That’s what these two readers went through. The first:
Neal Gabler’s article needs to be shared and sent from one end of the country to the other. The worse thing that happened to me in recent years was outsourcing. My entire industry up and died over the course of one year; all the work went to Canada. I was decimated. I had no savings, my wife wasn’t making anything, and there were no jobs—none that I could find.
I went into a downward spiral of fear, panic, extreme sadness, and a feeling of absolute destitution. I couldn’t sleep much. I cried all the time, trying to hide it from my wife and daughter as much as I could. They still knew.
Though I hadn’t even been inside of a church in 30 years, I wound up going one day, sobbing to the reverend after service. I was lost, and I knew it.
Emotionally, spiritually—we define ourselves by our jobs, and now I had none. I pounded the pavement, making calls and calls. Eventually I got lucky and caught a break—a small firm that led to better work, and then better.
But the damage took years for me to overcome mentally. Four years later and I just got over the fear of looking at my bank account. And I still have no savings for my family. My wife makes better money now, but we’re not that young anymore. I live in constant worry for our future, knowing we aren’t prepared, and having to use most of the money we make now just to stay just a little ahead of the bills.
The other reader whose religious faith was deepened:
I have just gotten through your cover story and certainly agree that the middle class, poor, and some of the upper classes are in a financial mess. I watched as my income stagnated over the years. My own downfall came when I lost my job of over 26 years, obliterated my 401K, and bought a franchise business in 2006, which never made a dime (all my customers were losing their jobs and homes). I went bankrupt in 2009 and had a brain hemorrhage in 2012, which almost took my life, disabling me. I will always believe that this happened as a result of stress and worry over finances.
At that point, I had barely two extra dollars to rub together. I distinctly remember lying down on the floor in my bedroom and literally surrendering to God.
One of my blessings is not having had a credit card since 2008 … and no credit card bills. My hospital bills were forgiven. By God’s grace, I was able to keep and refinance my house and through social security and a small pension (remember those?). I am making it.
But I am careful with what I have. My faith has got me through this life and I refuse to worry, and I nip it in the bud if I start to slip. What did worry ever bring me that is good? I could come up with $400 in an emergency, or even a couple thousand through some hard saving. I am not always frugal; I can’t live that way. Still, what is a vacation?
Yet, I am grateful and hopeful and I will always need grace. Speaking of which, pray for me: my car is 16 years old ...
Not all of the reader entries for our “true money stories” are ones of financial woe; fiscal conservative Lori Miller offered various tips with the kicker “with enough money saved, you can tell them all to piss off”; another reader described how her sex work was both lucrative and empowering; and a “Financial Independence Obsessive” detailed her track record at length. The opening anecdote from this next reader, Chris, is a great illustration of how his parents instilled fiscal responsibility at a young age—and, as you’ll see, he carried those values into adulthood:
I’ll never forget my first lesson in personal finance. When I was 12 years old, I wanted to go to the movies with my friends. They were all going unchaperoned, and I couldn’t stand the thought of saying no because an adult had to be there. I asked my parents, and they said, simply, “If you don’t need an adult to go with you, you don’t need an adult to pay for you.”
It was simple; it was easy for me to understand; it stuck with me ever since. If I wanted freedom—true freedom—then I needed to be able to pay for it.
When I was 14, I got my first job, as a camp counselor. I got to keep half of my earnings, but my parents took the other half to put toward my education. They sacrificed to put me through private school, but I needed to have some skin in the game as well, even though $400 doesn’t really go so far.
When I turned 16, I wanted to drive. My grandmother sold me her car for a dollar, so that was squared away, but I lived in a city with astronomical car insurance rates. If I wanted my license, I had to pay my fair share, so I spent my summer job money coming up with $1,200 for insurance. When I was 16.5, I got into an accident and had my first lesson in unexpected expenses: $500 for the deductible and a premium that rose to $2,600 a year.
I went to a top tier university—one of the ones that has conspicuous wealth, and one of the ones where, when I said I couldn’t afford to get the newest, most advanced gadget, my classmates encouraged me simply to put it on my student account. How could I, though? My parents were already paying for my education; wouldn’t it be dishonest of me to charge something to a credit account for which my parents couldn’t even see the line items?
My friends often went on extravagant spring break trips, while I worked over my spring breaks. A student group I joined traveled every year, and we did get to go to far off lands, but I was only able to go because I saved all of the money I could scrape together to pay for it myself.
Many of those friends are wildly successful, mostly due to a combination of natural ability and drive as well as some good breaks, but many others are not so successful, even with that natural ability and drive.
When I got my first job, I was thrilled, but my pay was pretty average for my location. It’s been five years since starting that first job, and my coworkers and I have all done relatively well. As I got to know them more, most of whom were my age or a couple years older, I saw them spending lavishly; they got top tier apartments and nicer cars; they ate out five nights a week and bought their lunch every day; they went on at least one foreign vacation a year.
I found myself thinking, those coworkers must make a ton more than I do! But I learned a few things about them along the way. First, they all made roughly the same as I did, and their pay has tracked roughly with mine. However, half of them contributed nothing to their 401k; the other half contributed 5% or less. None of them established emergency funds; all of them financed their lifestyles on credit cards. Many of them want to make the next step in their lives—starting families—but are hamstrung without financial reserves in case of emergency. They will eventually get there, but later than they want.
All the while, I was saving 12% of my income for retirement, and though I couldn’t save much, I forced myself to put away at least $200 a month toward savings, increasing that number any time I got a raise or bonus. I didn’t go on vacations, and I cooked for myself most of the time (developing some pretty awesome cooking skills!). Every so often, I challenged myself to be more frugal without sacrificing my 20s, and it has paid off without question.
Today, I am married with no student loans of my own, and my wife and I are working on paying off hers. Together, we have multiple credit cards, but we use them strategically. We put all of our expenses on them and pay them in full at the end of the month, meaning that since we get a minimum of 2% cash back, we are always earning a 2% discount on our purchases.
We bought our first home last year, for less than half of what the bank approved us for. We have modest cars, which we financed only because the interest rates were lower than recent inflation rates, and we carpool to and from work most days. We have taken a few vacations, but only because we earmarked savings to do so. We save 16.5% of our take-home pay in Roth retirement accounts and dedicate 17.5% of our take-home pay toward building emergency reserves. Each time we have gotten a raise, we allow a little bit for ourselves and put the rest toward our savings.
By the time we hit 30 years old, we will have six-figure retirement reserves.
The part about surprise expenses is absolutely reality to us. Last month, my car was hit while I was at work and the person who hit me didn’t leave a note. The insurance deductible was $500, and due to a variety of reasons, we realized it was best to buy a new car. (The dealer gave us a reasonable trade value on it.) To keep payments reasonable, we tossed in an extra $2,500.
The next week, we took our dog to the vet for an ear infection, only to learn that she had cancer. The next week, she had surgery. In the past three weeks, the vet has cost upwards of $2,000.
And, almost on cue, we discovered that we had an infestation of yellow jackets, the lawn mower broke, and the dishwasher quit. After all was said and done, we wound up with $6,000 in unexpected expenses in just over one week.
Thankfully, we had been given sound advice and had planned for just this sort of series of events. We absorbed some of the cost into our monthly budget by sacrificing some of our typical expenses, and the rest came out of our emergency fund, which will take about four months to repay.
The point of all this is to send the message that it is possible to build a nest egg. It feels daunting when you are fresh out of college and with debt, but you start to see results after a while. The first milestone is a positive net worth. The next is knowing that your retirement is on track. The next is knowing that a job loss wouldn’t mean your ruin. And on and on until you realize that your hard work has given you what you always wanted: your freedom.
Well, I had a plan, I had a history of and was going through a severe downward spiral of depression brought on by a lifetime of abuse, chemical and hormone imbalances, Februaries, and a devastating final blow to my family’s financial survival. At this point, I had been bouncing around on meds with my PCP [personal care provider] but really needed a psychiatrist, a specialist, but I couldn’t get an appointment for three months with the only psychiatrist I called that was taking new patients. And the rest of THAT story makes for another story about our healthcare system, but for now: finances.
I’ve never been good with money. I liked to have experiences, not things. I literally haven’t owned an entertainment unit in ten years. I can’t stomach spending the money on it. Concerts, trips, kids activities, preschool tuition—that was important to me.
Before marriage and kids, I went to the notorious Art Institute (my second try at college—depression got the best of me my 1st time and I dropped out three years in). I got a fun, creative, and inspiring $70K education that has yet to bring me that salary in one year. After college, I worked for about a year-and-a-half before I was laid off five months pregnant due to the financial crisis in ‘07/’08.
My husband’s career, meanwhile, was steadily elevating. No college. Zip. But he took care of us enough to have another baby 2-1/2 years later and buy a house with a mortgage that was just $50 more than the apartment we were renting (which was a shit-hole). Things were looking UP for us, but I think the real downfall started then.
With no savings of any kind (we scraped pennies together for the 3% FHA down payment), we slowly dug our graves. We maxed out our credit cards on new floors and defaulted. We took credit at furniture stores and defaulted. Soon, my loans went into default (they wanted over $600 a month even considering our income).
Now we had kids, but we weren’t dead! We have lots of friends, lots of fun stuff to do, and now our kids had social lives, too. Soon, I NEEDED to go back to work for my sense of self-worth and for all the things we wanted to do. I refused to place my kids in one of those daycares that hires 19 year olds for $9/hr (you know, the ones you hear about on the news for forgetting a kid on the bus after a field trip or locking kids in closets). Also, interestingly enough, I’m a terrible classist it seems. If my kids were being minded by someone, the least they could do is enrich their young impressionable minds. My kids would be baby Einsteins!
Private preschool tuition for two, new/used mini-van with the buttons and computer panel, dinners and drinks and concerts and blowing off steam with friends, and finally, last year, our $5,000 medical deductible finally became too much to do. I was working but still making the base $36K/year that I made before I even went back to college in 2003. Let that sink in. I worked as an assistant, with no skills or experience and made the same amount after I went to college, had my own business, built up a portfolio, business contacts and reputation. I obviously failed that test.
Now, March 2016, I was just let go from my job (financial instability of the small businesses for which I continue to work), filed our taxes and was expecting a big return—one that was desperately needed. We were two months behind on every single bill payment, including the mortgage and car. We seemed to owe everyone and their mother $200, like we manufactured Benjamins in our garage. I wasn’t earning my sweet $2200 a month anymore, so we planned on this refund taking us through the next two months, giving me a cushion to find another job.
Well, to my surprise, the government had other plans. Uncle Sam came to collect on the federally backed Sallie Mae loans I’d be unable to keep up with. They took the entire refund before it ever hit our account.
My heart sank. I saw us losing our house, our car, my daughter, with 2-1/2 months left of Pre-K, would have to be pulled from school. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to die. I put the final nail in our coffins. We had nothing. We HAVE nothing. We couldn’t get an apartment for what we pay for our spacious home if we lost it.
My plan? My plan was to drive into oncoming traffic or just slam into the freeway median or drive off a bridge. I have life insurance through my husband’s work, after all. It had to be an accident so that my kids would never suspect my intentions.
Shame. I was so disgusted with myself I couldn’t think of anything except “disgusting piece of shit,” which is actually what I wrote over and over in my journal before and during the first part of my holiday in the cuckoos nest.
So, it’s been a month. With a lot of help from my personal financial advisor (my mom—yes, an almost 40-year-old woman needs her mommy to figure our her finances … shame), we have put together our total debt and planned our escape from this uncharted level of hell.
Trying to get well emotionally while also demolishing the house of lies of our financial situation is very hard and it’s tempting to let the depression wash over me so I don’t have to feel. But, I can never go back there again. Our children are still young and they don’t have to ever remember this time, right? Except for when we tell them about the time we used credit like it was a God-given right as an American, and it destroyed our lives, marriage, and almost destroyed our mommy.
Our latest reader story of fiscal conservatism in the face of uncertainty comes from an African American woman in Birmingham, Alabama:
I was born in January of 1973 out of wedlock to a single mother who already had two older kids. My mother and father were surprisingly cordial to each other all my life until they passed in 2008. Neither had a high school diploma, but my father was a very smart man. My father took financial responsibility for me but not my two half sibling, so basically my mother struggled all her days to make ends meet.
I lived with my mother in public housing (ghetto) in the state of Alabama. She was a CNA [certified nursing assistant] and we lived paycheck to paycheck. If she was able to save any money, an emergency would come along to gobble it up.
One of the emergencies that has stuck in my head for 30 years and set me on my current path was a flat tire.
Yes, a flat tire. I’ll never forget I was about 13 and my mother's old Ford Pinto (green) got a flat tire. The puncture was on the side of the tire and it couldn’t be patched, so it needed to be replaced, but she didn’t have enough money to buy a new one. She had to call around to family members to borrow the money for the tire. She made promises to pay back the cash on payday.
I made a promise to myself never to be in the situation of having to beg or borrow money. In my mother’s household there was always an emergency. I learned there will always be an emergency when you don’t make enough money for day-to-day living. Those early life lessons have made me into a penny pincher. I started working at age 15 and have never stopped.
I got accepted into every university I applied to. I stretched myself thin working while in college to cover basic needs that my family couldn’t help me with, like food. I got scholarships and financial aid to cover most of the costs of a college education, but because of financial illiteracy (and family illiteracy), I got into student loan debt and credit card debt.
My father and I sat down on his front porch after I got my first job out of college and he told me how to budget. (I was too embarrassed to tell him I was already in debt when I graduated.) This is advice from a man that never went to high school but also never went homeless or hungry:
1. Use one week of your salary to pay a car note and insurance.
2. Use two weeks of your salary to pay rent or house note.
3. Use one week of salary to pay your monthly bills.
4. Twice a year you’re going to get an extra two week’s pay—save it for a rainy day.
My response was, “OK daddy, but how can I save a dollar when all I got is a dollar?” His response was, “Spend 80 cents and save and tithe the other 20 cents.” If you can’t pay for it out of what you have, don’t get it.
And he meant every word he said. There weren’t any rich family members or grandparents available to bail me out of financial trouble. And neither he nor my mother had access to lines of credit, such as home equity loans. But my mother sometimes used payday loans to stretch her money to support her household. Payday loans would put an enormous strain on her that translated into stress for her kids. Watching my mother struggle was hard for me. I grew up with a since of lack, uncertainty, and a feeling of insecurity. We had love and respect but no money.
How am I doing now at age 43? I am divorced. I have one child (11) and a niece (14) I support. I’ve been in the workforce for 18 years in a stable career. I made about $69,200.00 last year.
$12,586.26 (18.2%) of my salary went to taxes (fed, AL state, Birmingham city, SS, and Medicare)
$11,313.79 (16.3%) of my salary went to pretax deductions (retirement, medical, dental)
$45,299.95 (65.5%) Went to me!
I have a modest house payment of $1,000.00 / month. I pay extra each month to pay it off faster.
I send my kids to public school ($1,000.00 yearly in fees and lunches)
I have a 2015 Camry that I owe about $12,800.00 on. I could have saved more money last year but I wanted a new Camry with a sunroof. My used Prius’ lithium ion battery died four months after the warranty was up and six months after I spent $900.00 in repairs. It was time for an upgrade.
I don’t have credit card debt (thanks to Dave Ramsey [the financial author]). I have $70,000.00 in my state pension and $60,000.00 in my IRA. My daughter has a 529 college plan worth about $4,000.00. I have about $30,000.00 cash in the bank.
Since I don’t have a financial safety net, I need a hefty savings account to make me feel secure. I would like to save more and spend less, but the costs of life keep creeping up. The monthly rates for water, gas, and electricity have increased this year, so that I am paying about $30.00 more per month than this time in 2014. That is $360.00 per year.
I shop at thrift stores for clothing except for underwear and shoes, and those costs have steadily increased every year. I shop at ALDI instead of Walmart but still spend close to $500.00 on groceries. I even take my lunch to work most days.
I learned some hard lessons about the lack of money early in life and during my struggle through college that have stirred me toward financial literacy, security, and peace. I also know that life isn’t predictable and bad things happen to good people, so it is best to be prepared for the worst.
Payday lending works like this: In exchange for a small loan—the average amount borrowed is about $350—a customer agrees to pay a single flat fee, typically in the vicinity of $15 per $100 borrowed. For a two-week loan, that can equate to an annualized rate of almost 400 percent. The entire amount—the fee plus the sum that was borrowed—is generally due all at once, at the end of the term. (Borrowers give the lender access to their bank account when they take out the loan.) But because many borrowers can’t pay it all back at once, they roll the loan into a new one, and end up in what the industry’s many critics call a debt trap, with gargantuan fees piling up.
As Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s law school, puts it in her new book, How the Other Half Banks, “One of the great ironies in modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.”
Reader Dave teaches at a community college, and he crafted a recent class around our current cover story:
I was engrossed by Neal Gabler’s article and admire his candor. It resonated with me particularly because I have been a freelance graphic artist for over 30 years and I understand exactly the feast or famine nature that such a freelance creative career provides, including the fact that art fees have stagnated (even contracted) over the last 20 years, as publishing budgets have done the same.
My wife has also been a long-time freelancer but our financial situation is much more positive at this point than the Mr. Gabler’s, despite what seems like similar costs (mortgage, college, etc.) and income in a high-tax Northeast state. I credit that to the luck of good health, but mostly to learning the basics of personal finance early on and so avoiding some bad decisions and making a few good ones early on. (Those skills were perfectly described in your recent reader entry “When Self-Denial Gives You Freedom.”)
In addition to my freelance work, I have taught as an adjunct in the art department a local community college for many years. Mr. Gabler’s story was so compelling I decided to devote an entire class, entirely off the course topic, to a discussion of the article and a presentation of the basics of personal finance.
I had no idea if the students (generally 18-25 in age) would be interested at all, so I gave them the option to either work on their projects or skip the class. No one did. In fact, in all the years I’ve taught, it was the first time there was applause at the end of a class. Not for my presentation skills, but for having offered information most had never heard and that they recognized could have an immediate positive impact on their lives and for decades into the future.
Here’s an outline of my class presentation, which contains links to articles, tools (Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook) and calculators (debt repayment, compound interest, inflation, undergraduate loan). This kind of information should be mandatory in every high school curriculum.
I thank Mr. Gabler for the article. There are ripple effects that will be felt for quite awhile, as I intend to offer this information in each of my future classes, until there is a required personal finance class, or as long as someone stays to listen.
Here’s some more specific advice from another reader:
I’m writing to offer a suggestion to Linda Lee, [the struggling former newspaper editor] whose story was outlined here. I tutored on anything writing-related for extra income after college. It was one of the few ways I could command a decent hourly wage for the skills I had as a writer.
Tutoring was very flexible. I was able to do it on my own time even if it was only for a free hour here and there during the week. Sessions can be held in any location (libraries, coffee shops, client homes, remotely, etc.) Getting started is simple, and cash payments at the end of a session are a way to get some extra funds very quickly. Craigslist and Wyzant.com were good ways to find clients. As a veteran (and published?) journalist and editor, I’m sure Ms. Lee’s skills would be in demand.
I passed along that advice to Linda and she replied:
I did NOT get that Civil Service job, and the people in Paris have still not wired me the $2,000, so I’m up for any advice. I had thought of freelance writing, but never thought of tutoring. It’s a great idea. (Better than going to a temp agency.) I really like the idea of someone handing me cash at the end of a tutoring session. Instant commodification.
Another reader, Amanda, previously offered advice to Ben—the unemployed dad without a college degree—in an update to “The Demoralizing Process That Job Searches Have Become.” (If you have any tips on how to make it less demoralizing, please email us.) Here’s how Ben replied to the update, which plugged a scholarship program from the mikeroweWORKS Foundation: “Well, now I know what I’m doing with my Saturday.” We’ll keep you posted on that and other reader developments.
The overwhelming majority of the reader response to Gabler’s story has been positive and supportive. But to balance things out a bit, here’s a strong reader dissent from Adam (a pseudonym), who benefitted a great deal from community college:
Hello! I wanted to comment on the discussion around money and Neal Gabler’s essay. This is a little bit of my own story and mostly a comment on his piece. Apologies if this is off-topic; I had a strong response to the cover story.
Gabler’s essay is out of touch and frankly obnoxious. By his own admission, his financial quandaries are entirely his own fault. He had privilege and opportunity, and made a series of choices that put him in desperate straits. He picked a risky career path in which money comes inconsistently; he then refused to live within his means, squandering his money on status symbols like living in the most expensive areas of the country, private school tuition for his children’s entire educations, and expensive weddings. I have no sympathy for him; he is paying the price of his own snobbery and unwillingness to make pragmatic choices.
In my observation, this is radically different from the predicament of most struggling American families. Many people have never had access to even a fraction of the opportunity Gabler describes, and have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into climbing up from poverty into the lower middle class, only to get knocked back into poverty because the car broke down, the rent was raised, someone got cancer, etc. Gabler pleads masculine pride in telling his wife not to return to work; many families never had the option of a full-time caretaker even when their children were newborns, let alone a spouse staying out of the workforce when the children have gone to college.
This is somewhat of a pet issue for me because, like Gabler, I am from a relatively privileged background—just privileged enough to be exposed to the idea that I should conduct myself like a wealthy person and refuse to consider money in my decision-making. Many of my relatives sank their whole fortunes into sending children to expensive private colleges they couldn’t afford. Why? I have never understood this.
I knew damn well at 17 that my family didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to send me to school, so I went to community college and then a state university and graduated with no debt. That’s a testament to my incredible good fortune; my parents were able to pay tuition at a state school (it was about $7k/year). I don’t think I would deserve any sympathy if I’d refused that opportunity to send us all into debt just so I could go to my “dream school.” Many of my cousins and former classmates have done this, and I think it’s a preposterous waste.
Maybe it’s the fact that people studied at these “dream school” enclaves that partly explains why they are so out of touch and unwilling to live within their means. At the state university, I went to school with young people who grew up in deep poverty, who were the first in their family to go to college, etc. This taught me a lot of gratitude about my own middle-class background and fundamentally altered my reference point for the class system. I no longer think of rich people as normal and see myself as inadequate; I instead realize that working-class people are much more typical and I feel fortunate. My sympathy lies with the families that are making tough choices about housing and healthcare, not with the families who are making “tough” choices about fancy wedding locations.
Thanks for curating wonderful discussions and keeping comments anonymous!
The movie clip was flagged by another John, from the inbox, telling his story of “rags to riches, living the American dream”:
I have been broke and don’t ever plan on going back there again. I grew up “middle class” because my father was a carpenter and made good money and spent it on “toys”—motorcycles, boats, cars, etc. I had four brothers. I worked for my dad carrying shingles but couldn’t swing a hammer. I got a job at a steakhouse washing dishes and that sucked. I worked in a grocery store bagging food and eventually night-stocking shelves.
My high school had a training program with a community college a few miles away and I certified in welding. After graduating high school I worked welding for a year with great pay. My only experience with a union is that after being hired I was “bullied” into joining the union; the union steward told me to be prepared to strike. Not encouraging for just starting. The strike never came but the business shut down.
I got married, had a kid, started going back to the original community college, got divorced, went to the local state college, got an Electrical Engineering degree, moved out of state, worked three years then got laid off, moved back home, got a job with an electric utility, bought a house, got a live-in girlfriend who loved to gamble and gamble and gamble—but she left with her debt, thank God.
I was deep in credit card debt and had a house payment and a rental house a state away. I took a deep look and decided that debt was the anchor holding me back.
I worked a side wiring job for extra income. I started living within my income instead of overspending for once in my life. I fixed up the rental house and sold it. Paid off the truck loan. Attacked the credit cards and paid them off smallest to largest using the snowball effect. I added 50% to my remaining mortgage for a while then doubled the payment until I had enough in savings to pay it off in full.
I have been maxing out my 401(k) and Roth and saving cash ever since. My work has a pension plan that has been building for the past 25 years. I have sat down and added up all my assets (no debts at all so nothing to delete — woo wooooo!) and they are approaching $1 million at 57 years of age.
What was the one event that made me change my ways? Becoming single the 2nd time and realizing that I was responsible for my own retirement and happiness. I’m not here to “make” anyone else happy as I’ve strived to before in life.
What financial event moved me out of paycheck-to-paycheck living? The realization that things happen and when you need savings to fall back on. The furnace goes out? Buy a new one. The vehicle breaks down? Tell the mechanic to “fix it.” The market tanks? Who cares, buy more dollar cost averaging. Want to go on a trip? Just buy a ticket or hop in the car and go. Want to eat out? Don't look at the prices, eat what you want and leave a big tip without fanfare. Attached is a link to John Goodman explaining why you should have a pile of money.
I’m debt free. I’ve been broke and I’ve been rich. Rich is better.
This podcast [SPENT] will address the age-old question: Why are we so f*****d up about money? Each episode will feature stories from people like you, people who have made money mistakes and lived to laugh about it. Well also have great advice from empathetic experts. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, we’ll get our financial lives together, one episode at a time.
Our reader highlights a few of the best episodes so far:
The latest one is with Dean Haspiel, a comic-book artist, Emmy winner (he did the art for and inspired the Zach Galafianakis character in Bored To Death), Marvel and DC veteran … a genuine success in his field, and yet he only recently got out of debt and got health insurance, at nearly age 50. His latest endeavor is a free webcomic about an alternative Brooklyn where art is a currency of exchange. As he says wryly, “This is a romantic fantasy.”
The Tiana Miller episode is another standout. Broke and badly ill with multiple sclerosis, Tiana still musters the spirit and energy to perform standup comedy all around NYC. She talks about learning to navigate the health care system alone, having to rely on friends to take care of her, and how illness helped turn her into a professional funny person. (“I was like, why would I get hired at a chandelier store? One of my main symptoms is intense tremors!”) It’s a really emotional episode.
That quote comes from Brian Brunjes, the local butcher and friend of Neal Gabler, who wrote our May cover story, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” Brian started to struggle after his son was diagnosed with autism, causing his wife to quit her job to care for him and thus leaving the Brunjes family with one income. Here’s Brian alongside Neal in a segment for Wednesday’s NewsHour discussing financial impotence:
Today, the average family has enough financial reserves to keep going for about three weeks. That’s it. And that’s middle-income.
Here’s another startling statistic from economist Annamaria Lusardi:
[H]ow confident are you that you could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month? And what we found is 40 percent of families could not come up with $2,000 in 30 days. So it’s important to recognize that, that the financial fragility is just so widespread.
Meanwhile, from our hello@ inbox, here’s the story of a young woman who works in online media and is about the same age as Neal Gabler’s daughters:
Supposedly I did everything right. I worked hard to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. I did so with only $3,000 in student loans. I took several internships and kept a part-time job all while going to school full time. I got a job at a hip company right out of college. Everything went right.
Except the pay isn’t great, because, hey, I don’t have any experience. So I answered an ad on Craigslist for a roommate to save money. By the end, there had been people on my couch running from the cops, multiple cockroaches on my pillow, and my “landlord” saying it wasn’t her problem that I didn’t like bugs. So I moved out. Except the rent and utilities to go to this job cost me half my income.
I end up just making ends meet. And it’s like, why did I work so hard then? Wasn’t college and working hard supposed to get me somewhere? I’m just as broke now as my family was when I was a kid.
Gabler explains in very dry, empirical terms how wages have stayed the same while the price of everything you need has gone up. What he doesn’t explain is the real psychological toll that has on the generation his daughters are in. We haven’t messed up and cashed out 401(k)s or reduced down to one income—yet we’re still screwed. We were screwed the moment we entered into this system.
And that fact is so soul crushing it’s a wonder I get out of bed every day. Because a good day is having enough to eat, a bad day is getting a ticket for a burnt-out headlight and needing to take a payday loan just to keep my ability to get to my job—one that barely pays me enough to eat.
This is why extreme candidates like Sanders and Trump are winning. This is why everyone is on Prozac, booze, or worse. We know we’re drowning. People are desperate. This is why people read click-bait articles instead of hard news. No one wants to think too hard about how shitty the world we live in now.
Update from a reader, Katharine, with some advice that our young reader and Linda Lee, whose story is here, might find useful:
I would strongly advise Linda and other out-of-work newspaper editors to retrain as medical editors and writers through the American Medical Writers Association. There is a growing demand for this sort of work, particularly from Chinese researchers who want to see their papers published in English-language medical journals (and the work can be done at home). Here’s an article about this growing field.
Linda responds: “Thanks, I’d already explored taking courses in medical bill coding (extremely boring recall, worse than organic chemistry) and this sounds much more attractive. I appreciate you keeping me up to date.” If you have any advice for Linda or any of our readers struggling with the job market, please let us know.
A doctor of disadvantaged patients details her long and arduous path to financial security:
I grew up in a lower-middle class setting: My father was an engineer, my mother a teacher’s aide, then a teacher. I never had to worry about food on the table, much less a roof over my head, but there was no room for extras. By the time I was in high school, we were settled very comfortably in middle class.
Then the recession of the early 2000s hit, the company my father worked for closed down, and I graduated high school and started college, with my parents living on a single income and my elementary school-aged brother still at home.
By nature (and perhaps a little by nurture as well), I was always a frugal person, but knowledge that my parents were borrowing almost $40,000 a year to pay my college tuition kept me on the very straight and narrow. I only ate the two meals a day that were included in my room and board. I walked everywhere. The rare trips into the city were done via public transportation.
After I graduated from college, I attended medical school, and this time, the student loans were in my name.
I lived with a roommate in a 750 sq ft convertible apartment to cut down on costs. My living costs at that time were kept to an absolute minimum despite living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, but I still got a little sick every time I signed the paperwork to borrow yet another year’s worth of tuition. By the time I graduated, I had paid over $180,000 in tuition at a handsome 6.8% interest rate. My parents had graciously covered my living costs. My friends who were not as fortunate owed nearly $250,000.
In the United States, you are not allowed to practice medicine until you have completed a training period called residency. Residency can vary between 3 to 7 years depending on your career decisions. It is essentially a period of indentured servitude, during which you work 80 hours a week for 49 weeks a year, and receive a federally set stipend in exchange.
The year I started residency, my salary was approximately $45,000 per year—an hourly wage of just over $11. Despite this, I was able to save 30% of my take-home pay. The positive effect of working 80 hours a week is it leaves very little time to waste money.
I started on income-based repayment of my student loans as soon as my grace period ended, but the monthly payments weren’t even covering one-third of the accruing interest. Following residency, some people choose to pursue further training during a period call fellowship. Fellowships vary from 1 to 4 years, during which you work almost as much as in residency and receive a slightly higher stipend. I continued to save as much as possible, and my husband and I were able to pay for our small wedding in cash. I continued income-based repayment, but the student loan principal kept growing, with interest capitalizing year on year.
Finally, after 6 years of post-graduate training, I took my first job at a university hospital almost a year ago. Physicians who practice medicine in an academic setting generally make substantially less than their private practice counterparts. While I make a very handsome salary, it is still only two-thirds of the salaries of my friends in private practice.
My husband, who has a doctorate, is still looking for employment, 9 months after our relocation. [See here for a reader discussion centered on the question, “Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore?]
We continue to rent, but we’re hoping to buy a house in the next several years; we have saved enough for a full 20% down payment. We are both in our 30s, and have deferred having children due to school and training, are anxious that attempting to have children will incur yet another cost in the form of high-risk pregnancy or IVF.
This year, I will max out my 403(b) and Roth IRA. The principal on my student loans have capitalized year upon year, and now are almost $200,000, despite being on income-based repayment for 6 years.
I logically understand that my financial future is secure. We are still on track to be financially independent by the age of 50, even if we do have children. The years of setting a budget and saving like a fiend during residency (and during graduate school for my husband) has left us in an enviable position. Because I work in an underserved area, the balance of my student loans will be forgiven after 120 payments, approximately 4 more years. I have no undergraduate student loan debt. My husband, mercifully, does not have any student loans, nor any other debt.
But despite making a salary that puts me comfortably in the 1% of earners in the state, I remain anxious about money. My husband is unemployed. My student loans exceed the size of the mortgage that my parents borrowed for their house.
Although my parents and my husband’s parents are financially secure, I know how quickly one hospitalization can completely destroy financial stability. My brother is finishing college, and I intend to pay for his graduate school costs so that my parents won’t enter their retirement years with that burden.
My in-laws are still paying off the student loans that they incurred for my husband and his siblings. Retirement plans were not available to us during residency and fellowship and I certainly wasn’t contributing during medical school, so I have 10 fewer years of retirement savings than my college classmates who did not pursue my path.
I am certainly grateful for the opportunities afforded to me by my parents, and I am extremely fortunate to be able to work every day in a position I love, impacting people in a very important and direct way. I wouldn’t say I made any huge financial missteps in my life, although I do wish I had started investing sooner and more aggressively. If retirement plans had been available to me, I certainly would have started saving specifically for retirement sooner.
The biggest financial lesson I have learned, though, is that lifestyle inflation is dangerous. I am still able to aggressively save because I never felt the need to upgrade just because I could. Because of that fundamental belief, I will always be able to work at a job I love, even if it is not as lucrative.
A refreshing reader dissent from Kirsten Campbell:
I know this is an Unpopular Opinion, but I’m tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt. I keep seeing articles about it cropping up on The Atlantic and it has become increasingly irritating.
I’m Canadian, and I went to university in the same city I grew up in so I would avoid student loan debt. My parents didn’t pay a dime towards my degree or the degrees of my two siblings. We always knew they weren’t contributing; it wasn’t a secret that they weren’t paying for our schooling. As such, in grade 10, I started tutoring ESL and later worked retail to save money for school.
While in school I typically tutored 4-10 p.m. every weeknight, then on weekends I worked retail. In the summer, I usually ended up working more retail because my tutoring kids were away or wanted a break. When I got home from tutoring at 10 p.m. each night, I made myself dinner and then started my own homework and assignments. (Yes, after helping other people with theirs, I wasn’t terribly motivated when it came to my own work.)
I worked like a dog. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but university was expensive, I had to buy a used car to get myself there and pay for insurance, gas, food, clothing etc (except rent) all by myself.
Of course I desperately wanted the “university life” that I saw on TV: brick buildings, living on campus, and fun parties every weekend. But I couldn’t participate because I was living at home and rushing from my last class (4-5 courses a semester) to get to my tutoring on time. I sacrificed and gave up every fun or interesting part of university life in order to ensure that I graduated with no debt.
Many nights while doing my own homework at 2 a.m., I wondered if I could do it all. Then I remembered I had no choice. Dropping out wasn’t an option.
So I buckled down and pushed through five years of university to get a double major without owning anyone a penny. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m sure glad I did it.
As such, I’m tired to hearing about everyone’s student loan debt. Taking on student loans is a CHOICE. I chose to sacrifice to make my future better. Those who took on loans in order to have fun in university are buried by debt and I’m tired of hearing from them. No one forced them to take on loans. No one forced them to move away from home and live on campus. They made their choice so now they must live with it.
I’m 12 years out of undergrad and still paying off thousands in student loans, and that’s with two parents and a step-parent paying most of my tuition. But Kirsten’s right; that was totally my choice, and personally I can’t complain. If you think she’s off base, however, drop us a note and I’ll add. Update from a reader living in New York, Peter Zdanowicz:
I also went to university in Canada. You cannot compare paying for a college education in the U.S. to funding one in Canada. Right now undergrad tuition to one of the best schools in Canada (university of Toronto) is $6,040 CDN, or about $5,000 USD. And there is no in-state / out-of-state qualification; that price is what all Canadians would pay.
A Canadian can certainly pay for most, if not all, of his or her tuition with after-school work and summer jobs. I too worked in restaurants and painted houses to pay for school. I had enough left over to pay rent and even buy some furniture.
Tuition in Canada is heavily subsidized by the government, which makes is relatively affordable. In Canada the calculus of paying for higher education is much more about choice. You can go to almost any university in Canada and pay $5,000 to $7,000 in tuition. Cost is usually not a barrier to higher education. I got to choose the school that best suited to my needs. That’s a real choice.
Another reader, Doug, is on the same page as Peter:
Kirsten is wrong. I too am Canadian, and I put myself through university with a minimum of debt. It is much, much, cheaper to go to a good university (in my case Simon Fraser University) than it is in the U.S. You simply can not compare the two. I don’t know when she went to university or which one. I graduated in 1976 with $5K in loans—about $21K in today’s dollars, a roughly four-fold increase, and today the cost has gone up by about four times as well.
The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s—and the world’s—premier universities. You can see its pricing here and you’ll notice that except for a few specialty programs, most undergraduate disciplines are in the $6K/year for a full course load. What are the costs in the U.S. for an undergraduate arts/science degree at a world class university for a U.S. citizen? A quick search showed me it was at likely to be at least $20K/year and three to four times that for one of the Ivies. You aren’t going to save that kind of money by tutoring and working a (likely minimum wage) part-time job or two while taking a full course load, even if you have the luxury of living at home with your parents for free.
My degree was the most expensive of all programs offered at my university, which I should have mentioned. All in all I paid about $60k for tuition. That’s a lot no matter where you’re from, especially when you’re living in the most expensive city in Canada. Now add in a car, gas, insurance, parking, random university fees that always crop up, car repairs, food etc etc and it doesn’t look so cheap.
In Canada, scholarships are a lot harder to come by than a lot of other countries (at least I didn’t qualify!). Americans complain about the high cost of their post secondary, but we are forgetting to mention how cheap the cost of living is in most U.S. cities (I’m not counting places like the Bay Area). Had I chosen to live on campus and get a meal plan, my university education would easily have topped $100k.
My point is that people have choices—choices NOT to sign up for thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loans because they don’t want to commute to a local university instead. Yes, that would mean giving up the “university dream” and working while attending school.
While I was at university, a classmate of mine didn’t work a single day she attended school. Instead she got loan after loan after loan. Before I lost track of her in third year she was $50k in debt with no clue how to pay it back. I still wonder about her and how she sleeps at night with that albatross around her neck. We graduated in 2008, which was the Great Recession and no one was getting jobs after grad. That’s another story though.
My parents raised us with the philosophy of “If you can’t afford it, you don’t get it,” and it’s a great motto to live by. If I couldn’t afford university, then I wasn’t going. If you can’t afford to attend an out-of-state school, then you’re not going. It’s really that simple.
That’s also why I started saving money for school while I was in grade 10. It’s not a surprise that school crops up at the end of grade 12, so why are so many students shocked when it does?
My brother completed his PhD at our local university when he should have been at an Ivy League school. He didn’t go because he couldn’t afford it and he didn’t want to be saddled with six-figure debt. He has built an amazing career so far which proves he didn’t suffer by staying in province and not living the “university dream.” He graduated with no debt.
The pressure to live the dream is what pushes a lot of students into signing up for debt they don’t even understand. I read a lot of “I had no idea what I was doing” or “I had no clue how long it would take to pay back” from students with loans—which again points to choice. They chose to be ostriches and bury their heads in the sand instead of educating themselves on what their signature on that paper means. They chose not to start early and work in high school or delay school by a year to save up more money. For the vast majority of people, no one put a gun to their head to sign up for loans; it was their choice. The frat party ends eventually and you’re stuck footing the bill one way or another. Just because your choice to sign up for loans has now come back to haunt you, that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to hear about it anymore.
Mary in Pennsylvania has a new and crucial perspective to share:
This is in response to the recent reader note “Taking on Student Loan Debt Is a CHOICE.” Guess what? Like Kirsten, I’m tired of hearing about school loan debt, too. But I’m also in the middle of the experience.
Although taking on debt from student loans was a choice, my other options were not realistically viable. See, I was raised in poverty, and I was still in poverty when I started at a community college as a twenty-something adult working in a dead-end job and raising my three kids as a divorced mom. There was no drunken partying until the wee hours of the morning, or blowing off classes that Mommy and Daddy paid for. Try juggling three kids, one of whom was in diapers and child care, a job and a full schedule of college classes, complete with homework and labs. Without those loans that I “chose” to take out, I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.
There was no lavish lifestyle during college as a result of my school loans; those loans paid for tuition and books, and also allowed us to barely survive while I was in school and working. To give a good idea of what our life was like WITH school loans and me working, we still qualified for subsidized housing, food stamps, and child care, and medical assistance, as well as free lunches at school for the two older kids. Poverty. We’re talking poverty here.
Although I graduated 16 years ago, I am still paying on my school loans (via the Income Based Repayment Plan). Today, I have a middle-class job (which would not have been possible without my degree), but I will be paying off school loans until I die, as I am almost 50 years old and haven’t even paid off half of the balance.
Incidentally, as a former teen mom who dropped out of high school and later got my GED so I could go to college, it’s likely my kids would have followed in my less-than-stellar footsteps back then. Because of my struggles with going to college while raising my kids, they learned through some of my examples. Education became VERY important in our household. We all studied, we all went to class, and took classes seriously. Education was our way out of the life we had back then.
As a result, all three of my children graduated from high school, none were teen parents or involved in the judicial system, two are college degreed, and one is serving in the Air Force. Would that have happened without me going to college? Maybe, but statistically unlikely.
So school loans weren’t just a choice, they were a necessity—not only for me, but for my three children as well. Without it, we would not have survived.
Earlier this summer, a Canadian reader, Kristen, voiced the “Unpopular Opinion” that she’s “tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt,” given her dogged efforts to pay for her own college tuition without loans and thus forgo “the ‘university life’ that I saw on TV: brick buildings, living on campus, and fun parties every weekend.” But a reader who grew up in poverty, Mary, responded to Kristen that “without those loans that I ‘chose’ to take out [while working as a single mother of three], I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.”
Here’s another key perspective from Olivia in Dayton, Ohio:
I appreciate the comments of others from Canada and from Kristen that show how university can be less expensive in that country but still a burden that has to be paid. I really wish I would have walked Kristen’s path, because she is so smart for making the choices and sacrifices that she did. I hope she is rewarded for those good choices throughout her life.
However, I am disheartened by the constant attention to the newer grads. I am mid-forties and graduated during the 1990s. It is my friends and peers who are having an awful time paying these loans, some 20 years later. Why? In the ’90s, the interest rates were at 8 percent … guess who is STILL paying those rates.
None of us were paid what we had hoped (or were told to expect) in the years after graduation, so we went on income-based repayments—which translates to paying a bit of the interest but not all of it and no principal. Because of those situations, most of us still owe our principal and now owe years of interest on top of it, even though we’ve been making payments consistently. Many of us now have balances that are two times what we actually borrowed.
No politician is talking about this group. No one in the media is talking about this group. Our rates cannot (or will not) be changed, so we are paying 8 percent, while the banks borrow money at zero percent and new grads get 3 or 4 percent. [CB: Those figures indeed roughly correspond to this timeline of federal student loan interest rates.]
I know that we should have taken Kristen’s path, but she has no idea how we were spoken to and coerced by guidance counselors and financial aid reps. We feel very duped and just keep paying … probably forever, because with the interest, most of us now owe less on our mortgages.
Interest rates might be lower, but the costs of college are also much higher, as reader Renie notes:
One factor that hasn’t been discussed much about American students today is how quickly the situation has changed and just how much the price of tuition has gone up. I can’t speak to this as a student, since during my undergrad days my middle-class parents paid everything, and during my grad school my tuition was mostly paid by the state university I attended and I was able to work as well. When it came time for my children to attend college, my husband and I were able to pay for our children’s tuition and room and board with our incomes and help from college accounts set up by their grandparents.
We were well aware that the money was finite, however, and that the costs were going up exponentially as our children were in school. By the time the younger one was in her last year, we realized that if she had been a few years younger, we would have had a much harder time paying for everything. Tuition and room and board were going up way faster than our salaries—and we both worked at universities.
I don’t blame families who have difficulty paying their children’s tuition or children who aren’t aware of just what they are signing away when they sign for student loans. However, it’s now necessary for students to educate themselves about the debt they are incurring. It’s also time to seriously consider the kind of approach that Kirsten took.
Midnight Mass is a morally urgent critique of how faith can fuel everyday cruelty and violence.
This story contains spoilers for the Netflix series Midnight Mass.
The Exorcist is a film I’ve long loved because it raised the bar not just for horror, but also for movies that explore questions of faith and doubt, good and evil, life and death. I know all of its beats by heart, but when I recently rewatched the 1973 classic, the ending hit differently. The movie concludes with an exorcism, naturally. Chris MacNeil has brought her daughter, Regan, to a host of medical professionals in a desperate attempt to save her from what turns out to be a demonic possession. But the only person who can save the girl, it seems, is a priest. The camera lingers on the mother’s exhausted face as two priests close the door to her daughter’s bedroom and go to work.
The election of the elders of an evangelical church is usually an uncontroversial, even unifying event. But this summer, at an influential megachurch in Northern Virginia, something went badly wrong. A trio of elders didn’t receive 75 percent of the vote, the threshold necessary to be installed.
“A small group of people, inside and outside this church, coordinated a divisive effort to use disinformation in order to persuade others to vote these men down as part of a broader effort to take control of this church,” David Platt, a 43-year-old minister at McLean Bible Church and a best-selling author, charged in a July 4 sermon.
Platt said church members had been misled, having been told, among other things, that the three individuals nominated to be elders would advocate selling the church building to Muslims, who would convert it into a mosque. In a second vote on July 18, all three nominees cleared the threshold. But that hardly resolved the conflict. Members of the church filed a lawsuit, claiming that the conduct of the election violated the church’s constitution.
Thousands of pages of internal documents offer the clearest picture yet of how Facebook endangers American democracy—and show that the company’s own employees know it.
Before I tell you what happened at exactly 2:28 p.m. on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at the White House—and how it elicited a very specific reaction, some 2,400 miles away, in Menlo Park, California—you need to remember the mayhem of that day, the exuberance of the mob as it gave itself over to violence, and how several things seemed to happen all at once.
At 2:10 p.m., a live microphone captured a Senate aide’s panicked warning that “protesters are in the building,” and both houses of Congress began evacuating.
At 2:13 p.m., Vice President Mike Pence was hurried off the Senate floor and out of the chamber.
At 2:15 p.m., thunderous chants were heard: “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!”
At the White House, President Donald Trump was watching the insurrection live on television. The spectacle excited him. Which brings us to 2:28 p.m., the moment when Trump shared a message he had just tweeted with his 35 million Facebook followers: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution … USA demands the truth!”
The James Webb Space Telescope, the long-awaited successor to Hubble, is mired in controversy over its namesake.
In 1999, Karen Knierman picked up a free mug at her first big astronomy conference, just before she started grad school. It bore the logo of an ambitious observatory, designed to peer at the most distant galaxies in the universe: NGST, short for Next Generation Space Telescope. The mug was on Knierman’s desk in 2002 when NASA made a surprise announcement: NGST was going to become JWST, after James Webb. Knierman sipped from her suddenly out-of-date mug and wondered, Who?
That was the prevailing reaction among scientists at the time. Webb, who died in 1992, was more of a behind-the-scenes manager than a space-science star; he had served as NASA’s second administrator, in the 1960s, during the run-up to the Apollo moon landings. But scientists went with the rebrand. Work on the telescope continued. Scientists got new merch, new mugs.
Claims about the drug are based on shoddy science—but that science is entirely unremarkable in its shoddiness.
Ivermectin is an antiparasitic drug, and a very good one. If you are infected with the roundworms that cause river blindness or the parasitic mites that cause scabies, it is wonderfully effective. It is cheap; it is accessible; and its discoverers won the Nobel Prize in 2015. It has also been widely promoted as a coronavirus prophylactic and treatment.
This promotion has been broadly criticized as a fever dream conceived in the memetic bowels of the internet and as a convenient buttress for bad arguments against vaccination. This is not entirely fair. Perhaps 70 to 100 studies have been conducted on the use of ivermectin for treating or preventing COVID-19; several dozen of them support the hypothesis that the drug is a plague mitigant. Twometa-analyses, which looked at data aggregated across subsets of these studies, concluded that the drug has value in the fight against the pandemic.
Breaking up social-media companies is one way to fix them. Shutting their users up is a better one.
Your social life has a biological limit: 150. That’s the number—Dunbar’s number, proposed by the British psychologist Robin Dunbar three decades ago—of people with whom you can have meaningful relationships.
What makes a relationship meaningful? Dunbar gave TheNew York Times a shorthand answer: “those people you know well enough to greet without feeling awkward if you ran into them in an airport lounge”—a take that may accidentally reveal the substantial spoils of having produced a predominant psychological theory. The construct encompasses multiple “layers” of intimacy in relationships. We can reasonably expect to develop up to 150 productive bonds, but we have our most intimate, and therefore most connected, relationships with only about five to 15 closest friends. We can maintain much larger networks, but only by compromising the quality or sincerity of those connections; most people operate in much smaller social circles.
A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change.
Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.
Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.
Internal documents show the company routinely placing public-relations, profit, and regulatory concerns over user welfare. And if you think it’s bad here, look beyond the U.S.
In the fall of 2019, Facebook launched a massive effort to combat the use of its platforms for human trafficking. Working around the clock, its employees searched Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram for keywords and hashtags that promoted domestic servitude in the Middle East and elsewhere. Over the course of a few weeks, the company took down 129,191 pieces of content, disabled more than 1,000 accounts, tightened its policies, and added new ways to detect this kind of behavior. After they were through, employees congratulated one another on a job well done.
It was a job well done. It just came a little late. In fact, a group of Facebook researchers focused on the Middle East and North Africa had found numerous Instagram profiles being used as advertisements for trafficked domestic servants as early as March 2018. “Indonesian brought with Tourist Visa,” one photo caption on a picture of a woman reads, in Arabic. “We have more of them.” But these profiles weren’t “actioned”—disabled or taken down—an internal report would explain, because Facebook’s policies “did not acknowledge the violation.” A year and a half later, an undercover BBC investigation revealed the full scope of the problem: a broad network that illegally trafficked domestic workers, facilitated by internet platforms and aided by algorithmically boosted hashtags. In response, Facebook banned one hashtag and took down some 700 Instagram profiles. But according to another internal report, “domestic servitude content remained on the platform.”
Different chemically than it was a decade ago, the drug is creating a wave of severe mental illness and worsening America’s homelessness problem.
In the fall of 2006, law enforcement on the southwest border of the United States seized some crystal methamphetamine. In due course, a five-gram sample of that seizure landed on the desk of a 31-year-old chemist named Joe Bozenko, at the Drug Enforcement Administration lab outside Washington, D.C.
Organic chemistry can be endlessly manipulated, with compounds that, like Lego bricks, can be used to build almost anything. The field seems to breed folks whose every waking minute is spent puzzling over chemical reactions. Bozenko, a garrulous man with a wide smile, worked in the DEA lab during the day and taught chemistry at a local university in the evenings. “Chemist by day, chemist by night,” his Twitter bio once read.
Rich societies were turning inward even before the pandemic, but Bernard-Henri Lévy won’t let them ignore atrocities elsewhere.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher who wears elegant suits, cites Hegel, and visits war zones. The first part of his new book, The Will to See, references conversations with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, among other French postmodernists; the latter part describes horrific scenes of violence in Somalia, Nigeria, and Ukraine, among other places. We in the English-speaking world are not accustomed to this combination of themes, and our first instinct is to snicker.
Those so inclined should go right ahead, for there is no insult, no criticism, no mockery that you can direct at Lévy that he has not already heard and probably cited, somewhere, in a self-deprecating comment. The list of his detractors is very long, and the terms they use are not kind: “Pomposity and self-promotion are his vices,” wrote Paul Berman, as far back as 1995. In the book as well as a new documentary Lévy has written and co-directed, also called The Will to See—now showing at film festivals in English, and perhaps to be more widely released next year—he makes several wry references to the opprobrium his various engagements have inspired (“There is the war in Libya, of course, for which I have been lavishly criticized”). But don’t let the instinct to insult him overwhelm you, for the book and the film raise questions that are rarely posed so starkly. Do people in the wealthier, more fortunate parts of the world owe anything to those who live in the poorest and unluckiest places? Should we interest ourselves in the fate of people fighting wars that we don’t even know exist? What do we accomplish by describing and filming them? Should we try to help?