The Oil Story

Recently I ran across an interesting article on developments in the oil-producing world.  Provocatively headlined “The Collapse of the Old Oil Order,” it addresses the dissension within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the economic forces that are affecting the price of oil and keeping it below $50 a barrel.

Much of the article addresses geopolitical forces — like Saudi Arabia’s very rocky relations with Iran and Russia, two other big petroleum producers, and changes within the Saudi regime itself to move the Kingdom’s economy away from near-total reliance on oil prices and its seemingly endless supply of crude — but the piece also gets into the basics of global supply and demand.  And those familiar elements from Economics 101 have changed in ways that the experts didn’t really predict, especially on the supply side.

With the discovery of massive supplies of shale oil and gas in the United States and the development of technology to extract it, for example, there’s lots of new supply in the marketplace, and no one is making the predictions that we’re going to run out of oil in the foreseeable future that we used to hear.  In addition, green initiatives and other forces have affected the demand for oil in developed countries, and the consumption of oil in developing countries hasn’t bridged the gap.  The result is an oversupply, with countries whose oil production costs are highest struggling to deal with the current economic reality.

Gas prices aren’t exactly cheap — in Columbus and nationally, they’ve actually increased recently — but they are far from their peak prices of $4.00 a gallon or more years ago.  And the days when mighty OPEC was unified and could singlehandedly send shock waves through the global economy seem to be behind us.  It’s a good example of how predicting the future based on the uninterrupted continuation of current trends can often be wrong.

Weird World

Let’s face it, we live in a weird, incredibly unpredictable world.  Just when you think you’ve got it nailed, you turn around and are astonished to learn that Donald Trump is the “presumptive Republican nominee.”

120408033849-ybl-van-jones-best-advice-00002022-story-topSome months ago, we went to dinner with a large group of friends, and someone suggested that we each predict the Republican and Democratic nominees who would emerge this year.  Even though the dinner occurred during the early days of Trumpmania, I’d guess that nobody picked Trump as the eventual carrier of the GOP banner.  His behavior and comments were uniformly viewed as so inflammatory that the notion that he could somehow navigate through the primary process without spontaneously combusting seemed wildly, impossibly implausible.  And since that dinner party I’ve been regularly expecting and predicting that, with each grossly improper, know-nothing comment, Trump was bound to fall.

And yet . . . here he is.  To be sure, he’s continued to say outlandish things that would have been immediately, irreversibly fatal for every other candidate who has ever vied for the presidency, and yet . . . here he is.  The Governors and Senators, the seasoned pols, who made up the large field of initial Republican candidates have all fallen by the wayside, leaving an egomaniacal reality TV show star as one of the two major party candidates for the most powerful office in the world.  Last night Ted Cruz “suspended his campaign,” and today John Kasich threw in the towel.  Amazingly, Trump has actually triumphed over his Republican opponents while Hillary Clinton is still struggling to drive a stake into the heart of Bernie Sanders’ rebel campaign.

Last night Kish and I were watching CNN’s coverage of the Indiana primary and Trump’s by-now-familiar stream of consciousness victory speech.  CNN has not one, but two panels of pundits to cover such events, and one of them is activist Van Jones.  Most of the pundits seemed to focus on the typical things that pundits do — that the early Republican candidates made this mistake or that that allowed Trump to survive and ultimately prevail.  Not Jones.  He cautioned that the political elites may be oblivious to something brooding in the country, something big but still under the radar, a kind of broad and deep, visceral dissatisfaction with the state of things that the inside-the-Beltway types are just missing but that finds its outlet in the insurgent, unconventional candidacies of Trump and Sanders.  Perhaps he’s right.  It’s as good an explanation as any for a “presumptive GOP nominee” that leaves me slack-jawed in wonderment.

 

A Return To Normalcy

Ninety six years ago this month, in Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding’s successful campaign for the presidency, he gave a famous speech about how, in the wake of World War I and the negotiation of the ultimately disastrous Versailles treaty and the invasion of the deadly Spanish flu and countless reform measures enacted by Woodrow Wilson and the progressives, what America really needed was a “return to normalcy.”

1145-004-a9d837e7Harding’s speech drew a lot of criticism from the intelligentsia, who noted that “normalcy” wasn’t even a word until then.  But it was Harding, not the sophisticates, who had accurately assessed the national mood, and the common folks got the point that he was trying to make.  They were tired of disruption and wanted nothing more than a chance to go back to the way things were, and they voted for him in one of the greatest landslides in American politics.  (Three years later, Harding was dead of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, his personal affairs became the talk of Washington, and now his administration is generally regarded as one of the most corrupt and scandal-filled in history, adding to the Buckeye State’s generally crappy record when it comes to Presidents.)

I thought of poor old Warren G. today, when — after long weeks of dust in the air and on everything, of workers stripping out the old, tiling, sanding, installing, and painting, I was finally able to take a steaming hot shower in our freshly remodeled upstairs bathroom.  Sure, I admit that not having an upstairs bathroom doesn’t really compare to the doughboys marching off to fight in the Great War and a global pandemic and the bloody end to countless monarchies, but I felt a desire for a return to normalcy nevertheless.

Warren G. Harding may have been an inept leader and a cad, but at least he could put his finger on an important concept.  I’ll be glad to get back to the way things were.

In The Passive-Aggressive Cell-Free Zone

I was in the court clerk’s office the other day and got a chuckle out of this sign on the counter.  Sure, it’s got an obvious passive-aggressive element to it, but if the alternative is dealing with inconsiderate jerks who are having loud cell phone conversations while you are trying to assist them, why not take affirmative action?  It’s interesting, too, that it isn’t a handmade job — which suggests that there are so many people talking on cell phones at counters that there is a market for signs asking them to refrain from doing so.

IMG_0935I laughed at this sign, but I’m fed up with the cellification of our culture and people yakking on their handheld devices everywhere — even public restrooms.  Aside from the library, there really are no quiet zones anywhere anymore.  We now put up with people having noisy conversations in restaurants, on sidewalks, in parks, on public transportation, in airport waiting areas, and on those little buses that take you from the parking zones to the terminal.  Even worse, the cellophiles and blue-toothers make no effort to step away from the rest of the world and find their own little nook where they can continue their gabfest.  No, they think the rest of us just have to put up with their boorish intrusion into our world.

What is it that would make someone take a cell call, or make a cell call, while they are waiting to file or retrieve something at a court clerk’s office — or for that matter in all of the other places that have been invaded by cell phone conversations?  Is it self-importance?  It is trying to give tangible evidence that they are so important or so popular that they have to be on the phone at all times?  Is it that their boredom tipping point is so low that a few quiet moments while walking down the street or riding the bus are unendurable?

I never thought I would say that I enjoy commercial air travel, but at least plane flights involve that quiet period between the cabin doors closing for takeoff and the plane pulling up to the jetway after landing.  Oh, guess what — the FCC is considering new regulations that would allow the airlines to permit cell calls once a plane passes 10,000 feet.  Another quiet zone might be falling by the wayside.  Will the library be next?

Gold Soul

I’ve written before about the Platinum Stylist, the dedicated professional and perfectionist who cuts my hair and gives me a head and shoulder massage, mini-facial, and hot towel treatment to boot.  She’s an exuberant personality, and our appointments always end up being fun encounters where I walk away relaxed, refreshed, and with the best haircut you could possibly get anywhere.

static1.squarespaceThe Platinum Stylist’s real name is Alyssa Rowland, and at our appointment on Thursday she told me that she’s starting up a new consulting business.  (Fortunately for me and the rest of her coterie of intensely loyal clients, she’ll continue to cut and style hair.)  The Platinum Stylist is maintaining her association with precious metals by calling her company Gold Soul, and you can read about it and the services it offers here.  Its focus will be on helping and motivating people to provide exceptional customer service — something that the Platinum Stylist does as a matter of course.

I wanted to give Alyssa a shout-out and a plug because she practices what she preaches when it comes to going the extra mile and because I think anybody who has the guts and moxie to start and run their own business deserves a boost and a pat on the back.  Entrepreneurs who believe in what they can offer make the capitalist world go round.  I also think, though, that Alyssa and Gold Soul, with their emphasis on service and quality, have identified something important that is increasingly lacking in modern commerce.  With goods and products becoming more and more commoditized and “self-serve” the new normal, it’s pretty rare to have any kind of positive service experience these days.  And yet, don’t we find instances where we have received fine personal service far more satisfying than the now-standard fare of sterile, rushed, generic treatment?

ashanti20gold20dish20late2019th20centuryMy conversation with Alyssa and Gold Soul’s website remind me once again of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a hugely influential book for me that I wrote about in one of my very first postings for the Webner family blog, more than seven years ago.  The author, Robert Pirsig, posited that “quality” was a kind of innate characteristic that people could recognize in just about anything — be it art, writing, or hair styling — even if they hadn’t been trained in art criticism or didn’t hold a Ph.D in literature.  The core concepts of “quality,” such as care and attention to detail, come shining through.

Although I’ve not seen one of Alyssa’s Gold Soul presentations, I have no hesitation in saying that I am completely confident that they are great.  She’s just that kind of person.  If you work for a business that is looking to up its game in the customer service department, it would be worth your while to give Alyssa and Gold Soul a call.

The Third-Party Deficit

I haven’t written about politics for a while because it’s just too depressing.  Now that the recent primary results make it increasingly look like we are in fact going to see an election in which Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic ticket and Donald Trump carries the Republican banner, I can only ask, where the hell are the viable third-party options?

deez-nutsWith choices like those that apparently are going to be provided by the two major parties, you’d think this might be the year when America starts to look more like Europe, and third parties could fill the awesome void that now looms before us.  Well, forget it.  There’s no sign that any one of those down-ballot parties that you see on your presidential ballot every fourth November — the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Constitution Party, etc. — has been taking advantage of the opportunity that 2016 presents by raising more money, drawing more supporters, or gaining media attention about their candidates, policies, or platforms.  Does anyone have any idea, for example, who might be the leading contenders for the Libertarian Party nomination, or even how or when the Green Party will pick its candidate?

(In case you’re curious, the Libertarian Party’s convention is next month in Florida, and you can see the names and pictures of the people “currently recognized by the Libertarian Party” as potential candidates here.  The Green Party, on the other hand, has recognized five candidates identified here and will hold its nominating convention in August in Houston, Texas.  I’m sure the press coverage of both conventions will be epic.)

Don’t hold your breath that one of the other “parties” might actually nominate a meaningful candidate who could attract enough support in the polls to participate in debates come fall or offer a plausible alternative to Clinton and Trump.  That leaves the issue of whether we might have a quixotic bid by some relatively well-known figure.  It’s happened in my adult lifetime, with Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, and I’ve even voted for a third-party candidate for President before, when I voted for John Anderson in 1980.  We may still see a rogue Republican who can’t stomach Trump or a Democrat who loathes Clinton’s Wall Street ties, of course, but right now the only buzz seems to be about an effort to draft a former Marine Corps general I’ve never heard of before.  And the problem is that, without an established party apparatus, it’s not very likely that a third-party candidate can even get the signatures necessary to appear on the presidential ballot in every state, much less mount a credible campaign.

So if, like many of us, you think the looming choice for President will present us with the worst choice in a lifetime, don’t just blame the Rs and the Ds — blame the little guys, too.  No one is offering us credible alternatives.

Garbage In

What are the costs of eating fast food?  Of course, one cost is the simple consumption of an unsatisfying, typically over-salted meal in either a car seat or a sticky and garish fast-food environment, rather than sitting down to a leisurely meal with family or friends.  That’s a given.  Then there’s the weight gain that tends to result from slamming down high-calorie processed foods.  But now research is indicating there’s even more to it.

chemicals-in-fast-food-wrappers-show-up-in-human-bloodThe Washington Post recently published an article about the curious association between fast-food consumption and phthalates.  (Yes, “phthalate” is a real word, and no, I have no idea how it is pronounced.)  The study tracked fast-food intake by 9,000 research subjects — fast-food was defined as any food served at a restaurant without waiters or waitresses — and took urine samples from them.  Analysis of the urine samples showed that people who had eaten any fast food in the last 24 hours had higher phthalate levels than people who had not eaten any fast food during that same period, and the larger your fast food intake, the higher your phthalate levels tended to be.

The results are troubling because phthalates are industrial chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl and make it more flexible, and the Post reports that they have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.  Male infertility is one of them, and another is diabetes.  Why do people who consume fast food have higher phthalate levels?  Researchers don’t know for sure, but they suspect it is because the processed nature of fast food means that the food tends to touch a lot more machines, conveyor belts, plastic wrapping, other packaging materials, and other potential sources of phthalates before it gets onto your plate — I mean, your cheap cardboard box, paper bag or foam container.

But here’s the most troubling part of the Post story from my standpoint: the research revealed, and other government studies confirm, that one-third of the participants eat some form of fast food every day.  That includes one-third of kids and adolescents.

A diet that includes fast food every day.  Just the thought of it makes my mouth feel dry and briny from anticipation of the salt intake.  It’s no wonder that we’ve got some serious health and obesity problems in the U.S. of A.  We’ve got to start taking better care of ourselves, and it starts with eating better food.