March 29, 2008

On Blood & Treasure

Every couple of years, a word bops into the popular vocabulary and its usage makes me cringe. A few years ago that word was phenom. Shorthand for phenomenon, some sports writer used it to describe then-high school basketball player LeBron James. James was a young, exciting player whose ability far surpassed his age and the short, zippy phenom, with fluid but powerful first and last syllables fit well. The national press caught on and phenom was used to describe anything new and unique. First it was reserved for young athletes, then young people who seemed to possess some special quality (usually aptitude in math, science, or spelling). After a while, the word became pure buzz, sans any meaning except “new.” When I heard it used to describe a sandwich, I accepted that phenom was now just another garbage word and I let my annoyance die.

Lately, the word treasure has started to piss me off. The corruption of the word started in politics – which is not uncommon. The culprits are the Bush administration. Though I can’t pin down the exact date, a couple years ago the president uttered the phrase, “enormous loss of blood and treasure.” When I heard it, I shuddered. Blood as a substitute for human life I can take. Rather than abstract the issue of war, talking about blood in relation to casualties, while a cliché, is direct. But treasure?

Sure, money and resources can technically be treasure, but who the fuck uses treasure as a substitute? Has someone exhumed Robert Louis Stevenson and forced him to write speeches? Has someone been reading the president to sleep with Hornblower novels? Yeah, I know we have a treasury and it is logical to assume that the treasury is full of treasure, but forgive me if I picture stacks of bills when I think of treasury and not a seaman’s chest overflowing with jewels and doubloons. I know when I look at my paycheck that the government is withholding my money, not bags of rubies and bars of gold. The war is not costing us treasure. It is costing us money and a lot of it – 500 billion, 1 trillion, or 3 trillion depending on who is counting – much more than will fit in a treasure chest, the obvious tool of measure when you are talking about treasure. If the amount of money we are referring to when we talk of “blood & treasure” cannot fit into a treasure chest, than perhaps it is better to substitute the word treasure for the phrase one hell of a fucking debt that will assure that your grandchildren will be speaking Mandarin in Asian sweatshops, indentured to the People’s Republic of China who now owns the mortgage of the United States of America.

That the Bushies would use treasure as a stand in for how much money they’ve wasted on the war shows how deluded and disconnected they are from reality. While I am always happy to see proof that these people are living in fantasyland, it is important that we not break from what is real. Treasure is a word of fiction. It is a word that kids use at play. It is something you make maps to lead you to. It is why you dig up the backyard. Treasure is not a word that rational people in the adult world of public policy use. A parent whose child has died in the war does not want to hear that along with their son’s life, a lot of treasure was lost. Not unless they are in a cartoon and they are being told that by an animated dog president named George W. Ruff.

I suppose that Iraq’s oil could be defined as treasure, but only if we admit that we are buccaneers out to steal their resources. I’ll also grant that the search for WMDs was indeed a treasure hunt. But, still, sober, serious minded people do not use the word treasure in reference to something as serious as the Iraq War. Let’s leave the word to kids playing pirate.

If the Bushies (and now presidential candidates and pundits) want to keep using the word treasure instead of money, fine, but they better adopt all of the pirate’s oeuvre. I want to see them in pantaloons with a patch over one eye and a parrot on the shoulder. I want them to start saying things like, “It’s time for the scallywag al-Sadr to sit or walk the plank!” and “Those mortgage hornswagglers will soon be feeding the fish!” I want them to address the nation with “Avast ye citizens…” and start every sentence with “Arrrrggghhhh!” Most of all, I want them to start talking to us about booty. Please, please, please, tell us how much booty this war is costing us. Because, really, when we batten down the hatches and talk to each other sea dog to sea dog, life really is all about booty.

March 13, 2008

A Short Econ Lesson

I feel compelled to lay some economics on you. It is something that should be taught to every high school student, because it is an essential piece of our economy. However, what I am about to tell you is not general knowledge. And there is no reason why it should not be, as it is very, very easy to understand. That piece of hidden economics is that the currency in which a barrel of oil is measures is the US dollar. Okay, you might know that. You probably also know that how much we pay for a barrel of oil is based on how much oil producers charge us for that barrel. But did you also know that that final price tag is also determined by the value of the dollar. Thus, because oil is measured in dollars, every time the value of the dollar drops, the cost of oil goes up, not globally, but to those who use US dollars to buy oil. That is the little secret.

"What about Europe?" you ask, "Aren't they paying eight bucks for a gallon for gas.*" Well, technically they are, but if you convert that eight bucks to euros, they are paying about 5.4 euros per gallon. Two years ago they were paying about 5.1 euros a gallon. That two year price hike is little more than 1%. We are paying about 40% more than we did two years ago.**

While it is convenient for politicians of both parties to blame OPEC and say that they are "going to hold the Saudis accountable," the truth is that as long as the dollar is weak, not only will oil prices be high, but every other thing that is produced outside the US and imported for us to use will be more expensive. Yes, things like electronic equipment and clothing will be pricier. But that isn't all: Food prices will also climb (as they have been). Why? Over the last twenty years, we've become a major food importer. Many of our fruits, vegetables, and grains are imported. As a result, when the dollar's value drops, food prices go up.
Why is the dollar so weak? Well, there is no single answer (and if there was economists would come up with a rival theory). However, it is safe to say that the national debt, fighting a three trillion dollar war and funding it on credit, and the mess caused by deregulation of the financial services industry have some blame. Sober headed economists look at US fiscal policy and shake their heads, just as rational diplomats look at our foreign policy and wonder what the fuck we are doing. I think the cause is pretty easy to figure out. The solution? Not so easy, but I know one thing for sure, it ain't staying the course. Unfortunately, everything I hear from our presidential candidates avoids any of the stuff I just rattled off.

* First off, I know that Europeans measure gas in liters, but for sake of argument I am measuring in gallons. Second, they do pay about double what what pay for gas, but not for oil. A big percentage of what they pay at pump is taxes, taxes which go toward social services. They also drive cars that average 40 mph.

** If you adjust for inflation, we are actually paying about the same amount for a gallon of gas as we were in the early 1980s. What has gone up isn't the value of oil or gas, but inflation - something we have been brainwashed to believe that never happens any more, at least now until recently.

March 8, 2008

Sick Leave

I've took ill with that damn flu bug that is going around. Which one? I dunno, maybe the Siamese pig flu or the East Appalachian virus no. 2. Who knows... I'm feeling well now, but a couple weeks down put me behind. I should have a new post next week so check back.