Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Are Drug Users Smarter Than the Rest of Us? Or Are Too Many Scientists Irresponsible Publicity Hounds?

A particularly vicious meme is being disseminated by ostensibly respectable publications such as Business Insider and Psychology Today, and echoed by a few misguided proponents of decriminalization of drugs, which is that users of illegal street drugs are smarter than the rest of us.

Huh?? Anybody who has ever had to interact with a habitual drug user on a daily basis will be pretty skeptical of the laughable  "findings" of a study whose methodology and veracity are questionable at best; and proponents of drug law liberalization are advised to be cautious about using them as an argument against prohibition. There are many rational arguments against our War on Drugs and  our savage drug laws, but there is no way that anyone can reasonably assert that drug use is good, or that it indicates more intelligence than the Gods gave a yeast culture; and anyone who makes such a claim in order to justify decriminalization of street drugs is damaging the credibility of the anti-prohibition movement,  and justifying its opposition.

According to the Business Insider, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to use recreational drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.The Insider quotes Psychology Today, a lightweight popular publication for non-professional readers, and an organization vaguely identified only as National Child Development, without supplying any links or precise identification for this organization:
"According to Psychology Today, people who use more drugs are more intelligent.  "Intelligent people don't always do the right thing," they write, "only the evolutionarily novel thing." 
According to a study conducted by National Child Development, "more intelligent children in the United Kingdom are more likely to grow up to consume psychoactive drugs than less intelligent children." These drugs include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, alcohol and tobacco."

Not surprisingly, not too many people are buying this, least of all  the people who are involved in dealing with the human destruction wrought by drug addiction and the drug trade. People who have to deal with users on a daily basis can tell you that these people display a lot of interesting traits, but intelligence isn't one of them.

In view of millions of  people whose bodies and lives have been destroyed by drugs, and the millions more who have been destroyed by alcohol, it's extremely difficult to see how anyone can describe as intelligent  the decision to use substances that are powerfully addictive, often cause permanent brain damage, serious illness, and death; destroy the ability to think rationally while triggering violent impulses and criminal behavior; force the user into close contact with violent criminals, put him at risk for arrest and incarceration; and don't even make him feel good.

The scientific community has sacrificed a lot of its former credibility and prestige by publicizing the findings of badly conceived and improperly conducted "studies" that have not been verified or peer-reviewed before releasing them to the uncritical and credulous public, and anti-prohibition activists won't enhance their own by referring to them to support an unpopular stance on a controversial matter of such life-and-death importance as the Drug War

Monday, January 17, 2011

Prominent Energy and Financial Analyst Nicole "Stoneleigh" Foss of the Automatic Earth to Appear in Rogers Park

JANUARY 19, 2011, 7:00 PM
1545 W. MORSE AVE.
Free parking at the southwest corner of Morse & Ashland

Suggested Donation: $20 (no one will be turned away)

Many, many thanks to Christine Wellman, Pam and Lan Richart and the other great people of Transition Rogers Park, The Eco-Justice Collaborative, Midwest Permaculture, and many others for their efforts in bringing the eminent energy and financial analyst Nicole Foss to speak in Rogers Park.

Foss, who writes under the name "Stoneleigh" and who contributes to the Oil Drum and writes The Automatic Earth blog with her husband, "Ilargi", will discuss how the convergence of resource scarcity, global warming, and the failing economy is creating the "perfect storm" that could cause our fragile economies to collapse.

After the presentation, Foss will answer questions and make recommendations on how to weather the most massive shift in fundamental economic conditions in over a century.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What if Your House Was on Fire and Nobody Came: How to Collapse a Major City

What if your house caught fire and the CFD did not respond?

Because, maybe, they didn't respond because nobody was at work. And they weren't at work because they didn't get their last paychecks. 

Or, maybe, the city couldn't pay the fuel bill for the fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, and was out of fuel.

Most Chicagoans can't even imagine it. Most of this city's denizens can't imagine a city where the street lights are off on most streets on alternating nights because the city is having problems paying its power bill, or where the police take 15 minutes to respond to a call from a mugging victim who is sitting on the sidewalk bleeding, because there are only nine officers manning a district of 6 square miles and they were all busy dealing with the mayhem in just two blocks of the district. Or where a foot of raw sewage is allowed to stand for months on end, or where a dead body is allowed to lie on a main thoroughfare for 4 hours in July, because the city's first responders are stretched so thin that no one had time to get over to pick it up.

These are the things that I've witnessed in failing cities and that happen when a city starts to unravel financially, and everyone with resources and prospects starts to leave. The taxes escalate while services are reduced, in the usual vicious downward spiral, thus driving out more businesses and more residents. Eventually, after a few decades, all that remain are people too poor to support anything, and the corrupt politicians and street criminals who build their careers on exploiting them.

I received my first lesson in how civilization collapses on the evening that I sat at dinner on the River Queen in St. Louis, celebrating my birthday back in 1970, and we watched a building in East St. Louis burn down directly across the river from where the boat was docked, while the fire department did not respond for forty minutes after the place began to smoke and burn. The structure was a fine old warehouse that appeared to have been built sometime in the 1920s. Halfway through dinner, we noticed dark smoke pouring out of the basement windows. Then, about 15 minutes later, flames started to flicker behind first-story windows, but there was still no response from the local fire department. Another half hour passed and the immense seven-story building was fully involved by the time 2 fire trucks showed up, and no more trucks came. The firefighters, who were way too few for the job at hand, could only stand and watch the inferno as the flames leaped out of the roof, and portions of the building started to collapse. This drama was repeated many times over the next few decades, as that city spiraled into complete destitution, as anyone who had any prospects elsewhere fled the place... and the same process has played itself out in a number of American cities since: Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, St. Louis, Memphis, Rochester.... places that look, as one Brit diplomat remarked about St. Louis, like the victims of saturation bombing.

Many people will say that you can't compare a huge, wealthy international city like Chicago to these failed cities. They forget that places like Cleveland and St. Louis, or even Rochester and East St. Louis and Camden, were not always destitute backwaters with staggering violent crime rates and miles of abandoned, wrecked buildings. Before 1900, St. Louis was a wealthier city than Chicago, with a much larger GDP, and the largest rail hub in the world. Newark and E. St. Louis were prosperous manufacturing centers, and most of the appliances people bought for their houses were manufactured in Cleveland or Akron.

Chicago may still glitter with affluence, and we are suffering rather less in this deep recession than other locales. Our unemployment rate is somewhat lower than that of other major cities, and we are not seeing the widespread destitution so prevalent in other places. However, thanks to the diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues to subsidies for private purposes, including for businesses that will only come here if lured by a multi-million dollar subsidy, our city has been destroyed financially and is ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the 18 cities most likely to go bankrupt in 2011. We will almost surely have to raise taxes simply to maintain our essential services and emergency response at current reduced levels, and many necessary improvements and upgrades to essential infrastructure are proceeding very slowly or being deferred altogether as the city struggles with steep budgetary shortfalls.

In such a context, it's difficult to see how we can afford still more diversions of public money,such as the proposed 49th Ward RIF, or $200M in funding to renovate privately-owned Wrigley Field;  and it's even more difficult to understand why so few of our candidates in the 2011 municipal elections are addressing the city's fiscal problems. Among aldermanic candidates, only one candidate, Phil Bernstein, candidate for Alderman in the 48th Ward, has addressed the city's financial problems, and no mayoral candidates have. Worse, the voting population seems unconcerned, with various constituencies each clamoring for its share of tax-funded "gimmes"- for tax credits for "green" energy, for funds to fix up rental apartments, for a new 850-unit luxury condo high rise development in one of the most glutted condo markets in the country, for new strip malls, for "affordable" housing, for hugely wealthy sports team owners, and for whatever else someone can stretch the definition of "public purpose" to justify.

These diversions, added to extant tax-funded boondoggles, will greatly compromise this city's ability to meet its basic needs as matters stand at the moment. The budget for 2011, remember, was only balanced by using most of the money the city was paid for the parking meter concession; and we should keep in mind that with that money, the city promised JP Morgan a given level of revenues and assumed the obligation to offset any deficiencies in meter revenues. This means that we not only have no way to balance the budget in 2012 without either steeply raising taxes, specifically property taxes, and/or making steep cuts in services.

This begs the question of just how we will cope when fuel costs double or triple from current levels, which looks like it could easily happen when we start down the slope of depletion in earnest. That could be very soon, and in fact looks to happen in 2012, when energy analysts predict that global oil production will fall 5%. Many believe that we are now on the downslope from the peaking of global production, which occurred in 2005. This augers much steeper fuel prices from 2012 forward, and I personally expect oil to establish a new floor of about $150 a barrel by that time. A major hike in fuel prices would cause the expense of such things as fuel for our emergency vehicles, and basic infrastructure repair and replacement, to skyrocket, and it's extremely likely that Chicago would not be able to pay for these things. That, of course, would mean critical and cascading failures of essential infrastructure, and basic, life-support services reduced to skeletal levels, endangering the lives and health of the city's 2.9 million residents, and those of residents in near suburbs that rely on our systems.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review: Prelude by Kurt Cobb

This first novel by founding member of the Association of Peak Oil (ASPO) and prominent science writer Kurt Cobb, whose commentaries on the depletion of resources appear frequently in S-Citizen magazine and is author of Resource Insights blog, was written with the stated purpose of informing the unaware public of the danger presented by the peak of global fuels. In Prelude, Cobb manages to give the reader new to the concept of Peak Oil a good survey course in the essentials of oil production, while telling an engrossing story with a likable, interesting protagonist, that will keep the reader turning the pages, and introduce the reader to the world of oil production and the reality of terminal resource decline.

Cobb has wisely avoided the temptation to write another work of "doomer porn" of struggle and death in an imagined post -peak collapse, and set his novel in the present day world. "I decided to create a narrative set firmly in contemporary society," Cobb states. " I wanted a story that would reframe the way people read the daily news and the way they interpret their everyday experience. My premise was that readers would more readily identify with a world familiar to them than one set in the distant future or transfigured by an imaginary crisis."

What he gives us instead is a fast-paced, suspenseful novel whose actions center around the career of its protagonist, the appropriately named Cassandra "Cassie" Young, an attractive and highly talented, but complacent young energy analyst who is a rapidly rising star at her firm, which very much resembles real-world Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA); and the shattering of her complacent world view and her belief in her work as she discovers both the lie of endless cheap energy, and the deep corruption of her firm.

Cassie has, like many top professionals, built a stunningly successful career in her field at a very youthful age, not only by her exceptional talent, but by never questioning her firm's gospel, which is that the world has an infinite reserve of cheap, accessible oil, and that we can rely upon the magical power of technology to solve any all problems, including the potential terminal decline of the substance that fuels it. It is when Cassie meets Victor Chernov, a brilliant and eccentric Russian musician and wealthy former oil trader, that her cozy, privileged personal world is turned upside down and she confronts the fact of the peaking and inevitable depletion of the world's most critical resource, and the destruction of her career and the life she's built upon it. Victor is a believer in the Peak Oil theory and he manages to interest Cassie enough in attend a ASPO conference, but Cassie remains skeptical until she brings Victor to the housewarming at the palatial new home of her firm's egotistical CEO, Larry Hillard, where Victor discovers, in a casual conversation with a landscape worker, that the house was paid for by a shadowy entity that turns out to be a front for one of the firm's major clients, the Kingdom of Ammar,the world's largest oil producer.

Here, Cobb illustrates the power of denial as Cassie at first dismisses the evidence of her employer's malfeasance and corruption. When she and Victor leave his party, he asks her how she thinks Hillard can legally pay for his landscaping through his company, and Cassie, as yet oblivious to the implications, replies, "he must have the best tax lawyer in Washington." But the seeds of doubt have been planted; and Cassie, troubled by the clear conflict of interest, delves deeper, enlisting Victor's assistance in breaking into her boss's email, where she discovers the firm's most closely guarded secret, the true figures for Ammar's reserves, which are far below the numbers published by the firm.

Events move quickly from here, and Cassie finds that her view of her world has changed forever. She can no longer function in her career, for that depends upon her ability to remain blind to the implications of the report that she has stolen, and even her relationship with her lover, Paul, is tested, and fails, as Paul is revealed as self-centered and cowardly. When Cassie confides to Paul that she might be in a great deal of trouble because her theft of the report has been apprehended, he shrieks," How could you do this to me!", and it is too obvious to Cassie that the consequences to her are his last consideration.

The conclusion of the novel is less than satisfying, as Cassie is forced to end her career, and accepts a massive severance check in return for her silence regarding the contents of the stolen report, and her permanent retirement from the energy industry. Thus, she can do no good with the knowledge she has gained at price of her career and risk of her very life, but her $2 Million severance check will permit her to make a separate peace,, as it were, and the novel concludes with her decision to leave her high-powered career and Washington D.C. forever to "go live in Vancouver... on some land... and grow a few tomatoes."

Many readers will be critical of Cassie's rapid transition from True Believer in the gospel of perpetual cheap energy and the magic of technology to solve any problem; to Peak Oil believer after a month's acquaintance with one man, a conference, and one damning document' and anyone who has ever worked in the financial world knows how unlikely it is that an employee who broke into the CEO's email and downloaded highly sensitive documents would be allowed to escape with so little punishment, let alone a lavish payout. In the real business world, people like Cassie are utterly, completely, totally destroyed, if they're even allowed to live, and they're fortunate if they're allowed to slink away utterly discredited and completely impoverished with no chance of recovery to a decent career ever.

Many other readers may also question Cassie's ethics in allowing herself to be "bought" and silenced, but I find her believable and sympathetic, and in her place, I would not have acted differently. Why risk everything you have, including your life, to deliver a message the world does not want to hear? Our young Cassandra rightly perceived that her message would only meet with contempt and denial from a public that has too much invested in not hearing it, and that the best use she could make of her unwanted new knowledge was to save herself... and go off to Vancouver and grow some tomatoes.

Altogether a very pleasurable, fast read and a novel I'd recommend to the non-Peak-Oil aware among your friends and relatives.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Chicago Is One of 18 Cities Most Likely to Go Bankrupt in 2011: Can We Afford More TIFS, RIFs, and Corporate Welfare?

The Business Insider has compiled a list of the cities most likely to go bankrupt, and Chicago is No. 17.

The Insider points out that the budget for 2011 uses up nearly all of the revenue generated by selling a long-term lease on the city's parking meters. That money was supposed to last for decades Thus, we've balanced the budget for 2011 by destroying our finances for many decades out unless we can manage to produce a miracle, and it looks like we will have no other way to meet urgent needs, like funding our essential services, except to raise taxes to confiscatory levels, or build the casino that Daley has so long hankered for. We'll probably have to do both, for there's no guarantee that a casino could generate the revenue

However, the parlous condition of the city's finances seems to be a non-issue not only with the city's sitting aldermen, but with aspirants in the current race as well. Among the candidates for alderman in the 2011 race, only a handful, notably 48th Ward contender Phillip Bernstein, seem cognizant of the city's current desperate situation and propose realistic solutions.

Here in the 49th Ward, Joe Moore's only real opponent, Brian White, seems focused solely on devising more ways to divert tax revenues from city coffers to non-public purposes, namely the rehabilitation of 1500 rental apartments in the area via the 49th Ward RIF (Rental Improvement Fund), which will divert money generated from future property tax increases from city services to Rogers Park landlords, who will receive funds to improve their properties on the condition set aside rental units for low-income tenants. This is only one of many, many major diversions of public funds to private interest.

Will it take a major crisis, like the day the city can no longer afford the gasoline for fire trucks and police cars, to motivate our political leaders to re-order their spending priorities and take steps to reverse the outflow of public funds to non-essential private purposes?