A family makes a trip

A family makes a trip of hundreds of miles, buying off and bribing who they need to, to escape violence and abuse and tyranny in their home country. They put themselves through incredible danger because the danger they’re leaving behind is undoubtedly worse.

They get to the border of our land, and they’re treated like criminals or worse; shouted at, turned away, abused. When they do get through the border, sometimes they get caught later, and are kicked out of the country. Many of them do it all over again and come back.

They come back because they believe in America. They know that in America, they will find more opportunity and a more peaceful life than where they came from. They believe in an America so bright that it shines through every ounce of the hate and fear that causes many of our people and certainly our President to censure, bully, and blame them. They believe in America’s promise more than many of us do.

Let them in. They deserve to be here. The great question of this moment is whether the rest of us do.

Giving Thanks

There are many things for which I’m thankful this year. Chief among them is the health of our son, who’s been growing well in utero and whom we’re expecting at the end of this month. After that is our health, our family, our parish community, and all of our great friends.

While my thankfulness for all of these things is more important than anything else I have to write, I still feel compelled to bring up some bigger, broader reasons to feel thankful in this year. Spoiler alert: we’re returning to politics in full form for this post.

For Journalism

It was only last year when I realized the magnitude of the error that I had made in thinking that news wasn’t worth money. Why pay when so much news was available online for free? My whole generation missed that memo, and we were so wrong.

Real journalism, i.e. following leads, doing interviews, getting the facts, and reporting them in the face of power, are more important than they’ve ever been. You are not entitled to your own facts, nor even to your own uninformed opinions. You’re entitled only to be informed, and the press provides that. Hypocrisy, cynicism, corruption, and outright criminality happen in the halls of power, as do acts of honest nobility. The press is how you know of all of this.

There have been real problems with the media. The obsession with ratings and advertising dollars has led to sensationalism and a tendency to treat everything as spectacle rather than with the gravity that situations deserve. This led many in our country to feel that a qualified, experienced candidate with a policy idea for every issue was no different from a C-minus racist wannabe autocrat with no understanding of policy at all. That said, the Washington Post’s tagline is true – democracy dies in darkness. No matter how imperfect or dim the light.

It’s journalism, in fact, that produced the next thing that I’m thankful for.

For #MeToo

I went to a birthing class recently. While I know what happens during birth, seeing a recording of it caused me to immediately think one clear thought; how can our society possibly tolerate treat women the way that we do, when they do so much?

I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of this topic, but it’s a watershed moment for our society. While it might sting to see popular or beloved figures be punished for their treatment of women, it’s necessary for our growth that victims continue to speak out. It pains me to see how widespread the harassment has been, but it’s vital that I feel that pain. As a man, I have had the privilege of nearly never having to confront it or bear witness to it. If women can endure harassment for years on end with no consequence for their harassers, I can assuredly deal with the discomfort of knowing how many men are tainted by this behavior.

For the 2016 Election

Not because 45 is a good President or a good person. He’s neither of those things.

The fact is, though, I can’t say that either of the above two things would have happened if Donald Trump hadn’t been elected President (well, “elected”). We’re confronted with the fact that the election of a rapacious charlatan who is dangerously unfit for office seems to have provided the spark that our society needed to look up and say “enough”. Would women have marched on Washington in January? Would so many powerful men, abusing women in the shadows, have been cast down from power? Would so many women, minorities, and young people be running for office? Would journalism have recovered that sense of vitality that it had lost?

This is why I’m thankful for last year’s election. The unimaginable destruction being wrought on our institutions and norms will have to be the sacrifice that pays for the awakening happening amongst many everyday Americans. A friend asked me recently if I thought it likely that America could slide into a fascist dictatorship. I said no purely due to these positive signs that I see. I’m reminded of a protest in New York in 2011 following a production of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, at which the composer himself read out the libretto’s closing lines:

When righteousness withers away
and evil rules the land,
we come into being,
age after age,
and take visible shape,
and move, a man among men,
for the protection of good,
thrusting back evil
and setting virtue on her seat again.

No rest for the wicked.

AMDG

Basics of Money Management, Round 1 (i.e. Where Do I Keep My Money?)

I think perhaps the biggest challenge that people face when staring down the idea of managing their money is simply the question of where to start. Since no one teaches us anything in school (usually) about money management, it feels impossible to know all the ins and outs of simple things like checking accounts, savings accounts, CDs, etc., and that’s not even touching anything having to do with investing (more on that later)! Furthermore, it seems like there are endless options for just keeping track of it all, including good old pen and paper (as we’ll see, this is really inefficient and boring).

For this series, we’ll focus on the specific tools of money management, i.e. the whats and the hows. If you’re looking for a good philosophical rundown of the whys and an even bigger picture, I commend you to the excellent (so far) Personal Finance Series by Richard Reis.

We’re going to make the an assumption as well that you have a source of income, i.e. that you have money coming in to you somehow. There are a lot of resources out there for finding a job or starting a business, but this topic is outside of our scope here. Knowing then that you have a job, where do you start with money management?

For this first post, let’s start with where you’ll keep your money. The simplest and easiest place to understand is the underside of your mattress. Who doesn’t want to make a big pile of money and swim around in it like Scrooge McDuck?

It’s probably obvious to you that there are a couple of problems with this approach, and it might seem stupid to even seriously discuss this option. However, it’s worth breaking it down according to pros and cons, because that will define some fancy financial terminology right away that you might not know. Let’s have at it!

Strategy: Hiding money under a mattress

Pros:
– maximum liquidity
– low to moderate risk
– easy to see roughly how much you have (just look at it!)

Cons:
– no return on investment
– higher than normal risk of loss or theft
– hard to record when and where you spend it

Okay, that’s our pro/con list. Let’s break some of these terms down. First, liquidity. This is a fancy word for how easy it is to get and use your money. For our mattress scenario, we can reach under the mattress, get some cash, and spend it somewhere – it doesn’t get more liquid than that! The flip side of this is on our con list, though; if we lose the cash (due to fire, theft, misplacing it, etc.), the cash is gone. This is very insecure.

Speaking of risk, that’s the next term to discuss. Risk is the uncertainty of an investment’s return. “But Josh!” I hear you saying, “We’re just talking about simple stuff, not investments!” I hear you and agree. Put another way, risk is an assessment of how wildly the value of your money can swing, up or down. Since we’re talking about a big mattress stash, there’s not a lot of risk to it (a dollar is a dollar). There’s definitely the chance that the cash could be lost or stolen, which wouldn’t be good. There’s something else, though, and this gets at the first item on our con list.

The other risk lurking in a big stack of cash, and it’s a bigger risk than you think, is inflation. That’s the word we use to describe the fact that our money is worth less over time. A $20 bill in 1917 would buy a good bicycle, while the same bill in 2017 wouldn’t get even close to that. If someone had kept that $20 under their mattress for the last 100 years, it would be a super raw deal! We’re going to take one key lesson from this for now:

Every dollar you have is an investment.

I don’t mean this in a philosophical way either. I mean it in a direct, financial way. Trust me on this for now, and we’ll come back to it in the future. Back to the pro/con list!

The last thing is how easy or hard it is to see what you have and track where it’s going. It’s easy to see when your big cash pile gets bigger or smaller, but it’s hard to tell when and where you’ve spent it unless you’re recording each and every transaction by hand. You would also have to occasionally count what’s left by hand. There are better ways, starting with where we store the cash. Let’s move on to a better way to go.

Strategy: Use a bank account (or two!)

Pros:
– nearly maximum liquidity
– very low risk
– paychecks can deposit straight into it
– easy to record when and where you spend

Cons:
– return on investment doesn’t beat inflation
– some accounts involve fees of various kinds

It’s easy to see why this option is so much better than our mattress strategy. First, the liquidity is almost the same, especially when one of the accounts is a checking account. Using this tool, you can get cash from a bank branch, or from an ATM using a debit card. The debit card or (decreasingly common) checks can also be used to pay directly. Even though you don’t have the cash in your hand, the risk is still very low as well. Bank regulation requires that the bank have the cash to give you when you want it, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures the cash in case the bank has financial trouble (there is an equivalent insurer for credit unions as well). Also, the bank will give you a nice list of all of your transactions right on their website, making it easy for you to track what you buy.

The cons to bank accounts really are fees and the return on investment (or lack thereof).

First, some advice: if your bank account is charging you any type of fees just for having the account, close it immediately and open an account somewhere else. There are plenty of banks and credit unions that want your business and won’t charge you fees. Don’t worry about how long your parents have used the same bank as you; if they’re charging you fees, ditch ’em! Banks make money by lending money to each other and to other consumers, and by investing their assets. They’re already making money from your money just by having it; they don’t need to be charging you fees. Seriously, I hate bank fees. Same thing goes for ATM fees (we’ll talk in a future post about how using cash at all isn’t always the best idea anyway).

Right, that takes care of fees. The other con to having all of your money in a bank account is that pesky inflation thing again. The cool thing about giving your money to a bank for safekeeping is that they pay you for giving it to them (definitely in a savings account, only rarely in a checking account). This is what we mean by interest. However, the interest that you’re getting from the bank doesn’t make up for how fast your money loses value to inflation (at least, not in normal times). So, we need to decide if a bank account is still worth it.

I say yes. A bank account is usually the only thing that you can direct deposit your paychecks into. The ability to quickly access your cash, both to pay bills but also especially in an emergency, is too big of an advantage to pass up. For this reason, we’ll say that having a checking account and a savings account is the best first step for managing your money. The checking account will get you a debit card and a place to direct deposit, and the savings account will give you a place to store emergency money and earn interest.

One last tip: to level up your game in terms of bank accounts, consider using an online only bank instead of or in addition to your local bank or credit union. An online bank like Capital One 360 or Ally doesn’t have to pay rent for buildings or the salaries of tellers, so they can give you more interest. Still not enough to beat inflation, but the best that you’re going to get. Also, the debit card that you’ll get will probably be part of a big network of ATMs where you’ll pay no fees (I hate fees, as you recall). This is a strategy I use myself.

Hopefully, this post hasn’t been too long winded. It’s my attempt at explaining personal finance from the beginning, and there is still plenty more to go. In the next post, we’ll talk about better ways to track income and expenses (because “balancing” a “checkbook” is very 90s). For now, though, let me know if you have any feedback!

What We All Want On the Fourth

In this great country today, we celebrate the heroic actions of our nation’s birth. We celebrate the words and deeds of the great Founders of liberal democracy. Along with the other luminaries of the Enlightenment, they saw the path forward out of regressive, authoritarian monarchy. They saw a world governed by autocrats and said, “No more”.

Leaders of both of our political parties sometimes forget that they’re answerable to the people. The people, no matter who they’ve recently voted for, all seem to be aligned around some pretty basic things:

  • We all want to not go bankrupt paying medical bills, and to pay as little as possible for medical care.
  • We all want to be able to save for our own retirements in addition to our children’s educations.
  • We all want to be able to have the time we need with our newborn children when they are born without worrying about running out of money.
  • We all want to get raises in good times, and in fact in all times, just like CEOs do.
  • We all want to welcome anyone who comes to our country and works hard to get ahead, take care of themselves, and help make our country great.
  • We all want good jobs in places where the good jobs have left, and for the government to help bring them in.
  • We all want stable, loving communities free of the threats of violence, drugs, depravation, and fear.

Right now, there is a health care bill floating around out there that either works against or doesn’t address these common wants. We recently elected a President who said in some way or another that he supported all these things. Politicians who support these cruel bills that don’t drive us towards our mutual goals should be told, “No more.”

Go here to contact your Senator. Happy Fourth of July.

On the Strange Split Between the Normalcy of Our Individual Lives and the Vicissitudes of Our Collective Situation

The last six weeks have been so full of dramatic news that, bizarrely, it feels like nothing at all has happened. The mind, perhaps in an effort to protect itself from whiplashing change, seems to stop processing huge news of great impact after enough of it happens. Or, maybe it’s just that no news is big news when everything is big news.

The only way I have to even discuss thoughts about the last couple of months is to compare the things that have happened with the story of my own life during the same period. Comparing things in this way has felt even more disconcerting, as my own life feels normal against the backdrop of national turmoil. I am disturbingly reminded of everything that I’ve ever read that’s written by those who live in burgeoning autocracies.

One of my brothers got married about five weeks ago. I remember my brother Adam and I playing when we were really little, usually pretending to be Sonic the Hedgehog or something like that (we were a Genesis family; back off, Nintendo philistines). As we grew up, we grew apart a bit. I went into band, technology jobs, and a humanities degree. Adam went into most sports that I can think of, and eventually science degrees. Seeing and talking to each other as adults, though, we’ve always been able to have great conversations about politics, science, or just talking in movie lines. Seeing him married to the love of his life was a really emotional experience. Likewise was the opportunity to see so many family members and friends at the wedding.

Likewise, I have something new going on at work as well. I’ve moved from the position that I’ve been in for the past two and a half years, into a new area. In my case, it’s a move back to an area that I’ve been in before, but in a new role that’s never existed before. I’m very excited about the opportunity that I’ve been afforded to help define a new role and to have an even greater impact on my team. So, even in my own individual sphere, life continues as normal, with career moves and growth happening.

Oh, and there’s that one other thing too…

BabyBAnnouncement - 23

The feelings about this could fill up their own post, and maybe at some point soon I will try. In brief, it’s early, so it still feels a little unreal somehow. I’m also excited and scared in equal measure, knowing that a lot of life changes are coming. At the same time, it’s both joyous and normal. I’m 31, she’s 30, and it’s time; yet another milestone cast upon such a strange backdrop.

Meanwhile…

Of course, now we have to turn to that backdrop itself, with its whole cast of characters. In the last six weeks:

  • The President went on a foreign trip during which he deliberately didn’t commit to defend our allies if they were attacked.
  • The United States has withdrawn from a huge international agreement on climate change and traded our leadership for China’s in renewable energy.
  • The former director of the FBI, after being fired by the sitting President, testified under oath that that sitting President is a liar.
  • The Attorney General of the United States testified under oath that he could not answer questions that in fact he had no legal basis to not answer.
  • The Senate majority leader, having previously derided Democrats for allegedly crafting bills behind closed doors, crafted a health care bill behind closed doors that could cause utter chaos in the country’s health care system.

In any other era of American history, any one of these things would be major news, and in many cases a major scandal. In our case today, these are just the five most outrageous things that I could think of; I’ve probably forgotten a half dozen other crazy events that have long since been buried by the constant avalanche of news.

I can honestly say that I am fatigued, because the barrage every day is fatiguing. You can’t look away, though, once you’ve started paying attention. I don’t necessarily have a larger point to make; I can’t claim that the normal good things in our lives totally cancel out the wider turmoil, and I will never argue that our own everyday pleasures absolve us from caring about the threats that others face.

The best approach, perhaps, is to allow the great precious things that happen in our individual lives to give us hope and fortitude for the darker, more frustrating things that we have to encounter in the broader world. The best approach for all of us as a collective would be to likewise remember that we’re all just vulnerable people living precious moments, and to share in each other’s joys instead of engaging in ideological fights. Our politics needs to shift from politicians talking to us, to us talking to each other.

Krugman on Freedom

Paul Krugman, writing at the New York Times:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

Thus goes, tacitly, one side of the debate over the meaning of freedom. It’s more slippery of a word than we might think, simply because first of all, it doesn’t actually exist materially in the world. The book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind explores in its early chapters the idea that language is the main thing that separates human beings from other animals, because it allows us to work in very large and disparate groups. Key to our language its ability to describe ideas that do not physically exist, like freedom or human rights. We use these ideas as motivators toward group action, but defining them is harder than, say, defining a banana or a lion or fire. The truths of the Declaration of Independence are not actually self-evident, but we talk about them as though they are so that we can motivate each other to different actions.

To some, freedom means freedom from coercion. That is, freedom from someone telling you what to do. No one should be able to tell you that you must pay this tax, buy this product, etc. To others, freedom means freedom to live up to one’s potential, or the ability to act on one’s wishes. You should have all you need to start your business, to receive medical care, etc.

The competing echo chambers of our country are trapped in many cases, unable to think about or give credence to another conception of freedom. There is room for both, even in the same person, across different issues. Hypocrisy and cynicism well up when the balance is off.

The balance is definitely off when politicians are saying that what matters is access to purchase health care, rather than ability to afford healthcare.

Daily Ways to Pick Up the Pieces

 

We’ve already discussed how the world is changed. For the past eight years, we’ve been reminded of the change in slow, smoldering ways. Seeing the creeping change, much of our society had slipped into a nagging, edgy fear. Now, what was smoldering embers is now a raging fire of change.

Indeed, when I started drafting this post, I had a short diatribe here decrying some of the things that were happening. Then I deleted it because all new things are happening now and it sounded pointless.

Since we’re all feeling like everything in the world is unhinged, I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing to stay alert, informed, and engaged. My mom suggested right after the election that we’d all just have to pick up the pieces. These things are my way of doing that.


First, take care of yourself. This post from last August details the tools that I like to use for fitness, if you need a hand. Even the day after the election, I went for a run. Whatever you do to center yourself and care for your body, you should keep being attentive to it, whether that’s working out or simply meditating.

Next, staying informed. There is a lot going on in the world, even beyond the indescribable situation that we find ourselves in in the United States. To gain a solid sense of what’s happening, with good writing that will help explain the nuances of complex topics, I strongly suggest a newspaper subscription. I woefully underestimated the value of paid journalism before the election, to my great regret. I understand now that seeking the truth and reporting it to others absolutely rely on a free press, and that the best journalists cannot work for free. I’ve very much enjoyed my New York Times subscription since the day after the election. I start every morning when I wake up with the Morning Briefing, in their (excellent) iPhone app, and follow it up on weekdays with the morning’s episode of The Daily. I’ll have more on podcasts that I listen to in a later post.

Try also to read books, as opposed to the news. This is extremely difficult for me, as plugged into the news cycle as I am. Lately, I’ve been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. However, I’ve been taking so long that I’ve got to return it to the library and check it out again later. My daily regimen should really include more dedicated reading time for just books, and I’m still working on it. Perhaps I’ll drop a Goodreads widget or something here on the site to help track my progress.

One last thing that has really stuck as a ritual for me in the last 8 months or so is writing up a journal entry once daily. I use an iPhone/Mac app called Day One for this. I have the iPhone app set to prompt me automatically at 11 PM each night. When I tap on the notification, the app loads a preloaded template for me to fill out some of the basics of the day, including podcasts listened, TV shows watched, games played, whether I worked out, etc. I fill these in, and add my own commentary on the day. Regularly reviewing these entries is a bit challenging, but my current system is to have OmniFocus remind me to conduct a seasonal review whenever the seasons change. During this review, I’ll read the whole season’s worth of entries, and compile larger themes into a new entry.

The last year has seen me return more regularly to writing on the web as well, instead of just in my journal. I’m hoping this is a habit that I’ll be able to build on and find value in as well.

There you have it: my everyday basics for staying centered, for picking up the pieces.