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Belmont Club

The Root of All Evil

February 26th, 2011 - 10:12 am

It was not a day, but a week of rage. Protests rocked Kurdistan, as clashes broke out between demonstrators and security forces in Sulaymaniyah over the issue of corruption.  In Baghdad, similar clashes were reported as demonstrators waved dinar bills challenging the authorities to “live on” these measly amounts. Twenty three people have been killed so far, even as Iraq’s biggest oil refinery was attacked and production halted.

Meanwhile, the political coalition in Yemen took a hit as a prominent tribal leader, considered the second most powerful man in the country, defected from President Saleh’s ruling party and called for his overthrow.  This came as tens of thousands oppositionists rallied in the streets. Bahrain swore in five new cabinet ministers for “housing, labor, health, cabinet affairs and electricity and water”, in an attempt to deflect unrest.  This came as thousands greeted the arrival of a senior Shi’ite cleric, opposition leader, Hassan Mushaima, as he arrived from the UK.  Efforts by the Saudi King to boost welfare payments in the Kingdom by $36 billion were indications it’s “greatest nightmare” had arrived.

Bahrain is only 20 miles from “Saudi Arabia’s oil- and Shiite-rich Eastern Province [it] has been a longtime recipient of Saudi aid. It has also been a focus of Iranian interests. The meeting was a clear signal of support for reigning monarchs, and an indication that the Saudi leadership is concerned about the events unfolding in Bahrain and throughout the region,” according to the Washington Post.

Concerned would be a mild word. “Saudi leaders were reportedly furious that the Obama administration ultimately supported regime change in Egypt, because of the precedent it could set”, starting a wave which everybody except Hillary Clinton’s State Deparment could ride.

That State Department continued to focus its efforts on the UN, where it hoped to find ways to apply sanctions on Libya, a country whose coastline had effectively been split between groups opposed and supportive of the Brother Leader Colonel Khadaffi, even as weapons were being served out to civilians in the streets of Tripoli. But the sanctions may be too little, and too late. Refugees from Libya are already streaming into Tunisia. It was, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “a full blown refugee crisis”.

At first it was dozens of foreigners, most of them Egyptian laborers, teetering under the weight of plastic-wrapped boxes or suitcases they carried on their backs as they made their way past customs guards and immigration officers into relative safety in Tunisia. … Then the crowds grew larger and larger. Busloads of Chinese engineers. Turkish businessmen. A smattering of Koreans. A wealthy Tunisian in a late-model BMW.

In Egypt, the upheaval of last month is moving to its logical conclusion, as “tens of thousands” again converged on Tahrir Square demanding a cabinet reshuffle but receiving in return, a beating from the Army. “Egypt’s ruling military council apologised on Saturday after military police beat protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but activists called for fresh protests to denounce violence by the authorities.”

All over the Middle East, event is cascading onto event, and the main driver of disquiet was a five letter word: money.  An NYT headline captured the essence of the problem. “Long Bread Lines and Open Revolt in Libya’s Capital”. And those bread lines are going to get even longer. Rising food prices, already fueling unrest in the streets, was due to climb even more steeply as the unrest itself raised production costs by raising the price of oil. Those same factors are fueling inflation in the West.

The same forces that are bringing down middle east governments are driving up your grocery bills. A local expert says things are about to get a lot worse. St. Louis shoppers know food prices are rising. A lot of that is because of higher fuel prices. They are raising the cost of growing and transporting food.

Some of those higher oil prices are due to unrest in places like Libya. In many cases that unrest has been caused in the first place by higher food prices. “Algeria had problems with sugar, it started there, then it moved to Tunisia, that’s what started in Egypt. All of these things have been started by food prices. And that’s, it’s, it’s a little scary.” said Economist Steve Nicholson of International Food Products.

That same five letter word is the object of union efforts to converge on Wisconsin. “It’s going to be huge,”  one supporter said. “Union organizers are planning what they hope will be the biggest rally at the Capitol, topping last Saturday’s protest that drew 70,000 to the Capitol Square. That rally shut the downtown as parading protesters filled the streets. Today, demonstrators are hoping for even bigger crowds.” Shut the downtown? Sure that will help pay the budget shortfall, since everyone knows government money comes from a “stash”. Who says Arabs are dumb? That’s racist. They are at least as smart as public sector unions.

The drama in Wisconsin was being played out on an even grander scale as President Obama faced off with Congress over budget cuts, with Obama seeking to protect “gains” and Congress attempting to prevent even more raids on the taxpayer wallet.  In the immortal words of Abba, “money, money, money”.

The fundamental problem of providing food, shelter, clothing and fuel is beginning to re-emerge in the long-affluent West, though it  is nothing like the life and death struggles in the Third World, where crowds are struggling for bread, or running toward imagined safety with their cheap suitcases and boxes.  But in both cases the problem is the same: there ain’t none. And in many instances the established order is trying to produce money by printing it, borrowing sums from each other, or simply promising to provide it. Kicking the can down the road.

But the bubble has burst. The can has retired itself from the kicking game and governments find themselves confronted with a thousand foot concrete wall, extending to the horizon in both directions, against which lies an immense pile of cans. A can of Hope here; a can of Change there. And somewhere under the pile, a can labeled the “Middle East Peace Process”.

Supply is unlikely to converge with demand again until a whole termite hill of parasitic institutions falls to the ground and regulatory regimes allow the markets to produce enough to meet the world’s rising expectations, for the color of the current world crisis is the color of money.  Only then can some of the cans be picked up off the wall. For much of the world’s existing establishment, the Ideas of March are nearly come. But they are far from gone.


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