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.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
He died on a Saturday.
My mother and I had planned to pick my dad up from the hospital for a trip to the park. He loved to sit and watch families stroll by as we chatted about oak trees, Kona coffee, and the mysteries of God. This time, the park would miss him.
His skin, smooth and brown like the outside of an avocado seed, glistened with sweat as he struggled to take his last breaths.
In that next year, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
The sport is becoming an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.
Football can be a force for good. The University of Missouri’s football team proved it earlier this month when student athletes took a facet of campus life that’s often decried—the cultural and economic dominance of college football—and turned it into a powerful leverage point in the pursuit of social justice. Football can build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life. The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.
But not everyone—particularly at the amateur level—takes on an equal share of the risk. College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it. In a 2010 piece in The Awl, Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds, and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called “glorified servitude,” and even as information comes to light about the dangers and injustices of football, nothing is currently being done to steer the sport away from that path.
It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Sometimes, science doesn't stick without a proper anecdote, and "Why I Make Terrible Decisions," a comment published on Gawker's Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study. I've bolded what I found the most moving, insightful portions, but it's a moving and insightful testimony all the way through.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”
Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.
Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”
Nuts-and-bolts Washington coverage has shifted to subscription-based publications, while the capitol’s traditional outlets have shrunk.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A Chicago cop now faces murder charges—but will anyone hold his colleagues, his superiors, and elected officials accountable for their failures?
Thanks to clear video evidence, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged this week with first-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Nevertheless, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Friday in protest. And that is as it should be.
The needlessness of the killing is clear and unambiguous:
Yet that dash-cam footage was suppressed for more than a year by authorities citing an investigation. “There was no mystery, no dead-end leads to pursue, no ambiguity about who fired the shots,” Eric Zorn wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Who was pursuing justice and the truth? What were they doing? Who were they talking to? With whom were they meeting? What were they trying to figure out for 400 days?”