Recently the news has been filled with stories about the killing of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford,Florida. When returning to his father’s townhouse after a snack run to 7-Eleven, Trayvon was shot by an over-zealous Neighborhood Watch captain, George Zimmerman.
In commenting on this tragedy, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. reminded his readers of the opening of Ralph Ellison’s famous novel The Invisible Man, where the book’s black protagonist explains that he is not literally invisible but “invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Pitts says that for every African-American there comes a time when others simply refuse to see you, saying “it comes as surely as hard times, setbacks and tears,” adding that at a time like that other people “see every damn thing in the world but you.”
I witnessed such a moment once. I was dining with three friends, one of whom was black, in a Chicago pizzeria. There was a large table in the center of the small room with a lot of well-dressed, older white people at it. We soon became uncomfortably aware that they were spending a lot of time staring at us, and we couldn’t imagine what we’d done to offend them. Finally, a woman got up and came over. She was a quintessential Southern belle, refined and possessed of a charming southern drawl (imagine the affluent white women in The Help). She explained that her group was part of the international board of the Rotary Club, and they were in Chicago for their annual convention.
She pointed out men and women from all over the world in her group, and told us they had decided to eat pizza for the first time in any of their lives! But it turned out they didn’t like it, and wondered if we’d be interested in one (or more) of their pizzas (you should have seen our waitress scowl – we hadn’t ordered yet and now we didn’t need to!).
Being a well-bred lady, this woman from Alabama engaged us in polite conversation. All of us, that is, except our black friend. It was as if he simply didn’t exist.
I have been blessed with some very good friends who just happened to be black. Several have been jazz musicians and have served as mentors to me. I’ve also been blessed to have Native American friends. And I can honestly say that all these people have treated me with warmth and kindness, and through their quiet influence helped shape my life.
Though they never discussed it with me, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that all of these friends have experienced the invisibility Ralph Ellison wrote about. I don’t believe they treated me well simply because I didn’t ignore them – we formed our relationships the same way everyone forms relationships – we got to know each other and found out we liked one another. But what a loss it would have been for me if I had ignored these good, caring people simply because of the color of their skin. And what a tragedy that people today can still lose their life for that same reason.
A “3-D hurricane” of “deficit, debt, and demography” is what fund manager Robert D. Arnott says the world will soon be facing. Though the perils of ours and other nations’ debt and deficits are well known, awareness of the dangers of demography is now growing as we look for practical ways to deal with the first two “Ds”.
Demography, of course, is (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) “the study of the characteristics of human populations, such as size, growth, density, distribution, and vital statistics.”
What does demography have to do with debts and deficits? It is because demographics tell us that the populations of nations grappling with debt are statistically heavy on older people. This is going to become more pronounced in the years ahead, and will have a major impact on many nations’ finances.
Not that increased lifespans are bad, it’s just that they pose problems we haven’t faced before. Today a good portion of the world’s debt problems revolve around pensions for the elderly. Americaisn’t the only country to have a “paygo” program like Social Security which taxes people during their working years to provide benefits to the elderly. When a nation’s economy is booming, and especially when workers substantially outnumber retirees – as has been the case in this country since the baby boomers started working – paying benefits to the elderly isn’t a problem. But with the first baby boomers now reaching retirement, that’s going to change.
Knowing that one will have retirement benefits provided by the government has been shown to influence people’s reproductive choices. Traditionally, older people have relied on their children to help them during their declining years. The fact that one can rely on younger people in general instead of one’s own children – coupled with the medical advances that have ensured most children will live to adulthood in developed countries – has led to substantially reduced birth rates. For this and other reasons, baby boomers here and abroad have not replaced themselves.
To maintain its population a country must have a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman. In this month’s edition of The Atlantic, author Megan McArdle suggests that because no European country has a birthrate this high and because the average age of the population is rising (in time one in three people in Europe will be retired), there simply aren’t enough younger workers to support both the retirees and pay off national debts.
McArdle points out that it isn’t just the numbers that are troubling – younger workers are different from older workers. Younger workers have more energy and thus are more productive. But they are also more willing to take risks. And while many risks fail, the success of others makes up for it. The innovation necessary to drive an economy largely arises from its younger workers. As populations age, innovation dwindles.
Innovation also depends on the availability of capital. As more and more people retire, more and more capital is lost as retirees begin using the money they invested while working.
The problems of aging populations, problems that have beset rural areas for decades, are now appearing in the rest of the world. And this reminds us again of how vital it is to attract young people to rural communities. Without their energy and innovation, small towns don’t stand much of a chance against the “1-D” hurricane of demography, let alone the inevitable problems the other 2-Ds are bound to bring…