Sunday, December 31, 2006

Americas new allies

The Cold War is dead. Long live the Cold War. The new Cold War, that is. The world's powers are aligning themselves along a new axis, and it isn't just about Israel.

In central and southern Asia China is courting favor with Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other states that are not close alliesof the US. This isn't just to counter American influence, but to contain and limit the growth of their nearest continental rival, India. Daniel Twining explains it all in his excellent article "The New Great Game":
Three recent events illuminate the contours and fault lines of Asia's emerging strategic landscape, amid the lengthening shadows cast by China's growing power.

First, the United States and India consolidated a wide-ranging military, economic, and diplomatic partnership on December 9, when Congress passed legislation enabling U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation. Then, at a summit in Tokyo on December 15, the leaders of India and Japan declared their ambition for a strategic and economic entente between Asia's leading democracies. This stands in sharp contrast to the intensifying rivalry between India and China: Tensions over territory and Tibet simmered at a summit on November 21, where Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh's assertion that "there is enough [geopolitical] space for the two countries to develop together" sounded more like hope than conviction.

As its relationships with the United States, Japan, and China show, India has reemerged as a geopolitical swing state after decades of marginalization as a consequence of the Cold War, its own crippling underdevelopment, and regional conflict in South Asia. Although its status as a heavyweight in the globalized world of the 21st century is new, India's identity as a great power is not: It was for centuries one of the world's largest economies and, under British rule, a preeminent power in Asia. Today, a rising India flush with self-confidence from its growing prosperity is determined not to be left behind by China's economic and military ascent. "The [Indian] elephant," says an admiring Japanese official, "is about to gallop."

The United States has an enormous stake in the success of a rich, confident, democratic India that shares American ambitions to manage Chinese power, protect Indian Ocean sea lanes, safeguard an open international economy, stabilize a volatile region encompassing the heartland of jihadist extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and prove to all those enamored of the Chinese model of authoritarian development that democracy is the firmest foundation for the achievement of humankind's most basic aspirations.

India is the world's biggest democracy, a nuclear power with the world's largest volunteer armed forces, and the world's second-fastest-growing major economy. Few countries will be more important to American security interests and American prosperity in the coming decades, as five centuries of Western management of the international system give way to a new economic and security order centered in the rimlands of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

India has been a factor in the global balance of power since at least 1510, when the establishment of a Portuguese trading colony at Goa broke a seven-century monopoly on the Indian Ocean spice trade by Muslim empires, unlocking the wealth of the East to European maritime states, which used it to build global empires. Possession of India propelled Britain to the peak of world power in the 19th century. "[T]he master of India," argued Britain's Lord Curzon, "must, under modern conditions, be the greatest power in the Asiatic Continent, and therefore . . . in the world."

With the penetration of radical Islamist influence into East Africa, that continent will gain strategic status in the War on Terror, and there are opportunities for the US to make new friends. The recent, surprising success of the Ethiopian army in evicting the Islamic government of Somalia from Mogadishu should cheer us all. The press likes to paint the world's poorer nations as universally resentful of US power, influence and affluence and the Islamist movement as some inevitable populist uprising against American hegemony, but many of these nations fear and hate the Islamic revolutionaries more than they do us, if they even hate us at all.

We need to read the tea-leaves of the new century right and make the right allies. "Allies" that need to be given the boot or the cold shoulder: Saudi Arabia, France & Germany, and Russia. New allies on which we should lavish our attention and aid, or existing allies to restrengthen our relationship with: India, Ethiopia, Japan, Iraq (if they survive).

Allies to keep on a short leash: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Either of these could go tribal on us. They are weak, almost failed states, and we can't put too many eggs in their basket.

Wild cards - states that are overlooked but that can provide the US with valuable leverage: Vietnam, Algeria. Vietnam was invaded by China after their victory over the US backed government in 1975, and does not want to see China become an Asian hegemon. There is a surprising amount of goodwill and admiration for America in Vietnam in spite of the war, and a shrewd President would look to strengthen ties there. Algeria survived a civil war against an Islamic dictatorship and should be willing to play a role in containing Islamic terror in Africa, especially in its own neighborhood of West Africa.

Gay Sheep and the Gods of Medicine

The riot act is being read to American scientists who are experimenting with hormones that will take the swish out of the ram:

SCIENTISTS are conducting experiments to change the sexuality of “gay” sheep in a programme that critics fear could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.

The technique being developed by American researchers adjusts the hormonal balance in the brains of homosexual rams so that they are more inclined to mate with ewes.

It raises the prospect that pregnant women could one day be offered a treatment to reduce or eliminate the chance that their offspring will be homosexual. Experts say that, in theory, the “straightening” procedure on humans could be as simple as a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn on the skin like an anti-smoking nicotine patch.

The research, at Oregon State University in the city of Corvallis and at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, has caused an outcry. Martina Navratilova, the lesbian tennis player who won Wimbledon nine times, and scientists and gay rights campaigners in Britain have called for the project to be abandoned.

Navratilova defended the “right” of sheep to be gay. She said: “How can it be that in the year 2006 a major university would host such homophobic and cruel experiments?” She said gay men and lesbians would be “deeply offended” by the social implications of the tests.

But the researchers argue that the work is valid, shedding light on the “broad question” of what determines sexual orientation. They insist the work is not aimed at “curing” homosexuality.

Homophobic and cruel experiments? Sheep have a "right" to be gay? I don't remember reading that clause in the "Universal Charter for Animal, Vegetable and Minaeral Rights". As a matter of fact, I don't remember the charter at all. But I'm sure that clause is in there right between "broccoli have the right to choose their sexual partners" and "metals cannot be alloyed with other metals without their consent".

Moving beyond the laughable hysteria, this opens up important matters to consider with regard to human reproduction. How would the traditional morality natural law crowd view the use of hormone patches by pregnant women to ensure straight children? On the one hand it can be viewed as enforcing the natural order of things. On the other hand it can be viewed as "playing God" and engaging in genetic engineering.

Given that the treatments do not alter the genes themselves, but just modify how the genes are expressed during development, it strictly doesn't qualify as genetic engineering. You can look at it as an extension of a regimen of proper pre-natal nutrition.

On the other side, the gay rights crowd could argue from a conservative position that the hormonal regimen is an attempt to nullify or reverse the proper expression of genes, which they could argue from a religious perspective is God's true intent for the child.

That, in essence, would be an argument on behalf of the gene's rights. Selfish gene supporters would applaud, but such a position could not fly without overruling all existing laws permitting abortion. If genes have any rights, then they have the right to see their handiwork come to fruition.

Gay rights supporters could also argue on behalf of the unborn child's right to be born gay, which again would require the negation of abortion rights. But the sticky point in that argument is that until the gay gene is expressed during development, the child does not have a gay orientation. If the hormone patch succeeds in overruling the gay gene, then the child would be born straight, and would have a right to live straight. This approach would make us a prisoner to our genes.

If our genes determine that we will be born deformed, would anyone argue that we have a right to be deformed? Actually this road has already been travelled, sort of. The deaf community vehemently opposes the use of cochlear implants for hard of hearing children, saying that it threatens to wipe out deaf culture. This argument is predicated on the notion of "group rights" moreso than individual rights, and is the closest parallel to what gay rights groups are really arging for.

You can look at it as a kind of turf battle between competing gangs, with the gene pool being the turf. The gays lay claim to that portion of the pool that in all likelihood will end up gay, and doesn't want straight culture "poaching" on their turf, through medical, educational or social intervention. The deafs do the same. You see group right arguments at play with adoption politics, where adoptions of black children are forbidden to white couples. It is the driving force behind multiculturalism, where people are defined by their ethnic/racial heritage and not their individual wants and desires.

Group rights schemes go totally against our notion of individual rights. Having said that, it doesn't answer the question of whether hormonal therapies to affect genetic expression during gestation are a good idea. It opens the door to many other possible avenues for parents to create designer babies. What if there were a hormone that did the opposite, and made it more likely that a baby would be born gay? Or what if you could breed future 7 foot giants in the womb, would we allow parents to do this in the hopes of retiring on their future son's NBA contract?

I long ago determined that with the advent of genetic technologies we no longer have the option of not playing God. Playing God is not about using Godlike powers but in having Godlike powers. We are developing the knowledge of those powers presently. Even refusing to use those powers is an act of playing God, because it is a choice between differing outcomes for children. If you determined that you would forego any and all genetic screening and therapy techniques when having a child, and your child were born with a very terrible but preventable condition, how would you answer her question as to why you didn't act to save her from her fate? In her eyes you played God with your decision. Gods commit sins of ommission as well as commission.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Culture this!

Aaaaah, a review of a book about the English character! As English as a blog about England and driving on the wrong side of the road at dawn. What exactly do the English think of themselves nowadays? Not a lot, it seems:
The expatriate Alan Pryce-Jones observed in 1968 that England was “an aquatinted country, full of very nice people, half asleep”. Mandler’s concluding pages portray a nation that has become deeply unsure of what it is, or wants to be. In the past half- century, most of this island’s inhabitants have become more concerned with personal than national identity. A 1963 poll for New Society showed that 73% of respondents thought that “individual happiness” was much more important than “national greatness”. I fancy that majority would increase in a similar poll taken today.

Even the nationalistic historian Arthur Bryant gave up, lamenting that “there is no unifying faith to bind us together”. In the late 1970s, the novelist Antonia Byatt without embarrassment applauded the virtues of multiculturalism: “I see our nation increasingly as a bright mosaic of little, unrelated patches.” Today, of course, we can see what dangerous tosh this was.

We perceive the threat not only to our social cohesion, but to our physical security, posed by an ideal of a nation in which nobody is required to display commitment to anything beyond self. If the age of John Bull, and that of Bulldog Drummond, is unlamented, we are learning by bitter experience that it is preferable to acknowledge almost any national character than none at all.

So what about the French and the Americans? Are they faring any better?

Since World War II, the French have been variously surprised, dismayed, irritated and outraged by the power of American culture and its effect on France and the world. Their only consolation has been the conviction that French culture is superior to anything that Walt Disney or Hollywood can offer.

What France's cultural elites have rarely done, however, is examine how both serious and pop culture actually work in the United States.

Rather, in the view of Frédéric Martel, a Frenchman and author of a recently released book on the topic, they have preferred to hide behind "a certain ideological anti-Americanism."


Still, what really intrigues Martel is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions.

And that leads him to the crucial role played by nonprofit foundations, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, universities and community organizations, which in practice do receive indirect government support in the form of tax incentives.

"If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found," he writes, "cultural life is everywhere."

The French, it seems, have no identity outside of the state. It seems to me a tad daft to think that any cultural output of any value could come from a government ministry. Even the focus of culture as a product, an output, rather than something that radiates naturally from the everyday activities of people doing anything and everything but trying to make culture, speaks to our level of confusion and insecurity on the subject. I think that too many Westerners are too introspective of their national identities for their own good.

Of the three countries, I'd have to say that America is in the best cultural shape, mainly because we don't fret about it as much. We have two models of cultural development in the US. There is the academic model of cultural theory, high-brow conceptual art and institutionalized funding and distribution networks of non-profits, government agencies, galleries, museums and universities. The other is the popular, market driven model of Hollywood studios, record labels and media conglomerates. One gazes at navels, the other watches ratings and box office receipts. One is mostly ignored by the majority, the other is followed by the majority of Americans and people around the world.

What is the point of worrying about culture in this way anyhow? The point of the two lamentations about culture seem to be asking not whether the national culture is good or bad, but rather whether it is correct. Are British people British enough? What does it take to be British, other than being British? Is it worthwhile being French if being French doesn't make you superior to everyone else on the planet?

Americans are considered uncultured by both the British and the French, and in the sense that being cultured involves consciously following a scripted set of behaviors we generally aren't. Being American means being free to enjoy or disdain any form of cultural fare or affecting any set of manners without having to worry whether one is being American.

There is some movement toward more narrowly defined cultural identities for Americans, and you can see it in the Red/Blue state propaganda from the elections. Lets hope our culture war never brings us to the point that we feel the need for a new cabinet position, the Secretary of Culture.

More dour defeatism to brighten your day

I think that leftist intellectuals must hold contests to see who can think up the most meandering and unlikely path of connections between some terrible social or ecological malady and capitalism. Like intellectual Rube Goldberg devices, they stand out more for the aesthetic appeal of the creativity of the devices used rather than the efficiency with which they accomplish their intended task, if they manage to at all.

The winner of this week's contest must have been Anatol Lieven, for his dire pronouncement on capitalism entitled "The end of the West as we know it?"

WASHINGTON: Every political, social and economic system ever created has sooner or later encountered a challenge that its very nature has made it incapable of meeting. The Confucian ruling system of imperial China, which lasted for more than 2,000 years, has some claim still to be the most successful in history, but because it was founded on values of stability and continuity, rather than dynamism and inventiveness, it eventually proved unable to survive in the face of Western imperial capitalism.

For market economies, and the Western model of democracy with which they have been associated, the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system. As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.

If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests.

Even the relatively conservative predictions offered by the Stern report, of a drop in annual global gross domestic product of up to 20 percent by the end of this century, imply a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s; and as we know, the effects of that depression were not restricted to economics. In much of Europe, as well as Latin America and Japan, democracies collapsed and were replaced by authoritarian regimes.

As the report makes clear, however, if we continue with "business as usual" when it comes to the emission of greenhouse gases, then we will not have to wait till the end of the century to see disastrous consequences. Long before then, a combination of floods, droughts and famine will have destroyed states in many poorer parts of the earth — as has already occurred in recent decades in Somalia.

If the conservative estimates of the Stern report are correct, then already by 2050 the effects of climate change may be such as to wreck the societies of Pakistan and Bangladesh; and if these states collapse, how can India and other countries possibly insulate themselves?

At that point, not only will today's obsessive concern with terrorism appear insignificant, but all the democratizing efforts of Western states, and of private individuals and bodies like George Soros and his Open Society Institute, will be rendered completely meaningless. So, of course, will every effort directed today toward the reduction of poverty and disease.

And this is only to examine the likely medium-term consequences of climate change. For the further future, the report predicts that if we continue with business as usual, then the rise in average global temperature could well top 5 degrees Celsius. To judge by what we know of the history of the world's climate, this would almost certainly lead to the melting of the polar ice caps, and a rise in sea levels of up to 25 meters.

As pointed out by Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth," this would mean the end of many of the world's greatest cities. The resulting human migration could be on such a scale as to bring modern civilization to an end.

If this comes to pass, what will our descendants make of a political and media culture that devotes little attention to this threat when compared with sports, consumer goods, leisure and a threat from terrorism that is puny by comparison? Will they remember us as great paragons of human progress and freedom? They are more likely to spit on our graves.

Underlying Western free-market democracy, and its American form in particular, is the belief that this system is of permanent value to mankind: a "New Order of the Ages," as the motto on the U.S. Great Seal has it. It is not supposed to serve only the short- term and selfish interests of existing Western populations. If our system is indeed no more than that, then it will pass from history even more utterly than Confucian China — and will deserve to do so.

The last paragraph contains the real laugher. He's saying that capitalism is a faiure because it benefits those nations that practice it but does not help those nations that don't. Did you get that? That's like saying that antibiotics aren't successful because they only help the people who take them. It is impossible to make this stuff up! There must be a fallacy gene that some people are born with that allows them to think like this.

Capitalism works because it allows individual, working class people to work for their own self interests. It won't work where ordinary people are prevented from doing so by socialist or tribalist regimes and mindsets. Western selfishness is not the problem, it is insufficient selfishness in the rest of the world that is.

The failure of Pakistan and Bangladesh, rather than an indictment of Western capitalism, is a shining counter-example of its efficacy. How will India survive, asks Lieven, if these two basket cases collapse? Gee, what is the main difference between India and its two sister states? Oh right, India isn't dominated by a premodernist death cult. It also doesn't treat its lessons learned from the hands of the British on how to run an economy and a democratic government as a humiliating surrender to the Great Satan. India is already largely insulated from these two basket case nations. There is no domino scenario here. Pakistan and Bangladesh are already failed states, they don't have far to fall.

Lieven's argument is also fallacious in attributing the ecological depradations of modern civilization to capitalism. Human technology has always had an impact on the environment, and the further back in time and technological sophistication you go, the worse that impact was in many ways. Most of the Meditteranean landscape were deforested by Bronze Age agriculture practices. The eastern half of the US has more trees now than when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. The soils of Mesopotamia were ruined by centuries of irrigation. As modern technologies have progressed, we have been able to gain greater incremental yields from environmental resources with lesser negative impacts. And those advances in technology have only been possible under the capitalist system that rewards innovation and risk.

If one looks at the state of the environment in advanced capitalist nations and in developing or socialist industrial nations today, you will find that it is much better in the former. Most of the desertification that plagues Sub-Saharan Africa is due to the total lack of private land ownership, which leaves ono-one in a position to profit from wise stewardship of the environment. Capitalism can only help Africa's plight, but decades of socialist and tribalist resistance to free markets, as well as the corrupting and market disrupting effects of well meaning foreign aid have nipped the growth of market economies in the bud.

Lieven's biggest error may be in his reliance on studies that purport to forecast the economic effects of environmental trends, themselves which cannot be forecast accurately, forty or fifty years into the future. The market mechanism gives capitalism the ability to adapt to changing technological, social and environmental conditions in a way that no command economy can possibly replicate. All markets will adapt to whatever climate conditions are realized over the coming century. New genetically modified strains of food crops will be introduced that are optimized to the prevalent conditions in each region. New energy technologies will emerge that offer the lowest cost and lowest ecological impact based on the existing supply and demand conditions of the time. If low lying regions are flooded by rising sea levels, then people will move. There will be gains and losses, but this is nothing new in human history. A capitalist future is the only imaginable one in which the gains will more than offset the losses.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Silly Iranians

(And Venezuelans, etc. Saddam was particularly bad in this regard).

DECEMBER 11, 2006
By Stanley Reed, with Babak Pirouz in Tehran

Surprise: Oil Woes In Iran; Flagging output from its vast reserves could diminish Tehran's influence
[Or, How Iran Could Gain 'The Bomb' and Still Lose World Power]
[Or, How to Kill the Golden Goose]

[Except for subtitles, all emphasis is added]
[I]ran has a surprising weakness: Its oil and gas industry, the lifeblood of its economy, is showing serious signs of distress. As domestic energy consumption skyrockets, Iran is struggling to produce enough oil and gas for export. [...] Within a decade, says Saad Rahim, an analyst at Washington consultancy PFC Energy, "Iran's net crude exports could fall to zero."

[Iran's] 137 billion barrels of oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia's, [Actually, fourth, behind those of the United States, Canada, and Arabia, but close enough - M.H.], and its supply of gas trails only Russia's, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Getting it all out of the ground, though, is another matter. Iran has been producing just 3.9 million barrels of oil a day this year, 5% below its OPEC quota, because of delays in new projects and a shortage of technical skills. By contrast, in 1974, five years before the Islamic Giant Leap Backwards Revolution, Iran pumped 6.1 million barrels daily.

The situation could get even tougher for the National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC), which is responsible for all of Iran's output. Without substantial upgrades in facilities, production at Iran's core fields, several of which date from the 1920s, could go into a precipitous decline. In September, Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh suggested that with no new investment, output from Iran's fields would fall by about 13% a year, roughly twice the rate that outside oil experts had expected. "NIOC is likely to find that even maintaining the status quo is a mounting challenge," says PFC Energy's Rahim.

Iran's looming crisis is the result of years of neglect and underinvestment. [Stemming from socialist claptrap and a lack of democratic accountability in the government - M.H.] As in other oil-producing countries such as Venezuela and Mexico, the government treats the oil industry as a cash cow, milking its revenues for social programs. [President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ratcheted up public spending this year by 21%, to $213 billion, on everything from aid to rural areas, to housing loans for newlyweds.] [But Iran] allocates only $3 billion a year for investment, less than a third of what's needed to get production growing again.

Compounding the pressure are policies that encourage profligate energy use. Gasoline prices are set at 35¢ a gallon, which has helped fuel 10%-plus annual growth in consumption, PFC Energy figures. The national thirst for gasoline far outstrips domestic refining capacity, so Iran will import about $5 billion in gasoline this year, or about 40% of its needs. The government is planning a $16 billion refinery building program to boost capacity by 60%. [...]

Iran badly needs fresh foreign investment to shore up the oil industry. [...] But new investment has largely dried up in recent years because of lingering worries about the risk of war with the U.S. and disenchantment with Iran's tightfisted terms. Outsiders are offered contracts only to drill wells--rather than operate fields--and get just a small share of profits from output. [In addition, American firms are prohibited by the U.S. government from investing
in Iran]. [...]

Endless haggling and delays have set back some of Iran's biggest oil initiatives. One top priority had been the Azagedan field in southern Iran, which is expected eventually to produce 260,000 barrels a day. But in October, Tehran scrapped a $2 billion contract, agreed to in 2004, with Japan's Inpex to develop the project. And [Royal Dutch/Shell's] $800 million Soroush/Nowrooz project in the Persian Gulf has been plagued by cost overruns and technical glitches. In January, meanwhile, [Norway's] Statoil wrote down the entire $329 million book value of its South Pars project because of "productivity and quality problems" with a local contractor.

It's not just oil that Iran is failing to exploit. The glacial pace of negotiations is also making it fall behind neighboring Qatar in exploiting the huge offshore gas field that the two countries share. While Qatar has signed up the likes of ExxonMobil and Shell to develop the site, Iran's talks with Total and Shell have progressed far more slowly. Iran is now a net importer of gas, a situation not expected to reverse before 2010. [...]

Can Iran fix its energy conundrum? Some experts are betting Tehran will get its act together sooner rather than later. Iran was able to boost production from 1.2 million barrels a day during the 1980-88 war with Iraq to nearly 4 million barrels with almost no foreign help, notes Bijan Khajepour, chairman of Tehran's Atieh Bahar Consulting, which advises oil companies. He thinks Iran should be able to sustain current production for the next decade. Even so, if Tehran doesn't face up to the woes of its oil industry, Iran may find itself in the unusual position of sharing the West's angst over growing dependence on imported oil.

Idiot Iranian gov't priorities: Actually spending billions in a quest to gain near-useless nuclear weapons, igniting a regional arms race thereby, and inviting UN sanctions, while also making themselves the potential targets of an Israeli pre-emptive military strike, and only planning to spend a few billion to upgrade their refining capacity, which would assuredly save them at least a billion per year, as well as potentially giving them the ability to export premium, value-added products such as gasoline and jet fuel, instead of workaday crude oil...

Actually, it's even worse, since the billions that they're spending in an attempt to get nukes actively and directly imperils their ability to export even the workaday crude. "Iran's net crude exports could fall to zero." How sweet that would be...

Crunchy Water

Tue Dec 26, 2006
Puget Sound is being flavored by cinnamon and vanilla.

[All emphasis added].
SEATTLE - Researchers at the University of Washington say all that holiday baking and eating has an environmental impact. [...] [Rick Keil, an associate professor of chemical oceanography] and UW researcher Jacquelyn Neibauer's weekly tests of treated sewage sent into the sound from the West Point treatment plant in Magnolia showed cinnamon, vanilla and artificial vanilla levels rose between Nov. 14 and Dec. 9, with the biggest spike right after Thanksgiving. [...]

So far, the research has turned up no evidence that snickerdoodles are harming sea creatures. [...]

Using benchmarks from a published scientific study, they were able to estimate that people in Seattle and a few outlying areas served by the sewage plant scarfed down the daily equivalent of about 160,000 butter- or chocolate-chip-type cookies and about 80,000 cookies containing cinnamon during the Thanksgiving weekend.

The county did not spend any money on the study, but officials at King County's Wastewater Treatment Division said they were happy to cooperate because they expected the results to reinforce their message: What goes down the drain has to come out somewhere.

That goes both for pesticides and industrial chemicals as well as vanilla and cinnamon.

"It's an ability to look at a whole population's behavior through one pipe," said Randy Schuman, a county science and technical support manager who helped arrange the wastewater testing.

Keil's findings present a light side of what scientists say is potentially a serious situation. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies have documented that antibiotics, contraceptives, perfumes, painkillers, antidepressants and other substances pass through the sewage system into waterways.

King County researchers [over] several years took caffeine measurements to try to learn whether the city's coffee drinking habits had any effect on the sound. Caffeine was found in more than 160 of 216 samples in water as deep as 640 feet.

"It was everywhere," Schuman said. "There's an effect (from) humans on the sound and it's almost ubiquitous. It's not just at the end of the (discharge) pipe."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Evening in America and the World

Tis the season for predictions and prognostications, and you would be hard-pressed to find an optimistic vision for the near future. The most recent general election in the US, in which a hapless, drifting, fractured Republican coalition, hurt by an unpopular war, sex and corruption scandals, was soundly whipped by an equally hapless Democrat party with no message other than retreat and retrenchment, offers little hope for a regathering of national will in the near term.

The conservative crack-up is the most newsworthy political story of the year. No longer do the conservatives have a cheerful face of optimism, like that of Ronald Reagan, or even Newt Gingrich, for that matter. Like so many Old Testament prophets, many conservatives are viewing their fall from grace as a dire portent for the country. One such would-be Isaiah is Daily Duck frequent fiskee Dennis Prager, who published his dire view for the world this week at

On the eve of the year 2007, it is evident to anyone with the fortitude to see reality that the world is not getting better, nor even staying the same, but getting worse.

There are a few positive developments. But they are mostly technological and medical. More people are eating better and living longer than ever before. And the Internet gives more people access to more information (and more lies) than ever before. But aside from medical and technological progress, there is little positive to report. And, as always, the technological breakthroughs are frequently morally mixed bags.

Almost wherever one looks, there are more reasons for pessimism than optimism.

Africa is probably in worse condition than at any time in recorded history. Though often exaggerated, great numbers of young and middle-aged people are dying from AIDS; corruption in Africa is so widespread and deeply rooted that aid workers are telling the West to stop giving funds to Africa because those funds only serve to prop up corrupt regimes and increase poverty, malnutrition and violence; about three million people have died in the ongoing wars in the Congo; and the Islamic Arab regime of Sudan has allowed or directed genocide.

In Asia, China, sitting on reserves of over a trillion dollars, is beginning to regard itself as a world power, and most of where it meddles, it plays an immoral role (regarding Iran's nuclear weapons and the North Korea regime). As China's economic power grows, it will increasingly seek to flex its muscles. This could mean tension over Taiwan, but it will even more likely mean that Japan will try to become a military power once again and perhaps develop its own nuclear weapons -- because of North Korea's weapons and because of China's strength and ambitions. A strong Japan, given North Korea's lunatic regime and China's drive for regional dominance, is a positive development but an unfortunate one nevertheless.

Russia, like China, increasingly uses its power in immoral ways, and its government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

As bad as Africa and parts of Asia are, the Arab world is in many ways in even worse condition and poses a far greater threat to world stability. The Arab world is largely divided between corrupt regimes and Islamic totalitarians who await the downfall of those regimes. Since World War II, the Arab world has sought a solution to its backwardness -- first in nationalism, then in Pan-Arab nationalism and Marxism, and now in Islam. "Islam is the answer" is the motto of vast numbers of young Arabs (and Muslims elsewhere), and the Islam they are referring to is often not benign. Making matters worse, the Arab world is consumed by hate. Hatred and oil have become its primary exports: hatred of Israel, of America and of other non-Muslims in its midst -- e.g., Maronite Christians in Lebanon, non-Muslims in Sudan and Christians in the Palestinian territories.

Prager points out many valid problems, and I don't mean by this critique to dismiss the seriousness of the problems facing the world and the US at this point in history. The optimism/pessimism game is always a choice between competing views of the future, as there will always be promises and portents to consider. History has shown that periods of optimism often come just prior to some of the worst cataclysms, such as the turn of the century expansiveness that preceded World War I, or the 1990's post Cold War "clear sailing" boom times preceding 9/11. We've been through worse times than we are facing now. Why the sudden dour mood on the part of conservatives?

Prager further on offers an insight into his mood, and it is the cultural faultlines here at home that seem to worry him more:

Western Europe is disappearing demographically and culturally. Like other secular societies, Western Europe is not repopulating itself and has relied on importing immigrants to provide citizens and workers. Most of them are Muslims, and many of them loathe Western Europe and its values. It is difficult to imagine any other future scenario for Western Europe than its becoming Islamicized or having a civil war. Western Europe is the first secular society in human history and consequently believes in very little beyond having a secure and comfortable life untroubled by war, work or children.

The increasing influence of the world's Left makes combating the above problems very difficult. The Left dominates the world's news media and universities, is regaining power in Latin America, and is socially as well as politically dominant in most Western European countries. And it either sides with America's enemies or makes combating them far more difficult. Thus it is increasingly common to see Che Guevara pictures at Hezbollah rallies in Lebanon and to see Western leftists, like London's mayor, honor radical Muslims.

One society stands opposed to all these developments -- the United States of America. But that society is itself deeply divided. About half holds the values of Western Europe; and the other half believes that Western European values -- essentially secularism and socialism -- are anathema to America. The latter half believes America must remain true to its founding principles: Judeo-Christian values; individual freedom and small government; and a melting pot rather than multiculturalism.

Which side wins will determine the fate of mankind for a century or more. And you can't win if you are naively optimistic.

Happy New Year.

Happy New Year, indeed! This is the Religious Right mantra, though a little out of date with the reference to small government. Prager seems to read from the entrails of the Republican rout a rejection of Judeo-Christian values, what with our newfound tolerance for such anti-American activities as taking the Oath of Office on the Koran. Prager was soundly criticized on that call, even by his closest allies on the right, and you have to wonder whether that rejection was his "not in Kansas anymore" moment, when he realized that his personal vision of a small town, culturally monolithic Judeo-Christian American society is a chimera. You get the sense that Prager is starting to feel like an outsider in his own country.

If the rest of the conservative movement catches Prager's culturally alienated pessimism, then it will become a spent force. America will never again be a tidy Hallmark Card monoculture, and American identity can't be maintained on the premise that we all say our oaths on the Bible, or we all worship Jesus and say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays". The fact that the latter became a fighting issue for conservatives in the past year is a sign of how petty and small conservative identity politics has become.

Ironically, (can I get a measurement, Skipper?) such identity politics is a sign that cultural conservatives like Prager are becoming more like the other identity groups in a multicultural, as opposed to a melting pot, society. Prager imagines that the melting pot's result will always be a fixed dish, like Mulligan Stew. But the ingredients change through time, and the end result changes too. After awhile its more like sweet & sour Tex-Mex stew in a pita. The melting affects the original ingredients as well as the new.

The genius of the melting pot is that it can absorb the new ingredients. The important point about Ellison's oath on the Koran is not his loyalty to Islam, but the fact that he is taking an oath of loyalty to the Constitution. And it is the Constitution that is the central document of American identity, not the Bible.

Count me among the optimists, because in spite of the housing slowdown and rising interest rates I signed a contract to do a cash-out refi on the Arizona home to put in a pool that my wife needs for her arthritis therapy. We didn't get $100 oil this year, and won't next year either. We haven't had another 9/11 on our soil. Paris hasn't burned down yet. Iranian students had the courage to shout down President Ahmadinejad, at the risk of their own lives.

Here's a pre-emptive Happy New Year to all my friends!

The Dalai Lama Supports U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Unless Lhamo Dhondrub, the 14th Dalai Lama, is a hypocrite.
Spake he once: "Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free."

Absent America, none of those conditions would be met in most of the Middle East, Arab or Persian, now or especially in their bleak future. Therefore, although he absolutely distains our, ah, "robust" methods for taking up the struggle, he also cannot help but hope for an American cultural victory in Iraq and in the whole M.E. region generally.

Friday, December 22, 2006

America Applies Her Asymmetrical Strengths to the Problem at Hand

This is simple, cheap, and effective, making it an ideal partial solution to the problem of how to generate more lamentation from Talibi women. Former Marine Westhawk asks:

Could better winter clothing, employed in a winter offensive, crush the Taliban hiding in Afghanistan’s mountains? Better parkas, fleece jackets, and synthetic underwear may provide the most important edge in combat during Afghanistan’s winter.

This news article from the U.S. Department of Defense describes the new “Generation III” [Extended Cold Weather Clothing System], just distributed to soldiers in Alaska. [...]

The new winter clothing has already been to Afghanistan:

The Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 10th Mountain Division received [ECWCS] in 2005, in time for its deployment to Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Christopher Cavoli, commander of the division’s 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, offered the new system his highest praises after seeing its effectiveness in Operation Mountain Lion in the spring.

“During Operation Mountain Lion, I found myself praying for bad weather -- the first time in my military career I was actually begging for a cold front to come through,” he said. “I knew my soldiers could handle it and the enemy couldn’t.

“The ECWCS allowed my men to outlast the enemy on their own terrain,” Cavoli said. “When the enemy was forced out of the mountains due to the bitter cold to take shelter, that’s when we got them.”

[...] This report from November 19th may indicate the Coalition’s intentions during this winter in Afghanistan:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The U.S.-backed Afghan army will step up counter-Taliban offensives this winter, which could see heavy fighting during a period traditionally used by Afghan fighters for rest and resupply, a U.S. general said here Sunday.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Douglas Pritt, who oversees the U.S.-led effort to train the Afghan military, said Afghan forces have tripled the number of forward bases to more than 60 and plan to spend the winter harassing Taliban and gathering intelligence from combat outposts deep inside rebel strongholds.

“They're much better equipped for winter operations than the Taliban. I'm hoping for a lot of snow this winter,” Pritt said during a visit to The Associated Press bureau in Dubai.

[...] Afghanistan's winters normally bring months of rain and snow, turning dusty roads into impassable muck and rendering most warfare impossible. The country has traditionally seen winter breaks in its decades of conflict, where fighters return home to families or hunker down on bases until fighting resumes in spring.

Snowfall is already hampering Taliban supply lines, making it tougher for the rebels to resupply, Pritt said. The Afghan National Army, backed by U.S. and NATO airlifts, are less restricted by cold and mud.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bloody carol singers again. Shhh! Pretend we’re not in…

As the pre-Christmas shopping days diminish and the gloomy prospect of spending time with our real-life family and friends (as opposed to our imaginary online enemies) looms large, things have been getting rather fractious here at the Daily Duck.

So in an attempt to foster a Yuletide spirit of brotherhood and good fellowship, I appeal to you all, my fellow Duckians, anti-Duckians, uber-Duckians and bomb-throwing mavericks, to join metaphorical hands and find comfort and festive cheer in a communal Christmas sing-a-long.

All together now…

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

(She gave me) Twelve bats a-mooning
Eleven maudlin croonings
(ho hum)
Ten Danes cartooning (scribble scribble)

Nine Muslims bleating (Allah Akbar!)
Eight Judds deleting (chop chop!)

Seven “Darwinism-is-trivial”s
Six Himpeldorpher’s

(Oh fi-ive feedback loops)

Four sideways caps

Three French riots

Two ad hominem attacks

....And a dollar forty seven from Google ads!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The great Anglican crackup

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, is splitting up along a progressive-conservative divide, with the seceding churches looking to be adopted by a conservative bishop from Nigeria:
For about 30 years, the Episcopal Church has been one big unhappy family. Under one roof there were female bishops and male bishops who would not ordain women. There were parishes that celebrated gay weddings and parishes that denounced them; theologians sure that Jesus was the only route to salvation, and theologians who disagreed.

The Falls Church in Virginia has been voting on whether to secede from the Episcopal Church and is expected to announce results on Sunday.

Now, after years of threats, the family is breaking up.

As many as eight conservative Episcopal churches in Virginia are expected to announce today that their parishioners have voted to cut their ties with the Episcopal Church. Two are large, historic congregations that minister to the Washington elite and occupy real estate worth a combined $27 million, which could result in a legal battle over who keeps the property.

In a twist, these wealthy American congregations are essentially putting themselves up for adoption by Anglican archbishops in poorer dioceses in Africa, Asia and Latin America who share conservative theological views about homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture with the breakaway Americans.

“The Episcopalian ship is in trouble,” said the Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, one of the two large Virginia congregations, where George Washington served on the vestry. “So we’re climbing over the rails down to various little lifeboats. There’s a lifeboat from Bolivia, one from Rwanda, another from Nigeria. Their desire is to help us build a new ship in North America, and design it and get it sailing.”

Together, these Americans and their overseas allies say they intend to form a new American branch that would rival or even supplant the Episcopal Church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, a confederation of national churches that trace their roots to the Church of England and the archbishop of Canterbury.

Has there ever been a human practice more divisive than religion?

Of Kangaroos and Courts

Justice filleted is justice denied, or something like that. So says animal rights philosopher Paola Cavalieri:

Can a society be considered just when justice is granted to all human beings even in case nonhumans are still excluded from it? Let’s imagine a society where all the citizens have adequate food, shelter, medical care, education, work and free time; where no one is discriminated against and all have equal institutional protection and adequate self-esteem; and where all can keep to their idea of a good life, while conflicts are settled peacefully. Such a society, however, exploits nonhuman animals. Can such a society be described as just? Can we say that, at least within the boundaries of the intra-human community, justice is truly present? An indication in the sense of a preliminary negative answer can be detected in John Stuart Mill.

In the essay The Enfranchisement of Women, probably written four-handedly with Harriet Taylor, Mill advances an important claim. Directly addressing “those Radicals and Chartists.... who claim what is called universal suffrage as an inherent right, unjustly and oppressively withheld from them”, he states that the women’s request for civil and political equality is - indeed, must be - their direct business. For with what rationality, he retorts, can the suffrage be termed universal, while half the human species is excluded from it? Isn’t to declare that a voice in the government is the right of all, and demand it only for a part - the part to which the claimants themselves belong - to renounce even the appearance of principle? Mill’s conclusion is that “the Chartist who denies the suffrage to women is a Chartist only because he is not a lord; he is one of those levelers who would level only down to themselves”. 22

This allegation clearly applies to the problem of justice and nonhumans as well. True, while Mill and Taylor could somehow take for granted the view that women are part of those “all” to whom a voice in the government pertains, the same does not hold in the case of animals. However, our argument has shown that, though not yet included in the current egalitarian paradigm, the view that (many) animals are part of those “all” to whom justice pertains is already implicit in it, and needs only to be recognized, or, to use a legal term, “articulated”. In this light, justice as applied only within the intra-human realm is not universal, and cannot therefore be appealed to as a matter of principle. But a justice which cannot be appealed to as a matter of principle is not justice. It seems that, as the Chartists in Mill and Taylor’s case, those human beings who demand justice only for the members of their species, while withholding it from nonhumans, are not demanding justice - they simply aim at a better treatment for a favored group.

Principles do not require the erasure of all distinctions, and theories of justice have throughout time made it clear that it applied to the behavior of humans to other humans and not animals. Yes, justice applied has often erected boundaries between different classes of people, boundaries that we now recognize as unjust. But to extend this trend toward inclusiveness beyond the human sphere is clearly an example of Reductio ad Absurdum. You could spin any number of theoretical outcomes of an application of justice equally between humans and animals to show how absurd this notion is. If we are obligated to stop our predation of deer, are we also obligated to stop wolves from predating upon them as well, or is that an infringement upon their rights? Are we responsible for land uses that infringe upon the habitats of animals, and if so what is the remedy? Are they entitled to some protected habitat or to all of their historic habitat?

There is no way to envision an implementation of this principle that doesn't involve the complete eradication of human settlement upon Earth. So you have to ask yourself why seemingly smart people get themselves wrapped up with such absurd philosophies. The obvious answer is that she is a philosopher, that is what philosophers do. There is a certain level of absurdity in trying to create a rational, logical framework to explain the world, because the world itself is a brute, illogical, irrational fact that defies explanation. Cavalieri is trying to frame justice as some metaphysical perfection that we are obligated to acheive.

I sense the same kind of desperation to acheive some sort of metaphysical perfection from our friends arguing for objective morality in our latest discussion on homosexual pastors. The objective morality position is basically a Platonic exercise in forms. Cavalieri falls into the same trap with justice, believing that it is an objective thing that exists independently of the beings for which it is a matter of concern.

Justice and morality are human constructs, ways of thinking about behavior between humans that motivate us to act reciprocally with one another rather than exploitively. They are based on feelings and experiences, not on the apprehension of or reflection on metaphysical entities. We have such notions because they are of purely practical necessity, and they reflect behaviors that we as a species adopted long before we had words to describe them or philosophers and theologians to explain them. They're not amenable to mathematical precision, and they will change as the conditions of human experience changes, though not greatly as they are grounded in human nature which is not infinitely malleable.

So don't expect to be sued in a court by a kangaroo anytime soon. We'll find ways to outlaw senseless cruelty toward animals because we do feel an affinity towards them, but I see steak on the menu for many centuries to come, though at some point we'll figure out a way to grow the meat without the rest of the cow.

On the Way to Half-off

DECEMBER 25, 2006
Housing: Curb Your Enthusiasm About A Recovery

[All emphasis added]
Housing booms are short and exciting. Housing busts, on the other hand, are long and painful. So don't put much faith in those oft-heard assertions that the worst is already over. Prices are likely to fall further in many markets in 2007. In some others, prices may rise, but at less than the rate of inflation. A BusinessWeek analysis of the past three decades shows that if history repeats itself, it's likely to take 15 years or more for many parts of the country to get back to their inflation-adjusted peaks.

For residential real estate, the outlook for 2007 ranges from mildly positive to awful. The major markets that do least badly will be "revenge of the nerds" cities like Dallas and Houston that the boom bypassed. Even if all they generate is low-single-digit price gains, they will look good by comparison. Seattle and Raleigh, N.C., with healthy job growth, should also do O.K. The biggest losers will fall into one of these groups: cities like Detroit that are suffering economic contractions; cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and others in California where prices are extraordinarily high and have barely begun to adjust; and cities like Miami, Las Vegas, and Phoenix that have a huge overhang of unsold houses or condos.

Advice to homeowners: If you need to sell and you're not getting much interest, cut the price by an extreme amount. If you make halfhearted cuts, you'll remain overpriced and you'll follow the market all the way to the bottom. Advice to buyers: Bargain hard. Many sellers are still asking for too much. "As tough as our market's been, the toughest thing is to get sellers to understand that prices aren't going up 18% to 20% a year anymore," says Ned Redpath, head of Coldwell Banker Redpath & Co. Realtors in Hanover, N.H.

[...] That said, right now is not the ideal time to buy or move up, even with the recent price declines. The inventory of existing homes shot up 34% from October, 2005, to October, 2006, and now stands at nine months' worth of condos and seven months' worth of single-family houses at the current rate of sales. That backlog will take a long time, and a lot of price-cutting, to clear out. One housing bear, Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., guesses that prices nationally could fall 5% to 10% from the end of 2006 to the end of 2007, going by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight housing price index. Using that same measure, Goldman, Sachs & Co. predicts a 3% decline from 2006 to 2007. Before 2006, the index' worst performance since its origin in 1975 was a 0.3% increase in 1990.

[...] Housing prices were pushed up in part by get-rich-quick speculation. Now real estate has lost its grip on the public's imagination. Says Richard J. DeKaser, chief economist of National City Corp. in Cleveland: "We're looking at several years of weak home prices. It'll return to the time when no one is talking about real estate." Oh, well. You can still take a flier on Google...

Yale economist Robert J. Shiller points out that nationally, real estate prices would have to drop by 40% to bring them in line with the historic trend line going back to 1890.

The Future of the Oil Industry

The Associated Press
December 15, 2006

R&D shale oil extraction leases granted

The Interior Department granted leases Friday for shale oil extraction experiments, a step allowing companies to determine how to tap into an estimated 100-year supply of oil locked in rock formations under Colorado, Utah, and southwest Wyoming.
The leases, the first granted in 30 years, were issued two decades after companies abandoned large-scale commercial efforts in western Colorado because coaxing oil out of rock was laborious and expensive.

The Interior Department issued 10-year leases for Shell Frontier Oil & Gas Co., Chevron USA and EGL Resources Inc. for 160-acre parcels for research and development projects in northwest Colorado.

"These oil shale (research, development, and demonstration) leases will help us determine how industry might develop this tremendous resource effectively and economically," said C. Stephen Allred, assistant secretary of the interior for land and minerals management.
The companies must submit detailed development plans, monitor groundwater, and obtain all required permits to protect air and water quality, the department said last month in approving the projects, which could begin as early as the summer.

Since 1996, Shell has tested procedures on private land in western Colorado that involve baking shale rock in the ground with electric heating rods, then pumping the melted oil to the surface. Circulating refrigerants through underground pipes to freeze adjacent areas would keep groundwater away from the melted oil.
The Bureau of Land Management declared the projects would have no significant environmental impact.

Shell says that they can pull oil out of shale for $ 30/bbl. Freezing the ground to create cells with "ice-walls" is a nice touch of genius.

The trillion-plus barrels of near-oil under the Rockies in America and Canada, plus the Canadian tar sands, plus the hundred billion barrels of oil in Alaska and under the Gulf of Mexico, are why North America will come to be the center of the global oil industry during the 21st century, and sooner rather than later.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Biggest Christmas Surprise

There are certain things we collectively never expect to see, such as:

-- Pigs flying (much to bumbershoot manufacturers' collective disappointment)
-- Hens' teeth
-- Orrin Judd cave on evolution

If someone had asked, though, I would have considered each to be a common, garden variety, every day occurrence compared to Billy Idol's Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

It’s all downhill from here, lads

The blogging phenomenon is set to peak in 2007, according to technology predictions by analysts Gartner.

The analysts said that during the middle of next year the number of blogs will level out at about 100 million.

The firm has said that 200 million people have already stopped writing their blogs.
Gartner has made 10 predictions, including stating that Vista will be the last major release of Windows and PCs will halve in cost by 2010.

Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said the reason for the levelling off in blogging was due to the fact that most people who would ever start a web blog had already done so.

He said those who loved blogging were committed to keeping it up, while others had become bored and moved on.

"A lot of people have been in and out of this thing," Mr Plummer said. "Everyone thinks they have something to say, until they're put on stage and asked to say it."

The trick is to get on the stage, say it, and then say it over and over again in slightly different ways.

Monday, December 11, 2006

First as Tragedy, then as Farce

Long before the onset of Ted Who, another one bites the dust:

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - The founding pastor of a second Colorado church has resigned over gay sex allegations, just weeks after the evangelical community was shaken by the scandal surrounding megachurch leader Ted Haggard.

Just for a moment, try feeling what it must have been like walking an inch in these shoes, never mind a mile:

On the videotape, which The Post was allowed to view, [Paul Barnes] told church members: "I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy. ... I can't tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away."

The whole concept of morality is meaningless without free will. What will the monotheistic religions do when -- not if -- people finally accept there is no more moral component to sexual orientation than there is to eye color?

Heads hanging in shame would be a good start, followed very quickly by begging forgiveness from the victims.

Doubt it.

As China Weeps...

I've been busy these past ten weeks in the mysterious and wonderful world of "off-line", preparing my family for the 2007 - 2008 recession, since most of our income comes from transporting freight by truck, and naturally less consumer demand = fewer goods to be moved = ouch for us.
We've moved to a less-expensive living situation, and I've decided to re-enter the full-time workforce. (Que world's smallest violin).

Anyway, I'm taking a week off from that, before going "dark" for another six weeks or so, hoping to be completely transitioned to the new paradigm by the beginning of Feb. '07.

One thing that leaps out at me, when catching up on the archives, is that this blog has some major intellectual firepower. No person here is always right, but golly can you guys write, and the positions taken and cases made are usually high-level & top-notch. Like the way the 9/11 conspiracy nut had all of the underpinnings of his vapid argument knocked out from under him in something like four posts. (Not that he noticed).

The following are a few essays of the sort that convinced me that the U.S. economy will continue to slow into recession in '07, and I'm also convinced that the recession will last longer then the past two shallow and swift ones, which were far shorter than the typical post-WW II recession. If this one lasts a more "normal" eighteen months, then it'll stretch into '08 - a boost for Hillary, methinks, or whomever it is that's the eventual Dem nominee. The Clinton luck holds. (Possibly).

To add a personal anecdote in support of the conclusions of these pieces: The trucking business normally picks up considerably from Oct. to the end of the year, as Christmas retail goods make their way from port or factory to warehouse and store. Often we're booked for weeks ahead, and drivers get paid bonuses to delay taking normal time off, to stay on the road for a few more runs - to "work weekends", so to speak.

This year: Zilch. It was busier this summer than it is now.

[Except for the one sub-heading, all emphasis is added].

The Recession of 2007

by John Mauldin
December 1, 2006

[W]hile the economic data is not a total disaster, it has not been good this week. Yet the response of investors everywhere is defiance, or at the very least serious nonchalance.

Recession possibilities? "What recession? I spit on your talk of recession." They continue to assume that things will turn out much better than merely OK. All manner of investments are priced for perfection, perfection being defined as growth slowing enough to take out inflation risk yet not enough to hurt the ever upward rise of corporate profits. Goldilocks is the name of the game.

[...] This week we had the housing data for October. Permits and actual starts were down 28% and 27.4% (respectively) from one year ago. New home sales fell for the first time in three months, down 3.2% from the previous month.

[...] We are seeing inventories of homes for sale rise. And it could get worse, as foreclosures in sub-prime loans are rising. The mortgage bond market is showing some signs of strain. About 3.3% of sub-prime mortgages made THIS YEAR are now delinquent by more then two months. Think about that for a second. Borrowers or lenders could not see (or did not care about) problems coming even a few months in advance.

While traditional mortgage defaults are not a problem as yet, delinquencies in ARMs (adjustable rate mortgages) are becoming an issue. [...]
Late payments are accelerating, after lenders began to require less documentation for loans and financed more homes without down payments, New York-based Bear Stearns & Co. analyst Gyan Sinha said in a Nov. 14 report.

About 38% of the most common sub-prime mortgages this year were for the full value of the home, up from 31% in 2005 and 21 percent in 2004, according to Bear Stearns. Sinha said 45.5% of the loans this year required "low documentation" of borrower income and net worth, up from 44.5% in 2005 and 40.1% in 2004. The data reflect "common methods of allowing first-time homebuyers to borrow more than they can afford," Sinha said.

[...] Look at the rise in total homes for sale. The trend is not good. Paul Kasriel of Northern Trust tells us that "Total construction outlays fell 1.0% in October, after a downwardly revised 0.8% drop in the prior month. The 1.9% drop in residential construction spending in October is the seventh consecutive monthly decline. The main message is that the housing market recession's bottom is not here yet."

When residential fixed investment drops 10%, we have had a recession in the US. [...] RFI is [now] down by more than 10%.

Housing market recessions generally take years to work out, not months. This one is going to get worse before it gets better, with a bottom probably not coming until the middle of 2007. And as housing construction slows down, the 15% of the growth in the US economy that has been related to housing is going to disappear. While many market commentators, looking for good news a few months ago, cited nonresidential construction as performing well and adding to growth, we have seen that sector drop for the last two consecutive months by over 1%. Things will not grind to a halt, but they are going to slow down even more.

[...] This week we were also told that the third quarter was not as bad as the first GDP data released last month suggested. GDP was revised upwards to 2.2% from 1.6%. This was mainly due to inventory buildup and rising imports being revised higher. But higher inventories mean that manufacturers will slow production in the future.

[...] Wal-Mart sales were down by 1%, with the company downgrading forecasts for December. Tiffany sales and profits were up 23%. Barry Ritholtz [of Big Picture Blog] did a 30-store survey of discounting and sales and found that sales prices and promotions are quite high. He tells us, "The most recent review of price cutting is that they are both deep and broad. Our quick survey of both brick and mortar coupons and online savings codes shows that discounting is ramping up dramatically."

[...] This week, while staying at the Helmsley in New York [...], I walked into the bar on Sunday night to get a drink before going to bed. Looking around, I noted there were 34 mostly middle-aged ladies in the bar and no men. Thinking this was somewhat odd, I asked one of them if there was some sort of convention. The pleasant accent that came back was from Ireland. It turns out that much of the hotel was occupied by ladies from Great Britain and Ireland on a shopping holiday.

They were positively giddy about the prices. "Everything is half what we would pay in London or Dublin." They were hiring limos to go shopping so they would have enough room for their packages on the way back. [...] The pound is back to where it was when George Soros famously decided to break the Bank of England back in 1992. It is almost to $2. [...]

The Inverted Yield Curve Gets Steeper

The yield on the 10-year bond dropped to 4.43% as of the close of the markets today. [...] The bond market is clearly expecting a slowdown, and the yield curve is signaling an increasing chance of a recession. [...] 3-month T-bills are 23 basis points lower than the Fed fund rate.

[...] An inverted yield curve is the best indicator of a recession coming within at least four quarters. When we saw the yield curve invert in September of 2000, we had a recession about 7 months later. [...] If we had the same timing [now], that would suggest a recession beginning in the second quarter of 2007. If the data is all that bad, I can hear you asking, why will it take so long?

Because it takes time for things to slow down enough to actually put the US economy into a recession. For instance, new home construction is slowing, but builders must finish what they started. Real estate construction employment is down but is nowhere near the bottom.

As I think this is a housing-led recession, we should realize that homeowners are initially reluctant to drop prices. That takes some time. Further, it will take some time for lower home prices to really register on consumers and thus on consumer spending. [...] Consumer spending takes a while to actually slow.

But that is why I think the recession will be relatively shallow, as much of the economy is now in services, which are more resilient than manufacturing or housing...

When Will the Housing Market Bottom?

by John Mauldin
December 8, 2006

"When," I am asked frequently, "will we see a bottom in the housing market?" This week we look back at what past housing recessions have looked like to see if we can find a bottom anywhere soon. And could things be different this time? (Maybe.) We look at the government statistic on the number of houses for sale and find that it doesn't count all homes that are for sale. (I know it will shock most readers that government statistics might not be 100% accurate.)

[...] Lennar, the #3 homebuilding firm, said the cancellation rates for home sales were running about 30% last quarter. KB Homes said the number was 43%. A lot of anecdotal stories suggest the numbers could get worse. So that would add homes back into the Homes for Sale statistics that the Commerce Department (Census Bureau) tracks, wouldn't it?

The simple answer is no. The Census Bureau surveys home builders and specific housing starts. If a home is built and at some point put under contract for sale, it is then considered sold. The Census Bureau does not go back a few months later and ask, "Did you really sell that house?"

Because of the way they do the survey, they do not double count if the home sells at some later point to another person. One house, one vote. In the long run, cancellations do not cause the system to either overestimate or underestimate the number of houses sold.

But in the short run? As their web site explains: "As a result of our methodology, if conditions are worsening in the marketplace and cancellations are high, sales would be temporarily overestimated."

So the recent data that shows new home sales as possibly, maybe, getting to a bottom of the cycle? With north of 30% cancellations, the number of actual sales is certainly less than the data is showing.

[...] Lately, after every bit of data on the housing market, there is at least one analyst who will proclaim the end of the housing recession. How long, I wondered, did it take for past housing market recessions to bottom, and how severe were they?

Thus I was delighted to get a recent letter from Hugh Moore of Guerite Advisors in South Carolina full of the answers to my questions. I always appreciate it when someone else does my homework for me. (A guerite, by the way, is a type of sentry box projecting out from a castle or fortress).

First of all, what we are really asking when we wonder about a housing bottom is, when is housing construction likely to turn back up? [...] The construction industry has lost 53,000 jobs in just the last two months. That suggests it is not likely to bottom this year.

[...] Hugh tells us that "In the previous seven cycles since 1959, housing starts (seasonally adjusted) have fallen, on average, 50.7% from peak-to-trough. Each time housing starts have fallen more than 25% from their most recent peak, a recession has followed (except during the 'credit crunch' of 1966-67 that ended in an economic contraction, but not an 'official' recession)." [...] Housing starts have dropped 34% so far since their peak in January of 2006. Just to get to the average drop we have another 20% or so drop in starts to go.

[...] "In the seven cycles since 1959, both Housing Starts and the [ratio of residential fixed construction to GDP, a measure of how much housing construction is contributing to GDP] have taken roughly 27 months, on average, to fall from peak-to-trough. As of November 2006, both indicators are 11 months (or so) past their most recent peaks...or roughly halfway to bottom." [writes Hugh].

I asked Hugh to give me an estimate for this quarter for the RFI/GDP ratio. He thinks it will fall to 13.5 or so and then fall by 27% from its peak in the fourth quarter of next year. He expects residential fixed investment to drop by 20% (at least) from its peak last year, and to bottom sometime in the fourth quarter of 2007.

But Hugh may be an optimist. [Professor Robert Shiller of Yale has constructed an index that] tracks housing prices, adjusted for inflation, since 1890. This is on existing houses and not new construction. It is easy to see that the recent boom is a bubble. Since 1997, the index has risen 83%. Shiller talks about housing regressing to the mean over time. That could mean a lot more than a 20% drop in housing prices and another 12 months to the bottom. A drop to the mean could be over 40%.

[...] Housing sales and prices are the weakest on the coasts, where they went up the most. I got a letter from a rather well-off reader who has invested in rental real estate for some time and has a number of properties doing well, both from appreciation and cash flow. It is the two homes he is currently building in Florida that are giving him some problems. He has one coming to completion in a month, and he has $240,000 in it. His realtor told him there are 100 homes in the local area like his, and they are listed for $220,000. He has another one that will be finished in 6 months.

He has the option of renting and dealing with the negative cash flow. Not a fun thing; but for him it is an option, and that market should come back at some point, as more and more boomers will find Florida a great place to retire.

But what about all the weak hands in that market who can't deal with negative cash flow for a few months, let alone a few years? 28% of new homes started within the last year were for investment purposes. Those homes are now coming on the market. You can bet a few (at least) of those 100 homes in his neighborhood are going to be foreclosed. That means they are going to sell for less than the $220,000 they are listed for today.

David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times this week, highlights an auction for homes in Naples, Florida. On average, the homes sold for 25% less than their value in 2005. Leonhardt listed several homes that sold in 2005 and now are down 28-35% when sold at the auction. (Thanks to Barry Ritholtz for sending this to me.)

Yet the official numbers tell us that housing prices are only off by 3.1% nationwide. This just goes to show that all real estate is local. There will be areas where home prices rise next year and a lot of regions where home prices will fall very little. The national average will not reflect the real problems of areas like Naples.

"The truth is," Leonhardt writes, "that the official numbers on house prices -the last refuge of soothing information about the real estate market on the coasts -are deeply misleading. Depending on which set you look at, you'll see that prices have either continued to rise, albeit modestly, or have fallen slightly over the last year. But the statistics have a number of flaws, perhaps the biggest being that they are based only on homes that have actually sold. The numbers overlook all those homes that have been languishing on the market for months, getting only offers that their owners have not been willing to accept.

"In reality, homes across much of Florida, California and the Northeast are worth a lot less than they were a year ago. The auction in Naples may have exaggerated the downturn in the market there, but not by much. Tom Doyle, a Naples real estate agent, estimated that a typical house there, sold in the normal way, would go for about 20 percent less than it did the previous fall. Right now, all these [OFHEO statistical] flaws seem to be making house values look much stronger than they really are. According to the latest index, for example, the average house in Miami would have sold for 22 percent more this summer than a year earlier. You won't find many house sellers in Miami who would agree that's true."

[...] Now, let me make the argument that it may not be as bad as in past housing recessions. When you look at the periods of serious housing declines, they are usually accompanied by serious unemployment or high interest rates. While unemployment will rise next year if we have a recession, as I think we will, we must remember that 80% of the US economy is in the service sector. It is not as in the past when the unemployment rate shot up because of lay-offs in manufacturing...

Well. One thing that didn't get mentioned above is that employment statistics are a lagging indicator. Almost always there will continue to be slow job growth into the beginning of a recession, and unemployment will continue to expand even after economic growth resumes. This is because companies can't know for sure whether slowing or growing demand will last, until the trend continues for awhile, and so they either hang onto their trained workers for a time at the start of a recession, or ask their workers to put in some overtime at the beginning of the recovery, delaying new hiring.

Some good places to get more information are at Calculated Risk - simple, straightforward, and excellent, and the comments are equally smart; - the most entertaining, and there's a lot of good stuff in the comments there too, but ignore the doomsday posters who think that the Great Depression will seem like a day at Disneyland compared to what they think is coming; and Nouriel Roubini's Global Economics Blog - very information-dense, but perhaps a little dry.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Speaking of Absolute Authority

John Derbyshire takes down the education establishment in this article in the New English Review:

Education is a subject I find hard to contemplate without losing my temper. In the present-day U.S.A., education is basically a series of rent-seeking rackets.

* There is the public school racket, in which homeowners and taxpayers fork out stupendous sums of money to feed a socialistic extravaganza in which, when its employees can spare time from administration, “professional development” sabbaticals, and fund-raising for the Democratic Party, boys are pressed to act like girls, and dosed with calming drugs if they refuse so to act; girls are encouraged to act like boys by taking up advanced science, math, and strenuous sports, which few of them have any liking or aptitude for; and boys and girls alike are indoctrinated in the dubious dogmas of “diversity” and political correctness.

* There is the teacher-unions racket , in which people who only work half the days of the year are awarded lifetime tenure and lush pensions on the public fisc, subject to dismissal for no offense less grave than serial arson or piracy on the high seas.

* There is the federal Department of Education racket, aptly summed up by the teacher-union boss who declared, when the Department was established by Jimmy Carter, that he now belonged to the only labor union to have its very own cabinet officer. The DoE is also much beloved by politicians, who can posture as kiddie- and family-friendly by periodically voting to tip boxcar-loads of taxpayers’ money into this bureaucratic black hole.

* There is the homework racket, exposed in Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth —basically, a device for getting parents to do teachers’ work for them.

* There is the teacher-training racket, in which the “professional” training of our nation’s educators has been placed in the hands of the clinically insane. You think I exaggerate? I offer you Dr. Kamau Kambon, a product of our teacher-training colleges—an atypical product only in that he has so many “professional” degrees. According to his Wikipedia entry: “Dr. Kambon holds a B.A. degree in education/history, a master's degree in physical education, both a M.A. and a M. Ed. degree in education/administration, and an Ed. D. in urban education/curriculum and instruction.” Phew! This is one very thoroughly teacher-trained dude! Listen to what Dr. Kambon has to say about the proper priorities for American educators here. There is a wellnigh infinite supply of news stories about teacher-college lunacy at websites like that of the estimable F.I.R.E., and Rita Kramer wrote a fine, if horribly depressing, book on the topic.

Towering over all these lesser scams is the college racket, a vast money-swollen credentialing machine for lower-middle-class worker bees. American parents are now all resigned to the fact that they must beggar themselves to purchase college diplomas for their offspring, so that said offspring can get low-paid outsource-able office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paid, un-outsource-able work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation.

It's an excellent, commonsensical critique of the excesses, abuses and the underlying theoretical fallacies that keep this establishment in power. Above all the tricks of the education racket, the alliances with politicians and the never ending promises to spend more money on schools, is the fallacy known as the "Blank Slate" theory of human development:

If you read much Ed Biz theorizing, you find yourself wondering how a single field of human enquiry can contain so much error and folly. One answer is that educationalists wilfully—ideologically, in fact—ignore the understanding of human nature that the modern human sciences are gradually attaining, and cling doggedly to long-exploded theories about how human beings develop from infancy to adulthood. From false premises they proceed to false conclusions.

The long and short of this new understanding is that human beings are much less malleable than everyone supposed half a century ago, and much less malleable than “blank slate” leftists—a category that includes practically all education theorists—have ever, for reasons not difficult to fathom, been willing to contemplate.

Reading recent results out of the human sciences always brings to my mind those “shape memory alloys” that so fascinate materials scientists. These are metal alloys that “remember” their original geometry, and can be made to return to it, or something close to it, usually by heating, after any amount of deformation and pressure.

So it is with humanity. We come into the world with a good deal of our life course pre-ordained in our genes. At age three or so we begin to interact with other children outside our home, with results that depend in part on us, and in part on where our home is situated. We pass through various educational processes—formalized extensions of that out-of-home environment, and also highly location-dependent. We end up as adults with personalities and prospects that are, according to the latest understandings, around 50 percent innate and pre-ordained, around 50 percent formed by “non-shared environment” (not shared, that is, with siblings raised in the same home by the same parents—a somewhat controversial concept in its precise contents, but clearly consisting mostly of those out-of-home experiences), and 0-5 percent formed by “shared environment”—mainly parenting style.

(And we then, having reached adulthood, regress a little to our pre-ordained shape, like one of those peculiar alloys. It is a curious fact, well supported by a mass of evidence, that the heritable components of our personality and intelligence become more marked as we age. The IQs of 40-year-olds correlate better with those of their parents or siblings than do the IQs of 20-year-olds. The advice traditionally given to young men contemplating marriage—“Get a good look at her mother”—is very sound.)

All of this wouldn't be possible if the education establishment and its allies could not rely on the essentially progressive and egalitarian conscience of the average American. Contrary to Orrin Judd's constant refrain that we are a conservative nation, we continue to act out of a guilty conscience that is informed by notions of Americanness that are decidedly progressive. These notions include the following:

* There must not ever be underclass in America. The existence of an underclass is an indictment on the American people.

* We are a melting pot. Race, ethnicity and religion must never be allowed to determine social and economic outcomes.

The plight of inner city schools will always be a potent issue in our election campaigns, because Americans will never resign themselves to the idea that inner city underachievement is a symptom of an underclass that perpetuates itself through classic underclass social behaviors: drug and alcohol abuse, children beign raised without fathers, criminal behaviour, etc.

We continue to pour money into education to solve problems that education cannot solve, and to acheive results that we should not expect to be acheivable. We shouldn't expect every child to go to college. We need bus drivers and convenience store clerks and parking lot attendants and every school class will have its share of students whose destiny is to be one of those lower paid workers, and we shouldn't beat our breasts over it. We have to accept the reality that each person is an individual with innate talents, capcities and temperaments, and that the trajectory of their lives is largely of their own doing. Schools cannot mold people into ideal citizens, they can only teach to the willing and the able.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Absolute Authority

It seems the Minneapolis Six claims of being guilty of nothing more than flying while Muslim are somewhat, shall we say, disingenuous.

Which is the word used when prizing civility over accuracy.

While the details of the incendiary Imams behavior make for revelatory reading, this probably deserves more detailed explanation:

Here's what the flying public needs to know about airplanes and civil rights: Once your foot traverses the entranceway of a commercial airliner, you are no longer in a democracy in which everyone gets a vote and minority rights are affirmatively protected in furtherance of fuzzy, ever-shifting social policy. Ultimately, the responsibility for your personal safety and security rests on the shoulders of one person, the pilot in command. His primary job is to safely transport you and your belongings from one place to another. Period.

The Captain's absolute authority derives from long maritime custom. It is also embodied in the Federal Aviation Regulations:

FAR 91.3 The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

While US Airways conducted an investigation -- a good thing, in that it revealed the true nature of the Imam's behavior -- there was never any possibility that the airline could ever apologize or be held in any way liable for the Captain's decision: it was his alone, and the company has absolutely no recourse in the matter. So long as 91.3 remains on the books, nothing CAIR, or the ACLU, will change that fact.

It isn't wise to annoy the Captain.

What is the Rest of the Story?

Given these actual headlines, the task is to guess the associated story:

Church to fight Con-ass

Just based on the sound of it, the Church should be far from alone in this battle. After all, who could be wanting some more of that nasty Con-ass?

Davide grilled by Jinggoy: Tatad and judge dismissed for consulting dwarves.

Hard to tell how that could be any worse than emulating NBA stars.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A Pox on Both Their Houses

Dennis Prager, fighting an internal war whose opponents, Silliness and Ignorance, are locked in a battle for supremacy, has become truly wroth over newly elected Congressman Ellison's (D - Whackamole) decision to swear the oath of office on the Q'uran:
Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.

He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

As always, beware of passive voice. Not be allowed to do so? By whom, pray tell? The Constitution, profound ignorance of which really does undermine American civilization, has this pesky thing called Article VI:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

So unless the voters decide not to give Mr. Ellison a second term, "should not be allowed" is a phrase taunting the notion nature abhors a vacuum.

The battle is hardly settled, though:
... many secular elected officials have not believed in the Old Testament either. Yet those secular officials did not demand to take their oaths of office on, say, the collected works of Voltaire or on a volume of New York Times editorials, writings far more significant to some liberal members of Congress than the Bible.

Having been a secular official who has taken many times taken an oath of office, I would like to disabuse Mr. Prager of this bit of silliness: such officeholders do not take their oaths on anything, Voltaire, Bible, or otherwise.

As for Mr. Ellison, he is either ignorant of his own faith, or a liar. While the former is hardly an innovation, he can scarcely claim some spiritual gravitas in his oath taking while being blithely unaware that the Q'uran is antagonistic to the very Constitution he is swearing to uphold.

Unless he is aware, which brings the latter into play.

What to do, when faced with an ignorant, ranting believer on the one hand, and an ignorant, or lying, believer on the other?

Wish a pox on both their houses, that's what.

Monday, December 04, 2006

When evolution isn't fast enough

Abstract art critic Kirk Varnedoe has no patience for the neurological inheritance of human culture, he wants to negotiate a new deal outside of the recognizable world of ducks and rabbits:

The dream of culture having to do with the necessity of nature, the idea that ... the way we are wired individually is the basis of what we do collectively, that what we need to do is form an art that is true to our neurology and hence universal — this dream is false. The ideal of the necessity of nature as the informative culture, the ideal of neurology and internal organization as the basis for our culture, is false. What is important about us individually, what makes us human, is precisely that we are wired for communication, for negotiation, for exchange with others.

What matters in abstract art is not involuntary firing of neurons, not our ability to recognize the duck or the rabbit. Making is more powerful than that. Our humanity and our culture are not to be based on what is involuntary but on our will to make things that form a second nature by invention and imagination. Making in art is not just a corollary of problem solving, of producing schemas that tell you whether it is a duck or a rabbit, of producing things that are corollaries for the discovery of existing truths. Instead, making is the capacity of constructing autonomous symbol systems that have a huge variety of so-called natural grammars and rules of order that are in mutation throughout history.

Making is the invention of autonomous systems, like abstraction. And what then replaces matching? What are the criteria? What is the correction? How do we make progress? How do we measure whether we have moved ahead? There is only bottomless debate, fragmented and plural consensus, with overlapping edges that evolve through history with no fixed goal. Instead of the model of constant correction, or getting closer and closer to some absolute order, what we are always about in culture is getting better locally, with no idea of any final best. This is an order not based on any natural or involuntary sequence or progression, a making not simply discovered or matching some standard but rather based on a process of invention and constant debate. This is why abstract art, and modern art in general, being based on subjective experience and open-ended interpretation, is not universal or the culmination of anything in history but the contingent phenomena of a modern, secular, liberal society.

Abstraction is precisely not grounded in any universal or grand generalities. It is tied to individual experience and to individual sensibility, as they are given greater scope and play. One part of modernity in fact believes in absolute order, and this is one of the reasons that totalitarian governments have never cared for abstract art. Our common culture ... comes, I am arguing, precisely from what is not shared among us. It is not the universal wiring, not the neurology, not the absolute forms of things external to us. The crucial motor generating cultural change, churning out the new, is best found in modern society in private visions, even when those visions are seemingly stupid, banal, hermetic, and utterly particular.

A corollary to the idea that the generator of the new is found in private visions is the idea that abstract art — far from speaking to those things that unite us, to what we all have in common — is generated precisely from giving the greatest vent to those things that make us individually different and separate from each other. And it is by this very process that it re-energizes our shared culture. This freedom and individualism in the creation of art is an irritant, like so much sand thrown into our shells. And for all the sand that we put up with, we get fantastic results, pearls!

Abstraction has been less a search for the ultimately meaningful ... than a recurrent push for the temporarily meaningless: that is, things that are found not often in exotic realms but rather on the edges of banality, familiarity, and the man-made world. It is the production of forms of order that are not recognizable as order, but vehicles of feeling that appear utterly dumb. Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: You have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in

Oh, is that what abstract artists are about? I'm glad that I came across this, because I would have concluded, in my ignorance, that it was all about wasting everyone's time.

Note the sentence with the bolded phrases. This has to be one of the most incoherent statements that I've come across in awhile. He wants to simultaneously discard shared symbol systems and yet imagines that he can thereby discover a "natural grammar". Wouldn't the shared symbol system be the natural one? The man is positively schizophrenic!