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.”

Disease and Rumors Spread Like Wildfire for Centuries

Sources agree on the definition: something that quickly affects or becomes known by more and more people. Rumors, diseases, and memes can spread like wildfire. But only dictionary.com offered anything on the origin.

In the twelfth century the term “wildfire” referred to a skin disease (if it was highly contagious,  the modern usage for disease sounds like it has a very old origin) and the “figurative sense is recorded from c.1300.” includes several historical examples, but all modern – for example, from The Messenger by Elizabeth Robins, 1920. News can fly and flee, as well as spread, like wildfire.

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.

Not a Chinaman’s Chance

There are many parts of our history that should make us proud, but there are other examples that we should consider with shame. One of the later is how badly Chinese immigrants were treated when they were transported to the U.S. to do difficult and dangerous jobs such as building railroads in the 1800s. The expression explains that the Chinaman wanting justice had little “. .  .or no chance at all, a completely hopeless prospect.” The Chinese immigrants worked for extremely low wages to perform difficult and often dangerous jobs and were prevented from testifying on their own behalf in court if violence was committed against them.

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

Jump on the Bandwagon

This expression is used to describe someone who begins supporting a political figure, sporting team, or idea only after it has become popular or successful. The internet tells me “bandwagon” had its origin in a book written by P.T. Barnum published in 1855. The expression is often used to describe those who are only attracted after it appears a campaign, team, or idea is a sure winner.

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.