I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. Back then, when I was twenty and shiny with immorality and dew, I didn’t get loss. I’d experienced it, of course, but I hadn’t lived long enough to accumulate that patina of loss that I have now at 51. Enough years on this wet blue planet and you’re positively shellacked in loss, one coat over another, dulling your coat like so much floor wax. Back then, when I was twenty, I didn’t get loss and I didn’t get what a new set of extraordinary unmentionables could do for you.
Chelsea G. Summers, “unmentionables, the first”, pretty dumb things, 2013-12-04
December 5, 2013
November 19, 2013
In Maclean’s, a look at the feel-good but economically silly reasons for senior discounts:
The seniors discount has long been justified as a way to recognize the constraints faced by pensioners stuck on fixed incomes, and as a modest token of appreciation for a lifetime spent paying taxes and contributing to society. And for those truly in need, who would quibble? But with half a million Baby Boomers — a group not known for frugality or lack of financial resources — turning 65 every year for the next few decades, the seniors discount is in for much greater scrutiny.
There was a time when the seniors discount made a lot more sense. In the mid-1970s, nearly 30 per cent of all seniors were considered poor, as defined by Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off. But today, this has fallen to a mere 5.2 per cent. The impact of this turnaround is hard to overstate. Seniors once faced the highest rates of poverty in Canada; now they enjoy the lowest level of any age group: The poverty rate among seniors is almost half that of working-age Canadians.
Thanks to a solid system of government support programs, the very poorest seniors receive more income in retirement than they did when they were of working age. The near-elimination of seniors’ poverty is widely considered to be Canada’s greatest social policy triumph of the past half-century.
This tremendous improvement in seniors’ financial security has dramatically changed the distribution of income across age categories, as well. In 1976, median income for senior households was 41 per cent of the national average. Today, it’s 67 per cent. Over the same period, median income for families where the oldest member is aged 25-34 has fallen in both absolute and relative terms.
Then there’s the vast wealth generated for the Boomer generation by the housing and stock markets (only some of which was lost during the great recession). The stock of wealth in housing, pensions and financial assets held by the average senior family is nearly double that of working-age households. Accounting for the financial benefits of home ownership and rising house values, Statistics Canada calculates the true net annual income of retired households rises to 87 per cent of a working-age household’s income. In other words, non-working seniors are making almost as much as folks in their prime earning years, but without all the expenses and stressors that go with a job, children at home, or middle age. Not only that, the current crop of seniors enjoys historically high rates of pension coverage. The much-publicized erosion of private-sector pensions will hit younger generations who are currently far from retirement.
September 12, 2013
At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok talks about a statistical study which concluded that being left-handed had serious impact on your lifespan:
In 1991 Halpern and Coren published a famous study in the New England Journal of Medicine which appears to show that left handed people die at much younger ages than right-handed people. Halpern and Coren had obtained records on 987 deaths in Southern California — we can stipulate that this was a random sample of deaths in that time period — and had then asked family members whether the deceased was right or left-handed. What they found was stunning, left handers in their sample had died at an average age of 66 compared to 75 for right handers. If true, left handedness would be on the same order of deadliness as a lifetime of smoking. Halpern and Coren argued that this was due mostly to unnatural deaths such as industrial and driving accidents caused by left-handers living in a right-handed world. The study was widely reported at the time and continues to be regularly cited in popular accounts of left handedness (e.g. Buzzfeed, Cracked).
What is less well known is that the conclusions of the Halpern-Coren study are almost certainly wrong, left-handedness is not a major cause of death. Rather than dramatically lower life expectancy, a more plausible explanation of the HC findings is a subtle and interesting statistical artifact. The problem was pointed out as early as the letters to the editor in the next issue of the NEJM (see Strang letter) and was also recently pointed out in an article by Hannah Barnes in the BBC News (kudos to the BBC!) but is much less well known.
The statistical issue is that at a given moment in time a random sample of deaths is not necessarily a random sample of people. I will explain.
June 13, 2013
As the Guardian noted last month, Hugh Johnson is the best-selling wine author in the world, but even he has to cope with time and space restrictions:
Monday’s sale at Sworder’s auctioneers of over £100,000 worth of wines, gathered over a career in which Johnson has overseen a revolution in British attitudes to wine, includes rare vintages dating back to 1830, a £2,000 1945 Chateau Latour made in the balmy summer after VE Day and his own desert island bottle, a single 1971 German riesling for £6,000.
The 74-year-old is trying to be philosophical about letting it all go as he moves with his wife Judy from a house with a five-room cellar to one with a coal hole to be closer to children and grandchildren.
“Everyone with a big cellar realises in the end they don’t have enough friends to drink it all with,” he says. “To start with I felt it was a catastrophe but in the end I felt: ‘Just take it.’”
Some of the bottles are thick with dust and their capsules chipped. Perished labels reveal dates that scroll back through time: 2006, 1996, 1945, 1830. There’s even an amphora dredged from the Mediterranean dated AD100. For many in the wine world the sale marks the end of an era that began in the 1960s when wine was the preserve of the elite and Britons drank on average just a third of a glass a week. Between then and now, Johnson’s annual pocket wine guide, featuring hundred of bite-sized verdicts, has sold 12m copies, his World Atlas of Wine, first published in 1971, has sold close to 4m and wine consumption in the UK has increased twelvefold.
[. . .]
Sitting among his bottles for one last time he reflects on how the wine world has changed. In 2006 he spoke out against rising alcohol levels reaching 15%, which he described as thick “steroid-driven muscle” and “boring”. It was part of a long-running battle with his US rival, the critic Robert Parker, whose highly influential scores out of 100 based in part on his love of powerful, fruit-driven wines, reshaped the wine market. Now with more lower alcohol wines on the shelves, Johnson feels the fight is swinging his way.
H/T to Michael Pinkus for the link.
May 10, 2013
An interesting report from the Harvard Gazette on some research into a possibility of reducing some of the effects of aging, specifically aging of the heart:
Two Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) researchers — a stem cell biologist and a practicing cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — have identified a protein in the blood of mice and humans that may prove to be the first effective treatment for the form of age-related heart failure that affects millions of Americans.
When the protein, called GDF-11, was injected into old mice, which develop thickened heart walls in a manner similar to aging humans, the hearts were reduced in size and thickness, resembling the healthy hearts of younger mice.
Even more important than the implications for the treatment of diastolic heart failure, the finding by Richard T. Lee, a Harvard Medical School professor at the hospital, and Amy Wagers, a professor in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, ultimately may rewrite our understanding of aging.
Research of this type may be very important as the baby boomer generation enters retirement age … not necessarily to extend total lifespan, but to increase the chances for healthy activity longer into our existing lifespan. Few of us would want to live to 100 if the last 20 years are pain-wracked, immobile, and inactive … but being able to live that long and managing to keep doing the things we like to do for most of that time? That’d be much more appealing to many of us.
April 25, 2013
We all know the NFL is in serious trouble as more evidence comes out about the relationship between playing professional football and brain damage in later life. But what we know may not be true:
Dr. Everett Lehman, part of a team of government scientists who studied mortality rates for NFL retirees at the behest of the players’ union, discovered that the pros live longer than their male counterparts outside of the NFL. The scientists looked at more than 3,000 pension-vested NFL retirees and expected 625 deaths. They found only 334. “There has been this perception over a number of years of people dying at 55 on the average,” Dr. Lehman told me. “It’s just based on a faulty understanding of statistics.”
The scientists also learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, NFL players commit suicide at a dramatically lower rate than the general male population. The suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters don’t represent a trend but outliers that attract massive attention, and thereby massively distort the public’s perception. More typical was the death of Pat Summerall, who passed away quietly last week at 82 after a productive post-career career.
Indeed, a 2009 study by University of Michigan researchers reported that NFL retirees are far more likely to own a home, possess a college degree, and enjoy health insurance than their peers who never played in the league. The myth of the broke and broken-down athlete is just that: a myth. A few surely struggle after competition ceases; most apply their competitive natures to new endeavors.
It’s true that skill-position players on rosters for five or more years in the NFL faced elevated levels of Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Parkinson’s disease deaths. But some perspective is in order. Of the 3,439 retired athletes studied by Lehman’s group, less than a dozen succumbed to deaths directly attributable to these neurodegenerative killers. Had Parkinson’s killed one rather than the two retirees it did kill, for example, its rate would have been lower among players than among the general population.
It’s quite possible the NFL is concerned (and ensuring that it is seen to be concerned) primarily because of the need to address public perceptions, rather than as a defensive move against future or ongoing legal challenges.
February 18, 2013
His Majesty the King can generate all kinds of euphemisms about how and why we’re running up our nation’s debt: “investing in the future”, “borrowing from ourselves”, “betting on the American worker”. What we’re really doing is stealing from our children and generations yet unborn. It might be different if we were actually building a better world for them to live in, but we’re not: we’re squandering the money like a drunken sailor on a three-day liberty. We’ve pissed all our own money away, and now we’re pissing theirs away too, and on trifles. Vacations, new cars, fancy dinners, retirement living that we didn’t save enough money for. It’s child abuse of the rankest and worst sort. We’re selling our own children and grand-children into debtor’s prison. They’re going to hate us for it, and they have a right to.
We’re spending our children’s money without giving them any say or vote in the process. We are promising their future labor, their future wealth, their future lives, to back up our own foolish debts. We are making their future lives meaner and smaller and more constrained because we could not govern ourselves properly. It makes me angry. It makes me furious. It makes me want to apologize to everyone under the age of twenty or so for what we are doing to them. We would do well to think about this: the young people will not simply obligingly labor forever as beasts of burden, content to pay the debts run up by their foolish elders. Sooner or later they’ll grow wise, and tell the greybeards to go pound sand. There’ll be a reckoning, and the geezers aren’t going to like it one bit.
Monty, “The Sportsman’s Guide to DOOM”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2013-02-18
February 13, 2013
Don Boudreaux produces an anecdotal list of things that refute the inane notion that America’s standard of living peaked in the 1970s:
What follows here is drawn from memory. Perhaps my memory is grossly distorted, but my report of it here is an undistorted reflection of that memory. Here’s some of what I recall, of relevance to this discussion, from middle-class America of the 1970s; I offer the 25 items on this list in no particular order, except as they come to me.
(1) Automobiles broke down much more frequently than they break down today, hence, leaving motorists stranded, sometimes for hours, more often than is the case today.
(2) Automobiles rusted faster and more thoroughly than they do today.
(3) Someone in his or her early 70s was widely regarded as being quite old.
(4) “Old” people back then were much more likely to wear dentures than are “old” people today.
(5) Frozen foods in supermarkets were gawdawful by the standards of today – in terms both of quality and of selection.
[. . .]
(21) Coffee sucked. (It was almost all made from robusta beans.) And the selection of teas was pretty much limited to whatever Lipton sold.
(22) A diagnosis of cancer was far more frightening than it is today. Any person so diagnosed was regarded as being as good as dead.
(23) Going to college was much more unusual than it is today.
(24) Contact lenses were much more expensive than they are today. I purchased insurance (!) on my first pair of soft contact lenses (which I bought in 1980) in order to protect myself against the financial consequences of losing or damaging the one pair that I bought. (Such lenses were bought one pair at a time.)
(25) The idea of widespread use of personal computers seemed like science fiction. I very clearly recall overhearing, in the Spring of 1980, one of my economics professors, Wayne Shell (who also taught computer science), telling someone that he believed that, within a few years, many American households will have a computer. I thought at the time that Dr. Shell’s prediction was fancifully far-fetched.
I could go on, listing at least another 50 such recollections. But instead I’ll end this post here.
February 4, 2013
In the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Last looks at the demographic changes on tap for the United States as the fertility rate continues to drop below replacement:
The fertility rate is the number of children an average woman bears over the course of her life. The replacement rate is 2.1. If the average woman has more children than that, population grows. Fewer, and it contracts. Today, America’s total fertility rate is 1.93, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it hasn’t been above the replacement rate in a sustained way since the early 1970s.
The nation’s falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem — a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall — has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences.
For two generations we’ve been lectured about the dangers of overpopulation. But the conventional wisdom on this issue is wrong, twice. First, global population growth is slowing to a halt and will begin to shrink within 60 years. Second, as the work of economists Esther Boserups and Julian Simon demonstrated, growing populations lead to increased innovation and conservation. Think about it: Since 1970, commodity prices have continued to fall and America’s environment has become much cleaner and more sustainable — even though our population has increased by more than 50%. Human ingenuity, it turns out, is the most precious resource.
Low-fertility societies don’t innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don’t invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.
Update: Kelly McParland on the plight of some older workers: “If they’d never worked at all, and gotten by on social assistance, they might still have a financial lifeline.”
It would be cruel (and maybe unfair) to say they made their own beds, but it remains the fact that a great deal of the trouble they face results from the refusal to brook a more prudent approach to public finances for so many years. Programs that were unaffordable were pushed through time and again, paid for by more and more borrowing. When crises developed, the borrowing increased while spending was only rarely curtailed. The curse of deficit financing is its snowball effect: annual shortfalls pile up, pushing up the carrying costs, creating a self-perpetuating ever-expanding spending crisis. When a recession inevitably arrives, there are no reserves to deal with it, and even more borrowing ensues.
After so many decades of pretending it could go on forever, without there being a reckoning, the generation that created it is discovering how wrong they were. Not only is it destroying the retirement dreams of so many near-seniors, it’s preparing a poisoned legacy to hand to the next generation, and perhaps the one after that, unless they recognize the need for greater discipline and finally accept the pain that will necessary to put the process back on a sustainable track.
Canada is fortunate that it faced up to its debt crisis 15 years ago and is still benefiting from that fact, but the public memory is short and there will always be pressure to turn a blind eye to debt, and legislate for today. No wonder people get more conservative as they get older. They understand the price that has to be paid for putting costs off to tomorrow.
January 28, 2013
November 24, 2012
Remember the Japan of the 1970s and 1980s? The world-spanning colossus of economic might? The nation that had Wall Street wetting its collective pants with every bold move?
That was then. This is now:
Less than a quarter-century ago, Japan was the economic envy of the world. In 1989, Tokyo-listed shares represented nearly half the planet’s equity value, while the land beneath the city’s royal palace was worth more than all of California. American nightly news anchors practically misted up when they had to report that Rockefeller Center was turning Japanese.
Two lost decades and massive property- and stock-bubble explosions later, Japan is a one-word cautionary tale. Caught in economic and demographic atrophy — and stewarded by countless false-start prime ministers — the country has become a hub for zombie banks, a generation of disenchanted youth, and fading brands such as Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic.
Last year, for the first time, sales of adult diapers in Japan exceeded those for babies.
August 13, 2012
Walter Russell Mead wonders if the Chinese economy actually hit its peak in 2008 and will not be able to get back to that level of performance:
According to The Diplomat, the long term outlook is even more depressing. China will have to confront a series of structural challenges if it is to continue to achieve the kind of dynamic growth that lifted the country from economic backwater to emerging great power in just three decades.
The most obvious challenge is demographics. A RAND study observed that the proportion of the Chinese population of working age peaked in 2011 and began slowing this year. The share of the elderly population is rising. Healthcare and pension costs will soar as a result. So will labor costs. Investment and savings will diminish. In short, China may face the prospect, unknown in human history, of growing old before it gets rich.
The environment presents another dilemma. Like many rapidly industrializing economies, China sacrificed environmental protection at the altar of economic growth. But the effects of this approach have taken a toll: already, argues The Diplomat, ”Water and air pollution today cause 750,000 premature deaths and around 8 percent of GDP.” And as Via Meadia recently pointed out, the political costs of this approach are starting to mount as well. An outbreak of NIMBYism has forced many local officials to cancel major industrial projects as ordinary Chinese citizens demand an end to environmentally unsound development.
Of greater concern is that China has backed away from market reforms in the last decade and embraced a version of “state capitalism” that emphasizes the state far more than it does capitalism. But as state-run entities have become more powerful, their political backers — and financial beneficiaries — have an even greater stake in blocking attempts at reform.
H/T to Jon, my former virtual landlord, for the link.
July 13, 2012
Nick Gillespie on the many, many ways that the baby boomers are screwing their own kids:
Hey kids, wake up! Stop playing your X-Box while listening to your Facebooks on the iPod and wearing your iPad with the cap turned backwards with the droopy pants and the bikini underwear listening to Snoopy Poopy Poop Dogg and the Enema Man and all that!
Take a break from getting yet another tattoo on your ass bone or your nipples pierced already! And STFU about the 1 Percent vs. the 99 Percent!
You’re not getting screwed by billionaires and plutocrats. You’re getting screwed by Mom and Dad.
Systematically and in all sorts of ways. Old people are doing everything possible to rob you of your money, your future, your dignity, and your freedom.
Here’s the irony, too (in a sort of Alanis Morissette sense): You’re getting hosed by the very same group that 45 years ago was bitching and moaning about “the generation gap” and how their parents just didn’t understand what really mattered in life.
[. . .]
Oddly, back in the actual 1960s, one of the few things that hippies and Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan could all agree on was that conscription was a really bad thing. For god’s sake, Richard Nixon created a commission to end the draft. But that was then, and this is now.
And right now, old people are not going gentle into that good night. They know they’re going to need younger people to change their diapers and pay their bills for them, literally and figuratively. As Hillary Clinton put it in 1999, nobody’s going to do that if they have any option not to. Speaking to a National Education Association meeting, she explained one of the great benefits of old-age entitlements was that they meant you didn’t have to live with your goddamn parents.
June 8, 2012
James Miller in the National Post:
Nineteenth century political theorist and former U.S. congressman John C. Calhoun once wrote, “…the necessary result, then, of the unequal fiscal action of the government is to divide the community into two great classes… to divide it into tax-payers and tax-consumers.”
Throughout history, this is precisely how the dynamic between government and the people has played out. Politicians make careers out of redistributing wealth. Persistent inflation and the running up of public debt have proven that governments are incapable of spending within their means. Retaining elected office hinges too much upon buying votes.
With the post-war boom years came increasing amounts of tax revenues. This was all too enticing for politicians to pass up. Entitlement programs were created to ensure a steady supply of votes. Mr. Moore is correct in alleging that younger generations were thrown to the wolves for these promised benefits as they had no say in the matter and are now forced to foot the bill.
At the same time, millennials themselves have been fooled through years of pervasive government and nanny-state decrees into not only expecting entitlements but also misunderstanding the value of prudence. Living standards only rise when the majority of the public produces more than it consumes. This age-old lesson has been slowly forgotten with years of the expansionary welfare state and popular economic theories which favour consumption. When youth are made to believe the most important rule in all economics is “in the long run we are all dead,” is it any surprise when financial discretion takes a back seat to overindulgence?
May 30, 2012
Barbara Kay on an insight into the generational conflict triggered after a waiter dumps a glass of water into her lap:
We were dining at a good bistro. The waiter — early 20s — accidentally knocked a glass of water onto my lap. Suppressing annoyance, I was summoning a gracious smile to acknowledge his forthcoming apology when instead he chirped, “It’s okay, stuff happens.” Stung, I responded, “You’re unclear on the concept. You’re supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and I’m supposed to say ‘It’s okay, stuff happens.’ ”
Our narrowed eyes locked: the Senior and the Millennial (a.k.a Gen Y or Echo Boomers). I was thinking: Your teflon complacency comes from a lifetime of helicopter parents and teachers ensuring you were failure-proofed to protect your precious self-esteem. He was probably thinking: Why aren’t you dead yet so I can get a decent job and afford the meal I’m serving you.
He would have a point.
We’re witnessing an unprecedented generational social tussle. In 1950, people my age were doddering retirees. Today, we’re healthier longer, enjoying still-productive lives. By clinging to our jobs, or starting new ones, we’re blocking the natural economic pipeline. Yet we’re also hanging on to our untenably expensive government benefits, because politicians genuflect before our massive voting numbers, not to mention our tendency to vote in higher proportions than the already far less numerous 18-34s.
But I have a point too. Cossetted, self-satisfied millennials lack humility and competitive drive. They think real life will echo their easy ride through high school and the artificially inflated grades they got for their dumbed-down university courses. An October 2011 National Report Card on Youth Financial Literacy polled 3,000 recent high school grads on their expectations. More than 70% erroneously assumed they’d own their own home in 10 years. The average respondent over-estimated his future earnings by 300%.