American Theocracy

Follow up post to Ian’s questions can be found here.

Ian, after writing about the hit piece by Jacob Weisberg in Slate, came up with a few questions for Mr. Phillips, who graciously responded to The Agonist. Here are Ian’s questions:

Question one:

Jacob Weisberg’s piece has only a few accusations which are actually grounded in your book. One is that you never actually make the case that the Iraq war was about oil. If you were to state your case briefly, what would it be?

Question two:

Jacob’s piece is notable for its complete dismissiveness of you as a clueless geek, and of almost all your work. In fact, Weisberg states “His biennial books have become illogical, dizzying screeds. And his diagnoses, predictions, and advice to Democrats have been consistently, embarrassingly wrong.” Can you state one prediction you made in a prior book which has come true, and do you have any insight into why Weisberg seems so determined to dismiss the entire body of your work except “the Emerging Republican Majority”?

Think about those two questions, as I’ve got the answers and will post them late this evening or early tomorrow.

previous posting after the jump ~ Phillips’s site is here.

Post Dated: 2006-03-29 23:26:45

Tell me if this isn’t a spot-on summary of the last 30 years from Kevin Phillips’ book, American Theocracy:

When we look back on the three subsequent decades (70s, 80s, 90s), it is now possible to describe a much grander convergence of forces: (1) oil’s ever tightening grip on Washington politics and psychologies; (2) the cumulative destabilization of the Middle East; (3) the rise of varying degrees of radical Christianity, Judaism, and Islam around the world; (4) the biblical and geopolitical focus on Israel; and (5) the reemergence during the 1990s of [the Great Game].

That is our era in a nutshell. Sure, the Cold War was raging in the 1970s, but was it? Remember detente and those who sought to derail it? Lord knows I’ve poured over all the memoirs of the era, including Nixon’s, Ford’s, Johnson’s, and all three volumes of Kissinger (he’s a very verbose–but brilliant–man). Col. Bacevich was right in asserting that the real late 20th century geopolitical struggle was in the Persian Gulf, not the Fulda Gap, not Central Europe, not a march to the Atlantic. Better minds should have known better.

Nota bene: Jacob Weisberg betrays his utterly complete insider status with this review in Slate. The hostility really is bracing.

Post Dated:

Again, on page 28 Phillips writes:

The irony is that during the 1930s, 1940s, and the 1950s the auto-making big three worked to push the U.S. transportation system into car dependence. Led by GM, the autmomakers acquired bus manufacturers and lines, then promoted diesel buses to displace both intercity rail transportation and electric transit systems. GM also acquired railroad-engine manufacturers, converting their production from electric trains (the norm in 1935) to trains that by 1970 were almost wholly diesel run.

Reminds me of another industry recent actions: the airlines lobbying against high-speed rail.

Finally, the last citation from chapter one:

The . . . ultimate measurement, the ‘carbon intensity’ of each automaker’s profits, found that “Ford and GM derive more than three quarters of their profits from high carbon emitting vehicles, because their profits are disproportionately attributable to light truck sales (read: SUV ~spk)

None of this should come as any surprise if you read Stirling on a regular basis.

But just to recap, that means that more than 3/4 of Ford’s and GM’s profits come from pollution. Free markets indeed.

Next up, chapter 2.

Post Dated: 2006-03-26 14:22

More from Phillips, this time about the auto industry, not just autos:

According to one study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, “the U.S. automobile industry shows the effects of pension costs on the bottom line. The results of a Prudential Financial study state that pension and retiree benefits represent $631 of the cost of every Chrysler vehicle, $734 of every Ford vehicle, and $1,360 of the cost of every GM car or truck. In contrast, an article in the Detroit Free Press reported that pension and retiree benefit costs per vehicle at the U.S. plants of Honda and Toyota are estimate to be $107 and $180, respectively (which is too low in my opinion ~spk). Longevity and diminished competitiveness went hand in hand. Predictions mounted that Toyota would soon replace GM as the world’s leading carmaker.

I scribbled two items in the margins of the book. First, when an auto worker complains about wage cuts and he owns an RV, boat, two cars (or trucks), and his own home labor’s gotten a tad fat. (And this is not a straw man, I met this guy in Belize.) Y’all know I am way, way pro-labor. But those stats are nuts.

Second, how did this happen? How did the crown jewel of American manufacturing become so uncompetitive? Sure, unions have their share of blame–but what about management’s lack of foresight, their lack daring and risk-taking? And their constant bleeding of profits via stock options?

Everyone thought they could love high off the SUV hog when the SUV was actually a golden reprieve for Detroit to change and invest. Instead the ruinously sucked all the profits out of Detroit. Some leadership, eh?

Post Dated: 2006-03-25 23:19

Phillips, on page 27 writes:

The aging of the US electricity supply and power grid, serious as it is, can be put to one side as we concentrate on the aging of the American oil culture; electricity is small stuff next to transportation. Cars and trucks burn an overwhelming two out of every three barrels of oil used in the United States. Airplanes use another 10 percent. Power plants, by contrast, are only minor oil burners, as of 1998 being 56 percent coal fired (that’s still problematic – eds), 21 percent nuclear driven, 10 percent gas driven, and 10 percent hydro-electric. The critical yardstick of an adequate U.S. oil supply–or any turn toward efficiency and conservation–must be automotive. (Emphasis added.)

Two things srping to mind from this passage. First, this gives the lie to the Bush notion that nuc-u-lar energy will solve our needs (although I am not opposed to it, if done properly).

Two, as I wrote in the margin of the book, “this is an absolutely astonishing statistic.” Our oil dependence springs from the fact that we are such a vain society which needs to a car to validate our status and such a classist society that we’re afraid to share a bus, subway or train with a complete stranger who might be a little different than us. At least that has always been my take on the resistance to mass transit in suburbia: class. And that, to a great degree is a function of religion, at least as I see it down here in Texas.

Post Dated: 2006-03-21 19:46

Ok, so I broke down after arguing with myself all day, went to the bookstore and bought it: American Theocracy. I’m not even on page one and I gotta blog about something.

In the preface (page ix to be exact) Phillips writes:

Oil, as everyone knows, became the all-important fuel of American global ascendancy in the twentieth century. But before that, nineteenth-century Britain was the coal hegemon and the seventeenth-century Dutch fortune harnessed the winds and waters. Neither nation could maintain its global economic leadership when the world moved toward a new energy regime.

I always thought the United States was about free markets and the marketplace of ideas. The understanding being that the best ideas, technologies and products would win out in the end.

Why then have we resisted making money from emerging environmentally-friendly technologies? Why have we not exploited new markets with all the great ideas emerging from the free market place of ideas that is our unregulated economy? I’m confused.

Not really.

Reality is that the vested interests of the oil econonmy–from cars, to suburbia, to air conditioning units–are deep enough, the players powerful enough and the amount of money sloshing around great enough to stave off the change until it all falls apart.

There’s a phrase for that: willful ignorance.

Kevin Phillips is blogging at TPMCafe about his new book, American Theocracy. Check it out.

The New York Times Magazine has a review of Kevin Phillips’ new book, “American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century” that you simply must read. I have so many books to read and a few to review already, including Fukuyama’s new book, Barton Biggs’ book on Hedgefunds and Markos’ book, Crashing the Gate. At 480 pages I’d rather not review Phillips’ new tome; however, like a true sucker for a good book, I will be at the book store early Tuesday getting my copy.

I believe Ian will be reviewing this book as well, so maybe he and I will have a rolling conversation on this one.

Until then, read Alan Brinkley’s review and then follow our link to the book and buy a copy.

Check out Phillips’ site too.

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

27 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I think I like the guy:

    Occasionally you are lucky enough to find a person who is a contrary indicator. I talk about this in the book. They can be very valuable. They tend to get most bullish at the top.

    I am bullish for 2006. Many of the great thinkers are bearish about the imbalances in the world economy, but I believe we have, and are going to have, at least for a while, moderate growth and moderate inflation. If so, stocks can go a lot higher, particularly in certain markets and sectors.

    — Let your prophets run and sell the suckers!

  • Tuesday because I had been informed the site was embargoed until then. Regardless, thanks for the link. Good stuff.

    The price of apathy towards government is to be ruled by evil men.


  • indicates movement from the Northern states, westward and southward. But who’s to say the values and convictions of Northerners who move won’t take their principles with them? The effect would be to dilute and offset theocracy with secularism.

    He’s totally wrong about Iraq paying for its own reconstruction with its oil resources. It’s now well documented that Iraq imported oil and there is great need for more funds to improve their crumbling infrastructure. Neocons constantly overlook complex societies and really have no clue what they’re talking about!

    I know lots of people that live in the South and they’re not Baptists nor are they overly religious. The book is just another example of over simplification.

    Not to worry, Liberals are every where and they often move from one place to another and take their liberalism with them! California has oodles of them.

    I won’t be buying the book, because it sounds super boring.

  • for a number of reasons – his work is dense, relentlessly well-sourced, and just steaming with outrage. I read his last book on the Bushes back-to-back with Kitty Kelley’s. Kitty Kelley’s was the meringue and whipped cream dessert to his (tough) steak and kidley pie. That said, I have to tell you the guy is an American saint, and I love him. Please read his book, it will deprsss you even more than you alrady are. (Why shouldn’t we be as depressed as possible, what with all is happening to America?)

  • I’d really think twice if I were a young person because of the growing wealth divide between Northern and Southern States:

    “The South is the poorest region:

    * Only in the South did wealth fall from 2001 to 2004. Southerners now have $63,800 in median net worth, compared with $161,700 for Northeasterners.

    * Median income in the South is just $37,000, compared with $50,900 in the Northeast.”

    Wealth Divide

    I.e., Can you afford to be reborn with lower earnings? From the stats…close to a 30% reduction of what you were making in a Northern State!

  • Text-only copy of Chapter 4, Radicalized Religion, free for the reading on the Fresh Air site. The interview is worth a listen as well. Just wish she’d spent the whole hour with him.

    “Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving”
    –Ian Williams, Asia Times, 11/04/04

  • Today ‘Afterwords’ is on C-SPAN2 and Kevin Phillips will be interviewed about ‘American Theocracy’. I just hope I can stomach the interviewER.

    It will be Grover Norquist….reminds me of a greazy little rodent.

  • The idea for nuclear energy, Sean-Paul, is to sit the plants over Shale oil and use it to crack the sands, then sell that. It will extend the petroleum age by 60 to 100 years, but at a very high cost – the gas will be expensive, the energy ration will be bad, and the carbon dumped into the atmosphere will be huge, but it is do-able.

  • done right. What you describe is more of the same which we cannot afford or am I wrong?

    The price of apathy towards government is to be ruled by evil men.


  • Green Energy represents a different financial model. On the one hand you have monolithic power plants, power grids, pipelines to supply the plants, mines, wells, refineries, etc. On the other hand you have stuff owned by individuals on their roof, solar cells, solar water heaters, converters, etc. One kind has ownership by corporations, the other by you and me. You see the problem? It is all about the ownership of the means of production. Marx, where are you?

    We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. – General Education Board Letter #1, 1906, Rockefeller Foundation.

  • The real difference is that American employers pay a portion (along with their workers) for health care. Honda and Toyota as well as European manufacturers still produce most of their vehicles in countries with some kind of a Universal health care system. In Japan, for example, there is a system in which health care costs are shared between the government, individuals and six major insurance companies. Which means that Toyota isn’t included in that loop and therefore doesn’t pay a dime.

    Many years ago, we heard complaints from Detroit that ‘fair trade’ wasn’t fair because other governments were ‘subsidizing’ their auto industry. Turns out that what they were calling a ‘subsidy’ were the national health care systems in those countries.

  • Oh, we can do it, as long as you don’t mind a 15% or so drop in your standard of living, and an unliveable environment, and losing some more cities like New Orleans…

  • Of course its not a commie plot but big business does not like Green Energy because of ownership. Currently big business owns enormous power plants, refineries, etc. These are extremely profitable. With green energy, there is a different ownership. The current investment big profitable power plants compete with a decentralized production system that is not owned by big business. The power grid becomes decentralized as power is produced close to the source of consumption. It is a nightmare scenario for the power generators, who remember, do not make Solar Cells or windmills.

    So paraphrasing Marx, once folks like you an I own a significant portion of the “Means of Production” we will begin to look after our own interests. My joke was the proletariat, old German for ‘workers’, owns the “means of production”. Our interests would be a decentralized power grid but the centralized power grid is the life blood of the power industry and subsidized to a great extent by us taxpayers.

    We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. – General Education Board Letter #1, 1906, Rockefeller Foundation.

  • California has made for green energy?

    Toronto Star

    The Province of Ontario is lagging behind California and needs to catch up.

    Arnie is a green energy advocate and has introduced policies that will make that State the envy of the nation including Canada. Wind power, solar resources, nano turbines … the list is long that can be implemented. Watch, rural and small town energy, they will be leaders.

  • California’s per capita consumption of electricity is about 7,300 kilowatt hours a year. The U.S. rate is above 12,000. Ontario’s is more than 11,000.

    I quickly calculated that we consume 17,000 kWh/a. I suspected that we export electricity packed in products and this confirmed my suspicions: homes and farms used only 25% of the electricity.

    — Tontos y locos, nunca fueron pocos.

  • The USA uses now 16% of its GDP to health care. Much more than other nations. And I wrote earlier, even Soviet Union had a better system.

    The US government subsides the system per capita more than France pays for the system!

    50% of the hospital bills were not paid. Instead the debtor used the very American implementation of social security system: personal bankruptcy.

    Prediction: After the pending Big Recession the USA consumes 8% of its GDP to health care.

    — Tontos y locos, nunca fueron pocos.

  • … there might be a way to at least get around airline lobbying. Codesharing!

    We all know that short-distance flights are horribly inefficient and unprofitable, but airlines keep them around because eliminating them would also eliminate passengers for their profitable, long-distance connecting flights. I.e. if I want to fly from Kalamazoo, MI to Los Angeles (via Chicago), and United Airlines discontinues the Kzoo-Chicago leg of it, I might use American Airlines instead – but then I’ll *also* use American for the Chicago-L.A. leg, and United has lost me as a customer.

    So instead of trying to out-lobby the airlines in the short-distance market (which I think is hopeless), what if the midwestern high-speed rail company could work out a “codeshare” agreement with the airlines? The airlines could buy blocks of seats on the trains and sell them to their customers as “connecting flights”.

    – The airlines win by finding a much more cost-effective way of moving their passengers over sub-500 mile distances;
    – The rail system wins by selling a whole bunch of tickets – essentially having a whole bunch of would-be airline passengers funneled right to them!
    – The passengers win by having more reliable “connecting flights” (fewer weather-related cancellations), *much* more comfortable seats and by arriving right at the heart of their destination (rather than the airport). Oh, also the overall ticket price would end up being lower. Although, in some cases, a connecting train ride would take somewhat longer than an actual flight over the same distance.

    Of course, the catch is that there have to be convenient train stations inside the major airports (or very, very close to them), but given the proposed alignment for the midwestern high-speed rail, it shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange (the trains can be routed right by the airports in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Mpls – St. Paul, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Cleveland).


    We usually have good connections from trains or buses to major airports (Note: if you use a low fare aircarrier, check in which forest it has its airport. Don’t be fooled if they call the forest with a sexy name like Stockholm). Ferries have that ‘codesharing’ with trains and buses (50% discount in a train or bus). There is even a train stop in Turku harbour. Usually good connectivity is planned by the ministry of traffic.

    Aircarriers can’t have stops in a city center like a train.

    We have got some car carrier trains too for Lapland holiday resorts.

    I wonder if the tampering of train routes by aircarriers is according to the US antitrust legislation. Sounds like what Rockefeller did …

    — Tontos y locos, nunca fueron pocos.

  • Reality is that the vested interests of the oil econonmy–from cars, to suburbia, to air conditioning units–are deep enough, the players powerful enough and the amount of money sloshing around great enough to stave off the change until it all falls apart. There’s a phrase for that: willful ignorance.

    We phrase it in other words: “The USA is run by industrialists”. It is not only oil, military complex receives money to make toys which do not work. Of course, part of that money returns back to politicians.

    — Tontos y locos, nunca fueron pocos.

  • and losing some more cities like New York…

    thinks an insurance company. No idea if they are right or wrong but they do not issue new insurance in New York because of hurricane risk.

    — Tontos y locos, nunca fueron pocos.

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