The Disappearance of Unsilent Generation

Some of you may have looked for Unsilent Generation in the past few days, and instead come upon an unfamiliar site welcoming you to the German version of Unsilent Generation. (Willkommen zur deutschen Version von unsilentgeneration.com.)

What happened is that my domain name, unsilentgeneration.com, expired, and was quickly snatched up by someone else–a German guy. I assume he has bought it in order to sell it back, and I am trying to do so.

In the meantime, Unsilent Generation can be found at a new URL, unsilentgeneration.net.

Sorry for the inconvenience, and I hope you will stick with me while I get this thing sorted out.

The Future of Old Age in America

Note: James Ridgeway wrote this article as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media. The article first appeared in The Guardian.

In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir observed that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves: “Until the moment it is upon us,” she wrote, “old age is something that only affects other people. So it is understandable that society should prevent us from seeing our own kind, our fellow-men, when we look at the old.”

This disconnect has, no doubt, been helpful to those who favor cutting the so-called old age entitlements, social security and Medicare – which, these days, seems to include just about everyone in Washington. Now that the congressional supercommittee charged with reducing the federal deficit has gone down in flames, some are calling for a return to the plan proposed by Obama’s Simpson-Bowles deficit commission last year. Amidst all the bipartisan warring, one thing most of these committee members agree upon is that the budget will, in large part, be balanced on the backs of old people, through cuts to social security and Medicare. The only differences are over how these cuts should be made, and how large they should be.

In the unlikely event that the rich are made to pay something toward deficit reduction, in the form of increased taxes, their contribution will pale in comparison to the share paid by elders in the form of reduced benefits. In part, that’s because the enemies of entitlements have succeeded in depicting these lifesaving government programs as the cause of our economic woes – a myth that has repeatedly been debunked, to little avail. By extension, they depict our current fiscal crisis as a standoff between the old and the young, rather than the rich and the poor. Former Senator Alan Simpson, handpicked by Obama to chair his deficit commission, was fond of talking about the perfidy of “fat cat geezers” who dared to oppose entitlement cuts at the expense of his – and everyone’s – grandchildren.

Simpson’s image of old people “who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount” seems to have gained traction as the dominant view of elders in this country. This belies the reality of the lives lived by millions of older Americans, for whom a comfortable retirement was never more than a distant dream. For them, old age means work or poverty – or, sometimes, both.

Recently, I attended the annual meeting in Boston of the Gerontological Society of America, a research and education organisation whose members study all aspects of aging. With 3,500 people in attendance, hundreds of sessions and a teeming exhibit hall, there was plenty of upbeat talk about the “encore years”. But there was also a body of research and discussion that presented a more rounded picture of old age in America – a place where “fat cat geezers” are far outnumbered by elders who, like Americans of all ages, are struggling to get by.

In one exhibit on “The Economics of Aging”, researchers from Wayne State University presented a study published earlier this year called “Invisible Poverty”, which found that one in three elders – including many living in middle-class suburbs – cannot fully cover their basic living expenses, including food, housing, transportation and medical care. It also found that certain shortcomings in the way federal poverty statistics are compiled meant that poverty among older people was more likely to be underestimated. “This widespread economic struggle faced by Michigan seniors is fairly hidden from public sight, making it an invisible poverty that takes its toll on older individuals, their families and caregivers and the community at large,” says the study.

Among the elderly poor are large and growing numbers of women. Consider the figures: over 40% of black and white women over 65 live alone, and over a quarter of these women are poor. They are likely to be isolated and they, too, are invisible. Also below the public policy radar, according to another study presented at the conference, are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders – who are now counted at over 2 million, and are expected to double in number by 2030. These people are far less likely to have partners or caregivers of any sort, because society banned or discouraged them.

For these elders, and millions of others, social security is more than an “entitlement” – it is a lifeline. According to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, social security alone keeps 20 million Americans above the poverty line. It’s hard to argue that social security benefits are too generous, or that retirees enjoy extravagant lifestyles. The average social security benefit currently stands at just over $1,100 a month. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker notes, “More than 75% of benefits go to individuals with non-social security income of less than $20,000 a year and more than 90% of benefits go to individuals with non-social security income of less than $40,000 a year.” In addition, Baker points out:

“The private pension system has largely collapsed and the current group of near retirees saw much of their home equity disappear with the collapse of the housing bubble. As a result, the situation of retirees is likely to be worse in the near future, especially after taking into account the growing burden of out-of-pocket healthcare expenses projected in the decades ahead.”

So it is the search for work, not cleaning one’s fingernails, or studying French to stave off dementia, that is now a major concern for many older people. Historically they have been fired from long-held jobs because of their costly benefits and diminishing ability to handle the job, but now employers are taking a fresh look at this situation. Business, as it turns out, may very well embrace the old – because they often come at lower wages, with no benefits and scant legal protection. Given US supreme court rulings, the prospect of any of these people filing old age discrimination suits is unlikely. Rather than knocking them out of a job, it may turn out to be less expensive to keep on a skilled, elderly employee, perhaps at reduced salary and reduced hours,  than go through the rigamarole of hiring a young, inexperienced person who must then undergo training.

As the GSA conference showed, there is no point in cutting entitlements to the elderly when, in fact, so little is known about their lives and their emerging future. It means there must be a full, open debate – not backdoor political manoeuvring – on the issue. What may be happening here is the emerging outlines of a much different society than the one we now know: a society that, for example, will require a new service sector, a different slant towards medicine, which uses the old to assist the young, as friends and caregivers – instead of pitting generations against one another.

The late Theodore Roszak,who described and named the “counter culture”that took shape in the 1970s, thought old people were anything but a selfish bunch of useless geezers waiting to die, but an “audacious generation”, opening a new world of energy and hope. Let us hope, in de Beauvoir’s words, that moment is upon us.

The Myth of the Greedy Geezer

The following appeared today as an opinion piece on Al Jazeera English.

Old people are becoming everyone’s favourite scapegoat for America’s economic woes. Among the growing ranks of self-styled deficit hawks, Social Security and
Medicare are depicted as an intolerable burden to the nation’s already crippled
economy, which can only be saved through massive cuts to these so-called old-age entitlement programs. To advance this agenda, proponents of entitlement cuts have attacked not only the programs themselves, but the people who benefit from them – the selfish old folks like myself, who insist upon bankrupting the
country for the sake of their own costly health care and retirement income.

We in the over-65 set have become the present-day equivalent of Reagan’s notorious “welfare queens,” supposedly living high on the hog at the expense of the taxpayer. According to what I call the Myth of the Greedy Geezer, we lucky
oldsters spend our time lolling about in lush retirement villas, racing our golf
carts to under-priced early-bird dinner specials and toasting our good fortune
with cans of Ensure – all at the expense of struggling young people, who will
never enjoy such pleasures since the entitlement “Ponzi scheme” will collapse
long before they are old.

The fervour for entitlement-cutting remains strongest among conservatives, but these days, even President Obama is taking part, promoting the recommendations of his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Deficit Commission (and to its opponents as the Cat food Commission, since that’s what old people will be eating when the Commission finishes its work).

The appointed chair of the Deficit Commission, Alan Simpson, is one of the primary promulgators of the Myth of the Greedy Geezer. A former Republican senator from Wyoming who is known for his colourful turns of phrase, Simpson insists that “This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.” The majority of the people opposed to such cuts, he claims, are “These old cats 70 and 80 years old who are not
affected in one whiff. People who live in gated communities and drive their
Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount. This is madness.”…

Read the rest at Al Jazeera.

U.S. Senator Talks Up War with Pakistan

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading figure on the Senate Armed Services Committee, talked openly on “Fox News Sunday” about the possibility of war with Pakistan. As usual, it was couched in terms like “elevate our response” and “put all options on the table”–but he was clearly referring to military action.

“The sovereign nation of Pakistan is engaging in hostile acts against the United States and our ally Afghanistan that must cease,” Graham said. “I will leave it up to the experts, but if the experts believe that we need to elevate our response, they will have a lot of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.”

“They’re killing American soldiers,” he continued. “If they continue to embrace terrorism as a part of their national strategy, we’re going to have to put all options on the table, including defending our troops.”

The Cost of Prisons

In “It Takes a Village,” an op-ed column in Friday’s New York Times, Charles Blow writes about the Dorothy Day Apartments in West Harlem:

Well, the  cost of the building plus renovations was $17 million. So if it  houses 190 people, that works out to about $89,500 a person, not including most of the children served by the day care center. But let’s put that into the context of prison construction, for  instance. According to the New York State Commission of  Correction, 1,000 new jail beds will have been built between the end of 2007 and the end of 2011 in the counties of Albany, Essex,Rensselaer and Suffolk at a cost of $100,000 per bed.

Furthermore, as Broadway Housing Communities points out on its Web site, “permanent supportive housing for an individual costs taxpayers $12,500 annually, compared to annual costs of $25,000 for an emergency shelter cot; $60,000 for a prison cell; and $125,000 for a psychiatric hospital bed.”

Morgan Freeman: Tea Party’s Racist Attack on Obama

Their [the Tea Party]stated policy, publicly stated, is to do whatever it takes to see to it that Obama only serves one term,” Freeman noted. “What underlines that? ‘Screw the country. We’re going to whatever we can to get this black man outta here.”‘ Piers Morgan

 

Oil and Water: The Spoils of the Libyan War

The real battle over Libya’s future has less to do with opposing political factions than with which foreign players will gain control of the country’s natural resources–oil, natural gas, and water. Europe’s leading oil firms are busy jockeying for position in the impending division of the spoils, while insiders watch for China to make its move.Overlooking it all is a growing US  network of drones which could well be the forerunner of a new,aggressive American military presence on the African continent.

A decision on Friday by the UN Security Council frees  the Libyan national oil company of restraints on its financial operations, which  opens up Libya’s ability to pay for reconstruction. That process ought to get a  further lift from Obama’s meeting on Tuesday with the interim government leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil and his decision to reopen the US embassy in Tripoli

Libya currently produces 2 percent of the world’s oil, but two  things make it a more formidable player in the world market than the numbers  would indicate. One is its location, a short trip across the Mediterranean from  Italy, France, and Spain, with ready access to European energy markets. The  other is the fact that Libya has substantial known reserves–the largest in  Africa, and ninth largest in the world–yet most of the country remains “underexplored” and unmapped, offering the possibility of  even greater supplies in the future.

To date, Italy has been the largest beneficiary of Libyan oil  supplies, for a number of reasons. The Italians invaded and colonized Libya in 1911, left it in tatters following the big tank battles of World War II, and in recent years has emerged as a major force in its oil economy and foreign policy. Before the revolt, Berlusconi enjoyed warm relations with Qadaffi. Italy and Libya worked hand in hand in an effort to slow the flow of immigrants from the Red Sea and northern Africa into Europe with the Italian coast guard intercepting boatloads crossing the Mediterranean through the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies off the Libyan coast below Sicily. Italy also drew one third of its entire oil supply from this former colony.  ENI, the Italian oil giant, is the largest foreign oil company in Libya. Recently Russia’s Gazprom joined ENI in a joint venture to drill for oil under the desert.

The giant international oil companies are socked into Libya and they all have been vying for oil and gas throughout the fighting. According to a report in the Guardian, the London oil trading firm Vitol was in close touch with the rebels, arranging fuel supplies. The new interim government has said France, Britain, and Italy will get favorable treatment compared to China and Russia. Liberation, the French newspaper, reported that Sarkozy cut a deal with the rebels in which France would get 35 percent of the country’s oil in return for military assistance—on the face of it, a pretty wild claim.

ENI’s chief executive officer, Paolo Scaroni, told the Wall Street Journal  earlier this month that the new Libyan government insists it will honor existing contracts. The AP reported executives from Repsol, the Spanish oil firm, were in Benghazi discussing restoring existing operations. Total, the French firm, is preparing to re-enter as well.

Actually the key factor in this game could turn out to be not so much oil, but natural gas. Right now Russia has a near monopoly on gas going into Europe and at an exorbitant price, but its reliability in winter months is questioned. Libyan exports of gas through the Greenstream pipeline to Sicily, also run by ENI, have been increasing. Some industry commentators suggest that natural gas exports might dramatically expand so that Libya acts as a counterweight to the Russians. That, at least, seems to be how the Russians, who stayed well clear of the NATO air attacks, see the situation. According to the AP:

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, described its former Cold War rival’s intervention in Libya as legitimate because it was aimed at protecting civilians, but he said Russia believes the underlying reason was access to Libyan oil.

“For Russia, NATO’s operation in Libya indicated that the major interests of the alliance now lay not in Europe’s East — where its adversaries the Warsaw Treaty Pact and the Soviet Union used to be — but in oil-rich lands of Northern Africa and the Middle East,” Rogozin said in an email.

It seems hard to believe existing oil arrangements—some 50 companies have been engaged in the Libyan oil business–will be seriously affected by Quadaffi’s exit, but the sleeper here is China, which already is ensconced in the Libyan economy, and according to Toronto’s Globe and Mail, offered Quadaffi armaments during the war. These included shoulder-held rockets similar to the U.S. Stinger. They were to be shipped through Algeria or South Africa.

Libya now is China’s eleventh largest source of imports. And before the revolt, 36,000 Chinese were working on 50 different projects within the country. China played both sides during the revolt. While it was peddling arms to Quadaffi, Ma Zhaouxu, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, issued a statement saying, “The Chinese side respects the choice of the Libyan people.
The Chinese side is willing to work with the international community to play a
positive role in the reconstruction process of Libya in the future.’’

Water presents an equally controversial subject in Libya. Quadaffi’s ambitious Great Man Made River, a 2,333 mile network of irrigation pipes drawing water from acquifers beneath the southern desert and turning the arid wastes into lush farmlands. It sounds like a project imported straight from the Colorado river whose diversion has transformed much of the US desert west into into green farmlands and pleasing suburban front lawns. And, in fact, it was Armand Hammer’s Occidental Petroleum that seems to have introduced earlier and smaller versions of this irrigation scheme.

There is one big hitch to this water project. The desert aquifers, as Sandra Postel of Worldwatch, points out in her book Last Oasis, were filled with water 30,000 years ago when there was considerably more rainfall than there is today. In examining this project, engineers now predict the desert aquifers will be sucked dry within 40-60 years. The water will all have been pumped up to the Mediterranean coast for agriculture.The original coastal water sources have been exhausted. So, by then the food and water purchased with oil money will be gone and the whole thing will go down in history as folly.

To defend against such an eventuality Quadaffi looked further afield to line up more water. He hit on Mali a poor country, which up to the present time, was made self sustainable by prudent use of shallow ground water wells. Fred Pearce in Environment 360, a Yale publication, describes the sorry story of what happened when Quadaffi fixed his gaze on Mali:

Libya’s wholesale move into Malian irrigation and agriculture is the result of a secret deal between Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, and Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi. Paid for by Gadaffi’s sovereign investment fund, the Libya Africa Portfolio Fund for Investment, the deal hands the land to a Libyan-controlled organization called Malibya for 50 years and gives the Libyans undisclosed rights to the region’s water. Why would the Mali president sign up to this?

Local campaigners say their government is in thrall — and hock — to Libya because it has become dependent on Libya for aid and investment. Many of its civil servants work in offices built by Libya, and international visitors stay at Libyan-built hotels. And, says Lamine Coulibaly, head of communications for the Mali small farmers’ union, CNOP, the government is so obsessed with getting investment for its agriculture that it cannot see when that investment will do more harm than good to its people.

The infrastructure for agribusiness is in place, and if Libya manages to siphon off water from sub-Saharan Africa into growing crops for Europe and likely the United States, it will be a major player in food as well as fossil fuel supplies. All this will provide the money for the new government, which may or may not provide some form of limited democratic rule.ilitary

There is another aspect to the future of Libya and that has to do with US military ambitions in Africa. These are driven by determination  to root out terrorrists;\ over the long term,they may well be intended to check China which sees Africa as a fuels bin and already has built up an  expansive economic network on the continent.The Washington Post’s report Wednesday morning of growing US drone operations in Africa suggests an expanded US military presence on the continent where heretofore it has been minimal.