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 second reason is subtler, but perhaps equally significant. To pay for a permanent tax cut on corporations, the plan raises taxes on colleges and college students, which is part of a broader Republican war on higher education in the U.S. This is a big deal, because in the last half-century, the most important long-term driver of wage growth has arguably been college.
There’s a manifest need to lower corporate tax rates—but instead of building consensus, the GOP is pursuing a bill that’s likely to be rolled back even if it passes.
America badly needs corporate tax reform.
The United States pretends to tax corporations heavily. But those heavy tax rates are perforated by randomly generous rules such that many tax-efficient firms pay nothing at all, or even receive money back from the U.S. Treasury. The result is heavy unfairness between industries and firms, an unfairness that many economists believe systematically distorts investment decisions. U.S. productivity growth has been sluggish since the Great Recession—and had actually turned negative by the beginning of 2016.
At the same time, the corporate share of the federal-tax burden has dwindled over the years and decades. More and more of the cost of government now falls upon the payroll tax, which weighs most heavily on low- and middle-income wage earners. These Americans are suffering stagnating incomes, very probably because of the poor productivity growth of the past half-decade.
The mass murderer, who died on Sunday at 83, turned one following into another.
“All of us are excited by what we most deplore,” Martin Amis wrote in theLondon Review of Books in 1980, reviewing Joan Didion’s The White Album. In the title piece in that collection, Didion’s second, the essayist recalls sitting in her sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills on August 9, 1969, when the phone rang. The friend on the line had heard that across town there had been a spate of murders at a house rented by the director Roman Polanski, on Cielo Drive. Early reports were frenzied, shocking, lurid, and incorrect. “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly,” Didion writes, “and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
The killings orchestrated that summer by Charles Manson, who died on Sunday at the age of 83, after spending the past 48 years in prison, occupy a unique space in the American cultural psyche. All of the elements of the Tate–LaBianca murders, as they came to be known, seemed designed for maximum tabloid impact. There was the actor Sharon Tate, luminously beautiful and eight months pregnant, who was stabbed to death with four others at a rental home in Hollywood. There were the killers—young women,Manson acolytes corrupted by a sinister cult figure. There were the drugs, abundant both on the Manson Family ranch and at the house on Cielo Drive. There was the nebulous chatter about satanism and witchcraft and race wars ready to erupt. And, as Didion captured, there was a sense that something was rotten from the Hollywood Hills to Haight-Ashbury—that the Summer of Love had long since curdled into paranoia and depravity.
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.
Audience fatigue has clearly set in for the once-bankable novelty of the franchise team-up.
When The Avengers opened in theaters in May 2012, it was a genuinely unusual offering for viewers—a film that both was and wasn’t a sequel, uniting the characters of various Marvel movies (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) for a new story about them functioning as a team. The novelty was such that box-office sales far outstripped previous efforts: The Avengers opened to a stunning $207 million, far above the previous Marvel Studios record ($128 million for Iron Man 2).
Since then, that’s been the sales plan for any “cinematic universe,” the comic-book storytelling template that Marvel applied to its films and that other studios have since scrambled to copy: Invest in big blockbusters that introduce your stars, then spend even more on the movie that sees them all sharing the same screen. That’s why Warner Bros. invested a reported $300 million in Justice League, making it one of the most expensive films ever shot. Here, finally, fans could see all of DC’s famous superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, plus new faces like The Flash and Aquaman—hanging out with one another.
The Facebook founder has discussed "community" more than 150 times in public. A close reading reveals his road map for the platform’s future.
There’s a story that Mark Zuckerberg has told dozens of times over the years. Shortly after he’d launched Facebook in February 2004, he went to get pizza with Kang-Xing Jin, a coder friend who would become a Facebook executive, at a place around the corner from his dorm.
In one telling, Zuckerberg says he was thinking, “this is great that we have this community that now people can connect within our little school, but clearly one day, someone is going to build this for the world.”
But there was no reason to expect that this kid and his group of friends would be the people who would build this for the world. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind,” he said in 2013. They were technically gifted, but as Zuckerberg tells it, they had basically no resources or experience at a time when there were already massive technology companies trying to create social networks from MySpace to Microsoft, Google to Yahoo.
Feminists saved the 42nd president of the United States in the 1990s. They were on the wrong side of history; is it finally time to make things right?
The most remarkable thing about the current tide of sexual assault and harassment accusations is not their number. If every woman in America started talking about the things that happen during the course of an ordinary female life, it would never end. Nor is it the power of the men involved: History instructs us that for countless men, the ability to possess women sexually is not a spoil of power; it’s the point of power. What’s remarkable is that these women are being believed.
Most of them don’t have police reports or witnesses or physical evidence. Many of them are recounting events that transpired years—sometimes decades—ago. In some cases, their accusations are validated by a vague, carefully couched quasi-admission of guilt; in others they are met with outright denial. It doesn’t matter. We believe them. Moreover, we have finally come to some kind of national consensus about the workplace; it naturally fosters a level of romance and flirtation, but the line between those impulses and the sexual predation of a boss is clear.
Babies might understand language better than scientists thought.
No matter how many words you can define, your vocabulary isn’t like a dictionary. Your mind stores language not as a list of words, but as a network of categories, properties, and meanings, with stronger connections between related words, like newspaper and magazine, than unrelated ones, like wallet and avalanche.
At six months old, a baby probably doesn’t know what wallet or avalanche means—but even at such a young age, months before children start talking, they do understand some basic nouns, like ball and dog. And a new study suggests that the few words infants know are structured in their minds the same way as an adult’s vocabulary, in a complex web of related concepts. The evidence: When words have similar meanings, babies can get confused. That confusion hints that babies know more about language, at a younger age, than scientists have found before.
From the moment that LiAngelo Ball—UCLA basketball player, son of LaVar, and brother of NBA rookie Lonzo—was arrested in China for shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou, a collision between LaVar Ball and Donald Trump, two of the most outrageous, larger-than-life, and controversial figures in the contemporary United States, neither of whom can ever just let anything go, seemed inevitable. Now it’s erupting just in time for Thanksgiving break, ensuring that neither sports nor politics is safe family-conversation material, and again showing how Trump conflates himself and the American state.
A nonprofit helping wealthy young progressives become active philanthropists has gained new life under the Trump administration.
When Emily Kirkland, a self-described climate-change activist, was attempting to come to terms with the fact that she has what she describes as “direct access” to a trust fund worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, she did what many of us would do: She turned to the internet.
And that was how she discovered Resource Generation, the almost 20-year-old nonprofit that works with wealthy people between the ages of 18 and 35 to encourage them to devote a portion of their financial assets to left-wing causes including addressing the economic divides between the haves and the have-nots, and race and gender discrimination.
“[Before] I found Resource Generation, I felt deep confusion about how to align my values around social justice, equity, political equality with the resources I have access to because of my family’s wealth,” says Kirkland, 26, who grew up in New York and California, and now lives in Phoenix where she works in communications for progressive causes. “It never crossed my mind that such an organization could exist.”