United States from any other large, overpopulated, impoverished Third World nation. The first is that the average standard of living here, measured either in money or in terms of energy and resource consumption, stands well above Third World levels – in fact, it’s well above the levels of most industrial nations. The second is that the United States has the world’s most expensive and technologically complex military. Those two factors are closely related, and understanding their relationship is crucial in making sense of the end of the “American century” and the decline of the United States to Third World status.

The US has the world’s most expensive military because, just now, it has the world’s largest empire. Now of course it’s not polite to talk about that in precisely those terms, but let’s be frank – the US does not keep its troops garrisoned in more than a hundred countries around the world for the sake of their health, you know. That empire functions, as empires always do, as a way of tilting the economic relationships between nations in a way that pumps wealth out of the rest of the world and into the coffers of the imperial nation. It may never have occurred to you to wonder why it is that the 5% of the world’s population who live in the US get to use around a third of the world’s production of natural resources and industrial products – certainly it never seems to occur to most Americans to wonder about that – but the economics of empire are the reason.

A century ago, in 1910, it was Britain that had the global empire, the worldwide garrisons, and the torrents of wealth flowing from around the world to boost the British standard of living at the expense of everyone else’s. A century from now, in 2110, if the technology to maintain any kind of worldwide empire still exists – and it can be done with wooden sailing ships and crude cannon, remember; Spain managed that feat very effectively in its day – somebody else will be in that position. It won’t be America, because empire is the methamphetamine of nations; in the short term, the effects feel great, but in the long term they’re very often lethal. Britain managed to walk away from its empire without total catastrophe because the United States was ready, willing, and able to take over, and give Britain a place in the inner circle of US allies into the bargain; most other nations have paid for their imperial overshoot with a century or two of economic collapse, political chaos, and social disintegration.

That’s the corner into which the United States is backing itself right now. The flood of lightly disguised tribute from overseas, while it made Americans fantastically wealthy by the standards of the rest of the world, also gutted America’s domestic economy – the same economic imbalances that funnel wealth here also make it nearly impossible to produce goods or provide services at home at a cost that can compete with overseas producers – and created a culture of entitlement that includes all classes from the bottom of the social pyramid right up to the top. As always happens, in turn, the benefits of empire are failing to keep pace with its rapidly rising costs, and in addition, rising demands for imperial largesse from all parts of society are drawing down an increasingly straitened supply of wealth. Meanwhile other nations with imperial ambitions are circling like sharks; the wisest among them know that time is on their side, and that any additional burden that can be loaded onto a drowning empire will hasten the day when it goes under for the third time and they can close for the kill.

This view of the world situation is not one that you’ll find in the cultural mainstream, or for that matter any of its self-proclaimed alternatives. The contrast with a century ago is instructive. A great many people in late imperial Britain knew perfectly well that the empire on which the sun famously never set – critics suggested that this was because God Himself wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark – had had its day and was itself setting; the lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” –

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo! All our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

– simply put in powerful imagery what many were thinking at that time. You won’t find the same sort of historical sense nowadays, though, and I suspect the role of the myth of progress as the secular religion of the modern world has a lot to do with it. In 1910, the concept of historical decline was on a great many minds; these days you’ll hardly hear it mentioned, because the belief in history as perpetual progress has become all the more deeply entrenched as the foundations that made the progress of recent centuries possible have rotted away.

The resulting insistence on seeing all social changes through onward-and-upward colored spectacles has imposed huge distortions on our perceptions of recent events. One good example is the rise and fall of the so-called “global economy” in recent decades. Its proponents portrayed it as the triumphant wave of a Utopian future that would enable everybody to live like middle-class Americans; its critics portrayed it as the equally triumphant metastasis of a monolithic corporate power out to enslave the world. Very few people saw it as the desperate gambit of a faltering imperial society that could no longer even afford to run its own economy, and was forced to outsource even its most basic economic functions to other countries. Nonetheless, this is what it has turned out to be, and it had the predictable result that several other nations used the influx of capital and technology to build their own industrial sectors, bide their time, and then enter the market themselves and outcompete the very companies and countries that gave them a foot in the door.

More broadly, it seems to have escaped the attention of a great many observers that the day of the multinational corporations is drawing to an end. The struggle over Russia’s energy resources was the decisive battle there, and when Putin crushed the Western-funded oligarchs and retook control of his country’s energy supply, that battle was settled with a typically Russian sense of drama. The elegance with which China has turned international trade law against its putative beneficiaries is in its own way just as typical; a flurry of corporations owned by the Chinese government have spread operations throughout the world, using the mechanisms of global trade to lay the foundations of a future Chinese global empire, while the Chinese government efficiently stonewalled any further trade negotiations that would have put Chinese economic interests at home in jeopardy. More recently, China has begun buying sizable stakes in the multinational corporations that so many well-meaning people in the West once thought would reduce the world to vassalage; the day when ExxonMobil is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CNOOC may be closer than it looks.

The same biases that make such global changes invisible have impacts at least as sweeping here at home. Faith in progress, coupled with the tribute economy’s culture of entitlement I mentioned earlier, have made it nearly impossible for anybody in American public life to talk about the hard fact that America can no longer afford most of the social habits it adopted during its age of empire. It’s almost impossible to think of an aspect of daily life in America today that will not change drastically as a result. We will have to give up the notion, for example, that most Americans ought to go to college and get a “meaningful and fulfilling” job of the sort that can be done sitting at a desk. We will have to abandon the idea that it makes any sense to spend a quarter of a million dollars giving an elderly person with an incurable illness six more months of life. We will have to relearn the old distinction between the deserving poor – those who are willing to work and simply need the opportunity, or who have fallen into destitution through circumstances outside their control – and those who are simply trying to game the system. The great majority of us will get to find out what it’s like to make things instead of buying them, even when that means a sharp reduction in quality; to skip meals, or make do with very little, because the money to pay for anything more simply isn’t there; to treat serious illnesses at home because care from a doctor costs too much; I could go on for paragraphs, but I trust you get the idea.

All these changes, it needs to be said, would be inevitable at this point even if the industrial world depended on renewable resources and had a stable, sustainable relationship with the planetary biosphere that supports all our lives. The United States has played its recent hands in the game of empire very badly indeed, and responded to each loss by doubling down and raising the stakes even higher. If, as a growing number of perceptive commentators have suggested, the US government has been reduced to borrowing money from itself in order to pay its bills – the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post – the end of that road is in sight. It’s hard to see this as anything but a desperation move on the part of a political and economic establishment that sees no other options for short-term survival and thinks it has nothing left to lose. It’s the exact equivalent of paying household bills by running up debt on credit cards; it can buy a little time, but at the cost of making bankruptcy a certainty once that time runs out.

The global context of the crisis, though, also needs to be kept in mind. The industrial world does not depend on renewable resources, and its relationship with the biosphere is leading it straight down the well-worn path of overshoot and collapse; the endgame of American empire, while it would be taking place anyway, has the additional factor of the limits to growth in play. In an alternate world where energy and resource flows could be counted on to remain stable for the foreseeable future, it’s quite possible that one of the rising powers might offer America the same devil’s bargain we offered Britain in 1942, and prop up the husk of our empire just long enough to take it over for themselves.

As it is, it cannot have escaped the attention of any other nation on the planet that something like a quarter of the world’s dwindling resource production could be made available for other countries, if only the United States were to lose the ability to purchase energy and other resources from outside its own borders. It’s not hard to think of nations that would be in a position to profit mightily from such a readjustment, and nothing so unseemly as a global war would necessarily be required to make it happen; to name only one possibility, it’s by no means unthinkable that the United States, having manufactured “color revolutions” to order in countries around the world, might turn out to be vulnerable to the same sort of well-organized mob action here at home.

Exactly how things will play out in the months and years to come is anybody’s guess. One of the consequences of America’s descent into Third World status, though, is that a great many of us may have scant leisure to contemplate global and national issues amid the struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. In the long run, this shift in focus may have certain advantages; I have argued in previous posts that those nations that undergo the deindustrial transition soonest, and are thus forced to learn how to get by on the very modest energy and resource flows available in the absence of fossil fuels, may find that this gives them a head start in making changes that everyone else will have to make in due time. Still, making the most of those advantages will require a very different approach to economics, among other things, than most of us have pursued (or imagined pursuing) so far.

Interestingly, this brings us back to the point where this blog’s exploration of deindustrial economics started some months ago: the thought of the maverick economist E.F. Schumacher. Among his other achievements, Schumacher developed a theory of economic development for the Third World that cut straight across the assumptions of his own time and ours alike, and proposed a route toward relative prosperity that took the limits to growth and the failures of empire into account. That route was not taken in his time; it may be the only way left open in ours. We’ll discuss it in detail in next week’s post.
Original article available here

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Project

I have posted a new link in the TEOTWAWKI section, called 'The Dark Mountain Project.'  Follow the link to the Manifesto, if you will.  But be warned:  it is a challenge to the way we all think and view the world.  Do not continue if you do not wish your beliefs challenged, or if you find uncomfortable the thought of a disruption of and total end to your mode of existence. 

However, if (like me) you feel humanity is undergoing a definitive change, but cannot quite put your finger on what is happening and what you should be doing:  then by all means, follow the link Beyond the Pale.  The Manifesto is a long read, but well worth it.  I will talk more of Dark Mountain later, if and when I can discuss it with those I know of the Remnant.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Visitors regular and irregular to the Gable Grey have no doubt noticed of late a trend in my posts.  I don't talk much about my writing any more, as I have not done any to speak of in months.  Much of this blog's content these days can be described as "gloom and doom," and I cannot deny it.  But I cannot deny that "gloom and doom" have occupied my thoughts to a great extent the past year or so, and have come to shape my habits and my very ways of thinking about things.  I have become a habitual prepper, and have bent my will on becoming more frugal and practical in my daily routine.  All that is a work in progress, like most things in my life; but as I am come to the realization that the Paradigm Shift I have spoken of before here at the Gable Grey is much more than a concept, but a daily reality for those who (like myself) struggle to see and hear beyond the noise and hype of regular channels, I find that I have no choice but to make me and mine ready for the changes as best we can.  Notice I did not say, "coming changes."  The changes are already here.

I fear that in my efforts to become more self-reliant and pracitcal in my day-to-day existence, something precious will be lost:  that whatever-it-is that spurred me to try my hand at writing, at being a fantasist.  It is the same impulse that drove me to the works of obscure fantasists like Morris and Dunsany and MacDonald, and the same one that led me to scheme grand role-playing adventures for myself and my friends in Middle-earth.  I have found those works less as objects to be studied of late, and find myself instead walking as one in a dream, muttering half-forgotten lines by Tolkien as I stroll the brown lands of Winter.  Sometimes I am surprised at the responses I hear from the dreaming trees, murmuring in their sleep in answer to my halting words.  I am become less an artist, more a character I might write about.  I do not want to give up writing, indeed I do not think I can; but that muse sleeps deep within, the long, dark rest of winter woods.  Maybe the Spring will bring forth a new flowering.  I do not know.  Meanwhile the Paradigm Shift continues, and I continue to change, even as this blog does.

I hope my posts prove useful to some.  I run a terrible risk of becoming "the boy who cried 'wolf.'"  But here I am not going by what my brain is telling me, because my brain is usually to some degree scrambled these days trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff in the news.  But my gut, usually unreliable, is telling me that we are in the beginning stages of a great change, and that it is already well under way.  As a result, I am often busy with things like stringing chicken wire, or planting figs or blueberries or blackberries, or checking our inventories here at home.  But I hope to weather the change, and come out to whatever world lies waiting for us, and bring those things that for now must needs lie sleeping within me.  We must all prepare, but we must all try to retain those daydreams that, for some of us at least, have sustained us this far in life, and have helped make us who we are.


Published Feb 4 2010 by The Archdruid Report, Archived Feb 4 2010


by John Michael Greer
I’ve mentioned more than once in these essays the foreshortening effect that textbook history can have on our understanding of the historical events going on around us. The stark chronologies most of us get fed in school can make it hard to remember that even the most drastic social changes happen over time, amid the fabric of everyday life and a flurry of events that can seem more important at the time.
This becomes especially problematic in times like the present, when apocalyptic prophecy is a central trope in the popular culture that frames a people’s hopes and fears for the future. When the collective imagination becomes obsessed with the dream of a sudden cataclysm that sweeps away the old world overnight and ushers in the new, even relatively rapid social changes can pass by unnoticed. The twilight years of Rome offer a good object lesson; so many people were convinced that the Second Coming might occur at any moment that the collapse of classical civilization went almost unnoticed; only a tiny handful of writers from those years show any recognition that something out of the ordinary was happening at all.
Reflections of this sort have been much on my mind lately, and there’s a reason for that. Scattered among the statistical noise that makes up most of today’s news are data points that suggest to me that business as usual is quietly coming to an end around us, launching us into a new world for which very few of us have made any preparations at all.
Here’s one example. Friends of mine in a couple of midwestern states have mentioned that the steady trickle of refugees from the Chicago slums into their communities has taken a sharp turn up. There’s a long history of dysfunction behind this. Back in 1999, Chicago began tearing down its vast empire of huge high-rise projects, promising to replace them with less ghastly and more widely distributed housing for the poor. Most of the replacements, of course, never got built. When the waiting list for Section 8 rent subsidies, the only other option available, got long enough to become a public relations problem, the bureaucrats in charge simply closed the list to new applicants; rumors (hotly denied by the Chicago city government) claim that poor families in Chicago were openly advised to move to other states. Whether for that reason or simple economic survival, a fair number of them did.
Fast forward to the middle of 2009. Around then, facing budget deficits second only to California, the state of Illinois quietly stopped paying its social service providers. In theory, the money is still allocated; in practice, it’s been more than six months since Illinois preschools, senior centers, food banks, and the like have received a check from the state for the services they provide, and many of them are on the verge of going broke. Subsidized rent has apparently taken an equivalent hit. Believers in free-market economics have been insisting for years that the end of rent subsidies would let the free market reduce rents to a level that people could afford, but I don’t recommend holding your breath; this is the same free market, remember, that gave the United States some of the world’s worst slums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The actual effects have been instructive. Squeezed between sharply contracting benefits and a sharply contracting job market, many of Chicago’s poor are hitting the road, heading in any direction that offers more options. Forget the survivalist fantasy of violent hordes pouring out of the inner cities to ravage everything in their path; today’s slum residents are instead becoming the Okies of the Great Recession. In the process, part of business as usual in the United States is coming to an end.
Illinois is far from the only state that backed itself into a corner by assuming that rising tax revenues from a bubble economy could be extrapolated indefinitely into the future. 41 US states currently face budget deficits. California has received most of the media attention so far, a good deal of it focused on the political gridlock that has kept the state frozen in crisis for years. Behind the partisan posturing in Sacramento, though, lies a deeper and harsher reality. The state of California is essentially bankrupt; nearly all the mistakes made by the once-wealthy states of the Rust Belt as they slid down the curve of their own decline have been faithfully copied by California as it approaches its destiny as the Rust Belt of the 21st century. I wonder how many local governments in neighboring states have drawn up plans for dealing with the tide of economic refugees once California can no longer pay for its welfare system, and the poor of Los Angeles and other California cities join those of Chicago on the road?
I could go on, but I think the point has been made. State governments are the canaries in our national coal mine; their tax receipts are one of the very few measures of economic activity that aren’t being systematically fiddled by the federal government. The figures coming out of state revenue offices strike a jarring contrast with the handwaving about “green shoots” and an imminent return to prosperity heard from Washington DC and the media. Across the country, every few months, states that have already cut spending drastically to cope with record declines in tax income find that they have to go back and do it all over again, because their revenue – and by inference, the incomes, purchases, business activity, and other economic phenomena that feed into taxes – has dropped even further. Now it’s true that state budgets get hit whenever the economy goes into recession, and keep on hurting even when the recession is supposed to be over, but compared to past examples, the losses clobbering state funding these days are off the scale, and a great many programs that have been fixtures of American public life for as long as most of us have been living are facing the chopping block.
A different reality pertains within the Washington DC beltway. Where states that fail to balance their budgets get their bond ratings cut and, in some cases, are having trouble finding buyers for their debt at less than usurious interest rates, the federal government seems to be able to defy the normal behavior of bond markets with impunity. Despite soaring deficits, not to mention a growing disinclination on the part of foreign governments to keep on financing the same, every new issuance of US treasury bills somehow finds buyers in such abundance that interest rates stay remarkably low. A few weeks ago, Tom Whipple of ASPO became the latest in a tolerably large number of perceptive observers who have pointed out that this makes sense only if the US government is surreptitiously buying its own debt.
The process works something like this. The Federal Reserve, which is not actually a government agency but a consortium of large banks working under a Federal charter, has the statutory right to mint money in the US. These days, that can be done by a few keystrokes on a computer, and another few keystrokes can transfer that money to any bank in the nation. Some of those banks use the money to buy up US treasury bills, probably by way of subsidiaries chartered in the Cayman Islands and the like, and these same subsidiaries then stash the T-bills and keep them off the books. The money thus laundered finally arrives at the US treasury, where it gets spent.
It may be a bit more complex than that. Those huge sums of money voted by Congress to bail out the financial system may well have been diverted into this process – that would certainly explain why the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have stonewalled every attempt to trace exactly where all that money went. Friendly foreign governments may also have a hand in the process. One way or another, though, those of my readers who remember the financial engineering that got Enron its fifteen minutes of fame may find all this uncomfortably familiar – and it is. The world’s largest economy has become, in effect, the United States of Enron.
Plenty of countries in the past have tried to cover expenses that overshot income by spinning the presses at the local mint. The result is generally hyperinflation, of the sort made famous in the 1920s by Germany and more recently by Zimbabwe. That I know of, though, nobody has tried the experiment with a national economy in a steep deflationary depression, of the sort that has been taking shape in America and elsewhere since the real estate bubble crashed and burned in 2008. In theory, at least in the short term, it might just work; the inflationary pressures caused by printing money wholesale could conceivably cancel out the deflationary pressures of a collapsing bubble and a contracting economy – at least for a while.
The difficulty, of course, is that pumping the money supply fixes the symptoms of economic failure without treating the causes, and in every case I know of, governments that resort to it end up caught on a treadmill that requires ever larger infusions of paper money just to maintain the status quo. Sooner or later, as the amount of currency in circulation outstrips the goods and services available to buy, inflation spins out of control, the currency loses most or all of its value, and the economy grinds to a halt until a new currency can be issued on some sounder basis. In 1920s Germany, they managed this last feat by taking out a mortgage on the entire country, and issued “Rentenmarks” backed by that mortgage. In the wake of the late housing bubble, that seems an unlikely option here, though no doubt some gimmick will be found.
It’s crucial to realize, though, that this move comes at the end of a long historical trajectory. From the early days of the industrial revolution into the early 1970s, the United States possessed the immense economic advantage of sizeable reserves of whatever the cutting-edge energy source happened to be. During what Lewis Mumford called the eotechnic era, when waterwheels were the prime mover for industry and canals were the core transportation technology, the United States prospered because it had an abundance of mill sites and internal waterways. During Mumford’s paleotechnic era, when coal and railways replaced water and canal boats, the United States once again found itself blessed with huge coal reserves, and the arrival of the neotechnic era, when petroleum and highways became the new foundation of power, the United States found that nature had supplied it with so much oil that in 1950, it produced more petroleum than all other countries combined.
That trajectory came to an abrupt end in the 1970s, when nuclear power – expected by nearly everyone to be the next step in the sequence – turned out to be hopelessly uneconomical, and renewables proved unable to take up the slack. The neotechnic age, in effect, turned out to have no successor. Since then, for most of the last thirty years, the United States has been trying to stave off the inevitable – the sharp downward readjustment of our national standard of living and international importance following the peak and decline of our petroleum production and the depletion of most of the other natural resources that once undergirded American economic and political power. We’ve tried accelerating drawdown of natural resources; we’ve tried abandoning our national infrastructure, our industries, and our agricultural hinterlands; we’ve tried building ever more baroque systems of financial gimmickry to prop up our decaying economy with wealth from overseas; over the last decade and a half, we’ve resorted to systematically inflating speculative bubbles – and now, with our backs to the wall, we’re printing money as though there’s no tomorrow.
Now it’s possible that the current US administration will be able to pull one more rabbit out of its hat, and find a new gimmick to keep things going for a while longer. I have to confess that this does not look likely to me. Monetizing the national debt, as economists call the attempt to pay a nation’s bills by means of a hyperactive printing press, is a desperation move; it’s hard to imagine any reason that it would have been chosen if there were any other option in sight.
What this means, if I’m right, is that we may have just moved into the endgame of America’s losing battle with the consequences of its own history. For many years now, people in the peak oil scene – and the wider community of those concerned about the future, to be sure – have had, or thought they had, the luxury of ample time to make plans and take action. Every so often books would be written and speeches made claiming that something had to be done right away, while there was still time, but most people took that as the rhetorical flourish it usually was, and went on with their lives in the confident expectation that the crisis was still a long ways off.
We may no longer have that option. If I read the signs correctly, America has finally reached the point where its economy is so deep into overshoot that catabolic collapse is beginning in earnest. If so, a great many of the things most of us in this country have treated as permanent fixtures are likely to go away over the years immediately before us, as the United States transforms itself into a Third World country. The changes involved won’t be sudden, and it seems unlikely that most of them will get much play in the domestic mass media; a decade from now, let’s say, when half the American workforce has no steady work, decaying suburbs have mutated into squalid shantytowns, and domestic insurgencies flare across the south and the mountain West, those who still have access to cable television will no doubt be able to watch talking heads explain how we’re all better off than we were in 2000.
Those of my readers who haven’t already been beggared by the unraveling of what’s left of the economy, and have some hope of keeping a roof over their heads for the foreseeable future, might be well advised to stock their pantries, clear their debts, and get to know their neighbors, if they haven’t taken these sensible steps already. Those of my readers who haven’t taken the time already to learn a practical skill or two, well enough that others might be willing to pay or barter for the results, had better get a move on. Those of my readers who want to see some part of the heritage of the present saved for the future, finally, may want to do something practical about that, and soon. I may be wrong – and to be frank, I hope that I’m wrong – but it looks increasingly to me as though we’re in for a very rough time in the very near future.
Original article available here

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I am nearly finished with a truly wonderful film experience:  Departures.  It is a Japanese film about a cello player who loses his job after his symphony is dissolved.  With little other recourse, he and his wife leave the big city and return to his home town, where he has a small house, left to him by his now deceased mother years earlier.  It being a small town, there are even fewer jobs than in the city; he ends up working in what in Japan is known as the "casketing" business:  they are hired by undertakers to perform the elaborate Japanese funeral rites, which are complex and, while occupying a rather lowly station among their customs, require a tremendous amount of finesse:  for the rites are performed in the presence of the family.

It is beautifully nuanced, comically touching, and profoundly relevant to pretty much anybody.  The cinematography is just short of marvelous; even the droll urban landscape is treated lovingly by the camera.  I rarely take the time to write a review of a film, but Departures is more than deserving.  I can't find anything bad to say about it, and will probably give it five stars.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Jive Economy

     What started out as a case of The Emperor's New Clothes now has America looking like the world's biggest nudist colony, with everyone in the long chain of power and authority admiring each other's splendid new (imagined) pimp suits. George W. Bush (remember him?) wasn't kidding when he discounted the function of objective reality in our national life, saying, "we make our own reality." This apparently hasn't changed much with a new chief at the top.
     A nice example popped up last week with the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) index for the fourth quarter of 2009. The equation affects to measure the growth in economic activity and this particular release imputed that the US economy had expanded at an annualized rate of 5.7 percent. Wow, impressive! We must be digging a new Panama Canal or something.
     It turned out to be based largely on some jive about inventory "investments" -- meaning, I guess, that the Ronco Corporation has laid in 1.7 million Dial-O-Matic food slicers and Showtime Rotisseries in the expectation that American stock market investors will enter 2010 creaming off their mutual fund profits to spend wildly on every infomercial prompt beamed at them over the graveyard shift at Fox News.
     Memo to nation: we're not really growing, we're shrinking. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I dunno.  Unlike, say, the stockholders of Toll Brothers I'm not so sure that "housing starts" represents my idea of a healthy economy -- since it really means we're destroying every cornfield and cow pasture left outside our cities, which will play havoc with our national life when the reality of our Wile E. Coyote agribusiness fiasco starts to hit home and we discover what cornfields and cow pastures were really all about in the first place. 
     Likewise, the standard processors of news media go orgasmic when they announce car sales figures of 11 million units annualized, or something like that. Isn't that wonderful: more cars on the San Diego Freeway and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Ever larger parking requirements for the new WalMart. More trips-per-household to buy milk and Fruit Loops. Do you really think that more suburban sprawl makes this a better nation? When our soldiers bleed out in the sands of Central Asia, will their last thoughts be of the curb cut between the Best Buy and the Burger King?
     By the way, it is established fact that the GDP figure benefits from increases in medical services, meaning that the more obese, diabetic, two-pack-a-day cigarette smokers this country produces, the better off our economy is assumed to be. Bring on the Little Debbie Snack Cakes! Let's turn up the dial on hospital admissions!
    But as I said, our economy is not really expanding, it's contracting -- and pretty swiftly. The question is how will we manage this contraction and what kind of nation do we become as this occurs.
     For the moment, we are a nation committed to sustaining the unsustainable, and because this is the case we invite grievous political mischief as it becomes ever more obvious that the populace is being swindled -- and the populace becomes ever more ticked off about it. Thus, you get the Tea Bagger movement, and things like it, where the disenfranchised meld legitimate complaints with fantasies and conspiracy theories, and produce an incoherent agenda based on ideas like "keeping the government out of Medicare!" One can easily see a movement like this ramping up into full-bore corn-pone Naziism -- and for a nice dramatic enactment of such a scenario I recommend my new three-act stage play Big Slide, which we've posted over at the podcast.
     The Republican resurgence now underway -- or imagined to be, I'm not really sure -- casts photogenic clods like Massachusetts's new senator Scott Brown as heralds of a new free market Golden Age, in which WalMart will profitably manage every moment of daily life from grocery shopping to banking to medical care to the mortuary (and perhaps even war).  Little thought has been allotted to exactly what the role of citizens might be in such a nirvana. I suppose we'd become an endless chain of $8-an-hour "greeter associates" -- which is at least a step above being a national feedlot of polled Herefords. But I wouldn't want to be mistaken as a shill for the Democratic party, either, since the Obama team has opted for creating its own reality as much as its predecessor bunch did. The result will certainly be the election of countless maniacs to congress this fall, especially of the theocratic-despotic brand -- creationists, alien abductees, economics professors from bible colleges, Sunbelt war hawks, Lyndon LaRouche acolytes, Nativists, Palinites, crusaders against the New World Order, anti-Bilderbergers... the whole appalling menu of thought-disorder cases now roiling in the breakdown lane of American history.
     They are our future, these yeast people and mudskippers, because the intelligent minority of this nation lacks the one thing that animates intelligence in the service of reality, and that is the courage to tell the truth. I suppose this is what galls so many former Obama boosters: that the "hope" vested in him would be enacted in truth-telling, which would lead to "change" in the choices we make about doing things. What we ended up with seems to be something like a false champion with a good line of talk. Mr. Obama may yet be pushed into a recognition of the reality he did not personally create, and this may occur as the US economy heads much more drastically south in the months ahead. Something similar might have been the case for Mr. Lincoln.  He might have coasted along through 1861 trying to sweet-talk Dixie -- but the South Carolinians went apeshit on him from the get-go, and then there was no turning back from the ensuing conflagration.
     More probably, we'll be dragged kicking and screaming into an epochal contraction of economy, something the industrial world hasn't really seen before, something more severe even than the Great Depression we never stop chattering about (as though it was like The Hundred Years War). Instead of preparing for it intelligently by doing things like promoting small scale local farming, local networks of commerce, and rebuilt railroads (things, incidentally, which are within the powers of government to promote) we'll squander our dwindling capital and political resources fighting over the table scraps of the twentieth century. Life is tragic, history is merciless, and societies don't always make good collective choices. Visit Big Slide for a taste of what might be coming.
Whiles carried o'er the iron road,
We hurry by some fair abode;
The garden bright amidst the hay,
The yellow wain upon the way,
The dining men, the wind that sweeps
Light locks from off the sun-sweet heaps --
The gable grey, the hoary roof,
Here now -- and now so far aloof.
How sorely then we long to stay
And midst its sweetness wear the day,
And 'neath its changing shadows sit,
And feel ourselves a part of it.
Such rest, such stay, I strove to win
With these same leaves that lie herein.

-- William Morris, from
"The Roots of the Mountains"