Monday, June 8, 2015

Your House is on Fire, Run Away Home

Angry. ANGRY!

Maybe I need therapy. A little Prozac.

I think what I need is to disengage. But I don't know how to do that.

I've spent all my life solving problems. How to earn a living. How to raise children. How to be helpful to those around me. As the needs of my family for me have become less pressing, I've turned my thinking to the wider world. What about all those people who I haven't been thinking that much about?

Turns out, they're not doing so well. So, lets talk about that. What can we do?

Talk I have. And written. Both have revealed many things to me. One, how much I don't know. Two, how ready others are to cure my ignorance. I have a few very smart friends and family members who are much more fiscally conservative than I. No nanny state of sloth enablement for them. I see their point, but really, do we think people want to live in paucity and hopelessness? Food stamps are not an education. They are not opportunity.

Some people say opportunity comes to those who work for it. If you miss out, you must not be working hard enough. That's certainly true in some cases, but not, in my view, most. Poverty is a pathology. Tough love is leeches.

The problems are huge. The solutions are not obvious. That is a little depressing, but does not make me mad. It makes me want to look harder for the answers.

What makes me mad is that while thoughtful people, more thoughtful than I, are sifting data and trying hard to understand what is happening and what to do about it, their voices are being heard mainly by themselves and a few others of like mind. Those who disagree are listening to themselves and their tribe. Those who aren't thinking that hard at all are emoting off the cuff. Political discourse, where the solutions ultimately must be forged into governing consensus, has devolved to a herd of wildebeest ranging across an intellectually barren land, spooked by every primitive stimulus, careening en masse this way and then that, with pastures and watering holes nowhere in sight.

It's just stupid the way we do things. We don't act until there is a crisis. This seems to be how evolution has wired us, but the habit of tending only to immediate needs has ceased to be adaptive. If we are to survive, we have to plan for the long term. We have to make sacrifices today to provide for the future. Parents are good at doing that for their children. Otherwise, as a species, we suck at it.

Global warming. Water shortages. Power shortages. Nuclear proliferation. Poverty, poverty, poverty. These are problems that have to be worked on over decades and centuries. I wonder if we have it in us.

Here's a concrete example of a looming problem that is painfully obvious and easy to understand, yet largely ignored: unfunded pension liabilities. Boring, right? It won't be when cities and states can't honor their obligations, when retired teachers and policemen and others don't have a retirement income. It's a huge problem. Everybody knows it. Not many are doing anything about it.

Why? Same reason we don't do anything about so many long-term problems. The consequences of our failure are not immediate. We don't feel threatened. Maybe they won't happen. They're too hard to think about.

The people who should be thinking about them, in the case of unfunded city and state pensions, are the public officials who are trying to get re-elected. Their next campaign is their time horizon, not some retiree's problem in twenty years. So they kick the can down the road.

One way to solve the pension problem would be to change accounting standards to record on balance sheets the present value of the future cost to cities and states of their large unfunded liabilities. If you did that, many cities and states (and companies) would be insolvent. They wouldn't be able to borrow to finance their operations. They'd be Greece. 

Politicians don't want to hear it, and accountants don't want to get fired. So they all look the other way and do what we all do: hope something will happen to make everything work out.

As parents, when we see a child doing something stupid or harmful, we intervene. A childhood of such interventions is what parenting is all about. It ingrains habits that our sons and daughters take with them and live by. Not always, but most of the time.

We're not doing that now. We're being bad parents to our earth, to our fellow man. If I saw a parent negligently ignoring a little girl wandering from the playground toward a busy street, it would make me mad, but at least I could take that child's hand and lead her back to safety. But there are too many small hands to take and keep safe. And while we gather smugly and self-righteously in our homogeneous intellectual cliques, they wander closer and closer to danger.

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