© 2008 – 2018 John T. Burke, Jr.

Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

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In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.

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Nasty Cover-Up Gets Exposed

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Ever since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster occurred on that horrible, twentieth day of April 2010, I have been criticizing the cover-up concerning the true extent of this tragedy.  Sitting here in my tinfoil hat, I felt frustrated that the mainstream media had been facilitating the obfuscation by British Petroleum and the Obama administration in their joint efforts to conceal an ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Corexit.  On July 22 of that year, I wrote a piece entitled, “BP Buys Silence of Expert Witnesses”.  On August 26 of 2010, I expressed my cynicism in a piece entitled “Keeping Americans Dumb”:

As time drags on, it is becoming more apparent that both BP and the federal government are deliberately trying to conceal the extent of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

I got some good news this week when I learned that the mainstream media are finally beginning to acknowledge the extent of this cover-up.  While reading an essay by Gerri Miller for Forbes, I learned about a new documentary concerning the untold story of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster:  The Big Fix.

Once my enthusiasm was sparked, I began reading all I could find about this new documentary, which was co-produced by Peter Fonda.  The Guardian (at its Environment Blog) provided this useful analysis of the movie:

The Big Fix, by Josh and Rebecca Tickell, re-opens some of the most persistent questions about last year’s oil spill.  How BP was able to exert so much control over the crisis as it unfolded?  What were the long-term health consequences of using a toxic chemical, Corexit, to break up the oil and drive it underwater?

Rebecca Tickell herself had a serious reaction to the chemical after being out on the open water – and as it turned out so did the doctor she consulted in an Alabama beach town.  She still has health problems.

Josh Tickell, who grew up in Louisiana, said the Obama administration’s decision to allow the use of Corexit, which is banned in Britain, was the biggest surprise in the making of the film.

“The most shocking thing to me was the disregard with which the people of the Gulf region were dealt,” Tickell said.

“Specifically I think that there was sort of a turn-a-blind-eye attitude towards the spraying of dispersants to clean up the spill. I don’t think anyone wanted to look too deeply at the consequences.”

Gerri Miller’s article for Forbes provided more insight on what the film revealed about the injuries sustained by people in the local shrimping communities:

Dean Blanchard, whose shrimp processing company was once the largest in the U.S., has seen his supply dwindle to “less than 1 percent of the shrimp we produced before.  We get shrimp with oil in the gills and shrimp with no eyes.  The fish are dead and there are no dolphins swimming around my house.”  He knows five people who worked on cleanup crews who have died, and he suffers from sinus and throat problems.  Former shrimper Margaret Curole‘s healthy 31-year-old son worked two months on the cleanup and became so sick from dispersant exposure that he lost 52 pounds and is now unable to walk without a cane. “Most of the seafood is dead or toxic.  I wouldn’t feed it to my cat,” said her husband Kevin Curole, a fifth-generation shrimper who, like Blanchard, had friends who died from Corexit exposure.  “I used to be a surfer but I won’t go in the water anymore,” he said.  “The last time I did my eyes and lips were burning.”

EcoWatch warned us that the movie can be emotionally upsetting:

When you watch how the the Gulf residents captured in The Big Fix have been affected by Corexit and the spill, beware, it is both heart wrenching and frightening.  When you see Gulf residents driven to tears by this environmental tragedy, you want to cry with them. Rebecca, herself, was seriously sickened by Corexit during their filming in the Gulf.

When you listen to eco-activist, Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of champion of the seas Jacques-Yves Cousteau, state so emotionally in the film, “We’re being lied to,” you realize the truth about the Gulf oil spill is being covered up.

The most informative essay about The Big Fix was written by Jerry Cope for The Huffington Post.  The “official trailer” for the film can be seen here.

Ernest Hardy of LA Weekly emphasized how the film hammered away at the mainstream media complicity in the cover-up:

Josh Tickell, a Louisiana native, had two questions he wanted answered when he set out to make his documentary:  What were we not told by the media in the days and weeks immediately following the April 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and what haven’t we been told since the story faded from the news cycle?  If The Big Fix had simply tackled those questions, the story uncovered would be maddening:  BP’s repeated flaunting of safety codes; their blatant disregard for the lives of individuals and communities devastated by the spill; collusion among the U.S. government (from local to the White House), the media, and BP to hide the damage and avoid holding anyone accountable.  The film’s scope is staggering, including its detailed outlining of BP’s origins and fingerprints across decades of unrest in Iran.  By doing smart, covert reporting that shames our news media, by interviewing uncensored journalists, by speaking with locals whose health has been destroyed, and by interviewing scientists who haven’t been bought by BP (many have, as the film illustrates), Fix stretches into a mandatory-viewing critique of widespread government corruption, with one of the film’s talking heads remarking, “I don’t have any long-term hope for us [as a country] unless we find a way to control campaign financing.”  And yes, the Koch brothers are major players in the fuckery.

The theme of regulatory capture played a role in Anthony Kaufman’s critique of The Big Fix for The Wall Street Journal’s “online magazine” – Speakeasy:

Tickell says that U.S. politicians, both in the Democratic and Republican parties, are too closely tied to the oil and gas industries to regulate them effectively.  “Even if these people come in with good intentions, and what to do good for their community, in order to achieve that level of leadership, they have to seek money from oil and gas,” he says.

While the film promises to take a crack at BP, Tickell says the company is more held up as a “universal example, in the way that resource extraction companies have a certain set of operating paradigms which have lead us to a situation where we have Gulf oil spills and tar sands.”

I felt that my conspiracy theory concerning this tragedy was validated after reading a review of the movie in AZGreen Magazine:

The Big Fix makes clear that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is far from over.  Filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell (makers of groundbreaking films Fuel and Freedom) courageously shine the spotlight on serious aspects of the BP oil spill that were never addressed by mainstream media.  Central to the story is the corporate deception that guided both media coverage and political action on the environmental damage (and ongoing human health consequences) caused by long-term exposure to Corexit, the highly toxic dispersant that was spewed into the Gulf of Mexico by millions of gallons.   The Big Fix drills deeply beyond media reports to demystify the massive corporate cover-up surrounding the Gulf oil spill, and BP’s egregious disregard for human and environmental health.  The film exposes collusion of oil producers, chemical manufacturers, politicians and their campaign funders that resulted in excessive use of Corexit to mask the significance of the oil, and thereby reduce the penalties paid by BP.

Reading all of this makes me wonder what happened to the people, who were discussed in my July 2010 posting, “NOAA Uses Human Canaries to Test Gulf Fish”.

The movie received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, as it did in its initial screenings in the United States.  Once audiences have a deeper look at the venal nature of the Obama Administration, it will be interesting to watch for any impact on the President’s approval ratings.


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Debunking Oil Industry Propaganda

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The political crisis in Egypt is being used by tools of the oil industry to – once again – put the scare into people about our dependence on “foreign oil”.  Stephen Moore was on Fox News talking-up the old “drill baby, drill” sentiment on February 2, lamenting our lack of “energy independence”.  I just wish Moore would restrict himself to a diet of Gulf shrimp.  I doubt whether it would change his mind, although it might make him more fun to watch on television as the hydrocarbons gradually work their karmic magic.

The myth of “foreign oil” is one of my pet peeves for several reasons – not the least of which is the fact that the one foreign oil company, which has done the most harm to the United States is British Petroleum, rather than some enterprise from the Middle East.

Much as been written to dispel the myths of “foreign oil” and “energy independence”, although the spokestools of the oil industry do all they can to pretend as though such information does not exist.  Take for example, the essay written by David Saied for the Ludwig von Mises Institute entitled “America’s Economic Myths”, wherein he debunked the myth of “dependence on foreign oil”:

This myth basically suggests that the problem with oil prices is due to America’s “dependence” on foreign oil.  One of the worst economic myths, it plays on economic nationalism and on xenophobic feelings that are sometimes pervasive in the United States.

The high price of oil has nothing to do with its origin; the price of oil is determined in international markets.  Even if the United States were to produce 100% of the oil it consumes, the price would be the same if the worldwide supply and demand of oil were to remain the same.  Oil is a commodity, so the price of a barrel produced in the United States is basically the same as the price of a barrel of oil produced in any other country, but the costs of labor, land, and regulatory compliance are usually higher in the United States than in third-world countries.  Lowering these costs would help increase supply.  Increasing supply, whether in the United States or elsewhere, will push prices lower.

Importing a product does not mean you “depend” on it.  This is like saying that when we “import” food from our local supermarket we “depend” on that supermarket.  The opposite is usually true; exporters depend on us, since we are the customers.  Also, importing a product usually means buying at lower prices, whereas producing in the United States often means consuming at higher prices.  This point is proven when we see the cheap imports we can purchase from China and the higher prices of many of these same products manufactured in the United States.  The amazing thing is that the protectionists claim, on the one hand, that America should be “protected” from cheap imports, but when it comes to oil, they say we should be “protected” from “expensive imported” oil.

Most, if not all, of the higher price of oil can be explained by the expansion of the money supply or the debasement of the dollar.  The foreign producers are not at fault; our national central bank is the culprit.

As a fan of the Real Clear Markets section of the Real Clear Politics website, I was pleased to see this recent commentary by John Tamny, wherein he had a good laugh at T-Bone Pickings for accidentally revealing the absurdity of the “energy independence” meme:

As this column has shown more than once, the price of a barrel of crude tends to revert to 1/15th of an ounce of gold, and as of Tuesday, oil’s price increase merely brought it in line with its historical cost.

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Oil is oil is oil, and it’s a commodity whose price is discovered in deep world markets.

Canada is seemingly “energy independent”, but assuming ongoing Middle East uncertainty, its citizens will – like us – buy gasoline the price of which is based on the cost per barrel set in global markets.  Much as we might like to naively fantasize about walling ourselves off from international market realities, we’ll never be immune to the activities around the world that impact oil’s price.  Canada and its citizens won’t be either.

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So while we can expect lots of breathy commentary about the need for energy independence in the coming weeks, particularly if Middle East unrest spreads, cooler heads will hopefully prevail.  The false God of independence will not wall us off from supply-driven increases, and more important, the waste of  human and financial capital necessary to achieve the silly notion would be far more economically crippling than any presumed supply shock could ever hope to be.

My own dream of “energy independence” involves owning an electric car, which I can recharge with a “solar power station” similar to what we see advertised on television – along with another “solar power station” to provide my home electricity.  “Energy independence” can only be achieved when American consumers are liberated from the tyranny of the oil companies and the power utilities.

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