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Perfect Storm: A Rising Tide But The Boats Won’t Float

May 26th, 2007 | by Daniel DiRito |

I’ve always been fascinated with society, psychology, and the human condition…especially from the perspective of what the future may hold. Don’t misinterpret that to mean that I think I can predict the future; rather I try to predict how the state of thought…what people believe, what they are saying, and how they are saying it today…will impact their experiences some time in the not so distant future.

Additionally, I love it when my musings can connect several disparate dots into a snapshot of what might unfold in that regard. Lastly, I adore words…how they are used, what they can and should mean, how they shape our hopes and beliefs, and how they can often be used to say one thing while intending or imparting another. Some say that we are what we eat…I say we are what we hear…which becomes what we say.

A couple of articles caught my attention this morning and allowed me to get lost in one of my moments of ADD induced speculation. First, let me offer the backdrop. Of late, I’ve spent a lot of time focused on the state of parenting and the messages today’s parents are giving their children which will influence how they will function in the world as adults. Add in the influence of religion and its tendency to support absolutist thinking, the preoccupation with being famous and being number one and you have a snapshot of the launching point for my contemplation.

The first article deals with the issue of climate change and the impact of global warming. According to a Washington Post article, the United States appears prepared to reject the proposal to be offered at the upcoming G8 Summit that would set limits on greenhouse gas emissions in order to cap the rise in global temperature.

Representatives from the world’s leading industrial nations met the past two days in Heiligendamm, Germany, to negotiate over German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s proposed statement, which calls for limiting the worldwide temperature rise this century to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and cutting global greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Bush administration officials, who raised similar objections in April, rejected the idea of setting mandatory emissions targets as well as language calling for G-8 nations to raise overall energy efficiencies by 20 percent by 2020. With less than two weeks remaining, said sources familiar with the talks, the climate document is the only unresolved issue in the statements the world leaders are expected to sign at the June 6-8 summit.

“The U.S. still has serious, fundamental concerns about this draft statement,” a paper dated May 14 states. “The treatment of climate change runs counter to our overall position and crosses multiple ‘red lines’ in terms of what we simply cannot agree to…We have tried to ‘tread lightly’ but there is only so far we can go given our fundamental opposition to the German position.”

As I’ve followed the global warming debate, a couple things stand out to me. One, the projections suggest that if the trends were to in fact proceed unabated, rising ocean levels would threaten some of this country’s major population centers. Two, those rising waters are apparently being taxed to absorb the rising levels of carbon dioxide and should they reach saturation, the problems will only accelerate. At some point the entire system goes awry and all hell breaks loose…think high waters and boats…perhaps Noah’s arc meets Poseidon Adventure.

I read the second article at MSNBC. That article, in its broadest terms, is a discussion of the state of the American Dream…the promise of advancing prosperity from generation to generation. Toss in the oft heard GOP theory that the rising tide lifts all boats and you’ll begin to see some rhyme to my reason.

The American dream has always held that each generation will enjoy a higher standard of living than the previous one, and that is still true, as measured by household income.

But the generational gains are slowing, and the increased participation of women in the work force is the only thing keeping the dream alive, according to an analysis of Census data released Friday.

A generation ago, American men in their thirties had median annual incomes of about $40,000 compared with men of the same age who now make about $35,000 a year, adjusted for inflation. That’s a 12.5 percent drop between 1974 and 2004, according to the report from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project.

To be sure, household incomes rose during the same period, but only because there are more full-time working women, the report said.

“Today’s data suggest that during a 30-year period of economic expansion, a rising tide did not lift all boats,” Morton said in a release accompanying the report, “Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?”

Of course, the men who run American companies don’t have too much to complain about. CEO pay increased to 262 times the average worker’s pay in 2005 from 35 times in 1978, according to the report’s analysis of Congressional Budget Office statistics.

Going back to 1820, per capita gross domestic product in the United States has grown an average of 52 percent for each 30-year generation, according to the report. But since 1973, median family income has grown only 0.6 percent per year, a rate that produces just a 17 percent increase over a generation.

“Thus, unless the rate of economic growth increases, the next generation will experience an improvement in its standard of living that is only one-third as large as the historical average for earlier generations,” the report said.

Stay with me, I promise a big finish (wink, wink).

So when you take the words found in these two articles and factor in the issues from the backdrop, one can begin to see the images that will form a preliminary snapshot of our future human condition premised upon the existing and established social and psychological influences.

I’ll attempt to explain. Generally speaking, it seems to me that many of today’s parents are raising the expectations found in their children. Call it the American Idol mentality morphs with the Tiger Woods phenomenon…meaning mom and dad say to themselves, “My kid has star potential so I simply need to cultivate it from the outset”. My bottom line assumption suggests that a growing number of parents believe every child can, should, and will be coached such that they are eventually discovered and catapulted to their rightful position in the spotlight. Call it the American Dream juiced up on steroids (h/t to David Letterman for the steroids slang).

At the same time, we see the data from the study referenced above suggesting that the economic prospects are moving in a diametrically opposite direction…and we have yet to consider the unknown though increasingly predictable ramifications of climate change that could render all prior historical equations virtually useless. Oh, and did I mention the case of the missing honey bees?

I’ve previously argued that humanity has continued to move towards a construct of diverging identities…in other words there is a greater divide between the outward lives we live and the more obscure, though ever lurking in the background, state of hyper reality…those moments when the facade of the outer world identity is stripped of its accoutrements to reveal the starkness of our real identity.

A couple examples might be helpful. It’s the eighteen year old young woman that dad has convinced is destined to be the next Serena Williams who finds herself entering college without a tennis scholarship and void of other measures of self worth…though still convinced her exaggerated “manifest destiny” is just around the corner.

It’s the thirty five year old son who was handed success in the form of family instituted social security when he joined his maternal grandfather’s business as a vice president the day he graduated from college…now left to realize the day after grandfather has entered a nursing home with Alzheimer’s that sales have evaporated in direct relation to grandpa’s advancing disconnect and that what little is left of a fortune will now be needed to pay for round the clock care.

The reality is that this aquarium we call America isn’t big enough to hold the advancing expectations we have sought to institutionalize and that we have exponentially instilled in the next generation. Worse yet, we haven’t yet equipped that generation with the boat to survive the rising tide…no, not the rising tide of success that will raise all boats…but the rising tide of a global economy that will subject the United States to ever increasing global economic realities. In truth, boats be damned…people are going to need to know how to swim…and no, there won’t be any gold medals awarded.

At the same time, we have a government that is intent on borrowing money in order to spend its way out of each new economic setback. Simultaneously, they ignore the warnings of an ever advancing science that suggests an entirely new and ominous cash eating calamity in the form of global climate change is just beyond the rising liquid horizon.

The bright future that has become the staple of our private and political rhetoric (the words we speak) may be nothing more than the glow of an approaching apocalypse…no, not the one associated with the rapture that runs rampant in religious imagery and that promises an idyllic after life…the one that was there in full view for all to see and fully of our own human making…the one we chose to ignore because our best human attributes and identities had atrophied such that we lacked the will to right the ship before it succumbed to the weight of an endless burden of belligerence and betrayal…particularly that betrayal which suggested that god would save us…because we chose to conclude that that would be easier than saving ourselves.

The curtain falls.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

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  1. 2 Responses to “Perfect Storm: A Rising Tide But The Boats Won’t Float”

  2. By tammara on May 26, 2007 | Reply

    daniel,

    i’ll tell you again how much i appreciate your posting on bio. this is a good piece, and something i’ve thought about in terms of today’s youth for awhile.

    when i taught high school, i was constantly taken aback by how little any of these kids knew about survival, and how completely disinterested they were in finding out. “food is, miss rose” they would say.

    i surmise that they will be completely unprepared to figure how how to float a boat in the conditions you describe, and swimming is completely out of the question, due to couch potato life styles of video games.

    all i can say is thanks to my prescience regarding this in my early 20’s and the accepting attitude of the doctor who tied my tubes at 24, i don’t have to worry about my kids in this mess. not that i won’t worry about the fate of the world regardless.

  3. By Liberal Jarhead on May 30, 2007 | Reply

    Thanks for this one, Daniel.

    Even some of the mildly encouraging data is misleading. It’s true that household incomes have risen over the last few decades, but in terms of actual buying power, they’ve shrunken. The buying power of the middle class is less than it was a generation ago, and our kids (mine are in their 20s) are facing a much tougher time with things like buying houses, getting decent health insurance, and creating safe environments for their own kids than my generation did. Big money is using the power of government to grind the middle class into a return to serfdom.

    Perfect storm is a good analogy. Along with the ongoing harshening of the climate, which is increasing destructive storms, deepening the drought in the southwest, and shinking growing belts for food grains - as well as threatening to swamp coastal cities as you noted - we’re facing the turning upside-down of the ratio of productive workers to retirees; the knowledge that the mounting national debt will catch up with us whenever the Chinese feel it’s most advantageous to crash our economy; the resurgence of pandemics in the form of medication-resistant diseases which, along with the collapse of public health, promise a society swept by periodic waves of killer plagues; a culture that is accelerating the process of desensitizing our kids to violence and feeding them a worldview - as you noted - in which everyone thinks he or she is special and entitled to be treated as such and “deserves” things because he or she wants them (a common theme in ads these days); the decline of critical thinking and balanced education in exchange for an increase in wishful thinking, apathy, and fanaticism of various stripes; in short, I can’t see how this situation is going to lead to “they lived happily ever after.”

    Gloomy tonight, and reading today’s posts is deepening that gloom. My grandkids (they’re 3 and 6) are asleep up the hall, and I just hope we can help them develop the kind of strength of character they’ll need to have half a chance of weathering the lives waiting for them.

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