The Dirty Hands of 2020’s Black Swan

  • Posted: June 2, 2022
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As we look toward November, the pattern of the upcoming elections seems clear, perhaps too clear. Barring the appearance of a black swan, as the hand of God is called today, the Republican Party seems poised to have a very good election, continuing an electoral pattern stretching back for some decades. One party, the Democrats in 2020, captures the White House only to have their rhetoric meet reality, which disappoints even as it enrages.

Two years later, the other party sweeps to victory as the electorate rues their choice, buyer’s remorse writ large. That is of course unless the Universe intervenes, a gas bubble of perturbation in the ether – aka the black swan.

Two decades ago, in 2002, this ominous bird of cheerless plumage in the form of the Twin Towers delivered the Bush Administration from repudiation. The mid-term election of 2002, rather than damping the ambitions of George W. Bush’s neocon coterie, delivered the stamp of approval for their desired invasion of Iraq. And so the black swan’s appearance in 2001 midwifed the mirage of “Mission Accomplished” on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. As so often the case, the appearance of the black swan is a bird ill omened.

Understanding this dynamic the political brain trust behind the faces elected, zookeepers we might call them, in their desperation to escape electoral reckoning sometimes take a turkey, spraying it with liberal coats of black paint, attempting to bring forth a fateful swan when fate fails to provide one. In 2016, the Russian Interference Hoax birthed by the Clinton campaign seeking an Obama 3rd term certainly gobbled loudly even before the black paint washed off.

One suspects this also to be the genesis of the Dobbs Affair, that spiteful leak by a renegade dogsbody of the pending Supreme Court opinion reversing Roe v Wade. The election of 2022 is looking to be very Deplorable. Even as the fantasies of Upper West Side and Bay Area Adorables enabled by the election of 2020 have proven catastrophically perverse, the very gods of fate dealt progressive office holders a very bad hand of cards. As ominous clouds of inflation, war and a resurgent common sense gather in an almost unprecedented storm front, the zookeepers of “wokedom” appear to be chasing turkeys and spraying black paint with abandon.

Perhaps the zookeepers’ efforts will be rewarded. The cry of “My body! My choice!” has been a reliable rallying cry bringing all those smart college educated suburban women to the ramparts, armies of crusading warriors storming the ballot box to battle the forces of the misogynistic Patriarchy. Or it might be that the experience of actually having their own children coupled with the shock of filling their “mom-mobiles” at the gas pump might this time disappoint, as their aging ardor for their ephemeral yet increasingly costly “rights” might fall victim to the quotidian rhythms of motherhood.

While the prosperous white progressives leading the Democratic Party have earned a well deserved shellacking, their opponents have given little reason for enthusiasm at the prospect of their likely majority. Over the past eighteen months, Republicans and their fellow travelers (Joe Manchin & Kyrsten Sinema) have had their “Horatio at the Bridge” moments, but standing athwart history yelling “Stop” has little promise for the future.

And while Joe Biden has both proven once again the need for mandatory retirement policies at the same time as he advances the cause of those advocating involuntary sequestration of the aged, the Republicans remain in thrall to a similarly aged egotist of failing capacities.

Over two years ago, we witnessed the appearance of a true black swan, Covid. It was my thought that the Covid Interregnum would initiate a slow motion train crash with a long line of freight cars piling into each other and tumbling from the tracks. That was not a particularly insightful thought, simply a lifelong experience of reality, the modern world of energy, of factories and logistics coupled with an intuitive understanding that comes with dirty hands.

Sadly, neither this experience nor intuitive understanding is a part of those who lead, inform and influence us. Lawyers, journalists, academics, “influencers on Pinterest and Tik Tok” and even the denizens of the fabled “tech world” are innocent of this experiential awakening. Who among them has dirtied their hands in simple labor of any consequence? While dirty hands may be washed clean, the brain retains its patina.

For better or worse, we, the Baby Boomers, have done our best to protect our children from this experiential awakening, allowing them to retain a child’s innocence of the dirty realities. My own children are members of the meritocracy, ensconced in the “Knowledge Economy”. They have had no need to get their hands “dirty”. As a “responsible” parent, I encouraged that outcome and remain thankful (?) of its reality, but the flip side of Joni Mitchell’s signature ballad reminds that “when something is gained, something is lost”.

For many in my own generation it was not always so. One of my teenage memories is of a late winter day in thigh high rubber boots, standing in liquid manure up to my knees in our cattle corral. Granted, the liquid manure was not that deep as my knees are a rather low bar. My Dad was using the loader to bring in bales of straw for me to spread out in the brown slurry allowing the cattle a place to lay down on islands of straw bedding in the lake of freezing muck.

As the morning wore on, my mom brought out a snack. I can still remember how good that ham sandwich tasted as I stood in that lagoon, splattered all over with brown stuff as my body’s cooling sweat became a bitter chill. That freezing brown stuff splashed on my body has long since washed away, but its mark on my spirit remains.

Being removed from the world of work and writing a blog of little consequence for well over a decade now has allowed me insight into the world of lawyers, journalists, academics, “influencers on Pinterest and Tik Tok” and denizens of the “tech world”. The rules of the marketplace continue to work, but the logic of its machinery is a human logic, immune to the workings of Murphy and thermodynamics.

My experience of actually doing things in the world of Isaac Newton, Murphy and God loses its reality, growing ever fainter as the years pass. I forget how it is. As our reality becomes the bubble created by human logic and words, we tend to forget that our “bubble of experience” is only a parasite, a symbiote on reality. Perhaps a bird, an oxpecker, on the back of reality’s rhinoceros.

H.G Wells in his book, The Time Machine, provided a great metaphor for the circumstances of our own time with his vision of the Eloi and the Morlocks. He imagined the human race evolving in the far future into two separate races of humans. The Eloi lived in the light of day, artists and artisans living in an Eden of plenty, while the other race, the Morlocks, lived in the dark, gnomes of the underground with hands dirty from the work necessary to maintain the hedonistic lifestyle of the Eloi. Today, we have the Adorables, the Eloi Knowledge Workers who practice the arts, living in a luxurious infrastructure built and maintained by invisible people with dirty hands, the Morlocks.

During the Time of Covid our civilization’s train piled into a masked lockdown of monumental proportions, a train wreck wreaking havoc, sequencing over time down the entire line of rail cars. Long after the engine piled into the rocks, the cars in the train continue to go off the tracks as the shock wave works its way down the line. The War in the Ukraine is simply another railcar tumbling off the tracks, but its wreckage accentuates the destruction caused by those preceding it off the track.

One of the larger bubbles of human logic of which I spoke earlier, inflated to zeppelin size, perhaps a Hindenburg as yet unsparked, is the environmental movement. All three houses of government, the executive, legislative and judicial have been of one accord in pumping up this particular balloon. Over nearly five decades the list of enabling actions is nearly endless, but all are simply clauses and paragraphs in a single omnibus legislation creating a bubble we might name “The Attorney’s and Psuedo-Sciences Full Employment Act”.

In this particular bubble, the Eloi have been relentless in piling added burdens on the back of the Deplorable Morlocks powering this Eden of the Adorable Eloi. The Eloi, living in their bubble of human imagination have long since lost their grip on reality, believing themselves eagles flying free rather than parasites pecking at lice in the folds of reality’s rhinoceros.

But now as the railroad cars twist and crumple in the aftermath of the Covid Interregnum, their bubble is in danger of rapidly deflating, the conceit of their imagined autonomy shown for what it is, a phantasm born of human hubris. Germany’s windmills are shown to be a dilettante’s indulgence as Russia’s threatens to shut off its natural gas. It turns out that spending trillions of deficit dollars causes inflation. Supply chain crackups show the hazard inherent in global manufacturing strategies driven by the spreadsheet optimization of cube dwelling consultants. The need for people with “dirty hands” drives the pay for truck drivers higher than computer programmers. Even those infants escaping the abattoirs of Planned Parenthood face threats anew with  formula shortages.

Returning to the reality of that remembered corral with knee deep liquid manure. Each spring that manure, and the straw added to create slurry from soup, would be spread on cropland to fertilize it. All crops, even the artisanal, organic, certified fair trade and sustainable kind, need fertilizer to grow.

It is said that the world supports nearly 8 billion people, with 5 billion of them living in cities. Five billion people living in cities require a lot of bread or rice or potatoes. All of this foodstuff must have fertilizer, that brown slurry direct from the corral or the alternative source most prevalent throughout human history, the village chamber pot. Even those non-racist grains free from the colonial taint of imperial western exploitation such as quinoa, bulgur, millet, fonio, etc. need fertilizer.

But the logistics of feeding 5 billion city dwellers (and most of the 3 billion suburban/backwoods others) requires much more efficient and effective means than spreading manure. Manmade nitrogen fertilizer and strip mining of phosphates are what has enabled billions of human beings to escape the starvation and famine otherwise a certainty because of their numbers and urbanization.

The fact that much of the world’s phosphates come from Russia is a bit of a problem – back to those derailing rail cars. But I imagine our Adorable masters will turn a blind eye to Russian phosphates, just as they do for Chinese lithium and other rare earths. I am sure it only a coincidence that the Russian ruble, the pariah of the world’s community, is currently one of the world’s strongest currencies. Its anomalous strength in the face of widespread sanctions has to be a meaningless anomaly rather than the result of the virulent inflation in commodity prices.

But while phosphates are a “natural” substance, nitrogen fertilizer is actually a chemical, one of that pernicious class of substances journalists, activists, marketing executives and gender studies Wiccans commonly accuse of poisoning Mother Earth. Nitrogen fertilizer is most commonly some form of ammonia.

To produce the quantities of ammonia necessary to prevent the starvation of billions of humans requires great numbers of those grotesque industrial structures spewing poison over the countryside with the innocently naïve name – “process plant”. Ammonia is created in the Haber-Bosch process, whereby natural gas is partially oxidized to create hydrogen, then combined with nitrogen under very high pressures and temperatures to manufacture ammonia.

Natural gas, another of those rail cars going off the tracks. The price of natural gas in the United States has been bouncing around between $1.50 to $2.50 for the past 15 years. The price is now nearing $9.00, a four to five fold increase. As Russian tensions with NATO continue to escalate, Europe is almost totally dependent on natural gas for reliable electrical generation. The European Community has no alternative but to buy liquified natural gas putting long term upward pressure on natural gas prices from a large and wealthy buyer with no alternative but to pay any price necessary.

As nitrogen fertilizer is simply another form of natural gas, we might expect the price of fertilizer, already sky high, to continue to move upward. As the price of basic foodstuffs moves with the price of nitrogen fertilizer which moves with the price of natural gas, those suburban birthing persons that have been heretofore a stalwart pillar of support for all those nice progressive people mouthing kindergarten philosophies will continue their unhappy experiences from the gas pump at the grocery store.

But what is simply a tightening of the belt for America’s Adorables is another thing entirely for those peoples living on the edge. Hungry people are angry people, angry people that are a powder keg under governments around the world. Sitting on a powder keg in an environment of flying sparks, governments seeking to remain governments usually resort to demonizing scapegoats with predictable results for world peace. One more future rail car derailment.

The other thing about nitrogen fertilizer, whether brown slurry or liquid ammonia, is that it needs to be transported, transported in vehicles overwhelmingly powered by diesel engines. Bringing food from the countryside to the city for 5 billion people also requires a lot of transportation and a lot of diesel fuel. A mitigating factor is that while the price of natural gas has gone up 5x, the price of crude oil has only risen by a bit over 2x, from around $45/bbl to $110/bbl.

We are still in a bit of shock from our pump price for gasoline rising from $2.25/gal to over $4/gal. But then there is that other fuel pump at the station. In another unconscious bow to the ubiquity of irony, the diesel fuel pump that all those folks with “dirty hands” and their garish pickups use is a green one. While the price of gasoline hovers around $4.50/gal, the price per gallon for diesel is $6/gal and climbing. Gasoline & diesel fuel used to be almost equal. No more.

The diesel engine powers all those trucks on our highways, filling up the Amazon warehouses and then emptying them to deliver our packages. Virtually all of those tractors on American farms, even the organic ones growing heirloom varietals, use diesel fuel.

Joe Biden was given a standing ovation upon taking office within the bubble dominated by lawyers, journalists, academics, “influencers on Pinterest and Tik Tok” and denizens of the “tech world.” In his administration’s first act, the Keystone Pipeline was killed once more while his administration has continued to strive for the extinction of pipelines as a species. But in one of those “ha ha” ironies lost in that particular bubble, those actions create pressure on diesel prices even as Uncle Joe “jawbones” the greedy corporate world for lower prices.

Much of the crude oil that would have been transported by those pipelines never built now moves by rail car. Pipeline pumping stations use electrical power, even “renewable” power, but rail cars are pulled by engines using – you guessed it – diesel fuel.

So why has diesel fuel increased by so much more than gasoline, or even jet fuel? As an aside, diesel fuel and jet fuel are very similar products, but jet fuel has mirrored the rise in gasoline rather than the much steeper escalation in diesel fuel.

Diesel fuel, in the United States, is a much more highly refined product than either gasoline or jet fuel. As a more highly refined product, it requires even more of those nightmarish refining facilities that blight the landscape, spewing poison on nearby communities disproportionately populated by residents self-identifying as BIPOC.

In the Adorable pursuit of the Absolute, the modern secular equivalent of St. Augustine’s pursuit of spiritual purity, diesel fuel in the United States is now “Ultra-low sulfur diesel” known as ULSD. ULSD requires a very severe refining process that is prodigious in its use of hydrogen. Surprisingly enough, the hydrogen used to create ULSD is made from our old friend, natural gas.

There is another thing about ULSD. It is the product of a very sophisticated refining process, integrated into a sophisticated complex refinery. And in case you missed it, we aren’t building refineries anymore, or expanding them. The world of lawyers, journalists, academics, “influencers on Pinterest and Tik Tok” and denizens of the “tech world” has seen to that. In fact nearly 1 million barrels per day of capacity was permanently shut down during the Covid Interregnum. That capacity isn’t coming back, another tumbling rail car.

There is great tragedy in the slow motion wreckage as the rail cars tumble from the track, but there is tragedy’s close cousin as well, irony. In the great bubble of the “The Attorney’s and Psuedo-Sciences Full Employment Act”, there is something called the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Index. The ESG Index measures corporate America against the Adorable virtue signals and has become an important metric in pension fund investments. Nothing is so important to a CEO as stock price and stock price depends on investment by pension funds.

Of all companies, Tesla the erstwhile darling of Adorable America, has recently been banished from the ESG Index because of its “lack of a low-carbon strategy”, “codes of business conduct”, as well as the old standbys – racism and poor working conditions i.e non-union. Of course this delisting just as Elon Musk threatens the progressive thralldom of Twitter is just a coincidence. How quickly the knives of the woke do their work when they are provoked.

Surprisingly Exxon meanwhile maintains its ranking in the Top Ten of the ESG Index, no doubt as a result of its “low-carbon strategy” and substantial funding of public television/radio. This commitment to “anti-racism” and strong union support allows pension funds to invest in its stock as well as guaranteeing Exxon’s CEO an invitation to AOC’s wedding. What do you suppose the chances are that Exxon, owner of the largest US refineries, will make the multi-billion dollar investments today in its refineries to increase ULSD output 3-4 years in the future?

We’ve all heard the saying – “California: Where the future happens first!” Well that appears to continue to be true. Many other places, including my own home of Colorado, are now warning of rolling electrical blackouts this summer. It’s another tumbling rail car but the same old sad story of irresponsible electrical grid management in the service of “renewable” power.

While we made our electrical grid increasingly fragile and ill able to handle volatility by welding large “renewable” blocks of non-dispatchable power generation onto it, its foundation has remained fossil fuel fired generation. However the fossil fuel backbone is no longer cheap abundant coal, but rather the increasingly expensive natural gas, a natural gas prone to interruption during periods of high demand because of pipeline constraints. Another one of those rail cars.

The environmental movement in the bubble of the “The Attorney’s and Psuedo-Sciences Full Employment Act” is one of the foundation blocks of the modern Democratic Party. The federally guaranteed and funded right to an abortion is the other great foundation block of the party. The consequences of that commitment to their bedrock principles have come into full public view this year.

The appearance in 2020 of the black swan, Covid, continues to tumble the certainties of our world. Back then, its appearance along with the unexplainable ineptitude of the Republican Party gave the Democratic Party control of all three centers of elective government in the US; the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.

One is tempted to say that the Democratic Party, from Joe Biden’s laughably inept administration on down, deserves comeuppance, a stinging electoral defeat in November. The previously mentioned electoral rhythms of the past decades would indicate a Republican resurgence as well.

But the Republican’s have given little reason for enthusiasm. Their feckless incompetence of 2020 remains, may in fact have worsened. I don’t know who first said it, but it describes the Republican situation – “You can’t beat something with nothing”.

Both political parties, their faces and their zookeepers remain in a comfortable and familiar bubble divorced from reality. Sooner or later, the intrusion of 2020’s black swan will call forth something different, explosively deflating the bubble. Until that time we wait.

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