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Gary Horton: We’re living in interesting times lately

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: May 9, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 9, 2012 1:55 a.m.

"May you live in interesting times” is commonly understood as a sage Chinese proverb viewed as blessing of adventure and excitement in life. Less commonly known is that the saying is actually used more as a curse; the first of three increasingly severe curses in a boxed set of ill wishes:

“May you live in interesting times.”

“May you come to the attention of the authorities.”

“May you find what you are looking for.”

These sly sayings read for both good and ill. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a heart that seeks the right things; that authorities find us for unexpected tax refunds; and that interesting times we inhabit are also peaceful and secure. But actual results do seem to vary.

Reading the newspaper — err, scratch that — reading the iPad, or watching Internet newsfeeds or listening to podcasts on our telephones, one quickly ascertains that the whole world is being turned upside down in fast forward before our eyes. Everything, and all points in between, is in play and up for grabs.

Yes, our times are interesting, for certain.

Just eight years ago, America enjoyed full employment and rising home values. Ordinary Americans had equity and felt secure with plenty of money to spend. Our apparent affluence masked our more interesting financial challenges, with few taking notice of the structural shifts rumbling under the surface.

We fought two wars without much thought of the cost; meanwhile, government dithered as we intellectually battled over red and blue talking points.

Then, the housing bubble burst, the banks collapsed, the bills came due, and the petals of security were ripped from our economic flower as a completely unforeseen financial maelstrom raged through America and the whole world.

Exasperated, Americans voted for hope and change, unlikely electing a man named Barrack Hussein Obama even as we fought enemies named Osama bin Laden and, not long before, Saddam Hussein.

Just four years later, America again pivots against past patterns, voting in a matchup so unlikely just a decade prior that it would have sounded like a bigoted joke: “Did you hear the one about the black guy and the Mormon dude running for president?” But instead of bigotry, this matchup demonstrates America’s unexpected rapid advancement past racial and religious bias.

Other assumptions change increasingly quickly. Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama became warrior Obama. But unlike wars of old, today we read almost nothing about men on the march, but rather the hits and misses of deadly drones. Machines increasingly fight as we’ve grown resigned to constant war, but are unhappy with our own side’s human costs. We face a future with potentially more war, but fewer deaths on the news.

Amid the tumult, Americans are living much longer than actuaries 60 years back ever guessed, and this is great news. But we also consume more medical care than any forecaster ever foresaw.

Timed exactly as we can’t afford the tab, we’re racking up Medicare bills sufficient to disrupt the entire economy in two decades. Health care either must get cheaper fast, or Americans must settle for less care, fast. This interesting shift is not what retirees were expecting.

Government pensions ­— once viewed as a stodgy benefit to stodgy jobs now look like smart windfalls to America’s shell-shocked middle class whose 401(k)s will fall short.

But even “guaranteed” government pensions aren’t fully secure. Sooner or later they may be reduced, too, either through inflation or outright restructuring. In the end, our sense of security and Social Security is likely the greatest lasting casualty of the 2000s financial crash.

Workforce participation continues to drop, and the cause is not all due to recession. Technology drives some jobs overseas and others onto server farms. Ten years ago, did reading our books on glass slates or watching movies on cellphones seem like something you’d see at the local Starbucks?

(What will we do with the new Newhall library 10 years hence? It might be recommissioned as a giant Apple store.)

Our rich get richer still, and their hyper-financed exploits capture our awe. One group plans to launch a “space hotel” in 2016, featuring beds for seven at $1 million each for a three-day stay. The beds are so-so, but the views are exceptional.

Billionaires ascending into space while Medicare crashes back on Earth. We didn’t see this dichotomy coming when America cheered as John Glenn rocketed into space in the first Mercury capsule.

Meanwhile, America’s deficits continue to infinity and beyond, assuring continued efficiency efforts and cutbacks everywhere — drones to fight wars, Internet sites supplying services people once provided, while robots perform everything from surgeries to surveillance. One day, machines may man a never-did-get-closed Gitmo.

“May you live in interesting times.” The uncertainty implied may leave us wondering if it’s a curse or a blessing. But the interesting part is absolutely guaranteed.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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