A Brighter Tomorrow
With the country facing enormous challenges and few solutions in sight, we convened a Diablo Think Tank to ask some of the brightest minds in the East Bay a not-so-simple question: How do we fix it? Here’s what they said.
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Expert on the Aging Population
Cofounder, Age Wave
Maddy Dychtwald’s Emeryville-based firm, Age Wave, is the nation’s leading think tank on the economic and cultural ramifications of our aging population.
Tell me a little bit about the challenges we face due to our aging population.
If you went back to the 20th century, we had primarily a youth population. We built our world to match that. We were focused on the diseases of young people; we were focused on getting jobs for young people; we were focused on creating an educational system which was primarily for young people. But here we are in the 21st century, and we’re still using that 20th-century paradigm, but the world has changed.
Give me some examples of that paradigm shift.
Our health-care system was designed to treat the diseases of young people, which are mostly acute infectious diseases. The diseases of aging are chronic, degenerative—things that you diagnose, treat, and care for far differently. It’s not only about pharmaceuticals or surgical techniques [but] nutrition, exercise, stress-management techniques. If you delay the onset of heart disease by five years, it could save our country trillions of dollars.
Another example is education. We think of education as being for kids, and I don’t know if that makes sense in a society in which average life expectancy is 78, and we’re beginning to see people work well past 65; retraining in a fast-moving, technology-based society is really important. … We talk about a job crisis, but there are lots of jobs out there that remain unfilled because they can’t find people with the right skills. If you could train people, whether it be retirees or young adults, to fill those jobs, it would be a win for everybody.
Another shift that I think is really important is to begin to view older adults as a resource rather than a problem. … When you think about the Peace Corps, mostly you think about kids, college age or graduate school age. Why not create a kind of Elder Corps, where you reach out to people over the age of 65 and have them serve? Maybe it’s here in the United States. You know the schools are in dire need of mentors and teaching assistants: Why not get them in there? … Try to create a program—voluntary, yes—but make it so appealing that everybody wants to do it. And include a stipend, rather than Social Security, which won’t be able to continue as it is.
Speaking of which, how do you view Social Security reform?
It’s a program that was designed when the poor segment of society was older adults. For every retiree, there were 40 workers. Today, there are two-and-a-half. And average life expectancy back then was 62-and-a-half. Today, it’s catapulted all the way up to 78. The idea was never to have people getting an entitlement for 20 to 25 years. The program needs to be changed, and if you were able to connect it up with something like an Elder Corps, where people could give back and get a stipend, it would give the money to people who needed it, and it would keep people engaged in their communities.
Expert on Politics
Professor, Saint Mary’s College
In addition to being a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College, Suzi Weissman hosts Beneath the Surface, a radio program on KPFK Pacifica Radio. She’s an expert on labor and community struggles, and is a member of the National Workers’ Rights Board.
What’s the first step in fixing our struggling political and economic systems?
We have paralysis of the political system because we allow money to influence politics. In some way, we must get back to allowing the American people to actually be part of the democratic arrangement, and not just Wall Street and corporations. People are now calling this a “corporatocracy,” and that’s about right.
I think there are 20 financial sector lobbyists for each member of Congress, so that they could gut any regulations that were being restored through Dodd-Frank [Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act]. What they have been doing with their lobbyists is making certain that any new regulation has so many loopholes that it won’t change [anything].
And the other part of it is that Congress can’t legislate anymore because it’s constrained by party polarization and ideological intransigence, and the buckets of money from these lobbyists. There have been calls for members of Congress to be like NASCAR drivers and have to wear sponsorship labels. I’d love to see hats, stripes, shirts, all of it, where each congressperson says who owns them. And then we might get some transparency.
How do you think this step would affect economic policy?
The fact that we’ve had very bad policy has exacerbated the situation, and the deficit-cutting hawks from Europe to America are almost going to guarantee not only a double dip, but a true depression.
We need to get sane policy back into government. They don’t listen to economists that don’t agree with Wall Street. You’ve got [not only] Stiglitz and Krugman and other Nobel Prize–winning economists, but virtually every economist saying that the policy now is exactly the wrong one.
“People are calling this a ‘corporatocracy,’ and that’s about right.”