What Meteor Has Our Name on It?

Email Print

"There’s so much to see in New Mexico," Elizabeth commented.

There are two factions in our family. Elizabeth and Henry study things carefully and try to learn all they can. When they travel, they read guidebooks, history books and travel books — with the aim of learning every detail they can.

Elizabeth was studying an "Insight Guide" to New Mexico on the plane. By the time we landed, she knew the history of the place — even its geological past — and was ready to visit museums and historical sites all over the state.

The rest of the family takes a more spontaneous approach to tourism. We get in the car and drive; we may not always end up where we intend to go, we say to ourselves, but we always end up where we ought to be.

"This is one of the most geologically active regions in the world," Elizabeth continued. "It has active volcanoes. Of course, the last eruption was 3,000 years ago."

In a matter of minutes, Elizabeth was lecturing the family on the Permian Sea…on the KT boundary…and volcanic rocks. "All igneous rocks are formed by volcanoes," she explained. "But some cool inside the earth — such as granite — and others cool after they get to the surface, such as…I think they’re called tuffs."

We stopped in at the Natural History Museum in Albuquerque. You walk through a display that begins with the Big Bang and carries along until Homo sapiens appear. Particularly impressive, and somewhat alarming, was the presentation on the great extinction. About 65 million years ago, most advanced forms of life on Earth were exterminated. No one knows exactly why. But the leading theory is that a giant burning rock, 6 miles across, smashed into the Gulf of Mexico. It set off floods, firestorms, and all manner of catastrophe. The big dinosaurs went down like duckpins. The pictures in the museum show them lying on their backs with their feet sticking up.

But the little mammals survived, flourished, and inherited the Earth. The meek little things had been hiding in holes to avoid the dominant, meat-eating beasts. They were saved by their own modesty, protected by their ignoble holes.

Man is now the world’s Tyrannosaurus rex…the alpha species…the cock of the earth’s walk. What meteor has our name on it, we wondered.

"What happened to the camels?" The question was posed to one of the student guides at the Natural History Museum. Elizabeth had noticed that camels disappeared from North America about the same time as humans arrived. She assumed they had been hunted to extinction.

"I think they just crossed the Bering Strait…at that time it was a land bridge into Asia," was the answer she got.

There are many different reasons the camels might have disappeared. The student seemed to have picked the least plausible of all: that the camels all decided to move to Siberia! What makes college graduates so dumb, we wondered again.

Looking at the course catalogs of modern universities, we think we have a clue. Lesbianism is a big subject in today’s universities. Lesbians in 18th Century English Poetry is a typical course offering. Or maybe A Lesbian Interpretation of the Class Struggle and Lesbos and the Classical Tradition…we have not yet seen Lesbianism and Nuclear Physics, but it is surely coming.

Forty years ago, colleges offered few courses on lesbianism. Still, many of them must have depressed students’ intelligence. We recall a class in which the professor tried to argue that political science was as much a science as chemistry. The idea is absurd, but you got credit if you were credulous enough to believe it. Another professor used his English literature class to convince students — especially the coeds — that they should practice free love. "Why should you treat one part of the body different from other parts?" he would ask. And there was a professor of philosophy who didn’t believe in learning at all. He would come to class and tell us all to be quiet and meditate. "Don’t think," said he, "just be." This might have been good advice…but not the sort you’d want to pay for.

We had intended to drive across the country. We wanted to show the children the whole place…including the vast cornfields in the center of the country, the part between the coasts…the part commonly called "’flyover country." But we dallied too long on the East Coast and decided to fly over it. Yesterday, we took a plane in Charlottesville and flew to Albuquerque.

We had been driving around in a Mercury minivan. But it was too small for our family of six. Here in Albuquerque, we switched to a Ford Expedition, a heartier vehicle with surprisingly little space for luggage.

"The pension crisis of the world’s richest nations is like prostate cancer — evolving so slowly that it’s likely to be ignored until it approaches an excruciatingly painful climax," writes old friend, Martin Spring. "Victims ignore early signs of the problem, frightened by the prospect of the unpleasantness of the treatments required. Yet the longer they delay, the more painful and dangerous the condition will become.

"Future pensions are going to be much less attractive than the current generation of retirees enjoy and the next generations expect. Funding them is going to become a major burden on taxpayers, businesses, employees and investors. And along the way there are going to be some painful accidents."

The black hole in U.K. public-sector schemes alone has been estimated at the equivalent of more than $850 billion, and the cost of additional contributions to close the gap at $57 billion a year. Generating that sort of money would require massive tax rises and savage cuts in public services. The politicians prefer to ignore the problem (although they’ve made sure that their own pension scheme is both lavish and secure).

The evolving pensions crisis is not limited to Britain:

In the United States, corporate pension funds have seriously underprovided for their liabilities — airline funds alone are $280 billion in deficit. To try to make up the shortfalls, employers are having to contribute more — the "legacy costs" of past retirement promises (pensions and medical care insurance) have become a major burden for industries such as steel, airlines and automobiles. For example, they account for $1,900 of the costs of every car sold by General Motors.

The federal bailout fund is already in the red, yet there’s worse to come as companies seek to dump their pension obligations on the fund. Retirees suffer, too. When the fund took over U.S. Airways’ liabilities recently, its pensioners faced cuts of up to 50 per cent in benefits.

In Europe, where retirees depend on state pensions rather than company funds, experts warn that benefits may have to be cut by up to a third to keep the system solvent.

In Japan, pension fund assets of the 100 largest companies cover less than half the amount of their promises to retirees. In the year to March 2003, pensions-related write-offs were equivalent to a massive 72% of their pre-tax corporate profits.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.

Email Print