National Bank of Canada raises odds on U.S. recession

It should be no surprise, really. As the gap between rich and poor has grown, and housing prices have continued to escalate, it can only be a matter of time before houses simply get too expensive. I keep pointing to San Francisco, where I understand the median price for a home is $800,000 and the annual income needed to qualify for a mortgage is $170,000 — well into upper class territory. Of course, San Francisco is an expensive market. But $9 per hour jobs won’t pay rent even in Indianapolis.

According to a story in the National Post, the National Bank of Canada has raised its estimate of the odds of a U.S. recession to 40%, “in the wake of further evidence this past week that the U.S. housing market is going from boom to bust, including a much-steeper-than-expected drop in home sales and a surge in the inventory of unsold homes on the market.” Home prices are important because many consumers finance their spending using the equity they’ve accumulated in their homes — lower prices even for homes not on the market mean less money to spend.

In another story, “Home Depot Inc. is stepping up its share repurchases as Wall Street grows more cautious on home-goods companies in light of higher energy costs and weakening U.S. home sales.”

The trouble I have with all this is that my father forecast a housing bust 40 years ago. It didn’t happen. And even to the extent that there have been pauses in the upward marches of prices, they have been short-lived. In the mid-1970s, we rented a two-bedroom flat on Laurel Hill, in San Francisco for $275 per month. It’s getting hard to find a storage space for that, now. Even the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 failed to dampen prices for long.

That said, Michael Zweig writes in the July-August issue of the Monthly Review that the working class makes up 62% of the U.S. labor force. These are “white-collar bank tellers, call-center workers, and cashiers; blue-collar machinists, construction workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, nurses, and home-health-care workers.” They do not control “the pace or content of their work” and have no “supervisory control over the work lives of others.” With low and unstable incomes, many of them have little prospect of ever being able to afford a home.

The case for a continued rise in housing prices requires that we understand just exactly whom these houses will be sold to. I don’t have that answer; the evidence I see is that there will be fewer and fewer such people.

This raises some soul-searching questions. Americans are being confronted with evidence–whether they choose to recognize it or not–that they cannot be “the shining city on the hill,” entitled to dominate the rest of the world. And at home, they increasingly cannot even afford the classic “American dream” of home ownership. We are building a new class of serfs in a weakening economic base that cannot sustain imperial adventures.

People sometimes react violently when their worldviews are fundamentally challenged. And the U.S. has the largest stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction–including nuclear weapons–of any nation in the world.

The world is indeed a more dangerous place. But not because of terrorism.

Pluto not done yet

There are serious issues with the vote taken by the International Astronomical Union to demote Pluto to a “dwarf planet,” according to the BBC. The controversy may only be heating up.

The crucial criterion adopted is that a planet must have cleared the space in its orbit. “If Neptune had cleared its zone, Pluto wouldn’t be there,” said Dr. Alan Stern, who leads the US space agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern points out that a small minority of astronomers remained in Prague for the final vote and “that Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have also not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.”

My feeling is that Pluto doesn’t make the grade. If Pluto is a planet, then “[b]y the end of the decade, we would have had 100 planets, and I think people would have said ‘my goodness, what a mess they made back in 2006’,” said Professor Iwan Williams, the IAU’s president of planetary systems science.

The real issue here is whether planets should be seen as somehow special and granted some form of exalted status. If they should, then Pluto probably shouldn’t be a planet. But if the whole idea is just pathetically oversimplistic, then perhaps we should ditch the current concept of planets altogether. It may be that like race–academically accepted as a social rather than a biological concept–the idea of planets can never be satisfactorily defined.

Expanding the back door draft

According to the BBC, up to 2,500 inactive reservists–who normally train one day a year–may now be recalled to active duty, to serve in the imperial Marine Corps. The authorization expires when the vaguely defined War on Terror ends. According to Deutschewelle, “Up to 2,500 marines will be brought back at any one time, but there is no cap on the total number of marines who may be forced back into service. The call-ups will begin in the next several months.”

I have my TECO back

I know, you don’t get it. None of my friends understand.

But you see, I entered the computer programming world a long time ago on DEC PDP-11 systems running RSTS/E. And the real text editor was TECO, this completely overblown excuse for a text editor that was so incredibly powerful that I swore I could start World War III using it, if I had to.

It wasn’t just a text editor. It was a programming language. And it had full access to operating system calls. It was, by any rational standards, completely ridiculous. But everyone who really edited text files–and in those days, everything was either in text or in binary–used TECO.

And I’ve never, ever gotten as proficient with vi or vim as I was with TECO. And don’t even mention that monstrosity known as emacs. I have been missing my TECO for a very, very long time.

Somebody understands. TECO is now available for Linux and Mac OS X. There is a port for FreeBSD. Now I just have to figure out how to get it going on OpenBSD. And, um, since it’s been over twenty years since I last used TECO, remember what I’ve long forgotten.

But even as the rest of the world follows an uneven path to hell in a handbasket, I have my TECO. And no, I don’t plan to start World War III; the neoconservatives are already working on that. But they don’t have TECO.

Why I have to go to Canada to get the news

It just got a little harder to hate Bill Gates. The evil he perpetrated with Windows is undeniable. But then there’s this:

Authorities must lose their distaste for prostitutes, premarital sex and drug addicts and give women more power over their own health to effectively combat AIDS the world’s “public enemy No. 1,” Bill Gates and others argued as a huge AIDS conference kicked off Sunday.

He wasn’t the only one saying it, but the story makes clear that he and his wife did say it.

An unwanted truce

Mysteriously absent from the proceedings is Condoleezza Rice, whom many predicted would fail to negotiate peace in the war between Hezbollah and Israel. A war, by the way, over a small portion of land known as the Shebaa Farms.

Israel considers it part of the Golan Heights, which it illegally annexed. The Shebaa Farms lie along a disputed border between Lebanon and Syria very near but not immediately at the northern boundary of Israel.

According to the Middle East Report, by the way, Hezbollah claims that the two Israeli soldiers it captured, that rationalized Israel’s air attacks and invasion, were on Lebanese territory. Apparently, Israel’s occupation of the Shebaa Farms is the rationale for Hezbollah’s existence.

The fact of a truce, negotiated through the United Nations, is interesting. The United States ambassador to the UN is John Bolton, infamous as a hardline neoconservative. My belief is that neither side really wants this truce.

Hezbollah claims it was winning the war, and it certainly doesn’t appear that the Israelis were winning despite overwhelming conventional superiority. Israel may have found a face-saving way out. But if the real aim is Syria and Iran, the Middle East Report has argued that neoconservatives want a war sooner rather than later; Iran, they believe, is developing nuclear weapons, and they want the war to happen before Iran succeeds.

The one safe statement that can be made is that this story isn’t over.

Support our troops

As I was driving down the road today, I noticed a new car — still with paper plates — that already had a “Support Our Troops” sticker on it. It struck me as odd that “support[ing] our troops” has come to mean putting them in harm’s way, with inadequate armor, and under false pretenses, then leaving them there, among a hostile population determined to evict them. Meanwhile, a professor relayed to me a whisper that if the Bush administration should seek to redeploy American troops from Iraq — where they’re now largely ineffective amid a widening civil war and a de facto partitioning of the country — some forces might fire missiles at the runway, effectively trapping them. That would increase the difficulty of implementing any neoconservative plans for a wider war in the Middle East.

Condoleezza Rice now claims to be seeking a lasting cease fire in Lebanon; this, of course, is tantamount to seeking no agreement at all. It is an effort doomed to failure, and an effort even Rice surely knows is doomed to failure. This will, in effect, amount to a provocation, which will lead to further provocations, eventually offering the neoconservatives their excuse.

My professor wonders where they’ll get the troops. The United States, after all, is already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan. But given sufficient provocation, it might just be that, in a “national emergency,” they can reinstitute the draft. There were rumors about this, vigorously denied at the time, prior to the 2004 election, with a lot of question, even then, about how the U.S. could find sufficient manpower to sustain its current military adventures, let alone maintain readiness for any additional contingencies. It’s also important to remember that the U.S. has troops stationed around the world, including some remaining in Cold War deployment patterns; some of these troops could undoubtedly be made available, particularly with indefinitely extended enlistments.

The Middle East Report (MER) notes that Russia and China now will be quite happy to let the U.S. (further) overextend itself; they are unlikely to get involved in the present conflagration. If the MER is right, we can expect to see very little grandstanding from either power, even as the U.S. redeploys troops to the Middle East.

One thing that won’t happen is United Kingdom support for this new and bolder adventure. What I’m seeing from United Kingdom and Irish news media is opposition even within the Labor Party to Tony Blair’s failure to call for an immediate cease fire. The Irish and the Scots have refused U.S. planes shipping bunker buster bombs to Iraq permission to land for refueling; these planes have had to stop in England. The Scots are hopping mad, promising a more peace-oriented foreign policy when they achieve full independence. Meanwhile, look for Blair to be sacked as prime minister soon. And I’m betting that his successor chooses a harder line against U.S. imperialistic adventures; there are plenty of Brits fed up with longstanding British government acquiescence to Washington, D.C.

After all, the British have faced their own bloodletting in Iraq, thanks to Blair’s lapdog approach to President Bush, and from what I hear, they hear a lot more about their casualties (as do the Canadians about casualties in Afghanistan), then we do about U.S. casualties. The conservative line will be much harder to sustain in many places around North America and Europe.

So if my forecast of a wider war in the Middle East actually comes off, the U.S. seems headed for some real humiliation — unless they go nuclear. Could it happen? I don’t know. But I do know that neoconservatives have a real problem with self-delusion; Truth with a capital-T sooner or later must come up against a reality check.

And more troops in for ever longer tours of duty mean more crimes against humanity — as if a wider war wasn’t enough of one already.