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.”

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.

Can Perception Become Reality?

There’s a lot of discussion these days about how the media influences people – whether the stories are real or fake. I ran across an interesting example that predates our current political mess by decades: Mad Gasser of Mattoon in 1944

Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims
Both Recover; Robber Fails to Get Into Home

Even for a newspaper, that’s a lot of assumptions: first, that these were only the “first” victims; second, that the prowler was using some sort of anesthetic; and third, that he was a robber. But it was enough. Within days, several more people called police saying that they too had been attacked by the prowler they read about in the newspaper. Their stories were published in the paper on September 5, owing to no publications on Sunday and the Labor Day holiday.

And that’s when the real melee began.



[Then] the character of the newspaper reports changed dramatically. The headlines became: THE MANHUNT FOR MR. NOBODY

And as soon as that became the tone, suddenly there were zero more police reports.

No residue of gas or lasting symptoms were observed, no gas is known to cause all the symptoms reported, and no prowler was ever caught – though there is an anecdotal suggestion that the initial attack could have been real.

In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published one research article on the Mad Gasser. Graphs of newspaper space in square inches compared to the number of reports showed a very apparent effect. If the morning newspapers dedicated more space to the Gasser, more reports came in that day. And during that initial 2-day Labor Day publishing break, no gassing was reported.

It’s depressing to think people can be manipulated so easily.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon became one of the most famous case studies in mass hysteria.

This was a small event in a small town during wartime, and it was over in a couple weeks when the local newspaper moved on. Consider Americans today, reading and viewing stories aimed at an agenda, whether pushed for ideological or financial reasons. Over and over, day after day. Maybe a single story gets repeated a dozen times – it feels as if it happened a dozen times.

As individuals zero in on fewer outlets, they get caught in the “echo chamber” of their own fears, hopes, and biases. Depending on which rabbit hole each of us chooses to fall down, we end up in “living” in different worlds.

No one can save us from ourselves – the answer must come from us.

Trump Able to Launch Nukes

I’ve heard from people who fear a Trump Presidency that they worry he will have the authority to launch nuclear attacks and that nobody will be able to stop him. From what I’ve learned, that is exactly the case. Donald Trump as President will have the uncontrolled authority to launch nuclear weapons.

A recent article reports that as 45th President of the United States Trump will have 1,367 nuclear weapons under his control. Protocols have been developed that would prevent anyone from stopping him should he decide to use them. President Eisenhower had delegated use of tactical nuclear weapons to his generals in the event the Red Army invaded Western Europe. They didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission. The Cuban Missile Crisis caused pre-delegation to be reconsidered. Command authority was turned over to the “.  .  .President and the President alone. While individuals in the complex chain between the Oval Office and Minuteman III Launch Control Centers might refuse orders, they are trained not to and to acknowledge the President’s authority. Regardless of who is sitting behind the button, it might be wise to evaluate the process one more time.”

Rocky Flats and Thyroid Cancer

The State of Colorado Department of Health has announced they intend to “. .  . study the incidence of thyroid cancer in neighborhoods around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, after a survey backed by a community group raised concerns.” I think that such a study is completely justified, since the group, called the “Downwinders,” is alleging that there is a higher incidence of that cancer in neighborhoods near where the Plant operated.

An article in the Denver Post points out that a 1998 Colorado Department of Health “. .  . study using a statewide cancer database concluded that those near Rocky Flats didn’t suffer from cancer rates higher than people in the metro area. But that study didn’t look specifically at incidence of thyroid cancer or other rare cancers.  .  .  .  . “

I think I know why this has become an issue. An autobiography, which has many technical flaws but attracted significant readership, raises the issue of thyroid cancer in association with Rocky Flats. I need to get a copy of the book from the library, but, as I recall, the allegation is that Rocky Flats was somehow equivalent to Chernobyl. The book ignores many technical facts, and one is that youngsters in the Rocky Mountain region who drank milk were more likely to develop thyroid cancer because of radioactive iodine in fallout (accumulated in the milk) from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. One area where that was identified as more prevalent of a problem was the “Rocky Mountain West.”

I’m in favor of the study that Colorado has announced, and I predict the Downwinders will be disappointed in the results. Rocky Flats did not process radioactive iodine that is commonly associated with thyroid cancer. However, I understand there are many who continue to be influenced by the sadly flawed raid of the Rocky Flats Plant by the Justice Department in 1989 that understandably worried people who lived nearby. My reassurance to those people is simple. Those of us who worked at Rocky Flats and lived nearby with our families did everything possible to protect them and ourselves.