March 1, 2011

A Venture into the Land of Aging

Shock of Gray
by Ted C. Fishman, Scribner 2010

Every day you wake up older. That is the bad news, for you and, increasingly, for countries and cities with dramatically aging populations. The good news is that, if you are lucky enough to have been born in the 20th century (the later the better) and in a developed country, you will live longer and healthier than preceding generations. This is, writes Ted Fishman, “mankind's greatest gift to itself, the engineering of longer lives.” But as women have fewer babies and we live longer, there are more and more old people, fewer young people paying into retirement systems and more of them working lower-wage jobs, often caring for their elders.

This exceedingly well-written book by sometime Forward contributor and author of the best-selling China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World is both informative and entertaining. The first chapter is called “Greetings from Florida, God's Waiting Room;” a chapter on Japan is called “Land of the Missing Son.” Such cleverness and ample interviews with people in all parts of the aging world turn what could be a dry recitation of demographic data into a compelling narrative about what is happening and how various parts of the world are coping.

Other reviewers of this book have faulted it for not offering enough solutions. There are no solutions to aging, of course (unless you want to include Botox and Viagra), but individual municipalities are confronting the loss of young people, their declining tax bases, social and health care challenges, and “gerontophobia,” the fear and denial of aging. There are plenty of solutions or at least ideas embedded into the profile chapters, which alternate with the trend chapters.

  •       A profile of Sarasota, Florida, shows how it has embraced its aging population and actively tries to attract more of them. One-third of Sarasota's population is over 65.
  •  A profile of Rockford, Illinois, the “screw capital of the world” because of all the fastener manufacturers once headquartered there, shows how it has embarked on a long-term strategy to get young former residents to return.
  •   The Kalamazoo Promise brought anonymous donors together to pay the college tuition of any child from that Michigan city, as long as they attend a public college or university in Michigan.
  • An out-of-the box idea from Germany is to train former prostitutes as elder-care workers. They possess “good people skills, aren't easily disgusted and have zero fear of physical contact.”

The trend chapters cover everything from the science on how we actually age to the
forces of globalization. “Younger countries
that are rich in youth but short in funds reshape themselves to suit the needs of older countries rich in funds and short on youth,” Fishman writes. Unfortunately, employers
that have to pay into the retirements of today's aging work force will pass over younger workers because those jobs will go to countries where that burden does not exist.

In all the discussion of aging's indignities and infirmities, Fishman manages to stay remarkably upbeat. As he says at the end of the introduction, “in spite of the high cost of living, it's still popular.”



Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets
by Robert Kuttner. The University of Chicago Press, 1996.


Read this book slowly — very, very slowly. Partly because of the intense case of deja  vu it provokes. “Society has decided that unsophisticated people should not lose their life savings because of the misjudgment or corruption of a particular banker or the general consequences of a run on the banks,” Kuttner wrote in 1996. Sounds very much like what happened in the recent recession. Partly that is because Kuttner, the founding co-editor of The American Prospect magazine and most recently author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, is so cerebral and the content so rich with ideas that you must stop periodically and just think about it. And partly it is because there is a lot of liberal, progressive and even libertarian politics in the book and you must decide whether you even agree with what he's saying.

This book, like Kuttner's other 10 books, is usually described as “brilliant.” There is no doubt that he is a brilliant man with great intellectual heft and a deep ethical commitment to harnessing the capitalist system to serve the broad public interest.

In this book, he argues that not all markets function as well as free marketers believe and that some things should simply not be for sale. The chapter on financial services, “Money Markets and Corporations,” makes for sobering reading. “As money markets become more speculative, are we playing roulette with the entire economy?” he asks. “As corporations came to be seen as nothing but fungible sets of assets,” the older concept of a corporation as, to a certain extent, the custodian of a community's well-being “was dismissed as sentimental and inefficient.” In response to this, Kuttner argues for “stakeholder capitalism.” This could be based on the Scandinavian model where employees have votes as powerful as shareholders or on the Bingaman Model, put forth in the mid-1990s by New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman.

Do you agree? That is what makes this book so rich and compelling. Kuttner does his readers the honor of considering them as intelligent as he. You have opinions on this, he believes. This book begs to debate the issues in a logical way.