Machine Design

The American Society of Astronomical Expectations

The fanciest and most elegant name I have ever heard for a technical society is the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Everything about the name exudes high purpose. It conjures up an image of rocket scientists scribbling esoteric equations of celestial mechanics on a blackboard while puffing gently on their pipes.

by Ronald Khol, Editor

A group more attuned to our nation, however, is the American Society of Astronomical Expectations. It has nothing to do with space exploration or the universe. Instead, it consists of people who have more wants than needs. They have a sense of entitlement and expectations about living standards that can only be described as astronomical.

They are the people who complain about a lack of affordable housing, not realizing the real shortage is of people willing to live in housing they can afford. They are people who complain about having maxed-out credit cards but continue to spend with the assumption that credit-card companies don't send out bills. They complain about the high tuition at prestigious universities, unmindful that the no-name college down the street provides the same education for thousands of dollars less.

These people now form the backbone of America. Here is a sampling of the thinking processes and mindsets they bring to our consumer society.

A recent survey by the GE Center for Financial Learning found that many people don't save because they are impulsive spenders and well aware of it. They shrug off any suggestion they be more frugal by adopting the attitude: "Life is too short."

Mass media don't help people rein in the privileges they grant themselves. Travel pages of newspapers routinely tell people they work hard and need to relax. Listen to what one such article has to say: "Summer vacation is coming, and we need a break. We've been waiting all year for some fun in the sun with the kids, and no economic downturn is going to keep us at home." Well, with that frame of mind, lots of luck with the mortgage.

Ask somebody how their job is going, and you'll hear a tale of woe about the long hours they spend in their cubicle. Yet studies show that relatively few of today's workers actually put in longer hours than their counterparts did decades ago.

Insofar as young people are concerned, one poll found that 74% of college seniors expect to become millionaires. Another study found that 42% of students expect a starting salary of at least $50,000 annually in their first job. And 10% think they should start at over $60,000.

I don't mean to knock just youth. Financial analysts say Baby Boomers, now age 39 to 57, are having a tough time coming to grips with reality as they begin to contemplate retirement. Coming out of the 1990s, they actually thought the stock market would provide double-digit yields for eternity. They spent the last decade talking about retiring at age 55 or even 50. With the stock market settled back to earth, the dream of early retirement is vanishing. People between the ages of 48 and 57 have a median net worth of only $146,000, including home equity, and they still aren't saving enough according to figures from the Federal Reserve.

In a suburb near mine there is a controversy because officials want to condemn perfectly good housing so an expensive development can be built. The proponents of the plan say the housing to be demolished is "substandard" and "blighted." How are those terms defined? Well, they are applied to housing that doesn't have modern amenities such as updated bathrooms, remodeled kitchens, attached garages, and central air conditioning. Of those four, my house has only an attached garage. Without realizing it, I've spent the last 40 years in blighted housing. The Society of Astronomical Expectations should have convinced me to pour more money into housing, already America's most overpriced commodity.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor

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