Joe Biden is running a presidential campaign predicated on the assumption that there is a middle ground between two extreme sides on every issue. Truth is, the mood of the electorate is binary on a lot of things and are they really wrong? It’s not like you can save just half the planet.
Some “deep green” environmentalists believe that the tab for two-plus centuries of industrialization is about to come due in the form of a catastrophic ecological disaster — one that might lead to the great sixth mass extinction on a scale similar to the meteor believed to have taken out the dinosaurs. (Yes, that means you, human reader.)
Here in California, the current drought — which some scientists believe may be the worst in 500 years — understandably leaves many Golden State residents, always aware of water restrictions in a region surrounded by deserts, with a sense of disquiet. What if this goes on? Will the California Dream turn to dust and blow away?
Apparently not. Like the Earth in general, California’s climate is surprisingly resilient, according to recent computer models.
State climate researchers ran a projection of what would happen after “even decades of unrelenting mega-drought similar to those that dried out the state in past millennia,” reports Bettina Boxall of the Times.
“The results were surprising,” Jay Lund of UC Davis told her.
If you own stock in the ag business, you might want to consider unloading them. Agriculture, the climatologists found, would be hit hard. “In their computer simulation, annual runoff into rivers and reservoirs amounted to only about half the historical average. Most reservoirs never filled. Under that scenario, experts say, irrigated farm acreage would plunge…The state’s 8 million acres of irrigated cropland could fall by as much as half, predicted Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. Farmers would largely abandon relatively low-value crops such as cotton and alfalfa and use their reduced water supplies to keep growing the most profitable fruits, nuts and vegetables. They would let fields revert to scrub or dry-farm them with wheat and other crops that predominated before California’s massive federal irrigation project transformed the face of the Central Valley in the mid-20th century.”
Biodiversity would suffer too. “Aquatic ecosystems would suffer, with some struggling salmon runs fading out of existence.”
Water prices will rise. Desalination plants will be built along the coast. While initially painful, the agrishock would only affect 4% of the state’s economy — notable, but not fatal.
Bottom line: “The California economy would not collapse. The state would not shrivel into a giant, abandoned dust bowl. Agriculture would shrink but by no means disappear.”
Paradoxically, this good news (or not-that-bad news, anyway) is bad news.
Political and economic leaders tend to ignore problems before they turn into a crisis — especially when heading off the issue would cost money. The news that California’s drought probably won’t lead to ruin within their lifetimes, or our children’s lifetimes, ensures that they’ll keep ignoring environmental destruction. Species will keep going extinct. Flocks of birds will continue to thin out. Invasive species will accelerate the process. These things may not sink the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but they really really really suck.
This is one of those rare times when I wish — almost — that the scientists had lied about what they discovered.
The Gen X-Millennial Generation Gap
Every 20 years ago, Time depicts people in their 20s as “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.” This time the target is the Millennial generation (Americans born between roughly 1980 and 2000, with Baby Boomer parents). According to (cough cough) the Boomer-run media, twentysomethings/Gen Y/Millennials are narcissists.
Back in 1990, Time was smearing Gen X as shallow, apolitical, unambitious shoe-gazers.
“[Gen Xers] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders. What they hold dear are family life, local activism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes.” (Penny loafers? Really?)
Back then we Gen Xers defended our collective honor by alternating between the “we do not suck, at least not in the way you say we suck” and “anyway, if we do suck, it’s your fault, old farts” arguments. Gen Y is manning its rhetorical ramparts the same way.
Here we go again.
You know what’s wrong with young people today?
Not much. Not according to me or my friends. We’re fine with younger people.
Which is weird.
Gen Xers get along well with people in their 20s and 30s — certainly a lot better than those in their 40s did with us when we were young.
We like Gen Y. We respect them. We don’t chafe, for example, at working under a younger boss. We ask them advice. OK, mostly about tech stuff. I learned about WordPress and Hootsuite and Gawker and Wii from 20ish friends. Mostly, we like the same music and movies. (But they download stuff. Don’t they worry about ephemerality?)
Maybe the Millennials secretly hate us — you’d have to ask them — but if they do, they’re doing an excellent job of hiding it. We hang out. It’s good.
Sometimes, though — it’s not like it comes up a lot, just now and then — my Gen Xer cohorts let slip a complaint about our younger friends and colleagues:
Why are Millennials, um…well, there’s no other way to say it: kind of boring?
Young people today! So obedient. They believe politicians. What’s with that? Millennials go along to get along in corporate America. When they get laid off, they don’t get angry (like we did) — they adapt. They reinvent themselves. Gen Y music, movies, even their clothes: so conservative!
The Generation Gap of the 1960s and 1970s referred to the inability/refusal of “tune in, turn on, drop out” Baby Boomers to relate to their stodgy “we survived the Depression and won World War II so turn down that goddamn rock ‘n’ roll” Parents. Though decried at the time as sad and alienating, the dynamic of that demographic divide was as natural as could be. The young were loud, obnoxious, demanding and politically radical. The old were reserved, quiet and conservative, even reactionary. Kids were kids; parents were parents.
William Howe and Neil Strauss’ landmark book “Generations,” which traces the identities of American generation through popular culture and politics back to the colonial era, depicts dozens of epic clashes between old codgers vs. youthful insurgents. The young fight to be heard. The old yell at them to shut up. The old get older and quieter, the young mature and gain influence and replace them.
That’s how it was 200 years, and 20 years, ago. Just as their parents looked down on them, Boomers looked down on us Xers.
The Gen X/Y divide breaks this pattern.
We’re middle-aged and cynical and our tastes run to smart and sarcastic and anti-PC and antiauthoritarian, Tarantino/postpunk. We voted Green Party and never looked back, or for Obama but never expected much. Millennials are old and naïve and earnest and retro.
Millennial hipsters (who don’t dress hip — their hipsters are dorks) are militant nostalgists. They’ve revived the ancient traditions of our grandparents: martinis, old-fashioned cocktails like grasshoppers and mint juleps and, well, old fashioneds. They golf. They wear clothes from the 1930s. They watch go-go dancers. (Feminist radical lesbian ones.) They grow beards — not hippie beards, but retrosexual Civil War ones, paired with handlebar mustaches. They open restaurants — really good restaurants — whose menus and aesthetics harken back to the 19th century, staffed by waiters who take everything very seriously. You can elicit a dry chuckle. Not a bellylaugh. Certainly not a snide Xer sneer.
Steampunk could never have been a big Gen X thing. We’re scrappy and stripped down. They’re baroque.
Millennials didn’t just expect real Hope and Change. Four years later, they still do. When they got radical, they came up with the blink-and-you-missed it Occupy movement, which had as its centerpiece calls to reenact the Glass-Steagal Act.
Millennial pop culture is about flat affect: mumblecore movies and all-attitude-no-plot TV shows like “Arrested Development,” emo-influenced music, giant dollops of special nostalgia sauce everywhere, every member of every band dressed like they’re showing up to roof your house (but with Taliban beards). Opening concert greeting: “Hey.”
Graphic novels where it takes six pages for a leaf to fall off a tree.
Prose novels about nothing, printed preciously and packaged beautifully, thanks to the influential McSweeney’s empire.
Gentle, chatty movies and TV shows, not a series of scenes, but rather riffs of tone and mood.
Even their taste in cars is boring. And kind of dumb.
Boomers’ countless faults aside, let’s give them this: they knew what they wanted. They loved. They hated. They wanted revolution. Which was one of the things Xers hated about Boomers (Xers hate a lot): they came so close to revolution and they friggin’ gave up. Gen Y revolution? It’s hard to imagine such an — oblivious? unaccountably satisfied? — generation shooting anyone or blowing anything up. That, I think, gets close to the mystery of the Millennials. They’ve been horribly screwed — even more than us Gen Xers, and make no mistake, we were hosed big time.
Millennials are mired in student loan debt.
They will never make much money or get any government benefits or get much of anything out of the system.
After decades of warnings, the planet is finally, really, irreversibly, ruined. Their planet.
Why aren’t they pissed off?
(We need them to be. We’re too busy holding down four jobs.)
Parents, they say, shouldn’t have to bury their own children. It ain’t natural. Know what else is wrong? For the old to see the young as uptight codgers.
Not that Xers blame Yers for being uncool. Gen Xers, a self-deprecating generation from the beginning (what do you expect? society, politics, even the movies hated us — remember all those evil child horror movies like The Omen and It’s Alive?)
Writing in The New York Observer, Peter Hyman argues that Gen X and Gen Y shouldn’t be as cozy as they are. That it’s our (X’s) fault that Y hasn’t made its own mark:
“The old generational identities that once defined us have broken down, and the net result is a messy temporal mashup in which fortysomethings act like skateboarders, twentysomethings dress like the grandfather from My Three Sons, tweens attend rock concerts with their parents and toddlers are exposed to the ethos of hardcore punk.”
And it’s up to Gen X to fix it (like everything else, apparently):
“I know guys whose style of dress and off-duty interests haven’t changed a lick since college. They devote their free time to movies about comic-book heroes, to video games and to fantasy football. No, they aren’t hurting anybody. But perhaps what we really need to do is put on suits and take our wives out for expensive dinners, like our dads before us.”
That burns. I’m wearing skinny black jeans and a (vintage! from back in the day!) Dead Kennedys T-shirt as I write this. But I can’t afford a suit or an expensive dinner, thank you very much, Boomer scum.
Anyway, I don’t buy Hyman’s argument that passing the torch of our old cool (the Ramones, Beastie Boys) to the young “shortchanges” the young and “infantilizes” us oldsters. My fogie parents prosthelytized about Benny Goodman and Benny Hill and the Four Tops and guess what? It didn’t take.
One problem with writing about generational politics is that it requires sweeping generalizations. You can point to million exceptions. And of course there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. These things simply are (if you believe, many many do not). Another is that you risk pissing people off…people you like.
To be clear, we Xers think you Millennials are awesome. We just wish you’d act your age.
(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
Voters Turn Against Pols’ Follow-the-Polls Strategy
In order to be a good leader, Disraeli said, “I must follow the people.”
Aided and abetted by toe-sucking pollster Dick Morris, Bill Clinton finessed the art of leading from the rear, relying on Morris’ tracking surveys to help him decide everything from whether to bomb Serbia to when and if to take a vacation.
By definition, however, leaders point where their followers should go. Americans haven’t seen much real leadership on the federal level since Reagan. Where there’s been progress, such as on gay rights, the President only stepped forward after public opinion had shifted enough to make it safe.
For the first time in 30 years, Dick Morris’ follow-the-voters strategy appears to be running out of steam. This year, the electorate seems to be hungering for presidents in the mold of TR, FDR and LBJ—old-school leaders who painted ambitious visions of where America could go and why it should, who took political gambles that the people might not be ready for what they had in mind, who anticipated crises and challenges before anyone else, and explained why we had to act sooner rather than later.
The craving for leadership is evident in the polls. Though personally popular and enjoying the advantages of incumbency, President Obama is running neck and neck against Mitt Romney, an awkward candidate from a minority religion who has trouble connecting with, and is seen as out of touch by, ordinary voters.
Democrats must be worried. Historically, Republican presidential nominees typically gain on Democrats throughout the fall. At this point in the game, Democrats need a substantial lead in order to emerge victorious in November.
What’s going wrong? Mainly, it’s the economy. It sucks. Still. Democrats say the President inherited the meltdown from Bush. But Americans blame Obama.
“The nation’s painfully slow pace of growth is now the primary threat to Mr. Obama’s bid for a second term, and some economists and political allies say the cautious response to the housing crisis was the administration’s most significant mistake,” reports The New York Times. Obama’s big screw-up: “He tried to finesse the cleanup of the housing crash, rejecting unpopular proposals for a broad bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure in favor of a limited aid program—and a bet that a recovering economy would take care of the rest.”
Recovery? What recovery?
The depressed housing market, coupled with the reduced purchasing power of tens of millions of Americans who lost their homes to eviction and/or foreclosure, makes recovery unlikely to impossible for the foreseeable future.
Many people, including yours truly, warned that the millions of Americans who were evicted under foreclosure, many of them illegally, were more “too big to fail” than Citigroup. Some, like former Congressman Jim Marshall (D-GA), voted for TARP, but urged the Obama Administration to condition the bailout on forcing the banks to refinance mortgages and write down principal to reflect the new reality of lower housing prices. “There was another way to deal with this, and that is what I supported: forcing the banks to deal with this. It would have been better for the economy and lots of different neighborhoods and people owning houses in those neighborhoods,” Marshall says.
Voters aren’t mad at Obama for not being clairvoyant. They’re pissed off because he ignored people who were smart and prescient in favor of those who were clueless and self-interested, like Tim Geitner. He may be about to pay a price for that terrible decision.
Tens of millions of Americans already have.
Speaking of leadership—the art of seeing what comes next and doing something about it—what looming problems are the political class ignoring today?
It’s too late to stop the 2008-to-2012 economic meltdown. But it’s still possible for Obama (or, theoretically, Romney) to get ahead of the economy—permanent unemployment benefits, anybody?—and other pressing issues.
Americans want leaders who point the way forward, to anticipate monsters we can’t yet imagine. For example, there is a huge looming crisis: pensions. In 10 to 15 years, Generation Xers will hit traditional retirement age. How will they eat?
Close to none have traditional defined-benefit pension plans. Gen Xers, who earn far less than the Baby Boomers at the same age, have been shunted into 401(k)s, which turned out to be a total ripoff: the average rate of return between 1999 and 2010 was 0.3 percent.
And much of that was withdrawn—under penalty—to subsist after layoffs.
“[Gen Xers] have no savings, and what they had was devastated by two market crashes,” said Andrew Eschtruth of the Center for Retirement Research. “They never got off the ground.”
If you’re 45 years old now and just beginning to save for retirement, financial planners say you should save 41 percent of your income annually (if you haven’t gotten laid off again). As if. Half of Gen Xers live hand to mouth; the rest save a piddling six percent a year.
The Gen X retirement crisis represents 46 million people waiting for a savior—and 46 million potential votes.
Attention Mssrs. Obama, Romney and anyone else presenting yourself as a would-be leader: Don’t just read the polls. Don’t follow us. Show that you care about, and have a credible plan to confront, the problems of the future. If you do that—and we’re not holding our breaths—we’ll pay attention to you.
(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com. This column originally appeared at NBCNews.com’s Lean Forward blog.)
COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL