Once Again, A Lost Generation

Precisely one century ago, Ernest Hemingway was living in Chicago and attempting to readjust to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of service as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army in World War I. F Scott Fitzgerald was drinking excessively and wooing his future wife Zelda while attempting to transition from an unsuccessful career in advertising to a lucrative one in writing novels and short stories. And the United States, as a nation, was struggling to recover from its loss of human life during the Spanish Flu pandemic, its failure to permanently “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I, and its inability to prevent the economic collapse of the 1920 Depression.

Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s subsequent tales illustrated the plight of The Lost Generation, the demographic cohort that came of age at a time when national leaders and the general public were asking serious questions about the sustainability of American society and its capitalist economy. Although the 1920s are now remembered as a time of prosperity, the decade also represented a time of escalating income inequality, debt-fueled business transactions, racial and religious bigotry, and political turmoil.

Today, much praise is bestowed on America’s Greatest Generation, the demographic group that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Much less attention is paid to the Lost Generation, though, the preceding generation that (according to Hemingway) believed that “if you have a success you have it for the wrong reasons. If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work.”

What caused such a pessimistic, fatalistic, and almost nihilistic perception of American business and society to be adopted by an entire generation? It could not have been a mere single catastrophic event; after all, many American generations experience such events. Perhaps, instead, it was the impact of a wide variety of catastrophic events that generated such cynicism, catastrophes that affected many different types of institutions that supported American society.

And what of today’s youthful generation? What of Gen Z, the demographic cohort that was born after 1996 and is now entering the work force? Their collective memories encompass the national security failure of 9/11, the military quagmire of the Middle Eastern wars, the economic collapse of the Great Recession, the radicalization of contemporary political movements, and the social and medical convulsions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, some citizens are calling for dramatic new investments in national programs, arguing that the failure to make such investments will result in severe economic losses. Others reply that massive increases in federal debt will be required to finance such investments, and that excessive spending will impose even more severe economic losses in the long term.

But neither side is factoring the risk of the emergence of a new Lost Generation into its Return On Investment analyses. If we believe that the potential cost of a climate collapse must be factored into analyses of proposed environmental sustainability investments, perhaps we should likewise conclude that the potential cost of producing another Lost Generation must be factored into analyses of proposed social sustainability investments.

After all, a century ago, the Spanish Flu pandemic helped to produce a group of “Lost” authors who shaped the generation that stumbled into the Great Depression. What will the Coronavirus pandemic do today?

Nutrition Politics

Abortion. Immigration. Taxation. In the United States, one national policy issue after another has tumbled into the quagmire of political polarization.

But nutrition? One would hope that rational minds at the opposing ends of the political spectrum could achieve a “meeting of the minds” about public school lunch programs. Alas, during the past two weeks, that issue exploded into rancorous political debate as well.

The argument began on May 1st, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a Press Release on its official government web site entitled Ag Secretary Perdue Moves To Make School Meals Great Again. Its indirect reference to Donald Trump’s political campaign slogan was sure to catch the attention of his political opponents.

And what did the Press Release announce? The federal government has decided to return certain school lunch ingredient decisions to local control. Some schools, for instance, may no longer need to serve all grain products in whole-grain form. Others may now be permitted to let low-sodium meals meet a less stringent sodium target. And all schools will soon be allowed to serve 1% flavored milk (gasp!) as an alternative to fat-free milk.

That drew the ire of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared with her colleague Sam Kass at the annual summit of Partnership for a Healthier America. Ms. Obama’s response?

She pointedly questioned “… why someone is okay with your kids eating crap.” And Mr. Kass added that “… we’ve already seen (the Department of Agriculture) try to ensure there’s tons of salt …” in school meals.

Feeding children crap? With tons of salt? That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? And yet the Release did include a few choice comments that undoubtedly provoked the ire of the political opposition.

For example, Perdue criticized the Obama-era regulations by claiming that “… kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash …” He continued:

“A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits.”

Perhaps it’s true that public school students throughout the South are rising up in rebellion because of little (albeit healthy) black flakes in their grits. On other other hand, perhaps Perdue is simply telling a folksy fictional anecdote. It’s impossible to tell from the Press Release, which provides no supporting information.

So where do we stand? Apparently, official nutrition regulations that make minor transitions from no-fat milk to 1% milk, and from whole-grain foods to not-quite whole-grain foods, are now being released to the public with folksy tales under sloganeering headlines. And opponents are now leaping to engage in battle by accusing government officials of feeding children “crap.”

Such discourse cannot possibly produce intelligent nutrition policy, can it? But in a world of rabid nutrition politics, it’s the only dish that is being served to us.

America’s Greatest Problem

As 2016 rolled to a close, many citizens in the United States were eager to put a year of grinding problems behind them.

Terrorist attacks. An opioid addiction crisis. Crippling political gridlock. Indeed, America has been grappling with an overwhelming set of challenges that defy all attempts at solutions.

And last month brought news of what might prove to be America’s greatest problem of all. Hidden beneath the customary headlines was a grim announcement by the United States Census Bureau. Apparently, the American population is growing at its slowest rate since the Great Depression.

The causes? The mortality of the massive baby boom generation. Millennials delaying the start of new families because of financial concerns. Restrictions on immigration inflows.

Japan, Russia, and other nations are further along. They are experiencing an outright population decline, and the pervasive economic malaise that accompanies it.

When newlyweds don’t start families, for instance, they don’t purchase small homes. And so the current owners of those homes can’t move up to larger ones. Without such growth, furniture isn’t purchased. Schools aren’t built. Motor vehicles aren’t bought. And the economy wilts.

In addition, social and economic resources are diverted towards care for the elderly. Fewer resources are thus available to train the next generation of employees. So employers shift jobs away to nations with young, dynamic, and growing work forces.

In the United States, there may be little that can be done to reverse the mortality rate of baby boomers. But government policies can certainly be modified to promote population growth among millennial and immigrant groups.

Would such policies generate their own problems? Indeed they would. But they would also begin to address the stagnating growth rate of the population, which may represent the greatest long term challenge that confronts the American people.

Regressing To The Mean

Statistics don’t lie, do they? If you believe in data, then you may believe that our national economy must be in serious trouble. After all, according to a Stanford University study that was released last week, millennials who were born in 1980 only have a 50% chance of earning more money than their parents did at the same age.

The researchers compared that metric to members of the Silent Generation who were born in 1940; those individuals had a 92% chance of earning more money than their parents did. And the reaction of the national press to the study was dire. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, cried that the “American dream slips out of reach for millennials.”

The New York Times was a bit more optimistic, concluding that “if the American dream could survive the Depression, and then thrive in a way few people imagined, it can survive our current troubles.” But it similarly bemoaned the reality of the “fading American dream” for most American citizens.

At first glance, the 50% metric does look pretty dire, doesn’t it? Especially when we compare it to the 92% metric for individuals born in 1940! But it may be helpful to keep in mind an important fact regarding such data.

Here’s the fact. The 50% metric doesn’t merely seem relatively low in comparison to the earlier generation’s 92% metric. It is actually relatively low because of the earlier group’s 92% metric. Or, more precisely, it is relatively low because of the conditions that were temporarily extant at the earlier time.

Here’s an example to help illustrate the point. Let’s assume that a good football team plays three games in a row against other equally good teams. The first and third games are played outdoors in December, in relatively normal (i.e. uncomfortably chilly, but certainly not frigid) late fall or early winter conditions. The second game, however, is played in an indoor domed stadium, in perfect “68 degrees and dry” conditions.

The quarterback plays the first game and does relatively well. Then he plays the second game. What are the odds that he’ll pass for more yardage than in the first game?

It’ll be very high, perhaps as high as 92%. Why? It’s not because he is an inherently better player than he was during the first game. It’s just that playing conditions have turned temporarily better.

Now he plays the third game. What are the odds that he’ll pass for more yardage than in the second game?

It’ll be very low, perhaps as low as 50%. Why? It’s not because he is an inherently worse player than he was during the second game. It’s just that playing conditions have returned to a normal level.

In fact, in any strong, stable, and non-volatile system, you might expect any one’s odds of performing better than any one else to be an average 50%. That’s just as true of football teams as it is of American generations.

And in our football example, if the second game had been played in normal outdoor conditions, the percentages may have remained constant at an average 50% across all three games. We may not have witnessed any volatile variations at all.

Indeed, the reason why the third game’s 50% metric is so low is because the second game’s 92% metric is so high. This “high followed by low” effect is called “regression to the mean.” Unusually high performance metrics, when caused by temporary fluctuations, are usually followed by low performance metrics. And the reverse, i.e. a “low followed by high” effect, often occurs as well.

So how should we interpret the Stanford study data? Well, those American babies who were born in 1940 were about to live their lives under temporarily ideal economic conditions. The Second World War had begun, and by the time it ended just a few years later, each major developed nation in the world but one — the United States — saw its industrial economy obliterated and its society decimated. China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Russia: all were laid low by the conflict.

The great rebuilding of these societies required massive amounts of production supply and financial capital. And the American economy was the only nation on earth that could provide such support.

Those pro-American conditions couldn’t possibly last forever, given that the major economies of the world all eventually recovered. Subsequent American generations thus saw their probabilities of economic success, relative to their parents, regress towards the natural mean of 50%.

As long as we avoid any more cataclysmic global wars, future generations of Americans may find themselves bouncing along at that 50% metric as well. And they shouldn’t necessarily consider their nation in decline in comparison to the 1940 generation’s 92% metric. Instead, they should consider themselves fortunate to be members of a relatively strong, stable, and non-volatile society.

Creative Mashups

Have you ever heard of the word mashup? It’s a term that is often utilized by professionals in the web page design and music industries, one that refers to a site or song that incorporates (or “borrows”) disparate elements from existing works or styles. The composer mashes the elements together, producing a new creation that is startlingly new and yet clearly familiar.

Last weekend, for instance, the New Haven Symphony closed its holiday concert with a song called Jingle Bells Forever. Blending Stars and Stripes Forever, the traditional closing song of Memorial Day concerts, with Jingle Bells, which occupies a similar position at Christmas season events, it represents an oddly fascinating mashup of diverse musical pieces.

In a broader sense, we’ve also been witnessing mashups in many other sectors of our society, haven’t we? In politics, for instance, we see Donald Trump, with his blended persona of politician, real estate tycoon, and reality television personality. And in business, we observe Airbnb and Uber, firms that represent mashups of the emerging social media industry with the traditional hotel and taxi industries.

And who can forget the Apple iPhone? The mother of all mashups now dominates the mobile device industry with its aggregation of book reader, camera, computer, GPS device, music player, and (of course) telephone. Entire industries have fallen under the competitive onslaught of its myriad of diverse features.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that mashups simply present newly combined and integrated packages of existing products and services. In other words, there is usually nothing new under the sun about their individual functions.

In fact, even the phrase “nothing is new under the sun” is not new at all. It’s a sentence that originally appeared in Ecclesiastes 1:9 of the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian bible. Likewise, the elements of contemporary mashups are derived from elements that have long existed in our society.

So if you’re curious about what new and unexpected wonders will emerge during the upcoming year, you might find that the most creative surprises won’t really be new at all. Instead, they might be creative mashups of concepts and ideas that have been around forever.

Democracy Today: Join The Protest!

Imagine yourself in the role of an angry anti-government protestor. How can you possibly remain upset with your political leaders if they decide to support your protest?

This is the dilemma that confronts the protestors who are currently marching through the streets of Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers Party has ordered its supporters to join the massive demonstrations.

The protestors appear to be rebelling against a wide variety of government policies, from public transportation fare increases to the brief criminalization of kitchen vinegar. Underlying this dissatisfaction, of course, is a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the priorities of the democratically elected government.

Similar protests have been staged in Turkey over the development of a public park, and throughout the European Union over the impact of fiscal austerity policies. Even the United States has experienced widespread protests, from the conservative uprisings of the Tea Party to the progressive sit-ins of Occupy Wall Street.

Most government leaders, of course, have adopted policies that are far less accommodating than Rousseff’s. Prime Ministers Erdogan of Turkey and Papandreou of Greece have confronted demonstrators with paramilitary forces, while New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his peers in other American cities have cleared public plazas with local police officers.

Unlike the public protests of the late twentieth century, though, these marchers do not wish to overturn their systems of government. In this respect, they are entirely different than their predecessors who marched  in eastern Europe in 1989, in the Philippines in the 1980s, and in India throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Those protests brought democratic governments to hundreds of millions of citizens.

These contemporary protestors, in contrast, are already enjoying the benefits of representative democracy, and are attempting to influence public opinion with their activities. As a result, although they aim to weaken their current political administrations, they are likely strengthening the pillars of democratic government itself.