In between the happiness of Christmas and the promise of the New Year, permit me to introduce a sour note, a hint of a scold. If you're like, well, almost everybody, you're not saving enough. 15% of each paycheck into the 401(k) is the bare minimum you can get away with, not some aspirational level you can maybe hope to hit someday when you don't have all these problems.
I mean, obviously if one out of two workers in your household just lost their job, or has been stricken with some horrid cancer requiring all sorts of ancillary expenses, then it's okay to cut back on the retirement savings for a bit. But let's be honest: that doesn't describe most of us in those years when we don't save enough.
What describes most of those years when we aren't saving is normal life. We moved. We got married or had kids. The kids required entirely expected things like food, clothes, and schooling. Work was hard and we felt we wanted a really nice vacation. Friends and family went through the same normal life stages that we were, requesting that we travel and bring gifts to the happy events.
These things are not an excuse to stop saving, for all that I have used these excuses myself from time (and regretted it later, at length). The recession should have driven home some hard facts, but the nation's 3.5% personal savings rate indicates that these lessons haven't quite sunk in, so let me elaborate some of them.
1. You cannot count on high asset growth rates to bail out a low savings rate. In the 1990s, we believed that we could guarantee something like an 8% (average) annual return by pumping our money into the stock market and leaving it there. The problem is, this may no longer be true. For the last few decades, there have been a number of factors pushing up the price of stocks:
a. Low interest rates on bonds prompted investors to look for higher returns elsewhere
b. People started believing that over the long term, equities offered a low-risk opportunity for higher returns. Unfortunately in finance, many things are only true if no one believes they are true. If everyone thinks that equities are low risk, they will bid away the "equity premium"--which is to say, the discount that buyers expected for assuming greater risk. At which point, stocks no longer offer a low-risk excess return.
c. Baby boomers who had undersaved started pouring money into the stock market in an attempt to make up for their lack of savings.
However, stock prices cannot indefinitely grow faster than corporate profits; eventually, you run out of greater fools. And future corporate profits are going to be constrained by slower growth in the workforce as baby boomers retire, and by the taxes needed to pay for all the bailouts and stimulus we just did. Unless there's a sudden boom in productivity--entirely possible, but entirely impossible to predict, or count on--there's every reason to expect that stock markets performance will continue to grow more slowly, and be more volatile, than we got used to.
We saw a similar cycle in houses. A mortgage used to be a form of forced saving that gave you an (almost) free place to live in retirement and a little bit of value when you sold the house. We didn't realize that a number of developments had been pushing up the price of homes:
a. The development of the 30-year self-amortizing mortgage, which enabled people to pay a much higher price for a given house than they would have in the era of 5-year balloon mortgages.
b. The baby boom, which increased demand for houses as they aged
c. The run-up in inflation in the 1970s, which gave (relatively inflation-proof) real estate a boost--and then the subsequent decline in inflation (and interest rates), which gave people the illusion of being able to afford more house because the up-front payments were lower.
d. More widely available credit, which let more people take on bigger loans
e. The increasing value of (and competition for) a small number of slots at selective colleges, which put a rising premium on houses in good school districts
These trends gave people the illusion that houses were, in some fundamental way, an "excellent investment". But they're risky in all sorts of ways: neighborhoods can get worse rather than better, local economies can stagnate, the style of your home can go out of fashion.
Moreover, like the stock market, houses are still pretty expensive by historical standards, as this chart from Barry Ritholtz shows:
If you can't count on a steep run-up in asset prices to build up your retirement savings, that leaves you with one alternative: save a much bigger chunk of your income.
2. People are still living longer in retirement. The increases in life expectancy post-retirement aren't as dramatic as they were in the antibiotic era, but they're still creeping up. That means that you have to take smaller sums out of the kitty each year, so that what you have left will be enough to live on.
3. Government finances are extremely strained. The Baby Boomers are about to dump an even heavier load on them. That means yes, higher taxes--but it also means that despite their formidable voting power, retirements financed mostly on the public dime are very likely to get leaner. Especially because birthrates are falling everywhere--which means that the supply of young, strong-backed immigrants to man the nursing homes will not be as ample as it is now.
4. Employers are not kind to older workers. I wish this weren't so, but I'm very much afraid it is. People who say "I won't be able to retire" may not be given a choice in the matter. Like most modern economies, we've cut a societal deal where you're underpaid in your twenties, and overpaid in your fifties and sixties . . . and as a result, it's very tempting to fire those overpaid oldsters when times get tough.
And once you're forced out in your fifties, it is very, very hard to find a new job of any sort, much less one that pays what you're used to. Even if you're willing to take a big paycut to work a less prestigious job, employers are reluctant to hire the overqualified--particularly since 99 times out of 100 the overqualified 55-year old simply does not have the stamina or the life flexibility of the single twenty-somethings who are applying for the same job. And physically, you may not be able to do many of the low rent jobs that paid your way through college: by the time you're sixty, you're quite likely to have back, joint, or skeletal problems that make it hard to stand on your feet all day or lift heavy objects.
The upshot is that you can no longer plan on "making up" anemic retirement contributions later. You have to start making them--right now.
5. Emergencies seem to be lasting longer than they used to. Before the 1990s, unemployment used to crater sharply during recessions, then recover quickly along with demand. We had our first "jobless recovery" under Clinton, and now we've got two more under our belt. That means that the old advice of three to six months worth of emergency funds are no longer enough. 8 months to 1 year is more realistic.
When I write these posts, I generally get two types of responses: people who smugly tell me that they are saving 30% or more of their income (way to go!) and people who tell me that it is simply not possible for them to save t15-20% of their income.
You know better than I, of course. But most of the research on consumer finance shows the same thing: people can usually save a lot more if they make saving a priority. Most people don't. Savings is an afterthought--it's the residual of whatever hasn't been spent on clothes, groceries, cars, dinners out, school trips, travel soccer team, college tuition, vacation, etc. Unsurprisingly, there's frequently no residual. However, if people decide how much to save, and then budget their consumption out of what is left, they suddenly realize that they could drive an uglier car, take the kids out of dance class, live with the kitchen the way it is, stay home for a week in August instead of going to Disneyworld, and so forth. And those people are not, as you might think prospectively, made desperately unhappy by these sacrifices. Savers are actually happier than the general population--in part, one assumes, because they're less worried.
Many people tell me they can't save because children are so expensive. Children are indeed very expensive. But they're getting more expensive every year, and that's because we're spending more money on them. We're spending more money on houses to get them into good school districts, on activities so that they have every chance to get into Harvard (or the NHL), on clothes and cell phones and video game consoles and the list is endless, plus then there's that tuition to Harvard or some sort of even-more-expensive smaller private college.
These expenses are optional, not mandatory. And before you tell me about how unhappy your child will be if you do not buy him all of these necessities, think about how unhappy he's going to be if you have to move in with him. Better yet, volunteer for some outreach to the bankrupt seniors whose kids wouldn't let them move in, and see how their lives are going.
This is not to criticize. Saving is hard, which is why, just like you, we're trying to figure out how to hit even more ambitious savings goals in the New Year. And consumption is fun. That's why most people struggle to save very much.
But a lot of people are going along on autopilot; they're saving 5% because it seemed safe when they were 25 and so what if they're now 37? They look at the neighbors spending a fortune on cars and school activities and figure that if it's safe for them, it must be safe for me too. But this is the opposite of the truth. If your neighbors aren't saving much (and trust me, they aren't), that means a less productive economy in the future--and more people trying to claim a very limited supply of public funds. You don't want to be among them.
It helps to remember that the object is not to turn yourself into a miser; it's to make your spending patterns sustainable. Your splurges will actually be a lot more fun if you know that they aren't putting you at risk of bankruptcy, foreclosure or a retirement in poverty.
If you're not saving enough--and you know who you are--don't decide today that you're going to save 15%, and then forget about it tomorrow when you realize how daunting a task that will be. Instead, try this: divert an extra 5% of your income into a 401(k), IRA, or other tax-advantaged savings plan. If your 401(k) is stuffed but you don't have much of an emergency fund--or if, for some reason, you don't qualify for tax-advantaged savings--have 7% of every paycheck diverted to a bank account which isn't linked to your other accounts. It's a slow week at work, the perfect time to fuss with HR paperwork.
The important thing is to pay yourself first. Savings should be the first thing you do, not the last. After you've saved, then you budget your consumption. I won't tell you what to cut, because when you confront your new, slightly leaner budget, you'll be perfectly able to calculate what's no longer worth the money to you. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that after a few weeks or a few months of initial pinch, you won't remember that you miss the money much.
If at the end of the year, you still aren't saving enough, then you can do the same thing again--pull another 5-7% out of every paycheck. Within a few years, you'll be at a healthy level of savings, without excessive fiscal pain.
But the most important thing is this: don't start looking for reasons you can't. If you hunt hard enough, you'll find them. Unfortunately, those reasons aren't going to do a damn thing to pay your house payment if you get laid off, or keep you in prescription drugs when you retire.
In 12 of 16 past cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed.
When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.
And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.
A child psychologist argues punishment is a waste of time when trying to eliminate problem behavior. Try this instead.
Say you have a problem child. If it’s a toddler, maybe he smacks his siblings. Or she refuses to put on her shoes as the clock ticks down to your morning meeting at work. If it’s a teenager, maybe he peppers you with obscenities during your all-too-frequent arguments. The answer is to punish them, right?
Not so, says Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center. Punishment might make you feel better, but it won’t change the kid’s behavior. Instead, he advocates for a radical technique in which parents positively reinforce the behavior they do want to see until the negative behavior eventually goes away.
As I was reporting my recent series about child abuse, I came to realize that parents fall roughly into three categories. There’s a small number who seem intuitively to do everything perfectly: Moms and dads with chore charts that actually work and snack-sized bags of organic baby carrots at the ready. There’s an even smaller number who are horrifically abusive to their kids. But the biggest chunk by far are parents in the middle. They’re far from abusive, but they aren’t super-parents, either. They’re busy and stressed, so they’re too lenient one day and too harsh the next. They have outdated or no knowledge of child psychology, and they’re scrambling to figure it all out.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Universities themselves may be contributing to burnout.
With half of all doctoral students leaving graduate school without finishing, something significant and overwhelming must be happening for at least some of them during the process of obtaining that degree. Mental illness is often offered as the standard rationale to explain why some graduate students burn out. Some research has suggested a link between intelligence and conditions such as bipolar disorder, leading some observers to believe many graduate students struggle with mental-health problems that predispose them to burning out.
But such research is debatable, and surely not every student who drops out has a history of mental illness. So, what compels students to abandon their path to a Ph.D.? Could there be other underlying factors, perhaps environmental, that can cause an otherwise-mentally-healthy graduate student to become anxious, depressed, suicidal, or, in rare cases, violent?
Life in Ohio's proud but economically abandoned small towns
Just over a decade ago, Matt Eich started photographing rural Ohio. Largely inhabited by what is now known as the “Forgotten Class” of white, blue-collar workers, Eich found himself drawn to the proud but economically abandoned small towns of Appalachia. Thanks to grants from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and Getty Images, Eich was able to capture the family life, drug abuse, poverty, and listlessness of these communities. “Long before Trump was a player on the political scene, long before he was a Republican, these people existed and these problems existed,” Eich said. His new book, Carry Me Ohio, published by Sturm and Drang, is a collection of these images and the first of four books he plans to publish as part of The Invisible Yoke, a photographic meditation on the American condition. Even with a deep knowledge of the region, Eich was unprepared for the fury and energy that surrounded the election this year. “The anger is overpowering,” he said. “I knew what was going on, and I’m still surprised. I should have listened to the pictures.”
A century ago, millions of Americans banded together in defense of white, Christian America and traditional morality—and most of their compatriots turned a blind eye to the Ku Klux Klan.
On August 8, 1925, more than 50,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded through Washington, D.C. Some walked in lines as wide as 20 abreast, while others created formations of the letter K or a Christian cross. A few rode on horseback. Many held American flags. Men and women alike, the marchers carried banners emblazoned with the names of their home states or local chapters, and their procession lasted for more than three hours down a Pennsylvania Avenue lined with spectators. National leaders of the organization were resplendent in colorful satin robes and the rank and file wore white, their regalia adorned with a circular red patch containing a cross with a drop of blood at its center.
Nearly all of the marchers wore pointed hoods, but their faces were clearly visible. In part, that was because officials would sanction the parade only if participants agreed to walk unmasked. But a mask was not really necessary, as most members of the Klan saw little reason to hide their faces. After all, there were millions of them in the United States.
President-elect Donald Trump has committed a sharp breach of protocol—one that underscores just how weird some important protocols are.
Updated on December 2 at 7:49 p.m.
It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.
Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.
The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent. What's up with that?
When Mort Zuckerman, the New York City real-estate and media mogul, lavished $200 million on Columbia University in December to endow the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, he did so with fanfare suitable to the occasion: the press conference was attended by two Nobel laureates, the president of the university, the mayor, and journalists from some of New York’s major media outlets. Many of the 12 other individual charitable gifts that topped $100 million in the U.S. last year were showered with similar attention: $150 million from Carl Icahn to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, $125 million from Phil Knight to the Oregon Health & Science University, and $300 million from Paul Allen to the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, among them. If you scanned the press releases, or drove past the many university buildings, symphony halls, institutes, and stadiums named for their benefactors, or for that matter read the histories of grand giving by the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Stanfords, and Dukes, you would be forgiven for thinking that the story of charity in this country is a story of epic generosity on the part of the American rich.
Crucial votes in Austria and Italy, the deadly fire in California, Fidel Castro’s final resting place, and more from the United States and around the world.
—Austrians voted in a tight presidential race Sunday, electing Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent candidate backed by the Green Party, over Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing Freedom Party. More here.
—In Italy, voters participated in a referendum on constitutional reform. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has vowed to resign if the measure fails. More here.
—California officials say the death toll in a fire in Oakland Friday night could rise. Nine people have been confirmed dead. More here.
—The ashes of former Cuban President Fidel Castro were interred in a private ceremony early Sunday in the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, ending a four-day procession across the country. More here.
—We’re live-blogging the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).
A few weeks ago, I was trying to call Cuba. I got an error message—which, okay, international telephone codes are long and my fingers are clumsy—but the phone oddly started dialing again before I could hang up. A voice answered. It had a British accent and it was reading: “...the moon was shining brightly. The Martians had taken away the excavating-machine…”
Apparently, I had somehow called into an audiobook of The War of the Worlds. Suspicious of my clumsy fingers, I double-checked the number. It was correct (weird), but I tried the number again, figuring that at worst, I’d learn what happened after the Martians took away the excavating machine. This time, I got the initial error message and the call disconnected. No Martians.