Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fifty Years of Gray

Not all writing is of a piece. There is no guarantee that a writer who is good at one genre will be good at another. An essayist might have no talent for short stories. Though song lyricists and poets seem to do something very similar, that something isn’t exactly the same for each and there is remarkably little crossover as Steve Allen amply demonstrated six decades ago by reading rock lyrics as though they were poems. A writer of science textbooks might write terrible novels. A skilled novelist might be an uninspired screenwriter, e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some authors can and do cross genres successfully. One has to grant the novelist Faulkner his success with the screenplays To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Gore Vidal wrote well in any format. But they are more the exception than the rule.

So, I had no high expectations for a scifi novel written by Albert Brooks, whose thoughtful comedic screenplays I’ve enjoyed in the past. Yet, he transitions pretty well in 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. Brooks originally envisioned 2030 as a screenplay but decided the fx budget alone would be bank-breaking, so he opted for a novel instead.

Since before I was born, doomsayers have warned that “our children” would face dire consequences from the ever ballooning national debt. Every now and then the US federal debt becomes a major political issue but the issue always fades as disaster fails to materialize for one generation of children after another. Yet, consequences, if not a disaster, are at least being felt in the current generation. As interest on the debt takes an ever larger share of the budget, the federal government simply doesn’t have the money to do what politicians of either the Right or the Left want it to do. The military is smaller than at any time since the (short-lived) near-total demobilization after WW2 while new infrastructure and social spending stalls for lack of cash. Tax increases, even if politically possible and whether narrowly or broadly based, cannot possibly keep up with already built-in entitlement and pension commitments and with growing interest on the existing debt. Elected officials of any ideology have surprisingly little room for real maneuver; they can make a difference only at the margins and usually for the worse. All of this has an impact on the economic circumstances and prospects of Millennials. The US is far from alone in this self-imposed bind.

In Brooks’ 2030, federal debt service alone eats up 3 trillion dollars per year – a number which might not be far off from reality. Meanwhile, in this near-future, cancer and many ailments of the elderly are at long last defeated; this sounds wonderful but it means that the elderly population grows and grows with Boomers (my people) in particular likely to hang on to 120 while chewing up ever more health care expenses, social security, and whatever remains of the federal budget – and by their numbers dominating political power. Effectively, young people pay for all this with low wages, enormous private debt, high taxes, mandated purchases, and a far lower standard of living than their parents and grandparents. The young begin to respond violently; extremist youth groups and “lone wolves” launch terror attacks against the old. There already was no money to deal with ordinary expenses and the effects of climate change, but when the Big One hits California, as it will one day, doing 20 trillion dollars in damage and collapsing insurance companies, federal leaders are in a quandary. China is the only country with the resources to lend that much money but is not willing to do it. Brooks presents all of this via several parallel stories about individuals. Primary characters include a young woman struggling with her father’s expenses, a rich (and therefore personally unaffected but ideologically committed) young terrorist, a billionaire who made his fortune on health cures for the old, an assisted suicide doctor, lobbyists for AARP, a survivor of the California ‘quake, and the President and his staff. I might be making this sound like a polemic, but it is not. The stories are told with Brooks’ characteristic low-key fatalistic humor. He ends (very mild *spoiler*) on an upbeat note, which is probably the screenwriter overwhelming the novelist: Hollywood endings and all that. But that is a minor complaint – if indeed it is a complaint – about an otherwise well-executed scifi novel.

Boomers are no strangers to the Generation Gap. We invented the term. We were ungenerous to our parents in the 1960s, and overly sappy when we started to lose them in in large numbers in the 90s. Our parents grew up in the Depression and fought the Second World War; they’d had enough excitement from those experiences and wanted nothing more than security, a Cape Cod home with a picket fence, and a Ford in the driveway. The radical social changes (very much including shifts in gender roles) of the 1920s-40s not only stalled but were reversed in the 1950s. We didn’t cut them much slack for this. The Boomers’ 60s rebellion against it was very much needed, but we failed to acknowledge just how much our rebellion was financed by the surpluses created by our parents. We haven’t left similar surpluses to the generations after us, so if they aren’t angry at us perhaps they should be. Millennials expect a lower standard of living than we had – the first time this has happened in US history. Whether this leads to the sort of conflicts in Brooks’ 2030 remains to be seen. They are not inevitable, but they are credible.

The Zimmers –  My Generation


  1. Sounds like a fairly interesting book and Brooks did well with it. My dad had his Ford in the driveway for many years until he switched over to a small Chevy upon retirement.

    Are we to blame that extra surpluses haven't been left to future generations? That seems to be over generalizing or perhaps you can go into it more. I guess I'm trying to say that the way things are: government, spiraling student loans, etc. Are to blame as well. Also it seems that if it were true to some degree that blame also gets diluted into other generations as well.

    1. Characterizations of large groups (like generations) are by their nature vast generalizations. Each type of behavior always falls on a bell curve and there are always individuals in any time and place who dally in one or the other tail of the curve. Yet, the centerline of that bell curve shifts over time, and all the behavioral centerlines together at any given moment form a zeitgeist. So I think there is some sense to such generalizations (especially when using fewer than 1000 words) even though it is certainly fair to point out that there are always a lot of individual exceptions. Not all GI Generation members experienced the Depression or fought the Second World War in any real sense, for example: some were rich and never had to scrimp and some were conscientious objectors. In the 1950s not all of them backslid into social conservatism – Hugh Hefner, for one. Yet the Depression and WW2 really were defining events of that generation, and GI Generation members, by the numbers and broadly speaking, really were more likely to be socially conformist and quasi-Victorian in the 1950s than people had been in the 1940s or would be in the 1960s. They also left Boomers in toto with more assets (in current dollar values) than we are leaving behind us. Once again there are a lot of exceptions: plenty of Boomers inherited only debt while plenty of GenXers are inheriting big windfalls. Overall, though, our parents did better by us, especially considering the levels from where they started.

      While we individually might not have voted for transfers of wealth to ourselves, we belong to a generation that – overall – did just that. True enough, we are not alone in demanding more than for which we are willing to pay, but if only for demographic reasons we have been better at it – so far.

  2. I think you are basically right, but I guess what I was getting at is: If there is a 1% today, (which I think there is) when did that shift of wealth begin? Didn't that siphon off some of that money that might have been inherited? Didn't that cut into the middle classes' earning power, pay raise, etc.?

    Not only that but other things entered the consumerism spectrum: cell phones, gaming, computer, along with all the things we had growing up like clothes and music. It's no wonder the younger gen can't save much money. I still feel somewhat a holdover of that previous GI generation as I can be pretty tight with a dollar which is odd as I don't even have kids to pass things onto. I guess it's just the way I was brought up and that's hard to buck at times.

    Do you have a book recommendation on this topic?

    1. Since the 1970s there has been a global phenomenon of increasing relative returns on capital, which naturally benefits those who have capital. This is true in social democratic economies as well as in free-market bastions such as Singapore and Taiwan. It happens especially during low-interest monetary periods such as the past 15 years in the US and in euro zone Europe: in pursuit of higher returns, investors buy assets such as stocks instead, which pushes up their value – once again favoring those who have assets. Meanwhile, technological change and the ongoing shift to service sector employment have lowered the demand for semi-skilled (especially traditionally male) labor, which is the primary reason for the strain on the middle class. That seems likely to continue. Amazon warehouses already rely heavily on robots, for example, while even truck drivers soon may see their numbers reduced by ever better driverless technology. Low growth economies (again like most of the developed world in recent years) also increase disparity; high growth puts upward pressure on wages relative to capital. I guess the message (at the individual level at least) is to acquire capital, hard as that is, and invest it.

      Book recommendation: While I don’t happen to agree with a lot of his prescriptions – which are not clearly derivable from his own excellent research – a thorough historical analysis of capital and wages is by Thomas Piketty, a French economist from the Paris School of Economics. His book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” puts current trends and inequality issues in a historical context from the 18th century to present. Distribution, he notes, is currently what it was in the 1920s; the shocks of Depression, war, and a post-war boom reduced the spread for a while.

  3. I didn't know Mr. Brooks wrote a science fiction novel. I really enjoy his humor (and I already mentioned my appreciation for "Defending your Life". This sounds like it might be a good one. Sounds like the cynical Gen Xers had it right in his version of the future after all... we are all going down the drain. Whatever. ;)

    1. If you like Brooks' movies you'll almost certainly like this novel: the voice is very much the same.

      As for the future: Way.