Frugal Future Happy or Horrifying?

Our economy is built on consumerism – an expanding population buying more stuff every year. If that changes, what would the future look like? If consumer demand declines production would decline with it, and as jobs dry up wages and consumer demand would fall further. There’d be no place to invest capital since businesses would not need to expand. Low wages, bubbles wiping out savings from time to time. We’d see empty housing and shrinking bankrupt towns as people consolidate into major cities.

This isn’t as crazy a concern as you might think. The recent Great Recession offered a taste of life in a failing economy. It made people angry and fearful as well as poorer. And population decline is happening today with the aging of Japan. Fertility rates are dropping while the percentage of old and elderly increase.

A range of economic and cultural factors contribute to Japan’s decline in childbirth: later and fewer marriages, poor work–life balance, increased participation of women in the workforce, a decline in wages and secure employment, small living spaces, and the high cost of raising a child.

Although most married couples have two or more children, a growing number of young people postpone or entirely reject marriage and parenthood. [wikipedia]

Wags have even calculated when the last Japanese baby will be born: the year 3011 (which allows a lot of time to ponder the issue) and offer more causes: men called “herbivores” who are not interested in sex, young women who prefer being single and child-free, and a preference for “virtual” friends among younger people.

Japan leads the way, but other countries are on the same path – including America (where immigration hides the trend.)

I think of America’s shrinking rural towns (like my own) and the Rust Belt. Those areas are responding to a loss of jobs, but what will happen when there’s a nationwide loss of people who need to buy stuff and services?

If automation and robotics keeps production high, maybe stuff will get cheaper and those people who are left will live like kings. But Japan’s economy has been stagnate for decades and the cost of living remains high.

Of course, human beings are complex. Germany has one of Europe’s lowest fertility rates and seems to have a robust economy. Both low fertility rates and emigration affects Eastern Europe, so they may look more like America’s Rust Belt than like Japan.

Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, in contrast, have population booms. As their people spread across the world – as they no doubt will – cultures will change everywhere. It’s historically appropriate to expect the next great tide of human migration to come Out Of Africa.

I’m sure the Great Depression, which forced so many families off their subsistence farms, was a disaster for those who lived through it – but how many of us would go back? From the other side of whatever shift is coming, I optimistically assume that you and I will be an unlamented barbaric past.

I recently heard a TV interview with Emrys Westacott, author of The Wisdom of Frugality-Why Less is More.

For more than two millennia, so many philosophers and people with a reputation for wisdom have been advocating frugality and simple living as the key to the good life… [but] most people have ignored them.

Perhaps people in the future will take those philosophers up on their advice. But it’s scary. As Scott Adams’ cartoon character Dilbert once said, “Change is good. You go first.”

Hail, Caesar!

This is a first for this website as a review and commentary about a movie. The main characters of the movie are Josh Brolin (the “Hollywood Fixer”) and George Clooney as Baird Whitlock (the intellectually-shallow movie star). (Clooney does an excellent job of portraying an actor who speaks lines with passion while not really understanding what the lines might mean.) Other characters in the Joel and Ethan Coen production include Channing Tatum and Scarlet Johnansson. The movie is mostly a spoof of 1950s Hollywood productions, including one that mimics an Ester Williams movie titled Million Dollar Mermaid. Another is a song and dance movie that has strong homosexual innuendo featuring Tatum as one of several sailors. All of that was moderately interesting, but my main interest was in the theme that many Hollywood writers were Communists.

The main story of the movie is that Whitlock, who is playing Caesar, is kidnapped by Hollywood writers who call themselves a “Study Group” and “The Future.” The script of the movie explains that Whitlock is allowed to mingle with his kidnappers. There is a bit of foreshadowing when one of the kidnappers calls his dog Engels (Friedrick Engels collaborated with Karl Marx). As Whitlock is being served finger sandwiches and photographed for the group’s newsletter he has to listen to a character spouting difficult to understand economic theory. A spokesperson then explains to Whitlock that the movie studio “.  .  .is a pure instrument of Capitalism.” “And so Baird Whitlock found himself in the hands of Communists.” Whitlock is told, “.  .  .until quite recently our study group had a narrow focus. We concentrated on getting Communist content into motion pictures.” There is a scene where someone is sorting what must have been Party membership cards signed by Gus Hall, a leader of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

The House Un-American Activities Committee (which included Representative Richard Nixon) held highly publicized hearings searching for Communists in Hollywood in the late 1940s. A frequent assessment by the entertainment industry and news media in the years to follow charged that many actors and writers had their reputations unfairly smeared and their work blackballed because of accusations that they were Communists. The movie suggests the Coen brothers believe the accusations had a factual basis. The movie even includes a night scene where Tatum is rowed by his comrades to a rendezvous with a Soviet submarine. Tatum jumps aboard the sub as one of his mates calls out, “Comrade, We salute you! You are going to Moscow to become a Soviet Man and help forge the future. We stay behind, continuing in our disguise as capitalist handmaidens.”

My wife and I watched the movie on cable and agreed that we were pleased we hadn’t paid to see it when it was in theatres. Watching the movie was less entertaining than reading the script and thinking about what I wanted to write.

Twilight of the Bombs

This book by Richard Rhodes has the long subtitle, “Recent challenges, New Dangers, and Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons.” I was eager to read the book because of previous Rhodes books, Making the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. I considered the author to be a diligent researcher, but was surprised to read his assessment of the down-sizing of the nuclear-weapon production “.  .  .partly in response to unilateral and negotiated arms reductions, partly because public concern had caught up with its environmentally abandoned ways. The FBI had actually raided the Department of Energy’s plutonium-production facility at Rocky Flats, in Colorado, in 1989, looking for evidence (which it found in abundance) that the DOE and Rockwell International, a contractor, had violated environmental-protection laws.” (212-213) Rhodes obviously read the headlines and didn’t bother with careful research that would have told him there were not actual violations of environmental laws. He could have learned the complicated truth about the outcome of the raid by reading my book, An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked. Regardless of that major flaw, the book contains interesting information. Rhodes also mentions that “.  .  .Rocky Flats, the only facility capable of producing plutonium pits, was permanently closed.” (page 218) That statement would have been more accurate if it had said Rocky Flats had produced most of the plutonium pits for several years. Continue reading

Colorado Study of Rocky Flats and Cancer

A study of ten types of cancer in neighborhoods near the now-closed Rocky Flats Plant by the State of Colorado has, according to a Denver post article, “. .  .uncovered no evidence to conclude that contamination from the plant has caused a cancer epidemic.” “Four cancers—lung, esophagus, colorectal and prostate—were more common in some, but not all neighborhoods near Rocky Flats than in the metro area as a whole.” The first three “.  .  .could is explained by higher rates of smoking in those areas.” The elevated prostate numbers in Boulder County were consistent with “.  .  .higher-than-average prostate cancer rates in wealthy areas, possibly the result of better disease screening.  .  .  .” The summary is that the study found “.  .  .the rate of the 10 types of cancer was statistically indistinguishable from the overall city’s rate.  .  .  .”

Reaction to the announcements brought on comments from people representing a group called “Downwinders.” “When you do a ZIP code study of people who live in the place now, you’re not finding the people who might have been affected. .  .  .” This is followed by a comment “.  .  .the studies suffer, though, because they are only able to look at where people were living when they were diagnosed with cancer. People who once lived in the area but moved before being diagnosed with cancer are not included in the study data, while people newly arrived in the area are.”

I interpret the spokespeople for the “Downwinders” are saying they believe people who lived near the plant and moved away are more likely to have developed cancer than the people who continued to live near the Plant? Why would the plant be considered to have created an increased risk of cancer if moving away increased the risk while moving near the plant reduced the risk?

My answer to these curious questions is that there is little if any evidence of risks from living near Rocky Flats. The people who worked there were understandably careful about managing the dangerous chemicals they were processing because they and their families lived nearby. That fact is not important to some. They just want to know when they can get their share of “government” money after the courts determined Rocky Flats should pay damages to some nearby residents despite the fact it did not create a risk to those people but was a “nuisance.”

Controversies about Rocky Flats will continue until the possibility of money from litigation dies up. That will happen when the attention of trial lawyers moves on to more lucrative ventures and when anti-Rocky Flats critics are not longer able to attract unwarranted attention of the media. It amazes me that a place that carefully performed a vital national defense Cold War mission continues to be successfully vilified by those who have apparently have forgotten what was happening in the world when the decision was made to build the plant. I continue working on a book that I hope will serve as a reminder.

Radioactive Iodine and Thyroid Cancer

I posted a commentary about how the State of Colorado has announced they intend to study the incidence of thyroid cancers around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The decision was inspired by allegations by people calling themselves “Downwinders.” I speculated that the fears of thyroid cancer were stoked by an autobiography of someone who grew up near the plant and believed the facility was responsible for increased incidence of cancers, including thyroid cancer.

I mentioned in the December 7th commentary that the autobiography, which attracted and continues to attract significant readership, had many technical flaws. I obtained a copy of the book on interlibrary loan from the local library, which has three copies that were all checked out. I don’t intend to do a detailed review, but will reiterate my first reaction to the book was that it contained a complete catalog of outlandish rumors that were spread by critics of the Rocky Flats Plant. The book has too many inaccuracies to have generated the attention it gained, and I only intend to list a few:

  • Page 17 mentions how the workers stand in front of glove boxes to “. .       .mold and hammer the plutonium ‘buttons’ into shape” (That’s just silly!)
  • Page 18 introduces the word “trigger” for the use of atomic weapons to initiate thermonuclear fusion “. . .of a hydrogen bomb—a mushroom cloud, as in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.” (That bomb was not a hydrogen bomb. It is mentioned on the same page that the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was an atomic bomb.)
  • Pages 29-30 summarizes the amount of plutonium released from the 1957 fire in Building 771 as being “. .       .from 500 grams to as much as 92 pounds of plutonium or more.” This is an example of the willingness of the book to publish absurd exaggerations. The 92 pounds of plutonium would equate to about 3000 curies. Add twelve zeros if you want to convert that into the picocurie unit used to monitor air, water, and soil around the plant. That immense amount of plutonium released into the environment would have swamped the many thousands of samples collected around the plant during and after its operations. As the book points out, the half life of plutonium is around 24,000 years, so releases on the order of what the book mentions would have been persistent and easy to detect.

I believe the Colorado study will conclude that the Rocky Mountain region and the Denver metropolitan area had a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than the rest of the nation. There is a discussion on page 89 that snow will wash radioactive particles from the atmosphere, and the area has heavy snowfall. The era of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons resulted in higher incidence of thyroid cancer among youngsters who drank the milk of animals eating grass contaminated by that snow-related fallout. I speculate in the book I’m currently writing that Rocky Flats indeed had an impact on risk of thyroid cancer. Children of people moving to the area to participate in the economic boon created by the plant could be said to have been exposed to higher risk. Note that the increased risk had nothing to do with the operations or emissions from Rocky Flats. That probably wasn’t the intention of the author when she wrote on page 331, “Nearly every family we know in the neighborhood has had some form of cancer or thyroid problems.”

The author mentions that the area around the Rocky Flats Plant is “safe” according to government agencies on page 333. She then dismisses that conclusion in following pages. My conclusion is that you should be careful in selecting what you read about Rocky Flats. There are still people who protested the place and its mission who want you to believe the worst. The truth is that Rocky Flats accomplished its national defense mission and the people who worked there were diligent in assuring that they and their families living near the plant were safe.

21st Century’s Biggest Challenge Found in a Casserole

Ah, the holiday season! We gather with friends and family, and wonder if the pot-luck meals are going to kill us – if not by design, then by carelessness or ignorance. Does Aunt Alpha dismiss your worries over chemicals? Does Uncle Beta laugh as he shovels in another helping of some comfort-casserole first baked during the Great Depression?

I ran across an interesting article at slate.com about BPA, a chemical commonly added to plastics in contact with food to prevent corrosion or suppress bacteria. In high enough doses it can “cause adverse health effects by interfering with how our normal hormone systems work.” The author, Michael Holsapple, is a professor at Michigan State who studies food safety. He’s written an interesting article and I hope you’ll read it for yourself.

Holsapple reminds us of an important detail:

When considering the safety of any substance, it is important to understand what is known as a ‘dose-response relationship.’

As the dose of a potentially harmful chemical we are exposed to increases, so, too, does the severity of the harmful response. This means the relative safety of almost every substance—even water or oxygen—is a function of the dose to which we are exposed. Importantly, this also means that the mere presence of a chemical does not mean it will be harmful.

Consumer fears about BPA have led some food companies to replace it with other chemicals that are not well understood, just so they can boast “BPA-free” on their products. Their replacements could turn out to be more dangerous than BPA since

A 70 kg person, or about 154 pounds, would have to consume over 14 cans of cream of mushroom soup, or over 64 cans of green beans per day to be vulnerable to adverse health effects associated with exposure to BPA.

We live in a world flooded with misinformation, but it’s impossible for any individual to research everything that pops up on their favorite news site or – even more questionable – blog. There was a time when we looked to experts in academia or government to sort through it all for us, but public faith in such sources is low. RF_Alum has grappled with this issue at Rocky Flats, and his first-hand, personal knowledge doesn’t seem to comfort people once their fears are aroused – just check out the book reviews he mentioned here.

“You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.” A statement we can all endorse. But finding those facts and getting us all to share them may be the biggest challenge of the 21st Century.

BTW – it’s pretty well established that daily overeating and a couch-potato lifestyle will hurt you, so keep that green bean and mushroom soup casserole as only an annual treat.

Sixth Anniversary of RockyFlatsFacts

It’s been a bit over six years ago that we launched this site with the publication of the book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked.” My personal opinion is that the Kindle version of the book is the best because it includes pictures of plutonium ingots and burning plutonium. It’s also cheaper and doesn’t require a shipping fee! There were 27 reviews of the book the last time I looked, and the reviews reflect the controversies that still surround Rocky Flats. The average is something near four stars, but there are several very negative reviews. A one star review says simply, “Poorly written.” Another says “Political parlance!” One says the book was “obviously written by a DOE shill.” That reviewer probably didn’t actually read the book, or at least failed to notice the book was not complimentary about DOE. My personal favorites are several of the five star reviews!

I’m obliged to discuss some statistics about the website. There have been 928 postings before I add this one. The counter, which was added a couple of years after we began, has now registered about 1,750,000. (For those who prefer precision, the last time I looked it registered 1,753,006.) The postings were about even split between expressions, book reviews, and commentaries until this year. There have been few book reviews in the past several months, mostly because I’ve begun to focus on writing a new book about Rocky Flats. That book will have “Nuclear Deterrence” somewhere in the title, because I believe Rocky Flats effectively performed its mission of helping provide a nuclear stockpile large enough that World War III was prevented.

The postings continue to be submitted by RF Alum and Ponderer, who often provides a different perspective. I think I can speak for both of us that the power of freedom of speech results in an open discussion, which hopefully results in consideration of different ideas. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our politicians used that approach? I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ponderer has been a prolific writer and publisher outside this website. She has published several books, which includes an interesting series about Mars.

This website will continue to evolve. I’ve thought we probably would begin to run out of new expressions, but that has not yet happened. I won’t hesitate to stop posting commentaries if I think there is a shortage of decent material. That hasn’t happened yet.

I’ll try to remember to keep you informed about the new Rocky Flats book. I’m convinced that people will be interested in what it says regardless of whether they worked there, protested the place, or want to know more about the Cold War. I believe in the adage that people who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. That sentence made me remember writing that President Carter told some advisors he wanted to be remembered as “a Wilson.” One of the advisors replied that he should first want to be “a Truman.” (The decision to build Rocky Flats was made during the Truman administration.)