5 things you should worry about in 2014

Maybe this won't be such a happy new year, after all

Colorado River
(Image credit: (James Leynse/Corbis))

1. The retirement crisis. Talk about a ticking time bomb: Some 38 million working-age households have next to nothing saved for their so-called "golden years": just $3,000, says the National Institute on Retirement Security. It used to be that retirement — a goal of every working American — was sort of like a three-legged stool: One leg was a pension, one was Social Security, and the third was your own savings. But pensions are vanishing, and Social Security is likely to be trimmed in the future. If there are 38 million households who haven't done anything about the third leg — their own savings — then let's be honest: Tens of millions of Americans will never be able to retire. I haven't even mentioned something that few Americans are aware of: The $65 trillion in unfunded entitlement liabilities. The bulk of it — about $58 trillion — is in unfunded Medicare and Medicaid liabilities. Hope you don't get sick.

2. Climate change. CINCPAC — America's commander-in-chief of all Pacific forces worries daily about China, North Korea, and cyber attacks. But the biggest long-term threat to U.S. national security? Climate change, says Admiral Samuel Locklear III.

His analysis is simple: Rising sea levels are beginning to impact the 80 percent of the world's population that lives within 200 miles of a coast. Locklear fears this will lead to disruption and political instability. There's evidence that this has already happened: rising bread prices in parts of the Middle East (sparked by hotter temperatures, wildfires, and drought in wheat-producing Russia, China, and elsewhere) helped fuel the Arab Spring in 2011.

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What about here in the U.S.? You're already paying billions as businesses, cities, states, and Uncle Sam react to sea levels that have already risen sharply, particularly along the East Coast. And that's not all: Global warming is also contributing to your higher grocery bills, and your allergies.

Perhaps folks can stop viewing all this as a left/right, Republican/Democratic issue, and call it what it is: a growing threat that needs to be addressed by all.

3. America's slowing entrepreneurial culture. Pretty much every great company was once a small startup, launched by a few people — or even just one person — with a vision and gritty determination to never give up. It is truly one thing that has set America apart from much of the world. It's alarming, then, to look at data showing that when the great recession of 2007-09 hit, fewer Americans took the gamble of starting a company — a trend that has yet to abate. University of Maryland economics professor John Haltiwanger, who studies the economic impact of startups, says new companies in the United States, as a percentage of overall companies, used to be around 12 or 13 percent. "Now we're down in the 7 or 8 percent range," he tells NPR. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of less startups today than we used to see" before the 2007-09 wipeout. Among the main culprits: an aging population (younger people tend to launch startups) and lack of capital. Banks and venture capitalists are still very cautious about lending money.

4. Our shrinking water supply. Next time you take a long hot shower, consider this: Two of our greatest sources of drinking water — the Great Lakes and the Colorado River — are shrinking. The Great Lakes alone contains a staggering 84 percent of all fresh water in North America, and the mighty Colorado River — upon which one in nine Americans directly depend — was named "America's Most Endangered Waterway" by the nonprofit group American Rivers. In both cases, the culprits are similar: Demand is beginning to outstrip the rate at which water is replaced by rain and snow runoff, and warming temperatures are adding additional stress to supplies. American Rivers warns that Congress must spend more on things like "state-of-the-art conservation techniques in cities and on farms, and water sharing mechanisms that allow communities to adapt to warmer temperatures and more erratic precipitation as global warming takes effect. "

5. Land of the…dumb? "The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty," James Madison wrote. Of course, most Americans today know that Madison — our fifth fourth president — is regarded as the father of the Constitution. Or do they? In one recent survey, 89 percent of Americans were sure they could pass a basic test on the American Revolution — but only 17 percent actually did.

More sad examples:

  • More than half of Americans think the Civil War (1861-65) and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863) occurred before the American Revolution (1775-83).
  • More than 50 percent confuse famous sayings of Karl Marx with George Washington or Thomas Paine.
  • Two-thirds of Americans can't name a single Supreme Court justice.
  • 30 percent can't name our current vice president

This ignorance carries over into debates on issues of the day. Some folks tell me that "Barack Obama runs the government." Huh? He runs only one-third of it, the executive branch. There are two other separate but equal branches: the legislature and the judiciary. Perhaps you've heard of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court? When it comes to protecting American liberty, the "advancement and diffusion of knowledge" that Madison spoke of appears to be sorely lacking.

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Paul Brandus

An award-winning member of the White House press corps, Paul Brandus founded WestWingReports.com (@WestWingReport) and provides reports for media outlets around the United States and overseas. His career spans network television, Wall Street, and several years as a foreign correspondent based in Moscow, where he covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for NBC Radio and the award-winning business and economics program Marketplace. He has traveled to 53 countries on five continents and has reported from, among other places, Iraq, Chechnya, China, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.