Thursday, April 10, 2008

On notice: So this is the status quo?

Sifting through this week's news, several things caught my attention.

Off-the-clock in Iraq
According to in-country reports on U.S. troops' support of Iraqi forces in Basra, recently an Iraqi captain complained to an American officer that he didn't "have enough men" to neutralize opposition snipers. The American officer insisted that the Iraqis must take point, and the reluctant captain sulked off.

The U.S. platoon waited...and waited...for the Iraqis to advance. Upon asking an interpreter where the Iraqis were, the U.S. officer was told, "Oh, they went to lunch."

And we're expecting these people to "stand up"?

Breaking for lunch may be a sign of progress, I suppose, if only in comparison to the estimated 1,000 Iraqis who outright deserted in mid-battle the week before.

Homeland security, San Francisco-style
Two days before the Olympic torch was to arrive in San Francisco, and despite foreshadowing protests in France and the U.K., three demonstrators successfully scaled cables on the Golden Gate Bridge and unfurled two large pro-Tibet banners.

Bridge-management officials -- who, by the way, were eyeing closed-circuit camera feeds at the time -- said they didn't realize that the trio were about to climb the cables because they were dressed in "ordinary" clothing and concealed their gear in a baby stroller.

Sure, banners and flags are harmless and this was a peaceful protest, but...are you thinking what I'm thinking? Do I really need to say it out loud?

I didn't think so.

Latter-day rehearsal
Prompted by the pleas of a 16-year-old child bride, federal and state authorities surrounded and entered the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints "ranch" in Eldorado, Texas. So far, more than 400 FLDS women and children have been removed from the compound, ostensibly for questioning in connection with sexual-abuse and weapons charges.

I have no stomach for the FLDS's culture of misogyny, denial of free will and rampant exploitation of children. And I'm not saying that Eldorado is comparable to Waco.

Not yet, anyway.

It's worth noting, however, that authorities' actions were selective, swift and overwhelming. Largely unnoticed is the fact that this situation has created more than 400 refugees -- perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. And for those who still believe that they can fortress themselves against official intervention, Eldorado is yet another woozy canary.

Pumping the brakes
We can stop debating whether or not the U.S. economy is in recession -- obviously, we passed that marker months ago.

As former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich said this morning, recession isn't necessarily a braking zone.
"...we are going to go into 2009 with a serious recession. ... You've got food and energy prices, fuel prices going way way up. You've got wages stuck. You've got people who are losing their jobs. You've got housing prices going down. I mean, it's pretty bad."
Reich also offered this ominous observation:
"I think there's no more than 20 percent chance of a depression."
Now that's encouraging.

The pages of The Wall Street Journal and Fortune aren't good places to take the pulse of our economy, and "economic indicators" fly far too high to be useful. Likewise, one's own personal financial agony or ecstasy is too grounded, merely anecdotal.

Economic reality lies somewhere in between the analyst and the checkbook -- it resides in the collective experience of everyday American workers, the cogs in the grand economic machine.

If you work in retail, for example, what has your company been doing lately? Cutting prices or raising them? Not replacing terminated or retired workers? Asking employees to dim store lights or forgo double-bagging? How do this year's sales at your store compare to last year's numbers?

When we gather and stew that kind of real-world information, it's clear that this bubble-gum-and-string economy is headed for an unprecedented fall -- and everyone knows it.

Oh, snap!
With the possible exception of the so-called "housing crisis," the most serious financial blow to Americans is the high price of gasoline and other petro-products -- which affects, of course, the price of virtually everything else we consume.

When our government or an oil company assures us that "it could be worse," they're probably referring to gas prices in other countries. But I contend that there's something else that demands our attention, even our personal preparedness.

Take a look at this chart. The red line tracks the price of regular unleaded gas since April of 2002, and the blue line follows the price of crude oil over the same six-year period. Notice the widening gap between the two prices, especially over the last 12 months.

Commodities are elastic. Something -- either oil or gasoline -- has got to give. Will we be ready when it snaps?