Green Communities

Help could be hobbling our way

We often hear about the bulge of old people making its way across First World nations. The consequences talked about include rising health care costs, disability scooters  everywhere and, in Canada, more people ignoring Tim Horton's no loitering rule.  

These are sobering issues, but there may be still deeper problems. In today's rapidly-developing world, old people run the risk of being regarded as not merely unproductive, but as burdensome in often subtle ways.  There are few gardens or grandchildren to help out with these days; and institutions have taken over responsibility for transferring cultural resources from one generation to the next. Folkways, socialization and  discussing prudential behaviour are now the provenance of professionals, educational institutions and hockey coaches. This is a remarkable transformation.  Until a half-century ago, grandparents and community elders were important in passing information among communities and across generations. 

Indeed, before writing and Gutenberg made literacy and schools possible, telling stories was the only way we had of becoming aware that a world and other people existed beyond local communities.

These days, with  Facebook, Google and Wikipedia near to hand, with vanishingly few communities or extended families, young and old people rarely have anything to do with one another. 

There is little reason to hope that this estrangement will not continue.  The engines driving urbanization and specialization are speeding up. Economic globalization means corporations must be increasingly competitive to survive.  This is one reason production machineries have also been tracking Moore's Law. Like computers, their computational capacities have been doubling every two years. These machines are often excellent labour saving devices, but  they mean fewer and fewer people are required to produce any given quantity of goods and services. 

This is the elephant in the room no one talks about.  Sophisticated technologies imply a correspondingly smaller proportion of people able to earn a living wage. 1

In other words, 'progress and development' – not corporate malfeasance or the agendas of the wealthy targeted by Occupy Wall Street … groups – is the reason economies are on the brink of collapse.  Capitalism simply has no mechanism distributing the benefits of technologies or efficiencies across populations.    To be sure, inventions sometimes generate new employment opportunities, but they often proceed by eliminating existing occupations as a way to increase profitability.  Even new employments may only survive until another device or software program offers to replace them.

In other words, capitalism is hierarchical in the ways it generates and accumulates wealth. The rest of the story is that capitalism's impressive creativity is also inherently regressive. Ways are constantly being found to do more with fewer people.

From your and my point of view, these consequences are indistinguishable.  They both mean wealth for some and poverty for most.

To be sure, governments tax profits and incomes to fund public programs and infrastructure and with a view to redistributing wealth.  All of these practice are increasingly fraught these days – especially the wealth redistribution component.  The global economy recommending world class technologies is also causing infrastructure maintenance, social safety nets, health care benefits and pensions to look like impediments to competitiveness.  For most human beings, there are no bright spots in this story.   A centralized, specialized world means populations depend upon corporate prosperity for every service needed and product consumed.  We rarely make our own sandwiches or brew our own coffee these days.  The few children admitted into the 'land of the living' are now Marshalled into prekindergarten programs as the age of two so both parents can resume their careers – and contribute to tax revenues and profits.  Add the obligations of corporate directors to achieve profits at any cost and modern economies turn out to require not only ever deeper incursions into public well-being but corporate prosperity more than a few years down the road.

As markets shrink because fewer and fewer human beings enjoy significant incomes, many corporations will fail because their progress, development and efficiency agendas have obliterated their consumer base.  In this prospect, corporations will shrink or disappear until just enough remain to meet the needs of the wealthy and the inventors, technological savants and entertainers they deem employable, or at least worth having around.

In other words, when 'progress and development' has run its course, something like ten per cent of human beings will be prosperous indeed.  The rest of us will join the fifty per cent of human beings already enjoying $2.00 a day lifestyles.  How could the wealthy contemplate such a future?  They have the same regard for us as you and I have for 'emerging populations' – a mixture of contempt, indifference and willingness to exploit if profitable outcomes hang in the balance.

Against this backdrop, the experiences and skills of old people are not worth passing on for another reason.  Even if there were grandchildren nearby, there are few jobs to be had.    

So what? With unemployment running between ten and twenty per cent, lots of people have nothing useful to do.  An unusual proportion of old people with time on their hands is nothing to worry about.  

Moreover, unlike most of our difficulties, this problem  will correct itself in short order.  Twenty years from now, a smaller and presumably more manageable population of old people will replace you and I.

However, understanding the problem in this way could be a mistake.  The present 'bulge of old people' may not be a problem so much as a never to be repeated opportunity. Unlike the next generation, oldsters today often have savings accounts, pension incomes or other assets that they can spend, sell or reverse-mortgage.  In other words, they have the means to purchase articles and services for years after their own ‘best before dates’.  

So what​?  The fact is, today's well-heeled oldsters have much to atone for.  In addition to the demand-pull inflation consequences associated with retirement spending, they have been leading misspent lives the whole way along.  After all, the only way they could have assets is because they have been failing to spend their money as soon as they got their hands on it.  Although saving for rainy days is often recommended, deep down we all understand the connection between national well-being and vigorous spending.

When U.S. President Bush exhorted Americans to push back against terrorism after 9/11, he urged them to proceed to America's malls, car lots and furniture stores and spend as if there was no tomorrow!  Indeed, spending money not yet earned, by way of credit cards, lines of credit and mortgages, was even more patriotic!  What better way to demonstrate faith in continued national prosperity than by going into debt? 

Undeterred by such patriotic considerations, today's retirees have been selfishly producing more than they have been consuming all their lives.  Not only have they failed President Bush's Patriotic Test, they have been setting the stage for political and economic mischief.  To be sure, individuals who produce more than they consume while working could be seen as neutralizing the inflationary consequences of subsequent golden years profligacy.  Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  In developed nations, would-be retirees have not been investing in large families, chicken coops or wood piles as a hedge against old age and sickness.  They have been earning and saving as much as possible in the form of bank deposits, bonds, GICs and real estate.

The problem is, these holdings have been seized upon by banks and multiplied (according to reserve ratio requirements) into consumer and commercial loans.  In other words, retirement savings have been subsidizing commercial adventures and promotions encouraging the less prudent to live beyond their means. The results have been devastating: more demand, more inflation; more promotional activities, more inflation; more debt servicing costs, more inflation. 

As if this was not harm enough, the equity these retirees are now consuming would otherwise pass to children and grandchildren where it might get invested in business start-ups, arc welders or, in more and more municipalities, chickens coops.

Even when trips to Disney World or Niagara Falls are all that inheritances achieve, vacations and indulgences are thought to improve the productivity of persons at least theoretically capable of doing something useful. In short, declining birth rates, increasing longevity, the regressive consequences of progress and development,  a long list of inflationary consequences … mean that today's old people risk being identified as unconscionable economic threats.

Questions like:  “How are you feeling Dad?” could take on ominous tones.

What can be done about this?  Now that most adventures are denied because of the infirmities of age and living large, today's oldsters still have one move they could make.  Since they are the last sizable population of wealthy retirees the world is likely to see, the least they could do is spend their assets in ways that would begin to redeem their misspent lives.  Ironically, this would improve their own well-being!  More importantly, this could do this in ways that would diminish the toxic consequences of their all give no take, then all take no give lives.

What am I talking about?  Grey Panthers and Raging Grannies could organize their friends and relatives into platoons of consumers and do some collective bargaining for the goods and services they need. 

This would not only make their dollars go further, it would set the stage for an economic and political renaissance.  Think of it:  Communities everywhere boasting platoons of consumers headed by hawk-eyed oldsters – each co-ordinating the needs of dozens, hundreds, thousands … of consumers.    Such groups could amount to new sheriffs in town, pressuring retailers, manufacturers and politicians to consider alternatives to the automating, outsourcing and crass commercialism that passes for business as usual.

Reduced costs for goods and services would only be the first round of benefits flowing from this stalwart behaviour. By diminishing retailers' need to advertise to consumers one by one, by diminishing incentives to invest in new stores whose only plan is to replace existing retailers and then sell the same products from China, Japan, India ..., platoons of consumers would generate exciting new ways for consumers and producers to talk to one another.

Along the way, this would reduce the pollution and resource consumption associated with frivolous, arbitrary commercial activities. 

Finally, thanks to Grey Panthers and Raging Grannies, start ups and small businesses would enjoy the benefit of ready-made audiences to pitch products and services to.  Indeed, nothing prevents groups of consumers publishing 'offers to tender' with respect to wants and needs they have identified by acting as their own focus groups.

Such benefits, savings and communication opportunities would achieve economic stimulus and community well-being from the ground up.  Not a cent of public money would be required because participating producers and consumers would be rewarded every step of the way.

If nations hope to survive economic and political globalization, communities need vigorous local economies.  Organizing platoons of consumers able to talk to corporations and politicians from positions of strength may be the only move left.

If today's old people – who after all convened the present economic and political debacle during their working lives – now set the stage for a renaissance, “Dad, how are you?” questions might take on a friendlier tone.