So Long as There’s Still More Road…

38 thoughts on “So Long as There’s Still More Road…”

  1. I’m often struck how rigid and demanding older generations can be, along with an overweening sense of entitlement. Despite disruption after disruption hitting younger generations, yet somehow assume that will never affect them. Sure enough, an uncle that lived in a rural area became trapped when he could no longer drive (but still refused to move). As someone that never took anything for granted, I’m endlessly baffled by this refusal to think ahead.

    Did your in-laws raise kids in that house? Looks big for two people.

    1. Yes, my in-laws raised kids in the house. It’s nice. comfortable, spacious. They will continue to live there until the end – in thirty years… There are patches that can be bought with enough money. They just won’t take action until they have to.

    1. Great story about the Italians. My people are Sicilian. Lifestyle and diet are important. I suppose the reason they don’t interview the folks with hot tempers and a four pack a day cigarette habit is that they’re long dead.

      So… If your adult children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends-of-the-family live across the street and around the corner (assuming you’re all on reasonably good terms) you can age in place anywhere. The stairs and long bumpy roads are less critical. If you’re nearest kin is in a different time zone you’ve got a problem beyond a certain point.

  2. I think people are too worried about debt. If you have an accounting based economy, with or without money, you are going to need debt to get anything started. It falls out of the structure of double entry bookkeeping. We missed a big opportunity during the Obama years when we didn’t take advantage of record low debt costs to build and repair infrastructure. The national debt actually shrank.

  3. Just went through a 2 1/2 month period here (Massachusetts) without natural gas, thanks to a major gas line issue. The company was attempting to do some infrastructure upgrades while at the same time cutting their payroll–they overpressurized gas lines in three communities, causing some fires & explosions, & resulting in one death. The company was willing to provide electric heaters, but it turned out that something like 90% of the old houses here had wiring issues which precluded plugging in a phalanx of space heaters, so the gas company brought in trailer-mounted generators & ran heavy cables into the affected houses. At one point there were six such generators parked on my block alone. It is hard to imagine utility companies being so generous if these kinds of incidents start to become common.

    1. OMG. Six generators on a block would be like having an interstate running through the front yard. How would you even sleep?

      And yes, this is a perfect illustration of Johnny’s oft-made point: entropy wins.

  4. Johnny,

    For pipes laid in 1963 to be failing now seems a bit premature. (Heck, I’m older than that – but only just!) But assuming the worst, that the pipes do need to replaced, there are a couple of ways out which don’t involve either failure of the system, or gazillions of dollars from the state and/or feds.

    The first is a change in relative values. In many places in recent decades, house prices have soared relative to earnings. (Like I need to tell you this, when you live in San Francisco.) Were house prices to fall to – or even below – their long-term averages, that would free-up money householders are currently spending on their mortgages to fix the water pipes – and other vital infrastructure.

    The other option is privatization. Government projects are notorious for their waste, bloat and general expense. Some private sector innovation and cost cutting would almost certainly substantially reduce the cost of overhauling, or replacing, those pipes. Despite that, there is currently little support for it, but attitudes would shift when confronted with the reality of no more running water. Interestingly, one of the reasons the British government privatized the phone system in 1984 was that much of it was antiquated, having been starved of funding during its decades in state ownership. It needed billions of dollars in investment, which was money the government simply did not have – but the private sector did.

    1. Two words: Flint and Ferguson.

      In each case these were post WWII suburban communities that did very well in the 50s – 80s as the largely white middle class fled across municipal boundaries to avoid the problems of legacy cities and racial tensions. But they were leapfrogged as they aged and accumulated their own legacy costs and such. Newer suburbs a little farther out had shinier strip malls and fancier office parks with fresh homes that were bigger and better. Rinse. Repeat.

      It’s generally easier for people with the required means to move rather than fix what’s wrong with their aging neighborhood. Then again… a really well organized community can – and sometimes does – manage to preserve their status, often at the expense of lesser neighborhoods. “All of the above.”

      1. Johnny,

        Thanks for your response. Judging from the time of your reply, I see you’re a bit of a night owl. 🙂

        1. As I said, different places will reach an infrastructure tipping point at different times. And a bond is debt. Denver is still growing, so servicing the debt is possible now. Later after the growth ends… not so much. You and I may be dead by the time that happens so we can both be right – depending on the time frame.

          1. Denver has been growing for 150 years. Denver Water has been issuing, paying off, and retiring bonds for 100 years. Why the pessimistic forecast about growth ending? All cities aren’t as poorly managed as Detroit.

            1. I’m not a pessimist. I’m merely observing larger trends and exploring how they might impact (for better or worse) individuals on the household level. You could argue that I’m looking for a clear path to a better personal future (the definition of optimism) by paying attention to things others are missing.

              Detroit had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some of what caused it to grow and later decline was voluntary and based on good or bad management. But a lot was the natural rise and fall of heavy industry itself. Detroit might have a bright future for reasons no one today can predict.

              Go back to the 1970s. What was the universal interpretation of places like New York and San Francisco? “Drop dead.” Impoverished inner city ghettos. Dirty hippies. Pollution. Congestion. Crazy protests. Bankruptcy. Crime. Filth. “The wrong element.” Then things changed. Now these are the “elite enclaves.” And they’re going to change again as the pendulum of history swings once more.

              Denver is currently in the rise phase so it can be dismissive of places that failed through mismanagement or bad luck. Wait a while and see if your luck and brilliant management last forever. These trends play out over very long periods that individual humans don’t always notice.

    2. Re: privitization; see my reply of Jan 1 below. Pacific Village MHC is privately owned, has a privately owned water system and the electrical mains are owned by a private company. But still screw-ups abound, both from the get-go (i.e.; the original installation) and with regard to ongoing maintenance. Neither govt. nor privately-held organizations are immune from such.

  5. “I was informed that it’s inappropriate to mention such things since it implies we grow old and become frail. Let people enjoy their dream.”

    This is a common refrain now: don’t upset people with reality. Your reply was exactly as it should be. I watched an interview yesterday where the interviewer actually said something like, “what about their right to not be offended?”. My immediate reply was, “There is no right to not be offended!”. Fortunately, the interviewee had more grace than I. Reality, however, doesn’t care about any of our imaginary rights.

  6. Ugh. My folks retired to what had been their summer home down a long peninsula on the coast of Maine. Fifteen potholed miles to a town of size and a hospital. The nearest store is one mile. They were there 30 years. The first 20 or so were fine, but during the last years age caught up with them, one fall or back problem at a time, slowly accumulating and never quite recovering from. After a while, it seemed like they had frequent flier miles on the local, volunteer run ambulance. “Isn’t lovely that the first responders are your cousins?” my mother quipped as they carted her off once. Later, she had a stroke, spent six months in hospital and never returned alive to that beautiful place near the shore. Not long after, my dad went down hill and spent some time in assisted living. Thirty years ago, when they were in their 50s/60s and had just moved there I even asked them: “What will you do when you can’t drive?” I’ll never forget their blank looks. For God’s sake, people, plan ahead, if not for you, then for your kids!

  7. Well, y’know, ‘ya pays yer money and makes yer choices’, informed or not.
    Here in Pacific Village Manufactured Home Community (read, mobile home park), anytime anyone has a water-supply problem the entire park’s water supply must be shut down while repairs are undertaken. This typically requires 6 to 8 hours -sometimes overnight – so we’ve learned that it’s smart and wise to have at least a one-day supply set aside for such emergencies (we maintain a three-day supply). Recently the main was ruptured by a power-company crew drilling a new lateral connection for a recently-installed smart-meter which had blown up and incinerated the line connecting it to the residence. Our meters are located at the rear propertyline (go figure) and are remote from the dwellings, which was propitious in this instance since the dwelling could have caught fire otherwise.
    Power outages used to occur about once every two or three months. Our mains are underground, are not in conduit, (again, go figure) and are getting old so there were places where tree roots or rocks were apparently eroding line insulation allowing shorts to occur causing the mains breakers to overheat and blow. Power restoration also typically took 6 to 8 hours and sometimes overnight – hence we have a ready supply of candles, a camp stove, ample fuel for same and a couple of lanterns. After much bitching to the power company, they undertook the job of lateral drilling and replacement of some of the power cable a couple of summers ago (which project included several water main ruptures!!) and also installed a shunt which allows some power to bypass the overheated breakers, creating a ‘lights only’ brownout situation. We’ve had only two outages since and neither were of local origin, so we don’t really know if the situation is fixed.
    So, in a way, we’ve been getting a taste of everyone else’s future and have learned to cope with what, so far, has only been inconvenience. Just in case, however, we have a stash of food and other emergency supplies in a sturdy shed just behind the dwelling, so we’re kind of prepared if/when worse comes.
    As for aging in place – that’s more-or-less what we planned on doing when we moved in here without really knowing what that meant with respect to the condition of the infrastructure herein. Can we move to a better circumstance? Not really.

    1. My assumption is that the more reliable external services are the less prepared the population is. Folks who are used to periodic disruptions (as you describe) have learned from experience to have a little back up. A little regular stress is good for us.

      I talked (or attempted to talk) to the construction guys and they were tight lipped. No information. Zero. It was clear each of the guys had been instructed by the higher ups to remain silent. Evidently outraged citizens think it’s unacceptable for the utilities to ever fail for any reason or any length of time – even though this crew showed up immediately and did an amazing job of getting things back up the week of Christmas and New Year at midnight in the cold.

      1. I always go out and chat a bit with the crews whenever we have an ‘interruption’; offer them coffee or cold drinks – season dependent – and praise them for the work they do (without mentioning the screw-ups of course). Then I might politely inquire as to when they think service might be restored and they are always extremely informative about the situation. Others hereabouts usually hole up or wander by offering ‘stink-eye’ and rude remarks to these guys as if what happened is their fault. Sometimes it is and they acknowledge that, but giving them a hard time isn’t useful, in my opinion.

        1. I came home once to find the front end of my driveway dug up and a sizable (10’x6’x5′?) hole where I used to enter my domain. The crew was already working in and around it so I just parked at the curb, said “hi”, and offered them some hot drinks (it was sleeting and the weather was quite bad; temp below freezing). They thanked me but declined and we chatted for a minute or so before I went inside. I told them I was sorry they had to be out in this mess fixing whatever was the issue.

          Fast forward: they fixed the issue and repaired my yard and driveway. Where my driveway had once been too steep, creating a difficult bump at the entrance, it is now smooth and perfect. It pays to be nice to those guys. Just saying….

  8. Johnny, a strong birth rate can be the solution to a lot of these questions. Babies will pay off the 40 year infrastructure bonds, buy/restore the houses and care for the old.

    My 31 year old construction manager nephew is married to a 26 year old and counts her birth control pills each morning to make sure she doesn’t pull a fast one on him. My 22 year old niece has disavowed motherhood altogether. Thankfully she has plenty of time to change her mind.

    I know a lot of young men under 30 totally estranged from women.

    Having babies after 30 is a 1.5 birth rate, best case, for those who are able to connect with someone and avoid fertility issues. Many won’t connect at all, having
    waited too long or spent their 20’s mired in dysfunction.

    Millennials may be the first generation to go under a birth rate of 1.
    I’m for a strong border, but if this keeps up…..mamacita, please come north.

    1. Oooooo. Goodie. One of my favorite topics. The replacement fertility rate is 2.1 children per female. The U.S. is at 1.8, Canada is 1.6, Mexico is 2.2 (and dropping fast,) Brazil is 1.7. I could go on. The overall fertility rate for North and South America including the Caribbean is below 2.1. Net migration from Latin America has been negative since 2008 in spite of what you might see on TV. Mamacita ain’t comin’ to save your white ass, especially since we’ve made it clear we don’t want her kind here.

      East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia) are deep in negative territory. Even the very Catholic Philippines are only slightly above replacement – for the moment.

      If you’re looking for young able bodied people to reinvigorate your economy with population increases you have three options. Parts of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Fertility in sub-Saharan Africa is 5.1. Nigeria will soon have a larger population than the U.S. Pakistan is still growing. So are Iraq and Afghanistan.

      Good luck selling that policy.

      1. Given that in our society you are nothing if you don’t have a job and that jobs are disappearing fast because of automation, isn’t a declining population exactly what the doctor ordered? And that’s before factoring in the ongoing environmental collapse. As for tax revenue, just tax robots and algorithms. Where is it written that you can only tax warm bodies? This is a political problem, not a demographic one.

        1. So…. the economy can contract along with the population. Home prices can fall with the glut of supply, demand for excess products and services can decline, no big deal for individual people. But the economy itself – the institutions – banks, large bureaucracies – are organized around growth and can’t function otherwise. We’ll have to reinvent them all. Japan will be leading the way.

    2. Heh, when I first read Johnny’s last paragraph I thought he wrote “Here’s one little prediction. We’re going to solve our problems (individually and collectively) with money we don’t actually have. Debt. And we’ll pay back that debt with more kiddies we don’t really have. ”

      Kicking was the word displayed under money on my screen 😉

    3. “A strong birth rate can be the solution to a lot of these questions.”

      If by strong you mean one that leads to population growth, that’s the same ‘solution’ that Johnny wrote this post about – kicking the can down the road for someone else to deal with. The population can’t grow forever. Besides, the next generation don’t exist for your benefit, you exist for theirs.

      What if those babies grow up and decide they don’t want to buy a collapsing sheetrock palace?

  9. As a middle-aged couple worrying about a few sets of aging parents, we are struck by the discussion of aging in place and availability of services. These are difficult conversations that we and many of our contemporaries are having as well. At some point others, perhaps us, *hopefully us,* will begin making the decisions. This country doesn’t take good care of its elderly.

  10. This debt thing is indeed scary. For the past years, the interest rates were artificially kept low and still interest payments constituted 6 % of the federal budget of which 1/3 were financed by…another loan. Now interest rates are going up. No wonder that the White House started to balk at the prospect. No one can really predict what’s going to happen when this debt pyramid collapses. Just that its going to be real bad. Something like the aftermath of a nuclear war.

    1. There’s a tendency to focus on government debt since it’s incomprehensibly huge. And the national debt doesn’t even include long term liabilities like promises made to pensioners and infrastructure maintenance.

      But government debt is small compared to corporate and household debt. Individual Americans take on student loans, car loans, credit card debt, mortgages, tap the equity in their homes with second and third mortgages, etc. And entirely too many Boomers are reaching for reverse mortgages to allow them to coast through their remaining years. Evidently you can take it with you.

      I suspect we can keep this up for a while longer, but when (not if) we experience an exogenous shock of any kind we may not have the wherewithal to respond.

      1. For people of otherwise modest means, the reverse mortgage seems to me an appropriate exit strategy in a “homeowner” society where folks like your MIL are determined to leave their home feet first.

        Conceptually it treats the paid off home as an annuity that includes a life estate. As you pointed out, which of their coastal kids will want a place in suburban Denver?

        (I’m in a position similar to your partner: parents still living in the 2-story on the suburban halfacre, both from long-lived families, both determined until just recently to go out of there in a box.)

        1. My in-laws paid off their home long ago and would never dream of taking out a loan against the place. They aren’t Boomers. They’re Silents born during the Depression and war.

          My concern centers on what happens when all the theoretically reasonable leveraged arrangements that all precariously lean on each other begin to go down like a house of cards.

          1. My parents are also from that generation. Like your in-laws, they’ll never borrow against the house. Fortunately they lived cheap and invested well after the kids were out of the house, and they still have well above average retirement capital. Though they are getting closer to needing the capital locked in the house. They are realistic enough (finally) about their health that they will probably sell and move before one dies.

            They are lucky…they bought in the recession of the 70s in what has become one of the very best suburban public school districts in the country. Their home will not depreciate over their remaining years in it unless interest rates go absolutely apes#!+. But as you point out, I’m looking at short term…no more than a decade.

            Over the longer term, I’d be worried about reverse mortgages as an asset class, and as someone approaching retirement age, I would no more rely on that than Social Security.


            That said, the one thing (along with the catastrophic demographics) that will drive economics and public policy will be Social Security potentially running out of money to pay off the Boomers…who will still be voting in their dotage. If you want to see what the Libertarian Techsters consider “confiscatory taxation”, just wait until D-Day for Social Security in 2034, when the “oldest Boomers” will be “only” 88. Income ceiling? Gone. Capital gains, carried interest, and the other oligarch benefits? They’ll be taxed too.

            1. It’s politically unthinkable that retirement payments won’t be provided as promised. So the government will simply monetize those pension obligations. For example, municipal pensions were ridiculously underfunded so many states have created state-wide plans that agglomerate all the little failing pension plans into one big one. They’re also grossly underfunded, but it solved the problems of the municipalities for a while. I don’t see any reason the feds won’t gather up the insolvent state pensions into one super fund and pay out the monthly retirement checks with hallucinated money from D.C. It’s all just digits on a screen. You don’t even have to print paper money anymore. And this can work for a while. Until money itself fails…

      2. It may sound a little bit crude, but when households or business go broke because of living in a credit bubble; that’s their problem. But when the
        US government goes broke and the money they issue becomes worthless; that’s everyone’s problem. Then we get probably worldwide Venezuelan conditions.

        1. The idea that an individual or small business going broke is a problem that only affects them is simply flawed. The truth is that, contrary to the North American religion of individualism, we are in fact very much affected by and dependent upon each other.

          So while each individual should work on their own contingency plans, we would be smart to look around locally and figure out how “WE” are going to make it. Individuals can survive but only a community can ultimately succeed. That’s just a reality of the human race.

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