Fracking Ferment and Malthusian Myths

 | 

The revolution in American oil and natural gas production brought about by fracking continues to roar. Recently, the price of oil dropped to about $65 per barrel, and natural gas is still hovering around record low prices. In fact, as an article in Bloomberg suggests, it is entirely possible that oil may sink to $40 in the near future.

All of this was unthinkable before the last couple of years, but thanks to the miracle of fracking, it is becoming reality. It is Schumpeterian creative destruction with a vengeance. But as the theory of creative destruction emphasizes, revolutionary innovations typically bring deep disruptions in their wakes. And as a flood of recent reports illustrate, fracking is indeed a disruptive revolution.

On one side are the thieves that want to cut back on production to drive the world price for oil back to its recent high levels.

Let’s start at the level of geopolitics. With barely controlled glee I note a recent Wall Street Journal report that our fracking energy renaissance is fracturing OPEC. You remember OPEC, the cartel that drove our economy to the wall with the “oil shock” of the 1970s. As oil prices continue to fall, a split has developed among OPEC states.

On one side are the thieves that want to cut back on production to drive the world price for oil back to its recent high levels. Venezuela is the leader of this fraction, and for good reason. Its particular brand of socialism has devastated its economy (as socialism is wont to do), and it has been living off its oil imports. Well, it can’t now, and as the aforementioned Bloomberg story notes, the arrogant Mini-Me of Marxist Cuba is running out of hard currency and may have to devalue its money, raise domestic gasoline prices, cut oil subsidies to other leftist states (such as Cuba), and cut imports of consumer goods. In this socialist hell, crime is exploding as quickly as inflation, and the consumer goods shortages are growing as quickly as the rioting is.

On the other side of the OPEC rift are countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which oppose limits to production. These countries have indicated that they will respond to the drop in prices by exporting more oil. They appear to have several interlocking motives.

First, they are desperate to hold on to their worldwide market shares. The Saudis have been pushing existing customers — especially European ones — to commit to continued purchases of Saudi oil. Clearly, the prospect of the US loosening its ludicrous laws restricting the export of its own oil (which would put us in direct competition with the vile OPEC countries) is concentrating Saudi minds wonderfully. Moreover, Iraq has cut its prices to its existing European and Asian customers, desperately hoping to hold onto its global share.

Second, as a recent UK Telegraph piece explores, the Saudis clearly want to stall if not snuff out the fracking revolution. They want to force US shale production down from the current million barrels a day (bpd) to 500,000 bpd. As the article note, the last eight years of fracking have seen the US cut net its oil imports by 8.7 million bpd, the equivalent of what it was importing from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, combined.

We now know for sure that we have virtually endless supplies of oil and natural gas right under our own soil, resources that can profitably be extracted at prices from $40 to $80 per barrel.

To what extent the Saudis and other OPEC countries can really contain America’s frolicking frackers is a matter for considerable conjecture. As another report points out, the International Energy Agency notes that only 4% of fracked oil production requires that the market hit $80 a barrel if the production is to be profitable. Most of the oil from the Bakken field (the most productive field currently being exploited in America) would still be profitable even if the price were $42 a barrel. At that price, yes, American frackers would feel pain, but nothing like the pain the Russia and the OPEC states would feel.

As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard recently pointed out, the Saudis are playing a dangerous game: “A deep slump in prices might equally heighten geostrategic turmoil across the broader Middle East and boomerang against the Gulf’s petro-sheikhdoms before it inflicts a knock-out blow on US rivals.” He quotes Harold Hamm, the main genius behind fracking, as saying the most productive shale field is still profitable at $28 per barrel. And as Evans-Pritchard adds, quoting Citigroup, the break-even cost for oil is $161 for Venezuela, $160 for Yemen, $132 for Algeria, $131 for Iran, $126 for Nigeria, $125 for Bahrain, $111 for Iraq, $105 for Russia, and $98 for Saudi Arabia.

Remember this: even if all American frackers had to halt production tomorrow (say, if oil dropped to $20 per barrel), the shale fields, along with the technology now well developed to exploit those reserves, would remain, however long the Saudis and everyone else tried to keep the price low. We now know for sure that we have virtually endless supplies of oil and natural gas right under our own soil, resources that can profitably be extracted, with even today’s technology, at prices from $40 to $80 per barrel. As the technology develops, that strike price will only go down. Any possible “knock-out blow” would knock us out only momentarily.

The third reason the Saudis and other Arab states are so desperate to keep their revenues at present levels — even if it means precipitously pumping down their known reserves — is that the autocrats in charge have been buying their citizens’ passivity with lavish welfare spending. If that ever gets cut, the citizens would probably rise up and cut the heads off the pompous princes and egotistic emirs who have so greedily gorged themselves on the wealth of their lands. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Saudi Arabia needs oil to be at $99 a barrel to balance its budget. So the current low price of oil is making the Saudis use assets from their reserves of foreign currency — which, while extensive, are not inexhaustible.

Another geopolitical change that fracking has introduced involves the Mexican oil industry. A piece in a recent WSJ notes that Mexico is foreseeing a rebirth of its own oil industry, with the aid of US technology and investment. The new president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, did something last year that no president before him had done, since Mexico nationalized its oil industry 70 years ago. Nieto got the Mexican Congress to pass a law (actually, to change the nation’s constitution) allowing private industry, including foreign industry, to help develop new production. Until now, Mexico has jealously guarded its industry, out of an excess of nationalism. While enjoying its national pride, it witnessed a decline in national revenues; but with the rise of fracking as a tool to get old wells producing again, it now anticipates a resurgence of a lucrative industry. The national oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), doesn’t have any expertise in fracking, but US and other countries surely do. As Joel Vazquez, CEO of DCM, a Mexican-Canadian drilling company, put it, “A boom is coming. Not a week goes by without an oil company contacting us asking about making a joint venture, or saying they’re interested in investing here.”

The UK, like Germany, is discovering that so-called Green energy is grotesquely costly.

Mexico will shortly start auctioning off leases for oil exploration. One hundred sixty-nine blocks of Mexican land will be opened for outside development, with about a third of them within 70 miles of Tampico. Most will require fracking and horizontal drilling. It looks as if BP and Royal Dutch Shell will go after the deep-water sites, while Canadian company Pacific Rubiales Energy and a new Mexican startup will focus on the shallow-water and mature onshore sites. Mexico projects an increase of half a million BPD over the next four years.

Another geopolitical impact of our fracking revolution on other countries is the subject of another recent Journal story. The surge in US oil and natural gas production — we now produce more oil and natural gas than do either Russia or Saudi Arabia — is making the British rethink their energy policy.

British billionaire James Ratcliffe, head of the petrochemical giant Ineos, is urging that the UK push fracking. To overcome NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard, anti-development sentiment), the resourceful Ratcliffe plans to offer a generous 4% royalty to property owners and a 2% royalty to municipalities that allow his company to drill fracking wells on their land.

The logic for the Brits — a most logical people, indeed — is clear. Fracking has lifted American production of liquid petroleum products over the past ten years by nearly 60% (from 7.3 million to 11.5 million BPD) and has lifted natural gas production by 30%. But the UK’s own production (of its North Sea fields by conventional drilling) has plummeted, resulting in rapidly growing petroleum imports.

The UK, like Germany, is discovering that so-called Green energy costs a lot of green; in fact, it is grotesquely costly. Because of a Green scheme, one of the UK’s biggest power plants (one that supplies 7% of the country’s power) is converting to wood pellets imported from the American South. But compared to natural gas, wood is immensely productive of carbon emissions. And the switch to wood is going to increase the electricity rate consumers have to pay by — 100%!

Of course, the prescient Ratcliffe is already facing opposition from the same fatuous fools — i.e., environmentalists — that our own energy heroes have had to face. But my guess is that the Brits, after seeing their power and tax bills rise, will see the light and finally favor fracking.

Doubtless, however, the biggest geopolitical impact of the American fracking revolution is on Russia. This is leading to what can best be termed “the Russian rage.” The Putin regime is clearly distraught about the fact that our oil and natural gas renaissance is eclipsing Russia as an energy superpower. A number of articles explore aspects of this phenomenon.

It is now obvious why Putin has seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine: he wants to stop Ukrainians from becoming another major competitor in exporting natural gas to Europe.

One of them concerns the recent hubristic boast by the Russian oil tycoon and Putin puppet Leonid Fedun that OPEC’s decision to keep pumping oil and let the price drop will ensure the crash of the US shale industry. Fedun prophesied, “In 2016, when OPEC completes this objective of cleaning up the American marginal market, the oil price will start growing again.… The shale boom is on a par with the dot-com boom.”

Fedun’s claim was that when oil breaks $70 per barrel, most American fracking companies will become unprofitable and collapse, or will do so when their existing hedges (prior contracts to sell their crude oil at $90 per barrel) expire. But he made this boast when oil was still over $70 per barrel. We certainly don’t see any American fracking companies hitting the wall even with oil now in the mid-$60 range, and as indicated by the Evans-Pritchard article discussed earlier, other exporters believe most production from the Bakken field would remain profitable in the range of $40 or even lower.

Also amusing was an article in the Russian regime’s propaganda newspaper Russia Beyond the Headlines by Pat Szymczak. She writes about Ukraine, the country that the dictator Putin has invaded repeatedly and dismembered. Her argument is that Ukraine has tremendous shale gas reserves — the US Energy Information Administration estimates them at 42 trillion cubic feet, the third largest in Europe; and Ukraine’s Black Sea oil potential might exceed that of the North Sea. But these resources haven’t been developed, she claims — with evident crocodile tears! — because in the 20 years since it became independent, Ukraine has had only corrupt oligarchical regimes. And recently, when Shell Oil drilled some exploratory wells, fighting amazingly and mysteriously broke out nearby between the government and Russian separatists. This forced Shell to close out operations.

With smarmy alarm, Szymczak warns that, “Ukraine’s inability to get its act together and take advantage of its assets has created an opening likely to be filled by North America. The US has seemingly overnight moved from being an energy importer to a potentially massive exporter, at a time when Russia is struggling to maintain its position in the midst of a production decline in its prolific West Siberian fields.”

She adds that the US may be planning (as part of the sanctions) to divert to Europe some of its diesel exports currently bound for Latin America, and that the EU is apparently pushing the US to end its current ban on crude oil exports (about which more below). And one of Spain’s largest power companies has just signed a 20-year deal to import $5.6 billion in American liquefied natural gas.

Of course, this article is hilarious on many levels. It is uproariously hypocritical that this Russian propagandist should point to Ukraine as a corrupt oligarchy. What is Putin’s regime if not a corrupt oligarchy? And who does Szymczak think caused fighting to break out close enough to the Shell installation to force it to shut down, if not Putin himself? The Putin regime is funding and arming the ethnic Russian separatists. It is now obvious why Putin has seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine: he wants to stop Ukrainians not only from achieving oil independence but also from becoming another major competitor in exporting natural gas to Europe.

Indeed, yet another recent piece — a major New York Times article on the wave of anti-fracking protests suddenly sweeping Eastern Europe — touches on the attempt by Russia to stop Western oil companies from fracking development in Eastern Europe. The article recounts what happened in Romania, when Chevron leased land last year to explore for natural gas. Immediately, a large group of violent “protestors” (read: Putinesque paramilitary provocateurs) showed up and started fighting with the local police. The provocateurs — obviously well-funded — were able to portray the mayor who allowed Chevron in as a traitor to rural Romanians and a sellout to American capitalism. The protestors temporarily made him flee.

Reflecting on the fact that his town never before had demonstrations, and that the moment Chevron showed up, so did a horde of vociferous demonstrators, the mayor concludes that they were a rent-a-mob paid by Russia’s state-controlled oil company, Gazprom. (The Romanian prime minister agrees with the mayor’s assessment). The protestors are, in other words, Putin’s posse, aimed at keeping Western energy companies out of Eastern Europe, which is the former Soviet Empire Putin is eager to reclaim.

What is Putin? He is a megalomaniacal narcissist who wants to be another Stalin.

The story notes that this view — that Russia’s oil arm is funding and fielding anti-fracking armies — is shared by Lithuanian authorities, who saw Chevron chased out of their country by organized violent protestors. The departing secretary-general of NATO, Anders Rasmussen, has voiced the same view: “Russia, as part of their sophisticated . . . disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called nongovernmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain dependence on imported Russian gas.” The statement was echoed by Romanian industrialist Iulian Iancu, who sagely observed, “It is crucial for Russia to keep this energy dependence. It is playing a dirty game.” The rent-a-mob anti-fracking “protests” started three years ago in Bulgaria, which went so far as to ban fracking and cancel Chevron’s licenses.

Of course, both Gazprom and the so-called environmentalist groups heatedly deny that there is Putinesque collusion in all this. And Gazprom exec Alexander Medvedev adds the friendly warning to Europeans that they cannot possibly have a fracking revolution similar to America’s, because of the differences in geology and population density.

The NYT article’s author (Andrew Higgins) gives this view some credibility, pointing out that test wells have proven disappointing in Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. But one might reply that these were only a few wells, all drilled by Chevron, hardly the leader in the art of fracking. My advice to these countries is to ask Harold Hamm, the principal genius behind the fracking revolution, to come out and take a look.

What reasons are there to conclude that the Putin regime is behind these seemingly “spontaneous” demonstrations? Many, I would suggest. To start with, as the prescient Anca-Maria Cernea (leader of a Romanian nationalist group) noted, these “spontaneous” protests involved a coordination of groups that have no natural affinity or historical alliance, such as radical socialists and Eastern Orthodox clergy. Furthermore, the state-controlled Russian “news” media blanketed the airwaves with coverage of the protests over and over, along with warnings about ecological disasters caused by fracking.

Additional evidence is the obvious corporate interest of Gazprom. The Romans bade us ask, “Qui bono?” (“For whose benefit?”). If you want to ask why something is happening, ask in whose self-interest it lies. If Chevron (say) develops Eastern European shale fields, not only will Gazprom (and the Russian regime that controls it) lose out on that market. Eastern Europe could easily become the dominant supplier of energy to Western Europe, displacing Gazprom. Oh, and this could unify Eastern and Western Europe economically, putting the former out of reach by revanchist Russia.

Despite assurances from many of its backers that wind is so efficient that its subsidies would wither away after a few years, the subsidies are proving eternal.

Tied in with this point is another clue — a dog that isn’t barking. By this I mean that while Gazprom is itself exploring (through its Serbian subsidiary Nis) both Serbian and Romanian shale fields, there have been no demonstrations opposing Gazprom. The demonstrating dogs know who their master is. They can smell him even in the dark.

Further, as I noted in a piece not long ago, it’s old news that petro countries fund seemingly independent environmentalists to help stop America’s fracking development. The anti-fracking propaganda movie Promised Land was funded in large part by the United Arab Emirates. And Project Veritas investigative reporter James O’Keefe recently caught on tape a couple of Hollywood producers (Josh and Rebecca Tickell) and a couple of environmentalist activist actors saying they would be happy to work with Middle Eastern petro sheiks.

If American Green ideologues are willing to collaborate with those who want to keep their country energy dependent, why would anyone assume that Eastern European Green ideologues — many of whom were communists working to keep their countries part of the Soviet Empire before it collapsed — are unwilling to see their countries energy dependent? As Joan Rivers would say, “Oh, grow up!”

Finally, who controls Gazprom? Putin. What is Putin? He is a megalomaniacal narcissist who wants to be another Stalin. And what is Putin’s background? He was a career KGB agent who was trained in disinformation campaigns and in the suborning of foreign citizens to work against their own countries. Faced with the threat of the US — which he believed he had neutered because he cowed Obama and Hillary Clinton — becoming the dominant petro-power around the world, enabling the Eastern European countries to be energy independent from Russia, Putin, it is reasonable to assume, would use the tools he was trained to use.

And threatened the tyrant is. As political scientist Ian Bremmer put it recently, Putin has been “backed into a corner” by the drop in prices fracking has caused, “leaving him little option but to continue his aggression toward Ukraine and confrontation with the West.” Bremmer added, “I think that lower oil prices simply squeeze him harder, pushing him farther into a corner. He feels he has to fight as a consequence.”

The theme of Russian vulnerability is echoed by Allan von Mehren, chief analyst at Danske Banke, who said, “Russia in particular seems vulnerable [to dropping oil prices].” He notes that the big decline in oil prices in 1997–98 was a major cause of the subsequent Russian default. The reason for this vulnerability is obvious. Oil and natural gas constitute almost 70% of Russia’s exports, and fund half the country’s federal budget. The country has had to spend $90 billion of its foreign currency reserves to stop the utter collapse of the ruble, which has already dropped in value by over a third.

In sum, as fracking flourishes, look for Russia to become even more aggressive.

Turning from geopolitics to domestic policy, a recent WSJ article explains how the fracking revolution is forcing a long-needed change in America’s ban on oil exports.

Yes, believe it or not, since the Carter era of the 1970s we have restricted the export of our own domestic crude, under the delusion that by restricting the market that our domestic oil producers could sell to we would induce them — to drill for more. Despite calls from major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil for the government to end the moratorium, politicians have been reluctant to deal with populist fears that allowing our companies to sell into an international market will somehow drive up our own prices — as if there were just a fixed amount of oil in this country, and if we sold even a drop of it abroad, our own stash would be diminished.

As the fracking revolution has shown, there is no foreseeable limit to how much oil we can produce. But some oil companies are finding ways around the benighted ban. For example, BHP Billiton has made a deal to sell two thirds of a million barrels of “minimally processed” ultralight crude oil abroad without formal approval from the feds. It is selling the petroleum to the Swiss trading firm Vitol. This move — which is called “self-classification” — is likely to open the gate for many other companies to enter.

The amount of fossil fuel that lies beneath our feet is essentially infinite, and if it ever did reach a limit centuries from now, substitutions would be found.

The idea is clever. Under the decades-old law, the US allows the exporting of refined petroleum fuels (diesel and gasoline) but not of crude oil itself. However, some companies (such as Enterprise Product Partners and Pioneer Natural Resources) have prior governmental approval to export minimally processed oil (called “condensate”). BHP is classifying very lightly processed crude as “condensate,” exempt from the law. BHP is doing its light processing without explicit government approval, although the Commerce Department has been quiet about the practice.

It would be great if more companies followed BHP’s lead. That would encourage more drilling in the long term, and help stymie Saudi Arabia’s efforts to throttle our fracking industry, by making sure that our production can be sold abroad whenever we have an excess here. Of course, it would be even better if we just removed the ban on crude oil exports altogether.

As for the crony, corrupt Green energy industries (the so-called renewable energy producers, especially wind and solar), fracking is pushing them to the wall. Consider wind power. As another recent WSJ piece explains, American wind power has been subsidized for over two decades. Despite assurances from many of its backers that wind is so efficient that its subsidies would wither away after a few years — like the state in the old Soviet Union! — the subsidies are proving eternal. Wind power’s subsidy is a taxpayer gift to wind power producers. This subsidy handed these rentseekers over $7.3 billion since 2007 alone, and it will pay them an additional $2.4 billion next year.

With all subsidies accounted for, the Institute for Energy Research reckons that in 2010 (the last year for which conclusive data are available) wind power received $56.29 per kwh in subsidies, compared with only $3.14 for nuclear power and a meager $0.64 for natural-gas produced electric power. That is, wind power sucked up nearly 90 times the subsidies that natural gas power did.

In short, wind power has managed to shred billions of taxpayer dollars as quickly as it has shredded millions of birds. But this subsidy expired at the end of last year, and wind power producers are desperately trying to renew it before the Senate falls into Republican hands. It looks quite possible that in the face of plummeting oil and natural gas prices, the incoming Congress will end the subsidy once and for all. At which point, wind power will be — well, gone with the wind.

Also worth noting is a WSJ article reporting another possible target for fracking’s creative destruction. I refer to the (again) heavily taxpayer-subsidized electric vehicle (EV) industry. Its only real success has been Tesla, whose zippy, stylish cars have sold well compared to all other EVs. But as gasoline prices have dropped, so has Tesla’s stock. It’s down about 8% recently (after a dramatic rise during the last couple of years).

If oil prices remain low, or fall even further, the EV market will be threatened. And if the EPA manages to kill the coal industry, thus dramatically raising costs of electricity, the EV market will become moribund. It only exists now because of those enormous taxpayer subsidies, and it is unclear how much longer Congress will keep them.

As the Journal noted, we can already guess what the advocates of EVs and the other Green companies will start pushing for if gasoline prices continue to drop: massive new taxes on gasoline to force consumers to go Green. Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) has already proposed taxing gasoline to make it $10 per gallon at the pump — not from self-interest, you understand, but only from a dispassionate concern for the ecosystem. He thus joins Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, ex-GM exec Bob Lutz, and others calling for steep gasoline taxes so that their preferred Green schemes (EVs, ethanol, biodiesel, etc.) will survive. We will see if the new Congress complies with their proposals. I rather doubt it will.

People aren’t bacteria. People consume resources, but they also produce them.

Lastly, however, I want to mention a non-material but very important effect of the fracking revolution: the creative destruction of a myth. The myth is the notion of “peak oil.” That phrase comes from the idea that any oil-producing area (be it a field, a state, or a country) will eventually reach a peak of production, then tail off, making something like a statistical bell curve.

The concept of peak oil has been around since the start of the oil era. Eminent energy analyst Daniel Yergin quotes the state geologist of Pennsylvania in 1885 as predicting that the amazing early production of petroleum was only a “temporary and vanishing phenomenon — one which young men will live to see come to its natural end.” But the notion was given a scientific patina by M. Kind Hubbard, a geologist for Shell Oil company, in an influential paper of 1956, predicting that American aggregate oil production would peak in the early 1970s, then decline forever after. It appeared that Hubbard’s theory was empirically confirmed when America’s oil production hit a peak of slightly less than 10 million barrels per day (bpd) in 1974, and started declining.

It is now clear that this theory is about to be refuted yet again. Fracking has pushed our production of oil past Saudi Arabia’s current level of 9.7 million bpd. And the International Energy Agency projects that we will overtake Russia’s production of 10.3 million bpd next year.

People still keep predicting peak oil — as Paul Krugman did in 2010, when he crowed that “peak oil has arrived.” With fracking, indeed, we will reach another peak; but very likely someone will come up with another technological improvement, maybe “smacking.” The amount of fossil fuel that lies beneath our feet is, almost surely, essentially infinite, and if it ever did reach a limit centuries from now, substitutions would be found — perhaps from the vast spread of methane hydrates that lie on the ocean floors.

The theory of peak oil is a myth, and it is just a special case of a bigger myth — Malthus’ myth. Malthus held that, sustained by resources, the members of any living species will incrp/prsquo;s federal budget. The country has had to spend $90 billion of its foreign currency reserves to stop the utter collapse of the ruble, which has already dropped in value by over a third.ldquo;minimally processedease their numbers exponentially, so that no matter how plentiful the resources, the species will soon exhaust it. So he held that while people may increase agricultural production, it will only increase arithmetically, while the population will increase exponentially, resulting sooner or later in mass starvation.

But as economist Julian Simon argued, people aren’t bacteria. People consume resources, but they also produce them. People have mouths, but they also have hands, minds, and hearts. They can find new ways of getting any resource, and new substitutions for it also, for time without end.




Share This


How the Other Half Speaks

 | 

There’s an old expression: “seeing how the other half lives.” It means looking at people who are different from you, ordinarily people who are richer, and enjoying the spectacle — cynically, perhaps, or just with a sense of humor. One of the rewards of writing this column is seeing how the other half lives in its world of words. Occasionally I get to revel in the great things once spoken or written by people who had a real mastery of language. Those people were rich in words, rich in ways of using words, and often rich in wisdom too. I’m feeling guilty, right now, that I haven’t run a column about them in quite a while. But there are other ways of being rich. One can be rich in wisdom, but one can also be rich in ignorance; and, as a good poet said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

What place did Thomas Gray have in mind when he wrote the word “where”? He may have been thinking simply of 18th-century England, where he lived, in the literal way of living; or he may have been thinking of the universal human condition, in which we all have to live. Probably both. But I like to believe that he was a true prophet and saw, far in the future, a place called 21st-century America. Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can shed all the traditional guilts and compunctions under which the ignorant long have labored, and simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby. These are the truly wealthy. The place they inhabit is like the heaven of Christ, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, nor thieves break in and steal.

One very wealthy person — not just a member of the Other Half but a member of its One Percent — is President Obama. It used to be said, even by his opponents, that Obama was a fine public speaker. Today, few of his proponents dare to make that claim. Always happy to hear his own words, Obama constantly emits them; and this compulsion has forced people to notice, not only that he is lost without his teleprompter, but also that his utterances have no memorable components. The great thing, for him, is that he doesn’t realize any of this. He hasn’t a clue. When it comes to himself, ignorance is profoundly blissful; he has no critical faculty or even the ability to recognize that other people do.

Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby.

I’m not saying this because I oppose his politics. I feel the same about the politics of President Roosevelt (both of them), President Truman, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, and the two Presidents Bush — to name a few. But there was something redeeming, if only in a minor way, about their verbal exercises. Anyone can think of interesting, though sometimes very strange, things said by the Roosevelts: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord” (TR, on his presidential campaign in 1912). Truman, in my opinion, was a terrible president, and Lyndon Johnson was worse; but their private or informal remarks were often witty and sometimes wise, if only in a cynical way. When Johnson said that he didn’t want to fire J. Edgar Hoover because he’d “rather have that s.o.b. inside, pissing out, instead of outside, pissing in,” he said something significant in an unforgettable way. Nixon had neither wit nor humor, but he did have wide interests and was capable of saying things that were actually informative. Ford and the Bushes had no literary ability at all, and their expressed intellectual interests could fit on a postage stamp, but they didn’t think they were literary geniuses. They didn’t think they were anything in that department. Their best hope was not to offend, and they seldom did.

By contrast, Obama’s only bad feeling about himself is a lingering resentment that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is impossible to think simultaneously of “Obama” and “self-doubt.” To say that Obama is self-satisfied is to judge him with insensate prejudice. Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it. His tone and body language express the continuous certainty that whatever falls out of his mouth is both momentous in its influence and fascinating in its nature. He has the naïve and wonderful self-confidence of the pampered child, because that is what he is.

A recent article by Terence Jeffrey reviewed one of Obama’s speeches and found that he used first-person pronouns 199 times. To be fair, the speech was 5,500 words long. Also to be fair, 5,500 words is a mighty long speech, unless you have something to say. So what did the president have to say?

He said, “I’m just telling the truth now. I don't have to run for office again, so I can just let her rip.” You see what I mean. He has no idea that “let her rip” is a subpresidential expression, or that even people who work in the 7-11 recognize it as such, and recognize it as a cliché. They also recognize — and the other day, while buying my two-dollar coffee, I heard some of them discussing — the idiocy of saying “I’m telling the truth now,” because it implies that you haven’t been telling the truth before. Obama is cognizant of none of this. Bless his heart, he’s happy with himself.

Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it.

Another thing he said was, “You look at our history, and we had great Republican presidents who — like Teddy Roosevelt started the National Park System, and Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, and Richard Nixon started the EPA.” It’s quaint, and kind of entertaining, to picture old President Eisenhower out there buildin’ highways, or President Nixon thinking hard and coming up with the EPA. But what struck me, outside of Barry’s childish reference to the first Roosevelt as “Teddy,” was his strange idea of grammar. As I have said before in these pages, Obama has never mastered the use of “like,” but now we see him using it in a way so ignorant that I can’t remember hearing it before, even in junior high school: “Like Teddy Roosevelt started . . .” By the way, the national parks had existed for generations before Roosevelt “started” them. But what the hell. If you don’t know that you don’t know grammar or history, you’re a happy man.

A third thing he said was, “It is lonely, me just doing stuff.” Sad, isn’t it? But no, you have to picture him saying this to a crowd of listeners at a rally. Sad, and ironic. Intelligence is often manifested not only in a knowledge of history and a familiarity with grammar but also in a sense of irony. That’s three strikes, right there. Yet he’ll never know that he struck out. Much of the fun of seeing how the Other Half lives is enjoying the complete self-assurance they show when they are saying patently ridiculous things.

And they never run out of those things. Consider a few samples from the past few weeks.

Start with lovable old Harry Reid. Spurting outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, Reid noted with disgust that it was decided by “five white men.” None of the anointed news media seems to have observed that Reid himself is (gasp!) a white man; and none was willing to mention that one of the five white men in the Court’s majority was . . . Clarence Thomas. Perhaps this indicates why Reid is able to talk with absolute self-assurance on any topic he addresses — no one to the left of the Daily Caller and National Review is willing to correct him.

Not that the rightwing media suffer from an excess of self-criticism. For me, a particularly interesting illustration was something that Michael Warren, staff writer for the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News a couple of months ago (May 11). This isn’t Sean Hannity, mind you; Hannity says bizarre things every day, and nobody on Fox seems to notice. But Warren wasn’t a popular daily offering, so you would think someone would dare to question his senseless statement that congressmen investigating the administration’s scandals shouldn’t be allowed to “go off on any conspiracy theories” but just “stick to the facts.” Now look. The scandals are about the alleged joint actions — conspiracies — of many people. What if “the facts” show that there has been a conspiracy? Oh, leave that alone! Don’t go off on that!

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about the subject.

Warren’s remark was senseless in the way in which virtually all references to “conspiracy theories” are senseless. I certainly don’t believe that Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy, but I do believe that conspiracy has a meaning and may be useful if you know that meaning. You can say the same about a lot of words that authoritative people wouldn’t dream of looking up. Why bother finding out what decimate means when you can just go ahead and use the word — as did Fox News on July 5, when reporting on pictures of “a decimated Shiite holy site.” Terrible! Someone removed one-tenth of the holiness! But it’s wonderful that Fox can quantify things in this way.

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about religion. If ignorance is ever funny, it certainly was on May 24, when Fox reported that “the Pope visited the Jordan River, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.” This message was repeated throughout the day — no correction. So I assume that nobody on active duty at Fox perceived the idiocy of the statement. It was like referring, very instructively, to Mecca as the place where many Muslims believe that Muhammed lived, or the state of Washington as the place that many Americans believe was named after a general of the Revolutionary War. Not everyone believes that Jesus was resurrected, but there’s no dispute that he was baptized, and baptized in the Jordan River. Why would there be? Where does Fox think that manyother Christiansbelieve he was baptized — the Chattahoochee?

(Please don’t write to tell me that in your opinion, Jesus never existed, and that therefore many Christians do believe he was baptized someplace besides the Jordan. That makes no sense.)

OK, enough picking on Fox (for now). Among the people most likely to be comfortable while spouting meaninglessly emphatic words are military officers, not all of whom have the literary insight of Wellington or Grant. Transcripts of officers commenting to congressional investigators about their (the officers’) role in the Benghazi affair have now been released (though redacted). These remarksare designed to show that, although commanders did little to rescue the Americans under attack at Benghazi, and told others to do less, no one was ordered to “stand down.”

This is a tough line to elucidate, but one must assume that the officers did their best. Here’s what came out. We are told that when one officer and his group were ready to proceed to Benghazi, where there was bad trouble, they were told to stay in Tripoli, “in case trouble started there.” The officer, one Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, explained that this was not a “stand down”:

“It was not a stand-down order," Gibson said. "It was not, 'Hey, time for everybody to go to bed.' It was, you know, 'Don't go. Don't get on that plane. Remain in place.'"

Thanks for clearing that one up.

And thanks to the aforesaid Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, majority leader of the Senate, for clearing up something of even greater importance, the question of whether the United States has a southern border. Currently, it appears that it does not, unless you mean by “border” a place where you go to be admitted to the United States and given free food, clothing, and shelter — at a government-estimated price of $250 to $1,000 a day — until such time as you are allowed to walk away free, with a promise to attend a deportation hearing at some time in the distant future. Strangely, few people keep such appointments — few except those whose lives are made miserable by the insanely complicated steps that are necessary to abide by the immigration laws.

Unable to think or look for themselves, they kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree.

According to Reid, however, these appearances are deceiving. Why? Because he says so. On July 16, with the border crisis at its height (for now), Reid found a microphone and announced, “The border is secure. I can tell you without any equivocation, the border is secure.” That’s it. That’s what he said. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of irony.

I can’t resist — let’s go back to Fox News. When the Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, in a region of the world where borders are taken all too seriously, Fox immediately concluded that the Russians had to be involved. Not a far-fetched conclusion. But the map on which the first two hours of the Fox analysis were based showed the plane barely penetrating the northwest border of Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from Russia or anything that thinks it’s Russia. The Foxcasters, presumably led down this path by their producers and alleged researchers, and unable to think or look for themselves, kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of its own ignorance.

On July 17, unmistakable evidence of this fact was provided by MSNBC and its researchers, producers, and anchorwoman Krystal Ball (sic). Apparently under the conviction that they know how to spot a truthteller when they hear one (consider the outfit’s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller’s claim to be a US military man attached to the embassy in Kiev, who had seen, from Kiev — that is, from about 500 miles away — the missile that shot down the Malaysian plane. Amazingly, this man turned out to be a prankster.

That was bad enough. Worse was Ms. Ball’s response. Her caller said, “Well, I was looking out the window and I saw a projectile flying through the sky and it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass.” To which Ball replied, “So it would appear that the plane was shot down. Can you tell us anything more from your military training of what sort of missile system that may have been coming from?”

The prankster paused, apparently in stupefaction, then said what we have all been wanting to say to the Other Half:

Well, you’re a dumbass, aren’t you?

But that wasn’t all. She still couldn’t quite understand what was going on. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “All right, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back with all the latest next.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Sorry for what — being a dumbass? No, that couldn’t be.

Yet speaking of people who miss the point: the author of the story I’ve been quoting and linking about this MSNBC stuff, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, never fully grokked the problem he reported on. As I keep saying, Kiev is hundreds of miles away from the place where the plane went down. That’s what anyone giving the news should figure out, right away. It would take about 20 seconds. And that’s why the prankster should have been detected, right away. But what does Wemple say about it? He turns for his opinion to the citadel of the Other Half: “As the New York Times has reported, the plane came down in an area with few structures in the vicinity, meaning that anyone claiming to have viewed all this from a window needs to be greeted with skepticism.” So if you can’t see Detroit from the Adirondacks, that’s because you don’t have a window to look out from. But by the way, there are actually windows, and buildings too, both in the Adirondacks and in the eastern Ukraine.

In conclusion: that’s how the Other Half thinks — the Other Half that is responsible for reporting and interpreting the news.

* * *

At the start of this column, I regretted not spending more time with the good things that people say or write. While completing it, I learned of the death of James Garner, an actor of great charm who appeared in many charming and witty movies and TV shows. The first of them was Maverick, an essentially comic and satiric TV western that was my delight when I was a kid. Many a Sunday night I have spent in the heights and depths of pleasure, eating my mother’s wonderful salmon cakes and watching James Garner make fools of everyone else on the little black and white TV screen. He (or his character Bret Maverick, who I like to imagine was a lot like Garner) gave me a saying that I commend to everyone who wants to understand the world, especially the world of American politics: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, and those are pretty good odds.

James Garner, rest in peace.

rsquo;s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller




Share This


Not Our Fight

 | 

Excuse me if I sound insensitive, but the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine is none of our business. It wasn’t our plane, it wasn’t our country, and it isn’t our fight. Moreover, only one passenger was remotely American (I say “remotely” because he held dual citizenship and had lived in the Netherlands since he was five). So we should just keep our noses out of this one. We don’t need to impose sanctions, beef up our military presence, or drive the price of oil down in order to destroy the Russian economy, as some have suggested.

While it is a terrible shame that anyone should be killed in an accident, that’s all this really was: an accident. What seemed to be a Ukranian military jet turned out to be a passenger plane, and the shooter pulled the trigger before making certain of the target. When our troops make that kind of mistake, we call it “friendly fire,” and because it isn’t an intentional act, we hand out some medals to the victims and let the shooter slide.

Am I the first to ask the unspoken but obvious question: Didn’t they know they were flying over a war zone? Didn’t they know that Russian separatists had been shooting down Ukranian military jets for weeks? Hours after the accident, commercial airlines began diverting their flight plans around Ukraine; a map released today shows almost no planes above that country. Seems to me they should have made that adjustment as soon as the fighting broke out in Ukraine. I’m no fan of Putin, but if I were holding anyone responsible for this terrible accident, it would be the air traffic controllers and flight plan originators who allowed commercial jets to fly over a war zone.

Again, if my remarks seem insensitive, I apologize. Not one of the people on that plane deserved to die; the grief of their families is deep, and their deaths are unwarranted. But I would rather cry over 300 people killed in an accident than worry about thousands of additional soldiers sent to police the area. This one simply isn’t our fight.




Share This


The Political Philosophy of the Crimean Crisis

 | 

I tried to resist, but I can’t. At the risk of being accused of pro-Soviet tendencies, I have to comment on a bizarre but real report in The Telegraph (March 6):

As European leaders [who else?] met in Brussels [where else?], President Barack Obama denounced plans for a referendum on whether the occupied Crimea region should join Russia as a “violation” of international law.

A violation of Ukrainian law, doubtless; but how does international law get into it? And just who is it that deliberates on international law, passes it, and provides for its amendment? Doubtless “European leaders.” So can they decide that Crimea should be part of Ukraine, despite all evidence that the majority of its population doesn’t want things that way? But to continue:

“We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he [President Obama] said.

I can’t make sense of that. Can you? Apparently, borders can be redrawn; that, in fact, is what he’s objecting to.

Now, there are strong arguments that borders should not be redrawn, no matter what. No matter what nationalisms are involved, no matter what petty religious or historical or linguistic disputes are available, the peace of Europe demands, or at least requests, that changes not take place in the continent’s frequently arbitrary borders. (I note, as I have before, that the Crimea became part of Ukraine by fiat of the Soviet dictatorship. So much for “law.”) Any people that wants to institute the kind of political changes that will bring it the blessings of prosperity would do well to drop its more exuberant forms of nationalism, accept whatever borders have been dealt to it, and think in terms of freedom for the individual, not vengeance for the ethnos.

None of this is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game.

But that’s not what Obama is saying. He’s saying, or seems to be saying, that “leaders,” who are also supposedly “democratic,” get to decide. Does that mean Putin? Apparently it must — though that’s not what Obama wants his words to mean. And how about the Ukrainian president, the one whom Ukrainian revolutionaries just kicked out? Also a democratic leader. Should he decide the fate of the Crimea? But what about the people who are being led? Do they get to say anything? No, they don’t. Not according to Obama. He wants no referendum. Does he suspect that it would be about as democratic as an election in Chicago? Or is he offended that he, the biggest of all democratic leaders, would have no say in its results?

None of this fits. None of it holds together. None of it is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game, in which the principle of legitimacy passes from “the people” to “the leaders” and back again, over and over, and where it lights is simply the place on the sidewalk where the politicians squat in a circle and play their games according to the rules they make up.

And what rules can we expect from a president who suggests, according to the same news report, that the Crimean crisis can be “resolved diplomatically in a way which would satisfy Ukraine, Russia and the international community.”

Satisfy them? Satisfy them all?




Share This


The Crimean Crisis

 | 

As readers of this journal may remember, I am not an isolationist, if “isolationist” be defined as “one who deems it immoral for the United States to use force across its borders”; but I am an isolationist if the word be defined as “one who thinks the United States should mind its own business.” To my mind, the Crimean crisis is a classic instance of a conflict about which the United States should do just that.

I am at least a mild supporter of the Ukrainian revolution, as I understand it. And I have little or no use for Vladimir Putin, as I understand him. I can understand why Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians would like to hang on to the Crimea. But I can also understand why Putin would like to get it away from them (as he virtually has, right now). It’s the location of a Russian fleet. The majority of its population speaks Russian, is Russian, and resents attempts of Ukrainian nationalists to make them speak and be Ukrainian. The Russians presumably know what can happen to dissenting nationalities when even the most “liberal” revolution heats up. And after all, the Crimea is part of Ukraine only because the old Soviet dictatorship, in an idle moment, gave it to Ukraine.

There are some reasons why the United States should not want Russia to annex the Crimea. It’s generally best for us when the Russians have an unstable base, such as Ukraine, for their military power. Even the least legitimate borders are often better than no borders at all, so it would generally be better if nationalists of every kind thought it was futile to try rearranging them. And it would be unfortunate to see a guy like Putin win.

This does not add up to a reason for us to “get tough” with Putin. It would be almost impossible to do so anyway, and expect any degree of success. President Obama may draw “lines in the sand,” but no one in the world believes what he says, even if it’s accidentally true.

So this is a good time for us to enjoy our isolationist traditions to the full. Bad things may happen; bad things undoubtedly are happening. This is to be expected wherever 19th-century European nationalism rears its head again. But that is, and must be, their problem.




Share This


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

 | 

For the world, Saturday, February 22 was a day of historic significance — a day when the government of a nation of 46 million, part of the developed world, was toppled by a revolution. Defying the arrangements of Western diplomats, who are always anxious to impose security, the people of Ukraine took possession of their capital and its citadels of power. Parliament turned on the president. The police deserted him. The army deserted him. He fled toward the border, leaving his Russian allies to determine whether they would try to reinstall his regime in a rump Ukraine of native Russian speakers. There is a chance that might happen; after all, Russophone Ukraine is merely a construct of Soviet dictators who did not care who was part of what province, so long as all were obedient to them.

We will see. In the meantime, what television audience, what television crew, could resist the spectacle? Multitudes in Kiev’s enormous central square, welcoming the archenemy of the ousted president, suddenly liberated from prison, who addressed them from her wheelchair by the light of flaring torches, on the ground where, only days before, protestors had been shot and burned alive on the barricades. Who could resist these scenes as they exploded?

The answer is: the American “news” media.

For Yahoo! News, the big stories were the popularity of hoodies in Sochi and the recapture of a “drug kingpin” in Mexico. For the more sober Google News, they were the kingpin and many other things — Ukraine was way down the list, and no effort was made to separate new stories from ones warmed over. For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases from the staffs of American politicians, out on the golf links.

For CNN (“we bring you the world”), the big stories, oft repeated, were a gay football player who remains a gay football player; a racial complaint in Mississippi; how to lose weight; replays of video footage, thought to be “viral,” about a child who might have been injured but wasn’t; and a variety of other non-news features. For Fox News, the stories were the chronic errors of President Obama, a US win at the Olympics (over 20 years ago), how to look good, and a variety of other non-news features. Both cable news networks had correspondents stationed in Kiev, but they were summoned to the camera about as often as brothers-in-law are requested to receive excess funds. After all, there wasn’t room for them, what with all the “news” that’s prearranged for weekends. When the news anchors tried to ask them questions, it immediately became obvious that the anchors had no more idea than a rabbit of what to ask. In the case of CNN, it was apparent that neither the anchor nor her producers had the least conception of what a Ukraine might be.

For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases.

As the day wore on, Fox became visibly nervous about its reputation. It dragged in a moth-eaten diplomat who vexed even the anchor with his astonishingly empty statements. Hours later, they found, of all people, Susan Estrich, who made an excellent try at saying what the historical significance and prospects of the events in Ukraine might be. The anchor clearly had no grasp of what was going on, but she was happy Susan showed up. And she was right to be.

Now, what does this all mean? It means that the gross errors and omissions of the American media cannot all be attributed to political cunning, or any cunning at all. Many of them can be ascribed to the simple fact that there are people in this business — many people — who resemble the stupid old editor whom Orson Welles’ character in Citizen Kane fires at the start of his newspaper career. He fires him because the old guy says that his paper is practically closed during a lot of the day. Kane tells him that the news happens 24 hours a day (and on weekends). To let the news be shaped by the fact that you weren’t expecting news to happen on the weekend . . . well, what kind of journalist are you?

And what kind of journalist are you if you lack any sense of drama? Not to mention any knowledge of geography. Because the loss of Ukraine blows a hole through the Russian empire.

What seems to be required in today’s newsrooms isn’t knowledge or a sense of drama but a sensitivity for the drab. Who won the hockey game. Who won the lottery. Who’s complaining that his neighbors don’t like him. Whose child is obese. Whose child is not obese. The big things. The important things.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.