The return of Debbie Downer

I was kind of a “Debbie Downer” yesterday, wasn’t I? Well hold on. It may get worse.

Writing of Amazon killing Big Box which killed Mom & Pop, and what peril that leaves us in, made me reflect once again not only on our ugly places but on how readily we chase after attractive things — sex, lower prices, extreme convenience, etc. — oblivious of consequences.

I’d already been ruminating on such things after listening to the latest Kunstlercast, which made me aware of how fragile our whole existence has become because it’s all mediated electronically now.

I’ll be chatting with Rocky Rawlins who is the man behind The SurvivorLibrary.com, a phenomenal website that contains scans in pdf-file form of hundreds of books on basic technology and the skills for applying them, mostly dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s hard to overstate the scope of this vast trove of practical knowledge — everything from bee-keeping to wagon and coach-building. In other words, what you need to meet The Long Emergency. The scientific elegance of these books and monographs is something to behold, the clarity of the language and precision of the instructions is breathtaking. I think you’ll like Rocky very much.

Why should we care? Three letters: EMP.

Electro-magnetic pulse damage was a topic of conversation in both of the Republican debates on Thursday night. Rick Santorum, one-third of the warm-up debate, warned of the possibility of an EMP being used as a weapon, a “devastating explosion” that would “fry out” anything with a circuit board. “Everything is gone,” he said. “Cars stop. Planes fall out of the sky.” If Iran got a nuclear bomb, he warned, they could explode one in the atmosphere over the United States and break every phone, car, computer and anything else electronic underneath.

During the main debate, Ben Carson raised the same issue. “[W]e have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electric grid,” he said, adding, “Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point?”

(Washington Post) It doesn’t even have to be nuclear.

Or if you don’t like that, try Kunstler’s Long Emergency. If I had read Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I think I’d have something from him about now.

Then, for me, the piece de resistance: Rod Dreher reflecting on the painful accuracy of a New Yorker profile (he justifiably trusted the author, and let him tag along for a week as Rod promoted The Benedict Option). This stretch and what followed is very self-revealing:

OK, I have to share this passage about Andrew Sullivan:

The writer Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and Catholic, is one of Dreher’s good friends. Their friendship began in earnest in 2010, when Ruthie got sick and Dreher, moved by a spirit of generalized repentance, e-mailed Sullivan to apologize for anything “hard-hearted” he might have said in their various online arguments. Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.” Talking to Sullivan about Dreher, I was reminded of Father Matthew’s law: “You’ve got to love your dad even if he doesn’t love you back in the way that you want him to.”

Andrew is right: I’m a mess, but I hope I’m a mess in the best possible way.

I can’t let go of the story of my family and its fate …

We now live in a world that was made for somebody like me, with my aspirations and talents. It is a world in which people like Daddy and Ruthie, and what they stood for, can scarcely thrive. (I read Chris Caldwell’s piece on the situation in France, and it resonates with regard to the small places like West Feliciana.) The values and the customs and the way of seeing the world that meant everything to them is very hard to sustain. The great tragedy of my family is that my father and my sister held onto their vision so tightly that they made all those around them whom they catechized far too rigid to survive the shocks of their passing. And now the family that they revered above all else is shattered. What will happen to the land that my father acquired, cultivated, and revered, after my mom is gone? Ruthie loved the land as much as he did, and planned to live on it till the day she died. And she did — but she did not count on dying at 42. Everything that seemed so solid, so unbreakable, has dissolved, and is broken.

I’ve been thinking about how things might have gone differently had I been able to return to St. Francisville when Ruthie was first diagnosed. What if I had been there during the 19 months she lived, and had discovered the awful truth while there was still time to resolve things. Might everything been different? Maybe, maybe not ….

What the confluence of these thread brings to mind is a famous man’s famous aphorism:

Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” The evidence of ingrained sinfulness, he thought, is apparent everywhere in acts of violence, in the mistreatment of the vulnerable, and in the greed built into economic systems. Even human beings’ greatest accomplishments are inevitably tainted by sins of pride and self-interest, he argued. The problem is not just that humans commit sinful acts but that they are by nature sinful.

Yup. Individually and collectively, we’re a hot steaming mess. Lemmings. Pleasure-seekers. Idiots. Bundles of complexes and compulsions. If you think you’re an exception, you’re probably just uncommonly oblivious.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Sabbatical

I’m not a misogynist. I don’t judge women on their looks. You can trust me that I didn’t sexually assault any of these women because they’re all ugly. (Donald Trump)

Thanks for clearing that up, man.

Of course, I made up that exact quote. You can tell because it strings together three complete sentences, even though they’re internally inconsistent. There’s no “word salad.” There’s so self-aggrandizing asides.

Trump couldn’t read it if it was put in front of him on a teleprompter.

Hillary’s not as easy to mock because she does not manifest (n.) manifest (adj.) concurrent severe personality disorders.

The best diagnosis of Hillary I’ve heard is that sometime between the mid-70s and now, someone flipped off the idealism switch and flipped on the corruption and self-enrichment switch.

* * * * *

Face it, Republican Trump supporters (i.e., excluding newcomers supporting Trump’s independent campaign under the Republican umbrella) and rueful Hillary supporters: if 2016 isn’t enough to get you looking at third parties, you never will. You’re a slave. You’ll continue, in saecula saeculorum, eating whichever party’s Shit Sandwich looks less shitty, and it’s relatively easy because you’ve limited the choice to two.

A Facebook friend couldn’t believe I won’t support Trump, because (when you stripped away all my friend’s bombast) unlike Hillary, Trump truly does not care about people like us beyond securing our votes (and therefore won’t persecute us).

I agree with that. I will be a direct target for Clinton, collateral damage for Trump.

However, Trump is so unstable and so eerily demagogic that for the sake of the world, I’ll risk a direct Hillary hit over a Trump holocaust by voting #NeverTrump, #NeverClinton.

I’m moving beyond 2016 toward a more realistic, human-scaled vision of America’s future than either party is pushing or willing to push.

* * * * *

The debasing tone and meager substance of this campaign, aside, I’m rejecting both parties because on a very important issue, they’re both (or all) out of touch with reality.

  • The Democrats and establishment Republicans are selling substantially the same economic Ponzi Scheme.
  • Trump and his followers, insofar as they have a coherent economic message instead of a bundle of understandable grievances, are dealing in nostalgia for post-war America (the beginning of the Ponzi scheme).

None of that is going to work any more. The fuel of the ever-growing economy is literally fuel: petroleum. We’ve used up the economically viable petroleum sources. Only a zero-interest, hyper-financialized economy, funding unprofitable shale-oil shell games, has let us ignore that reality thus far. The alternate energy sources are not yet in place and when they come along (if they do), they will not allow our present physical configurations, dependent on carefree automobile trips, to survive.

Contrary to the American religion of endless progress, the techno-industrial age is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we are closer to the end of that chapter in human history than to the middle of it. By the 1970s, the USA began to feel the bite of competition from other parts of the world that had rebuilt their industrial capacity following the debacle of World War II. Our factories, which had not been bombed during the war, were old and worn out. Environmental consciousness produced stringent new regulation of dirty industries. Third World nations with rising populations offered ultra-cheap labor and lax regulation. So, we “off-shored” US industry, which for a century had been the major source of our economic wealth.

Industrial production was replaced mainly by two activities. First, after being constrained by the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, the suburban sprawl build-out resumed with vengeance in the 1980s. Secondly, and connected with sprawl via the mortgage racket, was the expansion of the financial sector of the economy from five percent to over 40 percent. The suburban sprawl part was easy to understand. It was the preferred template for property development, an emergent process over the decades. The local zoning and building codes had evolved to mandate that outcome by law. The separation of uses became more extreme: housing tracts here, office parks there, shopping somewhere else, connected solely by cars. You couldn’t build a popsicle stand anywhere in the USA without supplying fifteen parking spaces. The new laws for handicapped access had the unintended consequence of heavily discouraging buildings over one story. The tragic part was that suburban sprawl was a living arrangement with no future. The oil crises of the 70s had portended that, but both the zoning codes and the cultural conditioning over-rode that warning. Anyway, Americans simply couldn’t conceive of living any other way.

Back when finance was a mere five percent of the economy, banking was boring and didn’t even pay so well. It was based on the 3-6-3 formula: borrow money at 3 percent, lend it out at 6 percent, and be on the golf course at 3 o’clock. In the 1960s, bank presidents and stock brokers might have a color TV instead of a black-and-white, and they might drive a Cadillac instead of a Chevrolet, but they didn’t live on another planet of ultra-wealth. The role of banking in the economy was straightforward: to manage society’s accumulated wealth (capital), and re-deploy it for productive purposes that would produce yet more wealth.

The computer revolution of the 1990s helped take finance to a whole other level of hyper-complexity with astonishing speed and, because the diminishing returns of technology always bite, this venture produced some ferocious blowback — namely, that many of the new “innovative” financial instruments created by computer magic enabled swindling and fraud on a scale never seen before. This was especially true in the securitization of mortgage debt into fantastically complex mutant bonds, many of which were notoriously designed to blow up and reward their issuers with bond “insurance” payouts. That bit of mischief led to the crash of 2008. The systemic damage of that event was never resolved but simply papered over by taxpayer bailouts and massive Federal Reserve “interventions” that continue to the present.

(James Howard Kunstler, The Future of the City) Even Mark Levinson’s Weekend Essay in the Wall Street Journal admits that “the economy doesn’t roar any more.”

The U.S. presidential candidates have made the usual pile of promises, none more predictable than their pledge to make the U.S. economy grow faster. With the economy struggling to expand at 2% a year, they would have us believe that 3%, 4% or even 5% growth is within reach.

But of all the promises uttered by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton over the course of this disheartening campaign, none will be tougher to keep. Whoever sits in the Oval Office next year will swiftly find that faster productivity growth—the key to faster economic growth—isn’t something a president can decree. It might be wiser to accept the truth: The U.S. economy isn’t behaving badly. It is just being ordinary.

Historically, boom times are the exception, not the norm ….

It’s no fun to think about that. The era of happy motoring, our half-acre mini-estates (on formerly-tilled land), and the dream of endless progress are much funner.

We Boomers were much closer to the truth when we were all reading E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful — but then our switches flipped like Hillary’s did. She was just better at ferreting out the possibilities of personal enrichment by racketeering.

It’s no accident that the Clintonistas were trash-talking thus according to last week’s Wikileak:

They can throw around ‘Thomistic’ thought and ‘subsidiarity’ and sound sophisticated because no one knows what the hell they’re talking about.”

Subsidiarity is soooo “Small is Beautiful.”

The day is coming when we’ll have a choice between (a) the war of all against all over the bits of real wealth that remain or (b) cooperation on far more localized and pedestrian (literally and metaphorically) scale. Kunstler’s declinist essay and most of his corpus for several decades now go into greater detail.

It’s heartening, though I too rarely pay heed to it, to note that people are starting to vote with their feet, motivated by market forces if not conscious conviction. It’s too little, too slowly, I fear, but I could be wrong about how long the combined efforts of our plutocrats can keep the bubble from bursting.

I’ve aligned with a party  that believes in things the Democrats despise, as do the Republicans, though their emails haven’t been leaked, and though they’ll despise some parts the Democrats like (and vice-versa). But I’m aware that we’ll lose this year, that our candidate has the thinnest of political credentials and that there are limits to politics fixing all ills.

* * * * *

With that, I begin a brief (at least) blogging sabbatical. I’m going after dinner to a place where I fully expect to be off-grid for a while.

Prayer and worship and maybe some (offline) reading will be my likely routine, though I’ll be happy if I meet someone in a black robe who credibly says “I think I know how to cure what ails you” and takes me some different direction.

Yes, I’ve been ailing (dare I suggest we all are?), even if the ailment is only frenzy over how few people sense the truly perilous position we’re in. In fact, it’s probably much worse than that, and if I’m going only to “pray away the gay frenzy,”  I’m unlikely to accomplish even that. They don’t really know how to do partial soul-cures, after all.

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.