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.
A project begun after 9/11 assumes new urgency after the 2016 election—creating a more sensible plan for what happens when a chief executive steps aside.
American politics is deep into the theater of the absurd—but unfortunately, it is a deadly absurdity, like being in a horror funhouse where the creatures leaping out at you have real knives and chainsaws. Americans now have to face at least the possibility, a tangible one, that the election itself was subverted by a hostile foreign power in league with the winning presidential campaign, with implications all the way down the ballot.
What to do if that proves to be the case? It is a question I have been asked a lot; my stock answer begins with, “The Constitution does not have a do-over clause.” But I am now rethinking the response: Maybe it needs a do-over clause. And it does not have to require a constitutional amendment.
Conservatives once warned that Obamacare would produce the Democratic Waterloo. Their inability to accept the principle of universal coverage has, instead, led to their own defeat.
Seven years and three days ago, the House of Representatives grumblingly voted to approve the Senate’s version of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats in the House were displeased by many of the changes introduced by Senate Democrats. But in the interval after Senate passage, the Republicans had gained a 41st seat in the Senate. Any further tinkering with the law could trigger a Republican filibuster. Rather than lose the whole thing, the House swallowed hard and accepted a bill that liberals regarded as a giveaway to insurance companies and other interest groups. The finished law proceeded to President Obama for signature on March 23, 2010.
A few minutes after the House vote, I wrote a short blog post for the website I edited in those days. The site had been founded early in 2009 to argue for a more modern and more moderate form of Republicanism. The timing could not have been worse. At precisely the moment we were urging the GOP to march in one direction, the great mass of conservatives and Republicans had turned on the double in the other, toward an ever more wild and even paranoid extremism. Those were the days of Glenn Beck’s 5 o’clock Fox News conspiracy rants, of Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” of Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers, of Tea Party rallies at which men openly brandished assault rifles.
The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from the courses—and, in an uncertain environment, students keep being suckered.
Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes. To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That's the case with Advanced Placement courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.
That's a pretty strong claim, right? You bet. But why not be straightforward when discussing a scam the scale and audacity of which would raise Bernie Madoff's eyebrows?
The miscellany of AP courses offered in U.S. high schools under the imprimatur of the College Board probably started with good intentions. The idea, going back to the 1950s, was to offer college-level courses and exams to high-school students. The courses allegedly provide students the kind of rigorous academic experience they will encounter in college as well as an opportunity to earn college credit for the work.
Walk into the offices of Memac Ogilvy Advize, an advertising firm on the third floor of a car rental building in a business district of West Amman, Jordan, and you’ll be greeted with an immense black-and-white photo of Donald Trump’s face. The red cursive text printed across it reads: “We Trumped the awards.”
The sign sits behind a reception counter boasting a large trophy won at the Dubai Lynx 2017, an annual advertising competition where Memac Ogilvy won the Grand Prix for PR (a first for any Jordanian agency) along with four other silver and gold prizes, for trolling Trump in their ads on behalf of Royal Jordanian Airlines.
The divide sometimes has devastating consequences.
Doctors are doctors, and dentists are dentists, and never the twain shall meet. Whether you have health insurance is one thing, whether you have dental insurance is another. Your doctor doesn’t ask you if you’re flossing, and your dentist doesn’t ask you if you’re exercising. In America, we treat the mouth separately from the rest of the body, a bizarre situation that Mary Otto explores in her new book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America.
Specializing in one part of the body isn’t what’s weird—it would be one thing if dentists were like dermatologists or cardiologists. The weird thing is that oral care is divorced from medicine’s education system, physician networks, medical records, and payment systems, so that a dentist is not just a special kind of doctor, but another profession entirely.
"Where people are desperate, it is still America they count on, whether they love or scorn it, and America they blame when aid does not come."
After Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November, a foreign ambassador accosted one of my deputies at the State Department, where from 2014 to early this year I served as theassistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. “You must be so sad!” the man, a representative of a Central Asian government, said, grinning widely. “All this talk of elections being important, of democracy being important, and now look at you! Now even your new president says there were 3 million illegal votes in your election! … You must all feel so stupid these days.”
Since then, the global club of autocrats has been crowing about Trump. Sudan’s dictator Omar al Bashir praised him for focusing “on the interests of the American citizen, as opposed to those who talk about democracy, human rights, and transparency.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei thanked him for showing “America’s true face” by trying to ban Muslim immigration. The Cambodian government justified attacks on journalists by saying Trump, too, recognizes that “news published by [international] media institutions does not reflect the real situation.”
The two-hour work, written and directed by Happy Valley’s Sally Wainwright, is a vibrant dramatization of how three sheltered women became such extraordinary novelists.
When it comes to the Brontë sisters, questions—and mythology—abound. How did three such relatively sheltered women, the daughters of a priest living in rural Yorkshire, write some of the most passionate and proto-feminist novels of the 19th century? To Walk Invisible, a two-hour drama airing on PBS on Sunday, touches on the fascinating contradictions of the Brontës, focusing on the three-year period when the sisters determined to publish their writing as a means of self-preservation. Aware of how they would be judged as women entering a man’s realm, they elected to use gender-neutral pseudonyms, so they could, as Charlotte explained in a letter, “walk invisible.”
To Walk Invisible is written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the creative force behind the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. Like Happy Valley, a gritty drama about a forceful female police sergeant that’s developed an ardent American fanbase on Netflix,it draws much of its mood from the sullen bleakness of the Yorkshire landscape, suggesting a hostile, imposing environment that fosters strength in some and despair in others. In both dramas, Wainwright explores women forced to endure familial hardship: In the Brontë family, the burden is their brother, Branwell, whose descent into alcohol and drug addiction coincides with—and possibly spurs—the literary success of his sisters.
After a high-speed crash in Arizona, the ride-hailing giant grounds its autonomous fleet.
In the era of self-driving cars, a scary but otherwise uneventful car crash can be huge news. This was the case in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday, when an Uber self-driving car was hit so hard that it rolled onto its side. There were no serious injuries reported.
Uber has grounded its fleet of self-driving cars in Arizona as a result, a spokeswoman for the company told me. “We are continuing to look into this incident, and can confirm we had no backseat passengers in the vehicle,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement provided to The Atlantic. Uber also suspended testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh and San Francisco “for the day, and possibly longer,” The New York Timesreported. In addition to its global ride-hailing service, Uber has been testing its self-driving car technology on public roads in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and California for several months.
Supporters of Trump’s budget are eager to restore the central role of faith-based organizations in serving the poor—but it’s not clear they can be an adequate substitute for government.
President Trump’s initial budget proposal would end aid for poor families to pay their heating bills, defund after-school programs at public schools, and make fewer grants available to college students. Community block grants that provide disaster relief, aid neighborhoods affected by foreclosure, and help rural communities access water, sewer systems, and safe housing would be eliminated. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, suggested recently that even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.
With billions of dollars worth of cuts to federal social services likely ahead, the wars of religion have begun. Bible verses about poverty have suddenly become popular on Twitter, with Republicans and Democrats each claiming to better know how Jesus would think about entitlement spending. While conservatives tend to bring religion into public-policy conversations more than liberals, the valence is often switched when it comes to the budget: Liberals eagerly quote the Sermon on the Mount in support of government spending, while conservatives bristle at the suggestion that good Christians would never want cuts.
Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead
During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.