This morning’s newspaper reminds one how new and how precarious the pension system is. Essentially, the company defined benefit pension was a product of the postwar years. As American manufacturing moved abroad, those pensions were turned into defined contribution schemes. Their management and their risk was turned over to the individual. Not surprisingly, with no training in pension management and a planning perspective limited to tomorrow, individuals have failed to take care of their futures. With fewer children and those that we do have living far away, the elderly will have to fend for themselves and with precious little in hand. Some talk of working forever but this fantasy suggests a booming job market for octogenarians. This when the real rate of unemployment is probably over ten percent. The next few decades promise to be interesting ones for my generation.
We are a funny country. In some ways we are the most advanced – and in other ways not so. Our TV, for instance, has improved but for years we used to marvel at the reception that people got in Africa compared to that we got in Dallas. I still marvel at the speed of the Internet in English homes compared with that provided by Time Warner. Today’s newspaper brought an article about how we are one of the last in the world to adopt smart-chip credit cards. This makes us an easy target for scams like those at Target (pun intended). We’ve attributed our lag to being the first to adopt, enabling others to learn from our experience. I wonder, sometimes, whether it isn’t part of our insular approach. We assume we are the best in the world and just can’t imagine that folks in Singapore might have it much better than we do. Being the best means that we don’t try to copy from them. What could there be to copy?! Your thoughts?!
I had occasion to go across town today. The store provided mobile ‘phone service among other things. As I stood there, young mothers barely out of their teens, if that, with babies on their hips came in to buy airtime — for cash. A fellow, who looked like a day laborer, came by to get his ‘phone charged. His language skills consisted of pointing at his ‘phone and then drawing a line across his throat to indicate that it was dead. The customers were Hispanic with very limited English, obviously without bank accounts, or Internet at home. The shopkeeper was Chinese with equally little English. Everyone was very friendly, very courteous, very pleasant, very neighborly. And this white guy from the other side of town sat there thinking I really do live in a bubble. I just assume when I go into a store that everyone will speak fluent English. I have no problem keeping my phones charged — well, if I remember. I buy airtime on the Internet. And, I have neighbors that I don’t see from one month to the next! My brief acquaintances from across town live in the same country, the same town, and yet I know so very, very little about their lives. Each in our own little bubble!
Much is being written recently about the “minimum” wage and whether it is too high (per conservatives) or too low (per liberals). It seems to me that there is, or should be, a distinctly ethical component to this conversation. If someone is willing and able to put in a 40 hour week then should they not be receiving wages sufficient to live simply, perhaps, but adequately? Should we not, in other words, be talking as people of faith about a living wage and not just a minimum wage? We may debate among ourselves as to what constitutes a living wage but that’s a better debate for us to be having than what’s the least amount that we can get away with paying.
I have just been watching a series of young musical performers on a site called Flixxy, an alternative to YouTube that was new to me. One example can be found at http://www.flixxy.com/trumpet-solo-melissa-venema.htm. I was reminded as I watched of the notion that we grown down – from heaven – not up. Judy Garland and Elvis Presley along with Mozart are among the many examples of individuals who seem to have come into our world with their talents already fully-formed. They came to give; not to get. We can only stand in awe and wonder from what celestial realm these children came. And what that tells us about the world in which we live.
I have written at length over the years about how government does not distinguish between expense and asset i.e., whether money spent is for today or for tomorrow. It is pleasing to see the House actually vote in favor of a budget — any budget. Unfortunately, this one seems to continue to slash the investment side while leaving the expense side intact. The opposition to the bill would be more credible if it were not in favor of simply slashing both investment and expense.
So the Affordable Care Act’s website is a disaster. One can heap coals on the president’s head for pushing this legislation through but what makes us think that he is responsible for designing a website? Is it not incredibly sad that this once great nation can no longer put up a website? What has happened to our expertise that was once the envy of the world? And what has gone wrong with our politics that half the nation will stand by and gleefully rejoice that we no longer have the expertise to build a computer system? Should we not feel ashamed of ourselves that we can no longer do what other nations take for granted? Add to that the shocking news that senior naval officers were routinely selling naval secrets to foreigners for personal gain? These are the men we are supposed to salute? These are the men who will sell their country down the road for a fling with a prostitute? What is happening to us as a people?
It seems to me that one can rightly criticize a president for being stupid enough to make promises that he cannot keep. A standard rule of thumb is to never make a promise that you can’t keep. So why be so foolish as to promise that everyone can keep their insurance plan before checking that this is a cast-iron promise. It also seems to me that one cannot hold a one-time law professor turned president responsible for the woes of a website. The blame for that lies elsewhere, surely. One wonders whether this was a deliberate act of sabotage by conservative programmers to make the president look back. The alternative is even worse. Have we become so incompetent as a nation that we can’t even get a website going? Yes, it is a difficult task but surely not one beyond American ingenuity. Or must one sadly conclude that we no longer have the expertise to build a sophisticated website? WIth great reluctance, I am beginning to lean toward that dismal conclusion.
Today’s New York Times wonders whether Facebook is fading. My own experience is definitely. I have dozens of friends who have stopped contributing. Birthdays bring out greetings as do weddings and births. But apart from those announcements, contributions from most people are few and far between. I was surprised recently to discover how many of my young friends were on Twitter and how few were contributing to Facebook. My own sense then is that this is not the time to be buying shares in Facebook. Of course, I might yet be surprised.
So where are we going? The Economist talks about huge water shortages in China and decaying old cities in Britain. Elsewhere there is talk of the hollowing out of the middle class. One senses a complete lack of strategic thinking to meet these long term problems. Or if some are thinking about it, the average Joe is not interested in implementing a solution.