Monday, December 29, 2008

predictions for the year 2009

One of the most wonderful and most frustrating characteristics of my friend Sharon Astyk is her seemingly inexhaustible ability to write good stuff. I have, on many occasions, been moved to write about a particular world event only to surf over to her website and see that she has already written about it as well or better than I would have been able to, and hours or sometimes days before I get the chance. I have a theory that there are actually three of her making the rest of us look bad.

I had planned to do a list of predictions for 2009 in large part because I think the year ahead will be so damn nutty it’ll be interesting to look back and see the difference between my thinking in December of 2008 and my thinking come December 2009. Then Sharon went and published her predictions for 2009 and after reading them writing mine was like trying to write music while listening to it; it was just so hard not to simply agree and add, “Yeah, what she said.” So definitely read her predictions but let me add a prediction post albeit very similar in vein. By the way I was planning to call this post, ‘no the world really is round’ as a way of poking a little fun at the Thomas Friedman book, _The World is Flat_ but it seems that James Kunstler beat me to that punch with some predictions of his own- also worth a read. Here goes.

1. 2009 will be the year when citizens of the United States begin to seriously question beliefs that until recently were widely held and never questioned. Perhaps one of these conventional beliefs to be challenged will be the idea that we aren’t simply consumers but are in fact citizens. But I think this challenge of the status quo will play out most evidently in the questioning of economic growth. The credit crisis is and will continue to play out with real consequences in the lives of ordinary Americans. We got drunk. We’re bound to be hung over for a while but as we begin to investigate how we got so drunk in the first place we’re bound to question the people who brought the punch to the party or at very least check the punchbowl for the smell of liquor and ask ourselves if we real do in fact need to spike the punch going forward. I’m not suggesting we’ll move seamlessly into a steady state economy but I think asking questions about recently unquestioned aspects of our society will be much more acceptable and widespread and growth economics will be seriously questioned.

2. We will see food-related violence next year. One of the ways I expect the credit crisis to play out is more farmers forced out of business and long food supply lines broken. I’m certainly not hoping this happens but it’s likely that 2009 will be the year we see if not full fledged food riots then at least a certain number of incidences in which hungry people get mad and break stuff and possibly hurt other people. The growing number of unemployed Americans will add to this trouble. Last June in Milwaukee fights broke out amongst people waiting for food aid and this past November more than 40,000 people showed up to glean food from a farm outside of Denver. The farm was expecting 5,000 to 10,000. It was quickly overwhelmed. Unfortunately I think we’re going to see more of this and when people show up to such events hungry, we’re likely to see violence take place.

3. Shortages of goods which were previously very accessible to you and your family will no longer be readily available. This is a tricky one and I’m definitely taking the easy way out by not suggesting which goods or when. The truth is my crystal ball is cracked but I do think we’ll all go to the store at least once next year only to find that Mal-Wart is out of toaster ovens and doesn’t know when they’ll have more or local grocery store can’t get baby formula for a while. I don’t think all or even most of these shortages will be permanent but it will be a shock to Americans used to buying whatever they want whenever they want it so long as they have the money. Of course commerce like that on ebay or craiglist with people selling used microwaves or stockpiles of baby formula might help to fill such needs. I believe people are already selling used stuff for money. I know wee’re about to sell a spare bicycle. With between 10 and 26% of all US retailers in danger of bankruptcy I’m just guessing will see less stuff available in retail stores.

4. President Barack Obama will not save us. I voted for Obama. And yes we need a change. But I think George W Bush is handing him such an extraordinarily bad situation that Obama would need real superpowers to “fix” things. I’m not talking about Xray vision or the ability to calm jittery squirrels, I’m talking *real* superpowers like the ability to fix the housing crisis in a single bound and I think that’s asking to much of him. Plus I’m not sure he understands what “fixing” things really means. Is he yet questioning growth economics? Based on what he said at his press conference to announce his pick for Sec. Of Agriculture he doesn’t seem to understand food. I keep hearing, “a new direction” but does he even have a map let alone a compass? I’m starting to hear people, arguably the more pessimistic among us, talk about him holding our hand and gently helping us to get used to living with less. Perhaps that’s all he’ll be able to do. Perhaps that’s all we can ask of him; to keep us out of a dictatorial response to the upheaval bound to be apart of his first four years. Maybe he’ll surprise me.

5. Things will get crazy, I mean bat shit crazy. Ok so you’re thinking, “What kinda prediction is that?” And this prediction kind of goes along with prediction number 1 that people will really question basic assumptions in the coming year. But I’m guessing that volatility will lead to some strange stuff in 2009. This is really just a prediction that next year will be a lot like the past few months. I’ve read things I like to categorize as “Cats and Dogs Living Together” which is my own personal category for things that make you go Hmmm? They might be good. Obama might rip up the White House lawn and put in a Victory Garden. Or they might be bad like Gulf Stream currents shutting down. I admit this one is more a gut feeling but I’m guessing aliens will land or something similar in the coming year.

6. The price of oil will spike. Demand destruction just cannot alone explain the huge drop in the price of oil. Once deleveraging works its way out of the market place we’ll see a quick spike in the price of oil. I’ll go out on a limb and say $80/barrel oil again by October of 2009. This dramatic rise in price might not happen until early 2010 but what the heck. I’ll call it for the fourth quarter of next year.

7. Which is about the time the stock market will reach a low of somewhere in DOWJ 5000 territory. I’m not suggesting this is the absolute bottom. And many people are predicting an Obama bump come January. We are, after all, likely to see a stimulus package as part of the early Obama presidency. If it’s like the last one though it won’t prove up to the task. Oh and as a sidenote I predict that people will be mad as hell when they realize that last year’s stimulus “rebate” was really a loan on this year’s tax return. Surprise!

8. I’d like to end this on a more optimistic note but it is with all sincerity that I suggest this last prediction. A growing sense to community will build in town and cities and neighborhoods all over this country. We won’t all be singing Kumbaya and holding hands and roasting marshmallows but I do think the citizens of the US will step up to the best of their abilities and try to take care of each other. One of the post-Katrina stories that struck me was that of several Duke University students who just got in a car and drove to New Orleans to help in the wake of that disaster. They even had to sneak in posing as journalist. They saw a need and met it and we are all capable of doing that too. Personally I lost my day job several weeks ago. I was the sole bread winner (and baker) for the family. It was amazing how people responded. All sorts of offerings from gift cards to baby sitting just poured in from friends and family. My wife and I saw this coming. I won’t say we’re ready to face an almost total switch to the informal economy but we’re in fine shape. I share this and the example of the Duke students to suggest that inside almost all of us is the want- the need to be useful and to help others. We will be a more impoverished nation next December but that doesn’t mean we can’t express our capacity for compassion, generosity and caring along with the other positive emotions that quite frankly I don’t think we’ve had much of an outlet for in recent years. Or at least we have much acted like it.

2009 will be a tough, exciting and intense year. I wish all of you the luck, joy and strength.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

change i can believe in?

Nope. President-Elect Obama has chosen Tom Vilsack to be the next US Secretary of Agriculture. I expected to be let down by Obama at some point but I didn't expect him to kick me squarely in the crotch a month before he's even installed as our next president. Perhaps Vilsack will use Monsanto's private jet to travel to the inauguration. Obama said he wants to ensure that,
the policies being shaped at the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence- peddlers, but family farmers and the American people.
He said this out of one side of his mouth while announcing a lawyer with close ties to big agrobizness as Secretary of Agriculture out of the other. Vilsack is apparently the man for the job in part because,
he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.
Which is a way of saying that Vilsack supports using genetically modified organisms in our food system and it means the President-Elect does not understand biofuels. But what angered me the most though was this little section.
When President Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture nearly a century and a half ago, he called it the people's department, for it meant -- it was meant to serve the interests of those who lived off the land.
This is the part where you imagine Lincoln cursing from his grave. Obama says he read Micheal Pollan's NYT open letter to the next Farmer in Chief that ran in October. He must have read it upside down or backward or perhaps he had it translated by the head of marketing for Monsanto.

I can only speculate that Obama selected this former governor of Iowa as a thank you for the result of that state's caucus. Or maybe he really thinks that, "
Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oilfields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home."

Here's a word of caution for the President-Elect. The citizens of the US have a much lower level of patience and less tolerance for bullshit after eight years of being blatantly lied to. You have a very short window in which to make some of the Change you've been promising. We're not going to tolerate the promise of Change followed by such obvious refusals to break with the kinds of decisions that got us into this mess. Get it in gear or you're likely to loose the support of those of us really ready to make change but mistrustful and cynical after 30 years of misinformation and inaction. Help us to make change. We are ready.