This Week In Doom, April 8, 2018


That-Was-The-Week-That-W-That-Was-The-Week-473964gc2smFrom the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on April 8, 2018

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

 ― Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  


It was a week much like any other week in the Age of Trump. We've been desensitized by the antics of the Tantrumish Manbaby in the White House, and the chaos comes so hard and so fast there is barely time to make sense of it. We saw the full-bore co-optation of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his murder…  the full-bore breakdown and digestion of the retail sector as the Trump Economy takes hold, the end products of digestion to eventually fill those MAGA hats…an on-again, off gain Trade War depending on who you talk to… Trumptantrums re Amazon… dark turns in AI including Killer Robots… and we're drowning in our own crap. Another perfect week.


White Martin

This week saw the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sarah Huckabee Sanders commemorated the occasion by by profaning the memory of the murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by reading at few paragraphs of his “mountaintop” speech on Wednesday.

It should be noted that Dr. MLK Jr. was a socialist and a real radical, although his legacy has been sufficiently stripped, sanitized and dry-cleaned for consumption by white America as to be unrecognizable. It is sufficient to remember that even his sharp criticism of the War in Vietnam, which alienated and frightened many of his supporters, was not enough to get him killed.

The estimable Charlie Pierce has it best:

Watching SHS, functioning as the official voice of a president* who started his road to the White House by spreading lies and slander about the first African-American president, reading those words in her dead-eyed Weekend-Anchor-in-Fort-Smith voice was enough to make me feel radically non-non-violent, which really is not the proper way to feel on this solemn occasion.

When King started talking economic issues and organizing Poor People, he moved into that column of those that had to be silenced and removed. The income inequality King decried today operates at crisis levels, unleavened by morality or human decency. One can criticize war with impunity, but risk not one word against Profits. Let's give Pierce the last word:

(King's) whole philosophy was based on breaking unjust laws. His whole career was made up of acts of lawbreaking. That’s who he was. That was his job. That was his mission, and that should be his memory. Non-violence is not the opposite of anger. It never has been. It is the repurposing of anger to constructive purpose, and that constructive purpose was the destruction of systems of oppression. If that’s a profound contradiction then, dammit, this country came into being as a profound contradiction. "How is it," sniped Samuel Johnson, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberties from the drivers of negroes?" We are a people of contradictions. So was Martin Luther King, Jr. We should make the most of that.


Brick & Mortar Retail Meltdown, March Update

More bad news this week from the retail sector of the American economy, where bricks-and-mortar stores and chains that own them endure economic peristalsis as they are digested by the inexorable forces of automation. The mom and pop stores of youth have been gone ever since they built the mall in the 80s. We're now seeing the medium sized fish that ate the smaller fish turn up in the nets. Wolf Richter reports:

March was a busy month for the brick-and-mortar retail meltdown which kicked off in 2015 and has since picked up speed. We’ve followed this progression from the early days. This year, there was a brutal January, an even more brutal February, and here’s March.

Southeastern Grocers, parent of Winn-Dixie, filed for bankruptcy on March 28. It’s buckling under its debts…Michaels Companies, largest US crafts retailer with about 1,300 stores in the US and Canada, announced on March 22 that it would shutter all its 94 Aaron Brothers framing and art supplies stores… Claire’s Stores filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 19, suffocating under $1.9 billion in debt… Toys “R” Us filed for liquidation… Bon Ton stores faces liquidation if it cannot find a buyer… Guitar Center is buckling under its debts… Signet Jewelers, whose brands include Kay Jewelers, Zales, and Jared, announced on March 14 that it would close 200 Stores over the next 12 months… Foot Locker, with over 3,300 stores globally, announced on March 2 that it plans to close about 110 stores this year…

And in the centerpiece of hedge-fund vulture capitalism, Eddie Lampert, the billionaire majority shareholder of Sears and Kmart who married the two brands together in 2003, ostensibly to run them but now seemingly stripping them for parts. Under Lampert's management the number of Sears and Kmart stores nationwide has shrunk to 1,207 from high of 5,670, and at least 200,000 Sears and Kmart employees have lost their jobs. He's sold off signature brands like Kenmore, Craftsman, and DieHard, as well as Lands’ End, Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores, Sears Canada, and Orchard Supply. The sales have generate cash, which Lampert has generously returned to the shareholders.

Guess who owns 60 percent of Sear Holdings stock?

Of course, if you a a wretch who works in the hell-on-earth that is retail sales, you deserve your ignoble fate, unlike those Favored by God, the investor class. How are they doing? The Sears Holdings stock price has slumped to $2 a share, down from a high of $134 per share 11 years ago.  Wolf Richter:

Sears Holdings is reporting ever more horrid quarters. On March 14, it reported results for Q4, ended February 3, which covered the crucial holiday sales period. Revenues plunged 28% year-over-year to 4.4 billion. According to my projections and my beautiful chart, at the rate of declines over the past four years, revenues will drop below zero in 2020, even as CEO and hedge-fund owner Eddie Lampert is still touting “progress” in SEC filings. This thing is cooked and waiting to be carved up.

Some observers think that Sears Holdings is “a total shit show” that is in “secret liquidation” mode. For more, see the Vanity Fair article and profile of Eddie Lambert. Good stuff.

The demise of retail dovetails with the demise of the middle class into poverty as we increasingly struggle to pay for the necessities of life with salaries and savings are eroded by inflation and debasement of the money via debt. It is one sign that collapse is already in progress, and that we are frogs being slowly cooked. It will remain imperceptible to most for a long time until it's not, and then it's going to get ugly.


Trade War? Is there is or is there ain't?

Trump: Trade Wars Are Easy to Win. Also Trump: We Lost the Trade War with China.

Remember who said how easy trade wars are to win? It was the same guy who said we already lost. We're getting killed by Mexico,  We're getting "raped" by China. And recall when he told Justin Trudeau the US was running a trade deficit even though he knew otherwise? Oh, what a great kidder. On Tuesday Trump announced tariffs on Chinese products to the tune of $50 billion that include "robotics, information technology, communication technology and aerospace." China responded  the next day with $50 billion in tariffs on 106 different U.S. products, including cars, chemicals, and ag products including soy. China's selections seemed precisely calibrated to affect Trump country.

Not surprisingly, the market was off 500 points the next day, and another 600 the day after tht, before a rally to close higher as Trump's smoothers and handlers were our whispering sweet nothings in the ears of Real Money about how this was a "negotiation." They woke Wilbur Ross and wheeled him out to defend the moves, saying Trump is a lifelong deal maker" and China's tariffs are not the "first controversy he's gone into," Ross said. "This is not World War III."

We are to be reassured because human beings are not dying. Yet.

But not to worry– Mr. He Alone Can Fix It is on the case, and you should remember he had a book written for him entitled "The Art of the Deal." Just remember that everyone who came before Trump was a moron, but he is a business genius. And a stable genius at that.


Take Bezos, Give the Points

In a series of tweets, The Stable Genius picked a fight with Amazon owner Jeff Bezos because he could. Yes, the guy who bragged that he was "smart" for not paying taxes during a presidential debate and who refuses to release his tax returns, as every major-party candidate since Watergate has done, accused Amazon of somehow gaming the US Postal Service. From all accounts, the Amazon contract is profitable for the USPS, and has to be by law. In most Tweets, Trump refers to the "Amazon Washington Post," although Bezos owns The Washington Post outright.

Trump's contempt is is rooted in the fact that the Post has driven Trump to impotent rage with its persistent reporting of facts about him and his administration. 

Trump took to Twitter Wednesday to attack America’s most trusted brand: “Amazon is doing great damage to tax paying retailers. Towns, cities and states throughout the U.S. are being hurt – many jobs being lost!” And, 

Most of the financial sites agree: Donald Trump Will Not Get the Best of Jeff Bezos. Through canny marketing and making the services easy to use,  Bezos has managed to integrate Amazon so thoroughly into the lives of customers that many can’t imagine living without its affordability and convenience. Oh, and lobbying. Virginia Postrel from BloombergView:

In fact, Trump’s irritation isn’t really with Amazon. Rather, he is obsessed with Jeff Bezos, whom he keeps denouncing by name. The guy clearly gets under his skin.

The obvious reason is that Bezos — not Amazon, Mr. President — owns the Washington Post. But Trump’s obsession seems a little too personal to be about the Post alone…

Rather, the very existence of Bezos seems to drive Trump crazy. Trump’s image, to himself and his fans, is that of alpha male — the dominant primate in the room. Simply by going about his business (and largely ignoring Trump), Bezos refutes that claim. He is a far more admired and influential businessman than Trump and, of course, immeasurably richer.

Start with appearance. Trump, who likes his staff to have the right “look,” would never cast a wiry guy who doesn’t hide his lack of hair as a big-time businessman. How can someone only five-foot-nine intimidate people into submission? In Trumpworld, intimidation, not value-creation, is what business is all about.

Bezos also has a sense of humor, often at his own expense, and a famously raucous laugh. Trump is humorless. He certainly doesn’t laugh at himself.

We'll leave consideration of the fine points, such as the probity of a sitting president* using the bully pulpit to damage a private company for pure political gain, as well as direct attacks on the free press and the independent judiciary, to the judgments of history. Which is apparently Bezos' attitude as well. The response from Amazon HQ has been silence. Which will prove to be golden. Amazon shares initially fell but are now trading higher. 


AI: Threat or Menace, Redux

Last week I waxed rhapsodic about Artifical Intelligence. I cited that fact that some Smart People have warned us about the implications. Some scoff and say that macines can never truly be "intelligent" because creativity. To which I reply tht the creativity of artificial intelligence can potentially look very different from that of humans. This week, there's this interview with Sophia, the AI robot that's now a citizen of Saudi Arabia:

Thanks to reader Kim Lambert for this one. And then there's the malign intelligence named "Norman." Meet 'Norman,' the Darkest, Most Disturbed AI the World Has Ever Seen

Housed at MIT Media Lab, a research laboratory that investigates AI and machine learning, Norman's computer brain was allegedly warped by exposure to "the darkest corners of Reddit" during its early training, leaving the AI with "chronic hallucinatory disorder," according to a description published April 1 (yes, April Fools' Day) on the project's website.

MIT Media Lab representatives described the presence of "something fundamentally evil in Norman's architecture that makes his re-training impossible…"

Time to open up another big can of "nothing-to-see-here-citizen," right? And in another light-hearted frolic this week, Elon Musk warns that creation of 'god-like' AI could doom mankind to an eternity of robot dictatorship:

If one company or small group of people manage to develop god-like super intelligence, they could take over the world," Musk said in the film.

He continued: "At least when there is an evil dictator, that human is going to die. But for AI there will be no death, it would live forever and then you would have an immortal dictator from which we could never escape….

We are rapidly heading towards digital superintelligence that far exceeds any human. I think it's very obvious. We have five years. I think digital superintelligence will happen in our lifetime, 100%," Musk said.

And such concerns have informed the consciences of at least some scientists.

'Killer Robot' Lab Faces Boycott from Artificial Intelligence Experts

Nearly 60 AI and robotics experts from almost 30 countries have signed an open letter calling for a boycott against KAIST, a public university in Daejeon, South Korea, that has been reported to be "develop[ing] artificial intelligence technologies to be applied to military weapons, joining the global competition to develop autonomous arms," the open letter said.

To strongly discourage KAIST's new mission, the researchers are boycotting the university until its president makes clear that the center will not develop "autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control," the letter writers said.

But nothing to worry about since AI is "not creative."


Who's crap? Our crap.

And now we're drowning in our own crap as China has decided that they are going to treat our recycled waste like they treat the US Dollar: "We don't want it."

For decades, China has used recyclables from around the world to supply its manufacturing boom. But this summer it declared that this "foreign waste" includes too many other nonrecyclable materials that are "dirty," even "hazardous." In a filing with the World Trade Organization the country listed 24 kinds of solid wastes it would ban "to protect China's environmental interests and people's health."

The complete ban takes effect Jan. 1, but already some Chinese importers have not had their licenses renewed. That is leaving U.S. recycling companies scrambling to adapt…

For decades, China has sorted through all this and used the recycled goods to propel its manufacturing boom. Now it no longer wants to, so the materials sits here with no place to go.

There is no choice for affected Oregon recyclers but to take all of the recycling to the local landfill. Over a dozen Oregon companies have asked regulators whether they can send recyclable materials to landfills, and that number may grow if they can't find eager buyers elsewhere for our recycled products. So as we slowly cook, we can also enjoy drowning in our own garbage. Just another week in Doom.


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, screeds and spittle-flecked invective here and elsewhere, and was active in the Occupy movement. He lives in Southeastern Virginia with his wife Contrary and fully expects to be prominently featured on an enemies list compiled by the current administration.'s Department of Homeland Security.

2 Responses to This Week In Doom, April 8, 2018

  • William H Duncan says:

    We here in America have been bred to be obedient. Consumerism has made us instead servile, as evidenced by our attitude about Jeff Bezos and Amazon. The richest, most admirered man in America…. who manipulates us with his News Paper, who conspires with the CIA and the war machine to control the world, who helps destroy local economics, who pays next to nothing in taxes, ie guts America. A monopolist oligarch for the Liberal and Conservative sets. 

    Such a servile people are no match for AI. Such a servile people will be buried in their own garbage. Such a people will wither like a plant without water, in a global trade war. Such a people will be cast into the dust pan of history with hardly a thought.

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