The Atlantic's May Issue: The Money Report

Neal Gabler on “The Secret Shame of the Middle Class;” plus: the violent aftermath of ISIS; the case for loan sharks; how Islam created Europe; what real socialists think about Bernie Sanders

Washington, D.C. (April 19, 2016)—Financial impotence. It has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, and for many it may be even more embarrassing. A Fed study found that nearly half of all Americans say they would have to borrow or sell something to come up with $400 for an emergency. Neal Gabler, author of The Atlantic’s May cover story, confesses that he is one of them. In “My Secret Shame,” Gabler recounts the mix of personal choices and external circumstances that landed him in this embarrassing financial situation.

To pair with the magazine’s release, today will begin a series “True Money Stories” which will include reactions and responses to Gabler’s piece, and personal accounts of financial hardship from readers.

On Wednesday, April 27, Gabler will speak about the cover story at The Atlantic’s 5th annual Summit on the Economy. Additional speakers will include House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, the former finance ministers of Germany and Greece, and more.

Plus: Bethany McLean questions the alternatives to payday lending; Nina Munk writes about how Warren Buffett’s son Howard, a farmer who recently came into a multibillion-dollar inheritance, would feed the world; Anand Gopal reports on violence at the hands of anti-ISIS groups in Iraq; and Robert Frank details why luck matters more than we might think.

The May issue of The Atlantic is online today, April 19—with key pieces summarized below.

Features & The Money Report:

“My Secret Shame” (Cover): A recent Fed survey found that nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. Neal Gabler begins this piece with an eye-opening confession: “I’m one of them.” Despite his upper-middle-class existence—Manhattan apartment, private schools, five books, and hundreds of published articles—Gabler writes that, due to a mix of personal choices and what he describes as financial ignorance, he and his wife have no savings, have had to borrow money from their adult children, and often juggle creditors to make it through a week. In a revealing account of circumstances that affect more people than many realize (and that many are unwilling to talk about), Gabler labels this financial impotence. He writes: “It has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not least of which is the desperate need to mask it and pretend everything is going swimmingly. In truth, it may be more embarrassing than sexual impotence ... America is a country, as Donald Trump has reminded us, of winners and losers, alphas and weaklings. To struggle financially is a source of shame, daily humiliation—even a form of social suicide. Silence is the only protection.”

“Loan Shark Inc.”: Payday lending is a scam, a scourge, an abomination—and as the backlash against it grows, it is slowly being regulated out of existence. Will anything better replace it? Bethany McLean writes that for all the predatory pitfalls and exorbitant interest rates of storefront lenders, it’s a service that a growing number of Americans (one in six households) rely upon. Most agree that regulation is a necessity, but what’s a cash-strapped borrower—the typical payday-lending customer is a white woman age 25 to 44—left to do? McLean looks at solutions: from banks and credit unions offering smaller loans, to having the postal service partner with banks to offer short-term loans, to less drastic reforms of payday lending. She writes: “The problem isn’t just that people who desperately need a $350 loan can’t get it at an affordable rate, but that a growing number of people need that loan in the first place.”

“How Warren Buffett’s Son Would Feed the World”:  Despite his father’s immense wealth, Howard G. Buffett has spent most of his life living modestly as a commercial farmer in Decatur, Illinois. That is, until a surprise gift in the form of $2.5 billion transformed him into one of the world’s leading philanthropists. Nina Munk spent time with Howard Buffett, the second of Warren Buffett’s three children, to learn more about his newfound efforts to end global hunger.

"The Hell After ISIS": Reporting from Iraq, Anand Gopal tells the story of the Sabar family, one of many Sunni families who have experienced the unimaginable after escaping the Islamic State. Gopal writes that after ISIS seized their village in the Sunni heartland of Iraq, the Sabars considered themselves lucky to have landed in Baghdad, a city solidly under the control of anti-ISIS forces. But they soon realized that their new home would offer little security. The Shiite anti-ISIS forces would be the arbiters of unthinkable violence. Many Sunni families have found themselves in a similar spot: escaping from the brutalities of ISIS only to face comparable danger at the hands of U.S.-allied forces: the Iraqi government, its army, and Shiite militias. NGOs and human-rights workers allege that these anti-ISIS forces may have killed as many Sunnis as ISIS has in some areas, with rarely publicized instances even matching ISIS in gruesome violence and propaganda. In recounting their horrific experiences, Gopal also investigates the convoluted chain of events that created the situation as it is today.

From Dispatches:

History: “How Islam Created Europe”: The swift advance of Islam in North Africa in late antiquity severed the Mediterranean into two divergent civilizations: Islam and “the West.” Across the centuries, Islam defined Europe geographically, but it also defined Europe culturally. Today, amid the forces of terrorism and human migration, Islam is helping to undo what it once helped create, and Europe must face its new reality. As Robert Kaplan writes, “The cultural purity that Europe craves in the face of the Muslim-refugee influx is simply impossible in a world of increasing human interactions.” With no Rome to preside over its empire, Europe must now find some other way to dynamically incorporate the world of Islam. “If it cannot evolve in the direction of universal values … this would signal the end of ‘the West.’”

Economics: “Why Luck Matters”: Chance plays a larger role in life outcomes than most people realize, yet the luckiest among us appear especially unlikely to appreciate our good fortune. According to author and Cornell professor Robert Frank, this is a troubling phenomenon. A growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. Consider this: People in the highest income brackets are likelier to attribute their success to their own hard work; that top echelon of wealth-holders is also more likely to resist taxation and government spending. The secret weapon? Gratitude might lead to greater willingness to support the common good and, in the end, even increase that good fortune you worked so hard for (or were lucky enough to benefit from).

Sketch: “What a Real Socialist Thinks About Bernie Sanders”: Until Bernie Sanders reintroduced the label to polite company, the word socialist was effectively a slur in political circles. While Sanders has ignited a movement of fans calling for a “revolution,” what do actual socialists think of the senator from Vermont? To find out, Molly Ball met with Eugene Puryear, the vice-presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who explains why Sanders doesn’t cut it.

Study of Studies: “Brag Better”: An essential quandary of social life is how to let others know we’re awesome without letting them know we want them to know. Is there a way to harvest the reputational benefits of self-promotion while avoiding its costs? Matthew Hutson examines the research that expose the pitfalls of bragging, telling us how to boast without seeming to.

From the Culture File:

Omnivore: “The Greatest Poet Alive”: “Les Murray—an almost hairless, shorts-wearing, rustic giant-genius from the back end of Australia, prone to vast grumps and vaster generosities … I say he’s our greatest living poet.” Culture writer James Parker explores the work of Murray through the lens of his most recent volume, Waiting for the Past. Parker goes on to write: “It’s been easy … to caricature Les Murray as an antimodern stodge … But real poetry admits no stodginess, and the truth is that in his customized, snapshot, polyglot flexi-language, crusty old Les has invented a paradoxically perfect instrument for recording, and admiring, the phenomena—what he has called a ‘feral poetry’—of modernity.”

Books: “What Prison Takes Away”: The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is the oldest known prison memoir by an African American: Austin Reed, who was locked up as a 10-year-old in the early 1830s in the nation’s first juvenile reformatory. In reflecting on the memoir, Reginald Dwayne Betts, who spent nearly a decade of his own life in prison, writes: “He describes himself as ‘haunted,’ and his memoir should haunt us with its exposure of a process designed at its origins to reduce men, whatever their color and their crimes, to worthlessness—to ruin them for life in freedom.”

This month’s Big Question is: “What is the greatest prank of all time?” From tricks on rival sports teams, to museum shenanigans, to Donald Trump’s entire political career, writers and professional pranksters weigh in on the greatest “gotcha” moments in history.

The May 2016 issue of The Atlantic is available online in full today, April 19, on and The Atlantic’s mobile app, and on newsstands later this week.