Saturday, July 04, 2015

Eags Is Burnin' Hot Today & So Is Seattle

Seattle is hot (not in the good sense) and so is Eags. Today on July 4th, Eags is an environmental patriot. His bête noire on environmental matters is Senator James (Jim) Imhofe (R-OK) who chairs the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In fact, Imhofe is an environmental traitor. If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration of environmental patriotism, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Seattle On The Mediterranean
By Eags {Timothy Egan}

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

Oh, the ceaseless Seattle sun. June just set another record — the hottest ever recorded in this city, closing out the warmest first half of a year.

Seattle is farther north than Maine and Montreal, and yet, over the last month or so, it’s been hotter here than Athens, Rome or Los Angeles on many a day. We had eight days at 85 degrees or higher in June. On Sunday, east of the Cascade Mountains, it hit 113 degrees in Walla Walla.

London and Paris, two cities that share a similar climate to Seattle’s, both set heat records this week — 98, the hottest July day in British history, and 103.5 in the City of Light.

As a native Seattleite, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a place where it’s sunny every day. Now that I’m experiencing something close to that, I feel out of sorts in a strange land. Wildfires burn today in the Olympic Mountains west of Seattle, a forest zone that is typically one of the rainiest places on earth.

Sure, my backyard grapes, my tomatoes, my Meyer lemons and my rosemary plants love it. This is Sicily in Seattle, with nearly 16 hours of daylight. June, known for its cloudy gloom, was “probably the sunniest month in Northwest history,” wrote the University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass on his weather blog.

The experts, Professor Mass among them, do not think the broiling of the Pacific Northwest can be attributed to climate change. Rather, they credit a huge dome of high pressure to the west and warm ocean temperatures. But they say that what we’ve experienced over the last 16 months is an indication of what this part of the world will be like after the earth has warmed by several degrees.

So, what’s not to like?

For starters, brown does not fit an emerald city. Not just every homeowner’s lawn, now the color of a baked potato, but alpine meadows, fields and deciduous trees that have given up for the year, shedding potato-chip crisp leaves as if it were October.

As anyone in California could say, get used to it. Or get a fake lawn. Or grow cactus plants. Summers in the Northwest are usually dry, mild and humidity-free — this is just an extreme version. Stop complaining.

In the withering heat, I can still look south and see the glaciers of Mount Rainier, holding the frozen legacy of winters long past. Water, as snow or ice, is not just the master architect of the Northwest, but the main reason the islands, the mountains, the forests of this place are so beautiful.

Take away the snow and change happens quickly. Salmon need cold water. Cherries, apples, peaches, wine grapes — all of which the Northwest grows in abundance — need that snowmelt as well. In mid-May, a statewide drought emergency was declared, after the snowpack in the Cascades was measured at the lowest level in 64 years.

Ahead, we could face major wildfires, in places where 500-year-old trees are draped with tendrils of green. Salmon-spawning rivers could be shallow and warm in early fall — lethal to this region’s iconic symbol.

Here, at least, it’s fish and trees that are stressed. Elsewhere, it’s people. More than 1,000 people died in Pakistan last month in one of the deadliest heat waves in history.

All of this has made me curse Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who calls the global scientific consensus on climate change “the greatest hoax.” And sadly, it matters what he says, because Inhofe chairs the Senate committee in charge of doing something about climate change. As such, he’s determined to prevent the world’s second biggest producer of carbon dioxide — the United States — from doing anything.

Inhofe is famous for bringing a snowball to the floor of the Senate to prove his point. What he proved is that there are Labradors with more common sense than a senator with a peanut for a brain.

At the other end of the spectrum is Pope Francis. In his recent encyclical on climate change, he made a plea to our better angels, a plea to take “care of our common home.” It’s a nice sentiment, but with people like Inhofe guiding American policy, altruism alone will never work.

We need to act out of self-interest, as well. I love my little patch of the planet. Love the glaciers in August, the rivers at full flush, carpets of evergreen trees and a predominant breeze from Puget Sound that provides natural air-conditioning for more than three million people in the Seattle metro area.

We may lose this. The current heat is a precursor, an early peek at a scary tomorrow. Inhofe’s ignorance could have a direct effect on the place we leave our grandchildren.

Before giving in to a future in which the Pacific Northwest bakes, burns and shrivels, we have to defend the natural world — place by place. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2015 The New York Times Company

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..

Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Friday, July 03, 2015

And, If You Come To DC, You Can See The Pigskin Version Of The Confederate Flag

Dave Zirin ahs written some wonderful snark today in describing the link between white racism in defense of a treasonous flag and white racism in defense of the name of the NFL team in Washington, DC. Both glorify ethnic cleansing no matter how it is carried out: with a gun, a noose, or destruction of a church with bombs or arson torches. Small wonder that The Trumpster feels that he has license to defame people who migrate to this country from Mexico. We live in a time of deracination as white racists spew their noxious words and symbols without pause for decency. If this is a (fair & balanced) call for the end to race hatred, so be it.

[x The Nation]
The Confederate Flag, The Washington Football Team, And The Owners Who Love Them
By Dave Zirin

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

It may be literally the least they could do, but it’s a victory for human decency that the Confederate flag will no longer be available at Walmart, Amazon, Sears, and eBay. Even though it is heartbreaking that it took the murder of nine people to get ghouls like Nikki Haley and Lindsay Graham as well as their corporate masters to see it as a public-relations liability, it also raises a question. If the Confederate flag is too toxic to sell, then how can Amazon and Walmart continue to peddle the merchandise of a Washington football team that bears the name of a racial slur? How can they stock the blood-red profile of a Native American chieftain’s head adorned with feathers and a brand—no matter what revisionists argue—that celebrates their violent death?

I contacted Jackie Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland and a founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry. Her words should be read and reread:

“When I hear an spokesperson for eBay calling the Confederate flag ‘a symbol of divisiveness and racism’ after announcing that they are banning the sale of it from their site, I wonder why I can still search eBay and find over 100,000 Redskins items for sale. Studies and the APA [American Psychiatric Association] have repeatedly warned of the harm being pigeonholed and stereotyped does to Native youths’ self-esteem—and Native youth have the highest rates of suicide in the country, three and a half times that of their peers, but it happens where the rest of America does not look. Native men have the highest rates of police brutality and Native women the highest rates of murder and rape. These deaths are invisible to an America that does not weep for our dead. They cheer for the stereotype and paint themselves up in grotesque caricatures of us, but do they think about what cost we bear for that bit of fun? Is it worth it? I look forward to the day eBay and others like Walmart refuse to make a buck off of a bit of our soul.”

The Confederate flag, for those who believe it belongs not just in a museum but on fire, is a symbol not only of the Southern states or the Klan but of the great crime upon which this country was economically developed: the transatlantic slave trade. But that wasn’t the only crime. A prerequisite to the plantation economy was land acquisition and the near-eradication of the indigenous population. Part of acknowledging our history as a settler nation built on slavery is acknowledging that an entire systemic apparatus has developed to keep down those upon whom Plymouth Rock landed.

I contacted Suzan Shown Harjo, the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist and president of the Morningstar Institute, to ask for her thoughts. She said,

“There is no disconnect between the white supremacy against African-Americans seen in the rebel flag and that against Native Americans in the racist sports stereotypes. These symbols open deep wounds of ancestors massacred, skinned, and murdered just for being Indians. We hope some will gain awareness and courage, and will act on the racism within their reach,”

Harjo is right. There is especially “no disconnect” when we consider the person who named the Washington football team, its original owner George Preston Marshall. Marshall loved minstrelsy and was, in the words of his contemporary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, the NFL’s “leading bigot.” It is no coincidence that this owner of the last team to integrate in the NFL was also the person who named his team after a racial slur. It is no coincidence that this same owner, a man who insisted that “Dixie” be played at home games, was also a person who saw Native Americans as less than human.

It’s time for a change. But just as George Preston Marshall was a stubborn holdout against racial progress, the team today has another owner who is a proud dead-ender: Dan Snyder. The record of Dan Snyder’s defending this name and his various schemes to win public favor in Indian Country has produced one public-relations debacle after another. Reasons for his pigheaded obstinacy on this issue have been subject of much curiosity. Given the incredible list of tribal councils, organizations, media outlets, politicians, and former players that have called upon him to change the name, people wonder why he clings to this the way Lindsay Graham and Nikki Haley clung to that flag before the horrors of last week. It doesn’t really matter why Snyder won’t change the name, but allow me to speculate. Having observed Dan Snyder for almost two decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is not rooted in economics or Snyder’s privately nurtured bigotries.

When I first moved to Washington, DC, the name was something rarely discussed. As this conversation began to surface in recent years, Snyder was so bellicose, so unable to even sit down with those who disagree with him that he has developed a small cult following among a subset of fans of the team. Dan Snyder is the least popular owner in sports, seen as an interfering bully who has stood over two decades of futility of a once-proud franchise. He is also an awkward, sweaty, twitchy hot mess when out in public. But because of his sneering defense of the name, Snyder finally has fans of his own. They chant “Keep the Name” in bars while Snyder grins and pumps his fist. He has taken this objectively racist name—a dictionary-defined slur—and turned it into the football version of the Confederate flag. But none of that matters to him, because finally, Dan Snyder has fans of his own. Hope he enjoys it in the present. Like those who have wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag, he will find that the future will not be so kind. Ω

[Dave Zirin is The Nation's sports editor. He is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (2007), A People's History of Sports in the United States (2009), The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World (2011), and Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down (2013). His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports and The Progressive. He also was named one of the "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World" by Utne Magazine. Zirin graduated from Macalester College.]

Copyright © 2015 The Nation

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..

Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Travel Tip: If You Want To Visit A Place That Is Too Stupid For Democracy & Can't Afford Greece — Try Texas

Pig says it best in the final panel of today's "Pearls Before Swine": "I'm far too stupid for democracy." He could be speaking for both Greece and the European Union. Another explanation for the latest international crisis is provided by history professor Robert Zaretsky who turns to one of the earliest historians, Thucydides of Athens. People were too stupid for democracy in the 5th century BC and they are no smarter in 2015. If this is a (fair & balanced) historical lesson, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
What Would Thucydides Say About The Crisis In Greece?
By Robert Zaretsky

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

A foreign delegation representing a powerful alliance confronts a small Mediterranean country with an ultimatum. Either join our alliance, pay ruinous dues and cede your national sovereignty, or you will be destroyed. Unwilling to allow the delegation to present its case to their fellow citizens, the country’s political elite tries to buy time. But appeals to reason, pragmatism and common decency fail to budge the visitors. When the elite finally replies that it is not prepared to surrender its nation’s freedom, the delegation withdraws and, true to its threat, crushes the rebellious country.

Sound familiar? Apart from a few details, the situation resembles the present standoff between Greece and the European Union. Yet this particular scene took place 2,500 years ago. Then, too, Greece was the arena, with the powerful city-state of Athens pitted against the small island of Melos. In his magnificent history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recreates, or perhaps created, the encounter in 416 BC between the commanders of an Athenian fleet and leaders of the small island polis of Melos. There are sobering parallels between then and now that may offer insight into our current predicament.

During their war against Sparta, the Athenians demanded that Melos join the Delian League. Originally a defensive alliance that Greek city-states had created following the second Persian invasion, the league had become a tool of Athenian imperialism. Member states, unable to secede, were subject to Athenian dictate and forced to pay annual tribute. Their complaints were met with Athens’s reply that the alliance, whether or not the members agreed, was for their own good. The democracy Athens practiced at home, in short, did not extend to the governance of its league.

What historians call the Melian Dialogue is Thucydides’s depiction of the endgame to this policy — what Victor Davis Hanson has called Athens’s “reign of terror.” The war between Athens and Sparta was already nearly two decades old, yet no end was in sight. With its citizens weary and restless, Athens adopted a brutal political calculus, declaring that those city-states not with them were, quite simply, against them. They threatened a neutral Melos with physical destruction if it refused to join the Delian League.

Of course, the parallel falls short in many ways. Melos was a neutral state, while modern Greece not only joined the European Union but over the years merrily plundered its treasury. And Melos did not invite an unprecedented sovereign debt crisis or engage in unsustainable social policies as Greece did over the last decade and more.

But what was at stake then and now is, first of all, the issue of national sovereignty versus supranational organizations. “Europe” was born, in part, of the fear of Stalin’s Russia, no less threatening and grim than Xerxes’ Persia. But, like the Delian League after the evaporation of the Persian threat, the original basis for unthinking allegiance to Europe disappeared with the Soviet Union’s disintegration. (The Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s recent fruitless meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin echoes the Melian hope that Sparta would fly to their rescue.)

More recently, though, the prospect of a different kind of autocratic rule has unsettled a growing number of Europeans. Looming behind the euro has been the blunt fact of Germany’s strict monetary and economic policies, the edginess of a European Central Bank preoccupied by the specter of inflation and the eagerness of the European Union’s Council of Ministers to make policy in what is the near-total absence of democratic process.

As a result, twined with the financial debt facing Greece is Europe’s notorious “democratic deficit.” Several years ago the historian Tony Judt observed that there was “a sense that decisions were being taken ‘there’ with unfavorable consequences for us ‘here’ and over which ‘we’ had no say.” That more or less accurate perception has only grown since he wrote those words.

In this respect, Brussels bureaucrats are little different from the Athenian delegation: Both come making offers their friends can’t refuse. When Europe’s leaders insist that Greece belongs to the European “homeland” whether it likes it or not, ignore the growing social unrest and political paralysis in Greece, and refuse to reconsider the austerity package they previously negotiated with Athens’s former governing coalition, we are not that far from the Athenian claim at Melos that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” In this light, the resistance of today’s Greece on behalf of freedom and dignity recapitulates the earlier response of the Melians. The difference, perhaps, is that force then came with phalanxes and triremes, not economic diktats and monetary threats.

When Thucydides declared his work was “a possession for all time,” he meant that its relevance was as fixed and unchanging as was human behavior. Like his friend, the tragedian Sophocles, he would not be surprised that the blindness and hubris that undid ancient Athens remain with us today, and that the noble and humanist aims that once animated the European project have given way to unbending technocratic impulses. The ironist in Thucydides would appreciate that the very monuments in Athens, largely funded by its imperial mastery, might end up as collateral offered to new imperial masters by its battered and bemused descendant. Ω

[Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author, most recently, of Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015). Zaretsky received a BA (philosophy) from McGill University, an MA (history) from the University of Vermont, and a PhD (history) from the University of Virginia.]

Copyright  2015 The New York Times Company

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..

Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Following The Bouncing Ball All Of The Way To Athens

The international media is jabbering about the Greek economic crisis. Lots of words, very little clarity. Professor Anil K Kashyap offers help in this blog today. If this is a (fair & balanced) dismal story, so be it.

[x Booth School of Business — University of Chicago]
A Primer On The Greek Crisis: The Things You Need To Know
By Anil K Kashyap

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

1) How did Greece get into such trouble?

Greece from the mid-1990s until last year was constantly spending more than it was collecting in tax revenues. For most of this time, the country’s initially reported numbers showed small differences that were subsequently found to have been much larger. The revisions tended to be most substantial right after elections when a new government would find that its predecessor was much more profligate than had been reported. Because of these deficits, the country borrowed to cover the shortfalls and its debt burden was steadily rising.

In the fall of 2009, a then newly elected government reported that the deficit for that year was going to be 13.6 percent of economic output and that the deficits in 2007 and 2006 were also larger than had been reported. From that point onward, the world began to wonder if Greece really could pay the debt that it had issued or needed to default. Its borrowing costs rose sharply and the country began looking for ways to reduce its required debt payments and end its borrowing addiction.

2) Wasn’t Greece already bailed out in 2010?

By the spring of 2010 the excessive debt problem became unbearable and there was open speculation that Greece would default. The country had done this on four occasions previously since 1800. Much of the government debt was owed to banks outside of Greece, with the largest amounts in France and Germany. So if Greece had stopped paying, the French and German banks would have suffered substantial losses.

Greece was lent new money in 2010, but as Karl Otto Pohl former head of the German central bank observed at the time much of that money was used to repay the obligations owned by the French and German banks. The new lending was advertised by the politicians across Europe as a rescue for Greece.But it was at least as much a deal to buy time for the banks and other owners of Greek debt to avoid a default. Greece did avoid default, but the support came with requirements designed to make sure that the country end its chronic deficit spending
3) Why did that rescue fail?

To justify the new lending, the lenders had to be assured that the deficits would end and that the country would grow enough to be able to service its debt. In May of 2010, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led at the time by Dominique Strauss Kahn, who had ambitions of running for the presidency of France, conducted an analysis to see if such a scenario was realistic. The report at the time concluded that if Greece undertook drastic reforms it could close its deficits and begin growing so that over time the debt (including the new lending that was being provided) would be manageable.

This analysis was later shown to be deeply flawed by the IMF itself [PDF]. The Greeks did actually cut their deficits substantially, but many of the reforms that were supposed to support growth did not occur and the economy contracted substantially. So the debt, relative to the size of the economy, did not improve. Importantly, no debt was written off in 2010, even though many analysts, including some on the executive Board of the IMF, at the time believed that it was necessary and that the banks and other private sector owners of the debt should have taken some losses.

4) What is the troika (or the institutions) and what do they have to do with this?

The new lending in 2010 came from two sources, a fund that was raised from European governments and the IMF. The bailout fund was overseen by the finance ministers of these governments. The European Central Bank also provided support to Greece in two ways. First, it allowed banks in Greece (and everywhere else) to borrow from it by posting bonds guaranteed by Greece as the collateral. Second, it bought some Greek government bonds in the open market. So all three of these organizations were now exposed to losses in the event that Greece ever defaulted. As such, they had representatives that met regularly with the Greek government to make sure that the reforms were on track. Initially the three were called the troika. Subsequently, they have also been referred to as “the institutions”.

5) Wasn’t Greece also bailed out in 2012?

By late 2010 it was already clear that the debt burden might prove to be unsustainable. So discussions began over reducing the debt. The Greek government was supposed to sell some assets to retire some of the debt. That never happened and as the recession continued it was clear that the 2010 plan was not going to be adequate. So in March 2012 a second bailout program with revised terms was undertaken.

The IMF lent additional money, but the main conditions that accompanied the funding were largely the same. Once again, the cornerstones of the plan continued to be steps to make tax collection more efficient, to reduce spending promises, and to undertake reforms to encourage hiring and business expansion that would support growth. It was not clear why this plan would be more successful than the first one.

The European Central Bank meanwhile became more deeply committed to stabilizing financial markets. ECB President Mario Draghi famously said in July 2012 that “within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.” Draghi’s statement immediately led to a drop in borrowing costs for governments across Europe and the pressure on Greece temporarily subsided.

By continuing to allow banks everywhere to use Greek debt as collateral, the ECB also created conditions that supported the trading of Greek debt. By this time the French and German banks had shed their exposure to Greece so that they would no longer be directly harmed if there was a default. So the stealth rescue of the non-Greek banks was completed with little public attention and the narrative that all the problems were self-inflicted by the Greeks became more pronounced.

6) Why is Greece in trouble again now?

In the time since Draghi’s statement three important things happened in Greece. First, Greece made further substantial progress on closing its deficits. By late 2014, Greece was finally spending less than it was collecting, although the interest payments on debt meant there was still an overall deficit. So for the first time since Greece adopted the euro it had budget position that was solid.

Second, the economy contracted for two more years as the reforms failed to deliver higher growth. Certainly the higher tax collections and reduced government spending contributed to the weak performance, but the degree to which the planned reforms, if fully implemented, could have offset that remains controversial. It is important to also recognize the massive collapse was preceded by a very large debt-fueled boom.

Austerity notwithstanding, the economy seemed to have reached bottom and was finally beginning to recover in late 2014. A very interesting counterfactual scenario is to contemplate what would have happened if the political situation had allowed this progress to continue.

The third major development, however, was that the public lost confidence in the incumbent government and its lenders. Unemployment in Greece has remained above 25% for years and was much higher for young people. So the citizens were fed up. Hence, in 2015 the public voted for a new government that insisted on deviating from the past playbook.

The major party in the new coalition, Syriza, is often referred to a coalition of the radical left. In January 2015, newly elected Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sought to reopen negotiations with Greece’s creditors.

7) What is the Greek government asking for?

The Tsipras government wanted three types of changes. First, it wanted to restore some of the spending cuts that had been enacted. Second, it wanted to reverse some of the revenue hikes that the past governments had instituted. These first two requests would have widened the deficit and also reorganized priorities within the budget. (In fact, once it became clear that Syriza was going to win the election, tax revenues began shrinking as the public stopped paying some unpopular taxes).

Finally, it wanted outright forgiveness of some of the debt that had accumulated.

Since taking office, Tsipras has been negotiating with the creditors over for a new set of agreements. The creditors have made some modest concessions but are largely insisting on a continuation of similar plans.

When he failed to secure these changes, Tsipras announced that he would have the Greek people vote on a referendum on July 6th over whether Greece would vote yes to accept the creditors latest offer or vote no to reject it.

8) Why do the institutions disagree with the government?

There are two sources of objections that the creditors have with Tsipras’ requests.

First, and probably most importantly, countries such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, had all had to undertake similar types of adjustment as in Greece. None of them saw their economies collapse to the extent of Greece, but unemployment especially among the young is also high in all these countries. Hence, if there are substantial concessions to Greece, then these countries will insist upon getting similar treatment. The existing governments in these countries all realize that if electing a radical government in Greece is seen as being rewarded, then voters elsewhere will do the same.

The money needed to save Greece could easily be found. Greece is a small economy, so even though their debt is large when judged relative to Greece’s economy, it is small relative to the overall capacity in Europe. In contrast, the money needed to forgive debt in the other countries, especially Italy and Spain, is not affordable for Germany (and all the other Northern European countries that would have to foot the bill).

Second, even if there was some way that Greece could be helped without setting a precedent, the officials do not trust the Greeks to carry through with any plans. The fact that Prime Minister Tsipras is asking for a public referendum to accept a continuation of prior policies was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tsipras is arguing that the public should reject the plans, but he says that if the public prefers to accept them, then he will go along with that. The institutions doubt that he could reverse his position and suddenly begin taking steps which he has campaigned against for years. They also are infuriated that he believes his mandate to get better terms supersedes the ones that other elected governments had from their citizens that wanted no more bailouts.

Another consideration is that IMF, the ECB and the other European leaders believe that unlike before if Greece defaults the spillovers can be managed.

9) Why is the IMF loan that is coming due so important?

The IMF made loans in 2010 to Greece that no private lender would have been willing to make. It did so with the presumption that it would be first in line to be repaid subsequently.

For failing businesses in many countries, there is analogous arrangement where in a bankruptcy situation a judge can decide that a business is worth more if it can continue to operate with some new funding, than if it was closed and sold off immediately. In that case, the new funding gets highest priority for repayment (otherwise no one will lend) and a judge will make sure that is the case. For countries, enforcing this priority is a problem since there is no court or other authority that can compel a country to pay.

Greece has now announced that it will not pay the IMF the €1.55 billion that it is owed on Tuesday (June 30); once it has defaulted, Greece becomes an international pariah. To preserve its own ability to operate in future crises, the IMF must insist on being repaid. If it ever accepts the idea that a country can default if things go south, then it will never get repaid in the future. So the IMF will continue to seek repayment, no matter how flawed the analysis that led to the lending in the first place.

Interestingly, Greece did make a small payment to the European bailout fund, so it will not be in default to that lender even if it does fall behind with the IMF.

10) What did the ECB decide this weekend and why is Greece closing its banks?

The ECB decided it could no longer keep accepting additional collateral from the Greek banks that was guaranteed by the Greek government. This means no more extraordinary lending will be extended. The ECB was worried that Greece might not honor the obligations and hence it could be left with collateral that would be insufficient to cover the loans it extended already. This is in keeping with Draghi’s promise of staying within the ECB mandate; lending when losses are expected would be clearly illegal.

However, the ECB has not completely cut off its support to Greece. The ECB could have recalled all of its loans, or demanded even more collateral for the existing loans. But for the Greek banks this removed the only viable option for obtaining more cash. They do not have assets that they can sell to come up with more cash. So without the ECB’s full support, they are in serious trouble.

Greece has closed the banks so that depositors cannot take out all of their money. There are now limits on how much depositors can get from ATMs and limits on wire transfers. So depositors are nervous and scared about what is going to happen.

11) What can Greece do to save its economy now?

Greece must either find a new lender, which seems very unlikely, or survive with very little credit for a while; Russia will not step in to offer support, since doing so would likely wind up with some of the resources transferred to other creditors and Russia has its own big fiscal problems.

If there is a no vote, Greece will likely stop payments on all debt. Being cut off from credit markets, it will now be forced to match its spending to the revenue it is receiving. To ease the burden, the government will likely distribute IOUs of some form to government employees, vendors and pensioners. It may even have to use IOUs to fund the referendum.

These IOUs will likely circulate as a form of money alongside the euro. People will strongly prefer euros to the IOUs, so the IOUs will trade at a discount.

Some people and businesses may resort to bartering.

12) Why not just bring back the drachma?

The public will have little confidence in the IOUs that the government issues. Probably even less confidence if Greece opts to officially introduce a new currency. Reintroducing the drachma would be totally illegal under European law and form the basis for a law suit to force Greece out of the European Union (EU). As part of the EU, Greek citizens can travel freely and work anywhere within Europe. Greek goods are also allowed to be sold without being subject to tariffs. Expulsion from the EU would be devastating.

Issuing IOUs which are not officially touted as a currency is a better option for Greece for now.

13) Will the Greek crisis spread?

It depends largely on what citizens make of the impending chaos in Greece. If people believe that their governments also might default on debt, they could also try to get money out of the banks. Likewise, investors could refuse to buy newly issued debt.

The ECB is likely to be able to head off both these problems. It is already buying debt and can do more of that. It also can lend against the collateral guaranteed by these governments. The ECB can probably contain the immediate fallout.

The political contagion is much harder to assess. Perhaps if Greece emerges in better shape in the medium term, then other countries will follow. Tsipras was betting that this concern would be so powerful that Europe would never take this risk.

14) What is likely to happen next in Greece?

The outcome of the referendum now becomes critical. If the public votes “yes”, then perhaps the existing government (likely reorganized) will be able to reopen the banks and conclude a deal.

But, if the public sides with Tsipras government, then there will be a very sharp recession over the next few months. Tax collection is likely to collapse. The Tsipras government is unlikely to survive the economic collapse.

If the post-Tsipras government opts to proceed with the default, then the next big unknown is how long before the economy stabilizes. At some point Greece will be a very attractive tourist destination, and its goods that are no longer priced in euros will be more competitive, so at some point the economy will begin to turn around. Whether this takes months or quarters will depend on many decisions that are difficult to forecast now.

15) What happens to the IMF if its loan is not repaid?

It will continue to pursue its claim against Greece. Greece will not be able to borrow internationally until it makes peace with the IMF. So the IMF will eventually be repaid. This could take years.

The IMF is likely to be criticized further for the recommendations it made, particularly in 2010. Perhaps it will be reformed to limit its discretion in lending.

Traditionally the head of the IMF has been a European. That is very likely to change since many countries believe that Greece was treated preferentially because it was a European country.

16) What happens to the ECB if Greece defaults?

The loans made to Greece are extended by the Greek central bank, which in turn borrows from the ECB. So the ECB will have a large claim against the Greek central bank that is likely to turn into a significant loss.

17) Can the ECB survive if Greece defaults?

The ECB can definitely continue even if Greece defaults. The ECB has provisions set aside to cover some losses. It also is making lots of profits on the bonds it owns (that it pays for with money that pays no interest). So the Greek losses per se are not a problem.

A default by a larger country such as Italy or Spain would be very different.

18) What should have been done to avert this crisis?

Greece should have defaulted in 2010. Its debt burden then was unsustainable and nothing since then has changed this. It is true that financial markets were much more jittery at that time, but the money that was raised to pay off the creditors in that bailout could have been diverted to support Greece and other weak countries. Once the bad rescue of 2010 was undertaken, it was inevitable that some form of debt relief was going to be necessary.

Imagine how different the political dynamics in Europe would have been if the German and French banks had been explicitly bailed out. Ω

[Anil K Kashyap is the Edward Eagle Brown Professor of Economics and Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His research focuses on banking, business cycles, corporate finance, price setting, and monetary policy. His research has won him numerous awards, including a Sloan Research Fellowship, the Nikkei Prize for Excellent Books in Economic Sciences, and a Senior Houblon-Norman Fellowship from the Bank of England. Kashyap graduated from the University of California-Davis iwith a BA (economics and statistics with highest honors). He also received a PhD (economics) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.]

Copyright © 2015 Anil K Kashyap

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..

Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Gimme A Dose Of Li, But Hold The Side-Effects

Today, Jaime Lowe tells a tale of the devastating effect of bipolar disorder and the side effects of the lithium which she has taken to control her manic episodes. If this is a (fair & balanced) profile in courage, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
I Don’t Believe In God, But I Believe In Lithium
By Jaime Lowe

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

The manila folder is full of faded faxes. The top sheet contains a brief description of my first medically confirmed manic episode, more than 20 years ago, when I was admitted as a teenager to U.C.L.A.’s Neuropsychiatric Institute: “Increased psychomotor rate, decreased need for sleep (about two to three hours a night), racing thoughts and paranoid ideation regarding her parents following her and watching her, as well as taping the phone calls that she was making.”

I believed I had special powers, the report noted; I knew ‘‘when the end of the world was coming due to toxic substances’’ and felt that I was the only one who could stop it. There was also an account of my elaborate academic sponsorship plan so I could afford to attend Yale — some corporation would pay for a year of education in exchange for labor or repayment down the line. (Another grand delusion. I was a B-plus student, at best.)

After I was admitted to the institute's adolescent ward, I thought the nurses and doctors and therapists were trying to poison me. So was the TV in the rec room. I warned my one friend in the ward that its rays were trying to kill him. The generator outside my window was pumping in gas. The place, I was sure, was a death camp.

I refused meds because they were obviously agents of annihilation. It took four orderlies to medicate me: They pinned me to the floor while a nurse plunged a syringe into my left hip. Over time, I became too tired to refuse medication. Or perhaps the cocktail of antipsychotics started working. The Dixie cup full of pills included lithium, which slowly took hold of my mania. After a few weeks, I stopped whispering to the other patients that we were all about to be killed. Eventually, I stopped believing it myself.

Mark DeAntonio, the U.C.L.A. psychiatrist who was treating me, said I had bipolar disorder. Here’s the phrasing from the National Institute of Mental Health: ‘‘unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called ‘mood episodes.’ Each mood episode represents a drastic change from a person’s usual mood and behavior. An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode.’’ The generic definition doesn’t quite cover the extremes of the disease or its symptoms, which include inflated self-esteem, sleeplessness, loquaciousness, racing thoughts and doing things that, according to the Mayo Clinic, ‘‘have a high potential for painful consequences — for example, unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions or foolish business investments.’’

I was only 17, young at that time to receive a bipolar diagnosis. Most of the teenagers on the ward were there for eating disorders or depression. I had to eat my meals alone because my food intake wasn’t restricted or monitored, as it was for everyone else. I made moccasins in occupational therapy and played volleyball with the eating-disorder girls in recreational therapy. I went from being locked in solitary confinement, clawing at the soft brown walls, to being granted TV privileges. I was even allowed to hold the remote and choose the channel. Visitors came and left presents and balloons and a big get-well note on poster board signed in puffy paint and Sharpies by all my high-school friends.

Lithium, a mood stabilizer that can help stop and prevent manic cycles, is usually the first medication tried with bipolar patients; it’s effective for most of them. Including me. I was discharged and sent back to high school with an apple-size bruise on my hip. For two decades since then, I have been taking lithium almost continuously. It has curbed my mania, my depression and, most significant, the wild delusional cycles that have taken me from obsessing over the value of zero to creating a hippie cult (my uniform: bell-bottoms, psychedelic sports bra and body glitter, head to toe). As long as I take those three pink lithium-carbonate capsules every day, I can function. If I don’t, I will be riding on top of subway cars measuring speed and looking for light in elevated realms.

The use of lithium as a therapy for mental illness goes back to at least Greek and Roman times, when people soaked in alkali-rich mineral springs to soothe both ‘‘melancholia’’ and ‘‘mania.’’ In the mid-1800s, lithium was thought to cure gout and sometimes ‘‘brain gout,’’ a lovely description for mania, extending the notion of swollen joints to a swollen brain. The element gets its name from lithos, the Greek word for stone, and lithium is indeed found in granite — and in seawater, mineral springs, meteorites, the sun and every other star and all humans. It is classified as a metal on the periodic table of elements. It was first identified as a solid in the form of petalite ore on the Swedish island Utö in 1817. A year later, scientists found that lithium, when ground into powder, turned flames crimson red — it’s the key ingredient in red fireworks. Fiery and unstable, lithium somehow calms emotional states often characterized in the same way.

Despite the fact that people have benefited from its use for millenniums, how lithium works upon brains is largely unknown. ‘‘It has so-called trophic or fertilizing activity on the brain — that is, it stabilizes membranes,’’ says James Kocsis, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and an expert on lithium. But the actual mechanics are a mystery. One way to think about its effect, though, is suggested by a 2007 UCLA study that found that bipolar patients taking lithium had significantly more gray matter than their counterparts, especially in the region associated with a person’s capacity to maintain attention and emotional control.

One of the first references to lithium in a neurological context appears in 1870, by a neurologist in Philadelphia named Silas Weir Mitchell, who recommended the compound lithium bromide as an anticonvulsant and a hypnotic for epileptic patients. But by the turn of the century, medical lithium had largely been supplanted by other treatments. Then, in 1947, John Cade, a psychiatrist working in a hospital outside Melbourne, Australia, rediscovered its medicinal potential. Cade was among the first to conclude that mental illness included bodily manifestations and thus should be treated with medication, not just talk therapy. ‘‘It required a change in how people understand mental illness,’’ says Robert Beech, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University who conducts studies of medical lithium. He describes this insight as a shift from ‘‘more psychological, Freudian explanations to a biological explanation.’’

Cade, whose father was also a psychiatrist, was at first simply trying to isolate the cause of mania. Having noticed that the urine of manic patients was unlike that of his stable subjects, he figured the distinguishing component, uric acid, was responsible for the mania. Seeking to produce that mania in his animal subjects, guinea pigs, he needed a solution in which to supply the uric acid to them, and he chanced to use lithium urate (and later, lithium carbonate). But his guinea pigs became lethargic; instead of inducing mania, he had accidentally discovered a treatment. Cade became convinced lithium could cure many of his patients experiencing symptoms we now associate with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia. To test its safety, he ingested lithium himself; later, he began a trial with 19 patients. The 10 manic subjects [PDF] experienced a significant shift in mood and function, but Cade’s timing was unfortunate. One of his subjects died, probably from a high dose. And toward the end of the ’40s, lithium’s use as a table-salt substitute for congestive heart patients in the United States proved lethal in at least two instances.

But even as these outcomes hindered the widespread application of lithium, studies continued in a number of countries. Gradually, after dosages approached uniformity and careful monitoring became routine, lithium in various compounds was recognized as an acceptable treatment. Lithium gluconate was approved in France in 1961, lithium carbonate in Britain in 1966, lithium acetate in Germany in 1967 and lithium glutamate in Italy in 1970. Among the drug’s champions was an American medical resident named Ronald Fieve, who began experimenting with lithium in 1958, after his adviser at Columbia University returned from Australia with tales of Cade’s experiment. ‘‘It was so effective,’’ Fieve told me, that he was ‘‘treating the most severe bipolar 1 patients, and this lithium brought them back to normalcy in 10 to 15 days.’’

It was not until 1970 that Fieve, now a doctor, and four other psychiatrists successfully lobbied the Food and Drug Administration to approve lithium as a psychiatric medication. ‘‘The F.D.A. was reluctant,’’ he says, ‘‘but we brought enough data that this was a new superb drug for bipolar and that if it was monitored properly, it would be safe.’’

Fieve says that lithium hasn’t been extensively tested as a treatment for other conditions in part because it’s a natural substance: Elements on the periodic table can’t be patented. Pharmaceutical companies therefore have little incentive to promote lithium or develop other uses for it, despite its potential. It has shown promise as a therapy for Alzheimer’s, for example. A study in Japan has shown a sample population to be less likely to commit suicide after drinking tap water containing lithium. In the ’30s and ’40s, 7-Up included lithium citrate as a mood-booster. There were ‘‘lithia beers’’ and a lithium version of Coca-Cola. As recently as last fall, a psychiatrist posed the question on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times: ‘‘Should we all take a bit of lithium?’’

Despite its widespread use as a mood stabilizer, only 5 percent of all lithium production is devoted to medication. The rest goes into things like ceramics, glass and batteries. The tech and electronics industries especially are becoming dependent on the element. A new highway soon to be built will connect the only American lithium mine in operation, Rockwood Lithium, in Silver Peak, NV, to the northern part of the state, where Elon Musk is currently constructing a billion-dollar ‘‘gigafactory’’ to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for his Tesla automobiles.

Rockwood is probably where my pink pills come from. In May, I visited Silver Peak, where David Klawitter, a mechanic at the mine, showed me his swollen red hands. ‘‘The lithium burns sometimes,’’ he said. ‘‘It eats sockets, though, rusts them up solid. You can see what it does to the trucks.’’ In the mid-’60s, Rockwood’s predecessor company, Foote Mineral, located its plant in this mineral-rich wasteland after establishing a method to extract lithium from underground brine. ‘‘We make medical-grade lithium here,’’ Klawitter said. ‘‘We’re processing a pure form of lithium, the purest.’’

Along a dusty road not far from Silver Peak is Alkali Hot Spring, once the bathing grounds for tent-city miners and frontiersmen like the Earp brothers who prospected for gold at the turn of the last century. Hoses now bring lithium water, at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, from the springs to two tubs where the locals still take the waters.

An even larger deposit of lithium, an estimated 50 percent of the world’s supply, lies beneath the Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia. The increasing global demand for lithium has prompted many proclamations, including claims by Bolivians that the landlocked socialist country will become the ‘‘Saudi Arabia of lithium.’’ Economists have been forecasting a lithium economy for decades, and it may well be that someday every car, computer and wearable electronic device — not to mention our energy storehouses — will depend on lithium batteries the way I’ve relied on medicinal lithium for the last 20 years.

By 2000, I had gone seven years without a manic episode. I graduated from the University of California-Davis, with degrees in English and art. I moved to New York and was leading what seemed like a regular life, writing about music for The Village Voice and painting. I went to work every day and paid my rent. If you had met me on the street, I’ll bet you would have thought: This person is normal, has normal problems, approaches the world in a normal way. I decided, along with my psychiatrist of a couple years, Henry Schwartz, to taper off the lithium. Possibly I had been given the wrong diagnosis as an adolescent. Maybe I was past the point of having manic episodes.

After a few months off lithium, I felt energetic, engaged, even electric. It’s hard to know if that feeling was just a ramping up toward mania again or if it was the lifting of a lithium fog. But this is what ended up happening: I turned down jobs and burned all professional bridges with sharp and illogical emails, many of them referring to Eminem; I kept a stash of homemade granola in my pocket to hand out to anyone who would accept a stranger’s dirty pocket granola; I developed an alter ego, a rapper named Jamya; I painted my face with spectacular green-and-gold eye shadow; I was kicked out of a bar without even drinking; I stood on my head every morning; my apartment burned down; I served as the sole witness to a stranger’s wedding on top of the World Trade Center; I wore 800 necklaces and spoke in a slow growl or sometimes a high-pitched squeal; I saved a corgi from being hit by a cab on Central Park West (on which occasion Ben Vereen stopped to call a dog ambulance); I spoke to strangers with the intensity of a car salesman stuck in a Mamet monologue; I preached about Jesus wherever I went, which for a Jew is unusual; I spent almost $700 on butternut squash and assorted seasonal gourds. My clothes smelled of fire, from the burned-out apartment. I scared the scary people on the subway. All that took place over two weeks, maybe three, as I made my way back and forth between Los Angeles and New York.

It was kumquat season and I wanted to be back in New York with Mike, a crush I met a month earlier. He worked in a start-up on the floor below my apartment. In the weeks after the fire, he followed me around with a video camera, mostly because I told him to. A few years ago, he sent me a few scenes on a VHS tape he had stashed away in his parents’ lake house. I watched it recently. I looked pretty and young and magnetic and so crazy. My face was less creased with worry and my hair was coiffed in a deep red Afro, framing perfectly shaped eyebrows. I was sporting my trademark manic style — about 100 sparkling necklaces, 14 layers of clothing in every clashing pattern possible, thick makeup and a pack of Fantasia cigarettes. My voice was hoarse and slow, like a ’40s-era lounge singer.

The video starts with us sitting on Mike’s stoop on Sixth Avenue and Garfield Place in Park Slope, talking with a group of moon-faced teenagers. I guess I already had the ‘‘marry Mike’’ campaign going because I got each of those kids to say, ‘‘You should marry Jaime.’’ In my hip-hop drawl, I started reciting lines from ‘‘Romeo and Juliet.’’ Then the kids chanted with me: ‘‘roses smelling sweet!’’ You can see they’re mesmerized and confused by this pseudo-adult, crazed, clad in a tutu. At the end of the exchange I said, ‘‘You babies are all right!’’ Then I jumped into some Eminem lyrics.

The next scene on the tape is me showing the camera different album covers and singing songs from each album. I’m wearing a cowboy hat, gold pants, a fluorescent flower skirt and all the necklaces in the world. I pause at ‘‘Sweeney Todd’’ and say, ‘‘Oh, this one’s about eating people, so, that’s cool.’’ Mike, off-camera, peppers me with questions, asking me to hold the albums higher or lower or to the side.

The next morning I set up the camera so the lens’s point of view shows what I’ve made — kumquat-and-avocado salad, cubed PowerBars and a glass of wine. I videotape Mike waking up. He negotiates for more sleeping time. I clearly hadn’t slept at all and was now wearing a silver-flecked red bra and a gold skirt. He finally acknowledges me by eating a PowerBar. I say Baruch atah Adonai over the cup of wine, borrowing from the Hebrew prayer. I whisper it as if my voice is a direct line to God. Mike asks me what I’m going to do today.

‘‘Today, I’m going to contact MTV to debate Gore, Bush or Tipper Gore. I hope it’s Tipper. I have a lot of work to do today.’’ Pause. ‘‘I have to change the world.’’

Mike asks me why I’m holding an avocado pit in my hand. ‘‘I saved the pit so we could plant it wherever we decide to land,’’ I say. Then I start talking about a singing toilet bowl, a scene from the musical I had written.

The last fragment of the tape captures that same day at dusk. The camera is pointed toward the floor, and I am dragging Mike up to the roof. You can hear the fatigue in his voice and the growing irritation. He’s resisting, while I’m guiding him upstairs. ‘‘Why are we going on the roof?’’ he asks.

We have to, I insist. He threatens to turn off the camcorder. I ask him to point it at me. Then, on bended knee, I ask him to marry me. ‘‘It’s all set up,’’ I say. The picture turns to snow.

After I watched the tape last year, I chatted with Mike, who is still a close friend. ‘‘I was always a little jealous of what you went through,’’ he told me. ‘‘You’ve had an experience that so few people have had. You’ve lost your mind entirely. It’s almost like you’ve been someone else.’’

What I saw was someone who resembled me, looked related to me, whom I remembered being. It was me without lithium.

After that episode, I went back on lithium and stayed on it, despite the health risks, which include increased thirst, weight gain and memory loss and, more rarely, thyroid deterioration, kidney dysfunction and the same dullness and lethargy experienced by Cade’s guinea pigs. I was scared by what happened when I went off it. Some people who take lithium feel robbed of their natural personality. But for me, at a certain point the mania takes over, and my actions become unbearable, to me and to others. Toward the end of my last episode, I was such a menace that my mother hired a minder to watch me, a Caribbean woman named Alma who would braid my hair into cornrows and take me to 99-cent stores.

I wanted a calmer life. So for the next 13 years, I took my three pink capsules and all was well. I wrote a book, I learned how to cook in an Italian-restaurant kitchen, I had a few relationships that lasted longer than a month, I wrote, I boxed, I traveled, I painted, I took my pills. I was fine.

Then, last fall, I saw my primary physician — and he sent me to the nearest emergency room. He was alarmed at my combination of high creatinine levels, damaged kidneys and heart-attack-level blood pressure (185/130). At Mount Sinai Hospital, my doctor’s fears were confirmed in a matter of days: My kidneys were irreparably damaged, an ‘‘uncommon but not rare’’ side effect of long-term lithium use. I was told I could phase out lithium and start another medication, or face dialysis and a kidney transplant in 10 years.

It doesn’t really feel like an obvious choice; it just feels like two bad options. Switching meds might mean the return of cornrowed, Eminem-obsessed Jamya and many seasonal gourds. Yet tubing up and cleansing my blood until I get a stranger’s kidney quilted into the rest of my insides is hardly more appealing. Test results indicate that my kidneys are working about half as well as they should; Maria DeVita, a nephrologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, told me that if I am to switch to preserve the kidney function I have left, ‘‘the time to strike is now.’’

When I start tapering off lithium a month or two from now, Schwartz will prescribe Depakote, a medicine used to treat bipolar disorder as well as seizures and migraines. The only way to know whether it works is if I don’t have a manic episode. And the idea of waiting for that terrifies me. My boyfriend of three and a half years doesn’t know what I’m like when I’m manic. There’s nothing that I can say that will prepare him. If it happens again, I’m worried I’ll run off and ride the rails or that I’ll be accidentally unfaithful or that I’ll insist on wearing metallic unitards and Mexican wrestling masks or that, worst of all, I just won’t be me, and he won’t be able to remember who I am or that I’m in there somewhere. I worry that without lithium I will lose my job, my partner, my home, my mind … because I’ve been through all this. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in lithium.

Before leaping into the worrisome unknown, I decided to travel to one of the grandest, most delusional places of all, the world’s largest reserve of lithium, in Bolivia. I would make a symbolic pilgrimage to the wellspring of my sanity.

The vastness of Salar de Uyuni is intensified by its mind-bending, flesh-burning, breathtaking altitude. The salt flats spread out 12,000 feet above sea level and bring to mind the biggest, most perfect ice-skating pond imaginable. This part of southern Bolivia consists of 4,000 square miles of what were once prehistoric lakes, now dried up into crust and brine. Scientists say it took three minutes following the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, for the first three elements to emerge — helium, hydrogen and then trace amounts of lithium, atomic number 3. Gazing out at the horizon here in Salar de Uyuni feels like looking back into those earliest moments of the universe. Nearby you can see natural hot springs and the Sol de Mañana, a geothermal spot pockmarked with steamy craters burping boiling mud. The place feels like a hallucination; there’s an island populated by century-old cactuses, a blood-red lagoon, flocks of hot pink wild flamingos and piles of a blindingly white crystalline substance.

There were tire tracks in the salt from four-by-fours. Off in the distance lay an isolated processing plant, christened in 2013 by the Bolivian president, Evo Morales. Evaporation ponds checkered the endless white expanse with shades of aqua.

I walked the crusted, jigsaw surface. I wanted to feel and taste its granularity and saltiness. The far-off Andean peaks floated dreamily, with no visible foundation. As I ran between the salt mounds, cracks accompanied each step. My hiking-boot footprints flooded with milky saltwater. I was so breathless, so thirsty, so thrilled. If ever there has been a perfect backdrop for a grandiose delusion, it is the Salar de Uyuni.

The lithium we have on Earth now — part stardust, part primordial dust and part earth dust — is a constituent part of our planet, one that sometimes shapes personalities. The thought occurred to me that maybe my taking lithium prophesied a lithium-dependent future, connecting it to a past when our world was birthed in fiery lithium explosions. Maybe that capsule filled with a salt, the one that allowed me to function, tethered past, present and future together. But then, extravagant prophecies built on the miraculous powers of a prehistoric element reek of mania.

After a few days of trekking, I stopped at a camp and slept in a building made of salt bricks — a lithium igloo. I sat in the nearby hot springs, in water naturally laden with high concentrations of lithium, and watched the steam rise on the moonshine horizon. If I soaked in this warm bath long enough, I thought, maybe it wouldn’t feel so bad to let go of my medicine. Ω

[aime Lowe is a freelance writer and fact-checker living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB (2008), a biography of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Lowe received a BA (English) from the University of California-Davis and also later attended The University of Edinburgh.]

Copyright © 2015 The New York Times Company

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..

Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves