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Tuesday 18 June 2019
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Commentary

A letter to the Baby Boomers

Dear Baby Boomers, you were born post-World War II, between 1946 and 1964. You were the children of the independence era.

You are my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my colleagues, my mentors, and my friends. You are individuals with different personalities, personal histories and motivations.

But, you are also part of a well-defined generational cohort; a group of people with generally similar ideologies. And, you are a powerful economic and political constituency.

You saw this country’s potential for greatness, and worked assiduously and admirably to raise our standard of living and our international profile.

You, and those that came before you, oversaw the establishment, rise, and success of the petrochemical industry; a double-edged sword, but the greatest contributor to the treasury.

You chose to invest money in education and social services, for which we are all to be thankful.

You also made a catastrophic decision. It has left us in a predicament that we are unlikely to recover from anytime soon, because unfortunately, listening is typically not your forte.

You were raised to value the opinions of the old, but not the young. Wisdom does grow with age, but only when pride takes a backseat.

You see your successes, and your good intentions, but are unable to own up to your systematic bad decisions.

When the petrochemical dollars were flowing freely, you invested our limited natural resource in creating not real wealth, but an illusion of it. Charles Marohn, the founder of the Strong Towns movement, describes it as a “Ponzi scheme”. James Howard Kunstler calls it “the greatest misallocation of resources in the world.”

Of course, with the closure of the outdated railway, the importation of modern private automobiles, and all of the new roads, highway infrastructure, suburbs, and gated communities increasingly being constructed, it was easy to think that the economy was developing healthily.

Did you notice the ever-creeping realisation of John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous words on “private opulence and public squalor”?

Did you stop to think about what happens when the very land development pattern that you pursue, does not generate the economic revenues needed to maintain its enabling infrastructure and services?

Land is used inefficiently, people live far from the places that they work and play, there is little social interaction, and therefore the potential for high levels of productivity and innovation is stifled; all while rendering per capita infrastructure and service provision costs unnecessarily high.

In a Ponzi scheme, the perception of lucrative investment returns masks the long-term liabilities that cannot be covered. In order to perpetuate the scheme, new investors, and their funds, must constantly be lured in. It collapses when there are no new investors, or when too many liabilities become due, that is, people demand their money back.

Similarly, as Marohn explains, this development pattern represents the “short-term illusion of wealth, in exchange for enormous, long-term liabilities”. The value of the taxes collected from economic activity falls woefully short of infrastructure maintenance and service provision costs.

In order to cover the shortfall, growth and construction activity in new, undeveloped areas is encouraged. The outcome is near-term revenues with huge delayed long-term liabilities.

Now, our national infrastructure is crumbling and in need of repair (the liabilities require repayment). The use of energy revenues to bridge the financial gap is increasingly infeasible, and raising taxes can only take you so far.

You hold a disproportionate share of the political, economic, and therefore decision-making power.

Instead of working overtime to maximise the use of existing infrastructure—building more efficiently in already urbanised areas—and improving the ability to cover liabilities, you continue to do the opposite.

Because, as Vision 2030 proclaims, the plan is to create “new towns” in targeted “growth areas”. In other words, creating more liabilities and continuing the Ponzi scheme.

You can own up to this mess, or stand up to your contemporaries, and say enough is enough.

The young have so much to learn, but we do have our strengths. Ours generally lie in producing change, yours generally lie in ensuring stability; both are necessary. Teach us, but also learn from us. Guide us, but also seek our advice.

Every moment that you ignore us, this and other predicaments deepen, and another would-be problem-solver flees the country in disillusionment and exasperation.

Boomers, do you choose to be like the academic who recently patronisingly branded me a “dreamer”, and my ideas as “cute”, or do you choose to see the worth in change?

Should we build more “gated communities” as per her suggestion?

Or should we join the enlightened world and try to restore a more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable development pattern?

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