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Why focus on Wall Street? They don’t build anything!

Posted on November 29th, 2008 in Economy,Science by Robert Miller

After the rhetoric of the election campaign dies down, one expects to begin seeing signs of the President-elect’s governing intentions through the cabinet members he selects for nomination to the senate. I was very happy with Tom Daschle as head of Health and Human Services (HHS). The leader of this department will be pivotal in developing any changes of the type that Obama has proposed for restructuring our health care system. Daschle seems sincerely intent on modifying our health care system, although the devil will always be in the details. We need a radical change to make our health care system work, not small incremental steps, each of which runs the risk of terminating or freezing the program at an intermediate, unacceptable level of health care reform.  In a more normal financial period, the health care issue would be front and center as the most important problem we face.  But, the acute ongoing contraction of our economy, which dominates the front pages of our newspapers, and is number uno as the greatest single source of national anxiety, has shifted our attention to focus on Obama’s financial appointees as the most important and revealing indicator of his future policies as President.

Blue counties in red Mississippi: is there a blue future for the state?

Posted on November 26th, 2008 in Culture,Politics by Robert Miller

In the 2008 Presidential election, the state of Mississippi remained a very red state–no surprise there. But the color of the state in the bicolor world of American politics hides some of the most dynamic changes that have taken place in Mississippi, as well as many other counties in other red states throughout the South. Yet, Mississippi holds special significance in race relations history. It was in the Mississippi delta region that some of the most violent race crimes were committed during the early 1960s, when activist blacks and whites came into the state to register black voters as a method to invoke the end of segregation and white supremacy.  Medgar Evers, head of the NAACP in Mississippi, helped to direct the initial efforts of the young Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members until he was assassinated outside his home in Jackson, MS in 1963 by a white supremacist.

The twelve counties that are adjacent to the Mississippi River between Memphis, MS and Vicksburg, MS, proved to be among the most intransigent regions in the country in their opposition to end segregation. In the 1960s blacks in the region earned between $400-$600 a year. And, while the Civil War had been over for nearly a century, blacks were kept as indentured workers through laws that kept them working in a plantation economy as long as they owed money to the plantation, which included virtually all workers.  Although the young SNCC workers thought their only responsibility when arriving in  the region was to register voters, they soon found themselves helping young blacks to escape the slave conditions of poverty plantation work by arranging to get them put on a bus with a ticket for Chicago and making arrangements for them to be integrated into better paying jobs, while their families often stayed in Mississippi. Because the legal authorities helped keep the blacks tied to the plantations, the SNCC workers would often arrange for the bus to stop on the highway to meet the fleeing black, thus avoiding a confrontation with the police. The story of these workers has been told in a book “Local People,” written by John Dittmer and recently summarized in The Washington Spectator (V 34, No 21, 2008).

Something Good About America

Posted on November 24th, 2008 in Culture,Economy,Politics by Robert Miller

The daily litany of bad news, which fills the pages of our newspapers, is a constant reminder that we live in a country, integrated into a global economic system, that is falling apart.  And, while right now it seems as if the economy is everything, the bad news or the sobering reality is such that we are confronted with an astounding number of issues, each of which seems to beg for a share of our attention and places demands on us for a new national will and strategy, combined with a sense of urgency for all the issues on our plate. Indeed one might wonder whether there is anything in the country that is truly going well or doesn’t need some serious repair. Our problems seem like the recovering alcoholic going through treatment. When asked about the use of drugs and alcohol in America,  she replied “there are only two kinds of people in the country–those in recovery and those in denial.” If someone tells us that something is really going well, we are prone to viewing their optimism as a state of denial.  It seems like we left the kitchen with the stove on for eight years and came back to find everything on fire! Yet, we are unable to push these other issues too far onto the back pages of our anxiety list, as they too are starved for our attention. It’s our financial system and the lack of buying in a consumer-based economy or the environment, or our three wars (including the war on terrorism or “the long war.”), or the downward spiraling of wages, or our personal and public debt, or a the sense the we are a failed state in the sense that Noam Chomsky uses that terminology.

Peak Oil Production and Imports in U.S.

Peak Oil Production and Imports in U.S.

Although it is not our most pressing problem at the moment, we feel a sense of urgency when we realize that we are running out of fossil fuel energy; some “experts” have argued that the steady state population of the world will round off at about nine billion people, which will be achieved right around the corner, projected at the year 2050. Many claim that a population of this magnitude can only be sustained by maintaining the cheap energy of fossil fuels that we have taken for granted until the last decade or so. Sometime during this century we are likely to reach the condition of “peak oil,” after which total global oil production will begin a long slow exponential decline with a finite half life as we measurably, asymptotically approach zero. Perhaps within the next two decades, the global oil supply will experience what happened to the U.S. oil supply, which reached its “peak oil” condition in the early 1970s and has been diminishing ever since (see graph); some believe we may have already reached “peak oil” in the entire world’s oil supply as no new major oil fields have been discovered in decades. One thing is certain about oil: the ride down this exponential “post-peak” promises to be very bumpy and a lot more costly than the ride up. I remember as a kid when the gas wars after WW II produced gas at $0.14  per gallon. And, accounting for inflation, it is still a very cheap form of energy.
Demographic experts have argued that without fossil fuels, our planet can only support one to three billion people, implying that a massive contraction of the global population will forcibly come about as the population continues to expand, while cheap energy declines: it is hard to imagine that such a change will occur peacefully.  Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Chapter 10), has suggested that the genocide in Rwanda was in fact a resource war from over population in a Malthusian downward spiral.

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