This Week in Doom June 8, 2015

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Off the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on June 8, 2014

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"Katrina washed away a lot of veils and took a lot of face masks off. Your politics cannot be bigger than your humanity. And in this case, we didn't need politics. We needed humanity." 

 ― Oliver Thomas

We always need more humanity, as events from Ferguson to Baltimore have shown, humanity is in short supply. We have used up our domestic sources, and replacements have not arrived in West Coast ports en route from China. As we dither, thousands are fleeing the conflicts in the Global South, some of them of our creation, others less so, and seeking refuge on the shores of Southern Europe. We think ourselves immune from their plight, but continuing drought makes our own day of reckoning more likely. It has not been so long since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s touched off our own internal migrations, with their own lack of humanity in response; recall the iconic photo of the message, "Jobless Men, keep going. We can't take care of our own," a message befitting Chambers of Commerce everywhere. Humanity is lacking in the meat suit known as extremist fanatic Ted Cruz, who has demonstated not only a lack of common decency but a tin ear for the moment that should disqualify him for not only pursuit of higher office, but also sitting at the adult table at dinner. And the G7 meets in some heavily guarded German village, discussing whatever the G7 discusses, casting lots for Greece's garments, and if humanity is mentioned, it's only on the menu.


Ships rush to rescue thousands of migrants stranded in Mediterranean

Even as I write this, ships from European navies and NGOs are working to locate and rescue migrants migrating from the global South to Europe. Federico Soda, a spokesman for the international organization for migration told CNN on Sunday, "the numbers are high and they are rising."

Calm seas and good sailing weather spurred a fresh wave of ships crossing from Libya to Italy. Nearly 3500 migrants were rescued on Saturday alone.

A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said naval ships from Italy and Spain were also involved in the effort to rescue migrants on Sunday, along with the Italian coast guard.
The Italian coast guard has received requests for help from 14 vessels in distress, carrying an estimated 1,500 refugees and migrants, the UNHCR's William Spindler said.

They have rescued migrants from 11 vessels, and operations to find the other three boats and rescue those on board continue.

Desperate people from impoverished and conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea have put their lives

in the hands of human traffickers, and taken to sea to reach Europe in search of a better life. 

Those possessed of any empathy or human decency whatever can see in this issue a harbinger of things to come. Right now these migrants are landing in Italian ports, from Lampedusa to Sicily, from Reggio Calabria to Taranto. Many others have landed in Greece. The UN estimates that, as of the end of May, 90,000 refugees and migrants had crossed the Mediterranean into Europe this year. Just over half landed in Italy, with roughly 42,000 in Greece and the rest recorded in Spain and Malta. Some estimates have it that about 1,850 have died or were missing at sea.

This is a human migration unprecedented in recent times, and invites some questions,  namely, what would we do if faced with the same influx of migrants? The miserable wretches seeking succor or on Europe's shores are safely Over There, and not browning up our comfortable suburban neighborhoods. Yet that question has already been asked and answered Over Here with a depressing certainty.

MBR

Friend of the Diner and cross poster Tom Lewis, who runs a fine blog called The Daily Impact, reminds us of recent history:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, desperate citizens of New Orleans seeking water, food and shelter began streaming by the thousands out of the city on foot over the Interstate 90 bridge across the Mississippi River and into to the city of Gretna, Louisiana. The city had no electricity, no water, no medical services and little in the way of a functioning government. It had been this way for three days when the refugees began streaming in, and unless conditions improved almost immediately, the people were looking at severe privation. So they closed the city. Put a line of armed police across the Interstate Bridge and turned the refugees back.  Sorry. Can’t help you.

The story has haunted me for nearly ten years. Not just because it is one of the gnarliest ethical problems I have ever come across. But also because in the aftermath of the crash of the Industrial Age — perhaps well before the crash, during the current preliminary stresses — every one of us is going to face the kind of decision Gretna had to make. We will be asked to give help to distressed neighbors when giving that help will endanger our own survival. How will we answer?

Most of the current migrations have climate change as a root cause: drought, hunger and thirst, leading to revolution, conflict and chaos.  And before we get too comfortable, consider this: as Lewis points out, the states of California, Nevada and Arizona are slowly baking in the summer sun, snow packs gone, aquifers evaporating, streams parching, and the fruits and vegetables we depend on for summer salads going up in smoke. Lewis asks:

How long will it be before lines of desperate people begin trudging along Interstate 5 into Oregon (nobody in their right mind is going to trudge south, or straight east). And how long before Oregon says, out of the direst of necessities, “Sorry, can’t help you.”

And how long do we suppose it will be before one day, with the power out and the water off and the phones down and the food running out, our neighbor comes to our gate and says, “I’m hungry and I’m thirsty and I need your help.” Okay, that’s one question and it’s fairly easy to handle. Now the next question: what if, in a line behind him, there are a couple dozen more neighbors?

And before you are too quick to answer, remember Gretna Bridge. In separate CBS reporting on this incident, Oliver Thomas, president of the New Orleans City Council, said,

"Katrina washed away a lot of veils and took a lot of face masks off. Your politics cannot be bigger than your humanity. And in this case, we didn't need politics. We needed humanity." 


China Containerized Freight Index Collapses

Most of us who read and follow the Diner realize that the reason economies are stalling all over the world is that Joe Sixpack is tapped out. People in debt are not looking on new ways to spend; rather, they are trying like hell to get out of debt.  Thus, spending is slowing, and a Ponzi economy in which the only "growth" comes from consumer demand is showing weakness. It's only "weakness," if you subscribe to the market-driven philosophy of growth in every quarter, every week, every day. So if demand is down, the rubber has to hit the road somewhere. Wolf Richter noted "where" this week.

One thing the Chinese authorities cannot do is crank up the global economy and demand for Chinese goods. These goods are shipped by container to the rest of the world. But containerized freight rates from China have totally collapsed.

The China Containerized Freight Index (CCFI), operated by the Shanghai Shipping Exchange and sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Communications, has not been put through the beautification wringer that other more publicly visible statistics, such as GDP growth, are subject to. It tracks spot and contractual rates for all Chinese container ports. And it plunged 3.2% this week to a multi-year low of 862, down 20% from February.

The trajectory of this terrible 3-month plunge:

China-Containerized-Freight-index-2015-06-05

For perspective, the index was set at 1,000 on January 1, 1998. Today, the index is 14% below where it was 17 years ago!

Of course, this is a three-month phenomenon, and not necessarily a harbinger of doom so much as a cyclical variation in trade.  Yet if Chinese made goods are not leaving China on freighters destined to your local Walmart so that you can enjoy "low, low prices every day,"  what are the implications?  And how long will this last?

It very well may be a blip in a long-term trend. Many goods formerly targeted for export may indeed be consumed within the Middle Kingdom in the future. Here's one stab at why.

Recently I visited with one of my best friends, a university prof just returned from a teaching gig in China– Xian, home of the terra cotta army discovered by a farmer and excavatied by Chinese archaelogists, in a dig that continues to this day. He and the team he was with were consultants to university professors in Xian, acting as the "pros from Dover" to train these Chinese professors in techniques of innovation. They worked with teams of university profs via interpreters using large group and small group instruction.  

My information is second-hand, conversational, and gained over cocktails, so this is anecdotal at best, representing, as my friend likes to say "an n of 1." By the actions of the Chinese it's unarguable that China wants to be better at innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, recognizing that this is essential for future competition. Seems that innovation is out of culture for the Chinese, who have operated in a top down, do-what-you're-told mode, as befits a centrally-governed people who have occupied the center of the universe for centuries. Those Chinese leaders who see the future clearly realize that they can no longer wait to be told what they need to do: they need to invent it. Hence my friend's trip, and doubtless the teaching trips of other Americans as well,  to try to get the Chinese to be less Confucian and more entrepreneurial in their thinking .

The stats may be off, but the gist remains:  ten years ago, there were 7 million Chinese enrolled in higher ed; in ten years they expect three times that many. And they want them ready to play at business on the world stage. Contrast those aspirations for a rising generation with those of the sclerotic FSoA, where we reserve higher ed for those with trust funds or a willingness to mortgage their futures with debt that is non-dischargeable through bankruptcy…

This little peek into China is seen at best through a series of reflections in a hall of mirrors; yet I have to say that the description of China is "toast" is premature and probably wrong. Especially given the success and deployment of renewable energy sources at a time when China's admittedly prodigious use of coal is in decline.

Chinese energy experts are estimating that by 2050 the percentage of China's energy requirements that are satisfied by coal-fired plants will have declined to 30-50% of total energy consumption and that the remaining 50-70% will be provided by a combination of oil, natural gas, and renewable energy sources.

The Chinese are serious about deploying them as a matter of policy, if for no other reason that to clean their air. To the extent that economic "growth" is wholly depended on available energy, the Chinese have a winning strategy using renewables. Plus they possess the political will to order it done. Yet there remains no free press; it remains under state control as immutably as our own remains in the iron grip of corporate collossi. There are likewise no independent Chinese bloggers or alt media. There is no open internet access. The Chinese ruling regime is repressive. My friend put it best when I asked: "Life for the average middle class Chinese is pretty good, as long as you don't make waves, ask too many questions, and are prepared to make do without a few things most of us take for granted. Like rights and freedom."

What seems unknowable is the effect of the sheer mass of numbers on the Chinese and international markets. By 2020 the Chinese will have more college educated graduates in the workforce than the size of the entire US work force. The mind boggles at what this might mean, particularly for a government that can order key investments by fiat.


Tone Deaf and Lacking a Soul

Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, then attorney general of Delaware, addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 6, 2012. Biden, the eldest son of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., died of brain cancer, his father announced on Saturday, May 30, 2015. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times)

This week, the Biden family had the sad obligation to say goodbye to Beau Biden after illness claimed him.  No parent should ever have to bury a child; Joe Biden has had to bury two. No matter where one may fall on the political spectrum, such moments of human pain and suffering call most of us to declare a pause in the name of common decency. Writer William Rivers Pitt wrote an elegy that was deeply moving and cut to the heart of the matter:

It is an old story all too often repeated: the children of the powerful wind up being terrible people. Beau Biden, who succumbed to brain cancer on Saturday at age 46, was a notable and underscored exception to that rule. He served as state Attorney General of Delaware, served in the Delaware Army National Guard's Judge Advocate General Corps, and did a tour in Iraq. In 2008, he introduced his father to the convention in a speech that knocked paint off the walls. He was widely considered to be the front-runner in the Delaware governor's race in 2016 before that wretched disease laid him low. He fought the cancer for two years, and his father's family grave plot has become crowded once again.

Vice President Biden had just been elected to the Senate when the accident in 1972 stole half of his family. He was virtually annihilated by the loss of his wife and daughter. He contemplated suicide … but he still had two young sons, both of whom were injured in the crash and were hospitalized. He rose, and persevered, and raised one hell of a son. Until his boys were healed, he put the Senate second. "As a single parent," recalled Beau Biden during that stirring 2008 convention speech, "he decided to be there to put us to bed, to be there when we woke from a bad dream, to make us breakfast, so he'd travel to and from Washington, four hours a day."

During a speech at Yale University several days ago, Vice President Biden said, "The real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me." Politics is a cynical business – if we all had a nickel for every politician's lie told every day, the recession would be over – but what Mr. Biden said at Yale is as much truth as you will ever hear from an elected official in your whole life…

… Life has beaten Joe Biden with rocks. He has buried a wife and a baby daughter, and now must bury a son. I find this to be purely unfathomable. The passing of Beau Biden – husband, father of two, soldier, public servant – is a loss to the nation, but that pales in comparison to the loss being endured by Joe Biden and his family.

Pitt is the recent father of a baby girl, and draws upon his own love and devotion to his daughter to understand the enormity of the loss the Biden family is feeling. You would think at times like this that common decency would be the order of the day. Ah, not so. Tone-deaf domestic extremist and American Taliban member Ted Cruz proved not only that he is not fit to govern, but is also unfit for the company of decent people:

Cruz, speaking in Michigan, trotted out an old line of his: “Joe Biden … You know what the nice thing is? You don’t even need a punch line. I promise you it works. At the next party you’re at, just walk up to someone and say, ‘Vice President Joe Biden,’ and just close your mouth. They will crack up laughing,” according to reports on MLive.com.

Cruz later apologized. On Facebook.  Politico reports that Detroit News reporter Chad Livengood tweeted he questioned Cruz about the joke immediately after the speech and that “the Texas senator turned and walked away.” Livengood described the reaction to Cruz’s joke as “faint laughter.” Which should tell you everything you need to know about this particular golem, and the people to whom he appeals.


Protests ahead of G7 meeting

What a meeting of the G7 be without protests? They have become an almost obligatory part of the decor. Once again, the owners have gathered together in a German Alpine resort to compare notes on how their legislation to enact the new world order is faring, faced as it is by the obstinacy of mere proles. And the subject of Greece might arise as well. And once again, mere proles have gathered together to underline their dissatisfaction.

Leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) industrial nations will meet on Sunday in a German Alpine resort town, as thousands protested on the eve of the two-day summit.
There were sporadic clashes with police and several marchers were taken to hospital with injuries, as thousands marched in the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen on Saturday.
Protester Monika Lambert said she had come "to exercise my democratic rights to say that everything the G-7 decides is in the interest of the banks and capitalists".
The Germans have deployed 17,000 police around the former winter Olympic Games venue at the foot of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze. Another 2,000 are on stand-by across the border in Austria.

Anti-poverty charity Oxfam, staged a protest Saturday that depicted G7 leaders with huge heads. Oxfam is urging G7 leaders to find the "right path" to overcome poverty and inequality. Steffen Kuessner, a spokesperson for Oxfam, said social inequality was missing from the leaders' agenda.

We remain shocked, shocked…


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and quit barking and got off the porch long enough to be active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with his new bride Contrary in a triumph of hope over experience, and is grateful that he is not yet taking a dirt nap.

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