What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Getting in through the back door. Every time I hear one of the Democratic primary candidates wax philosophical about one of their wealth redistribution schemes by confiding to the camera that “it’s a tax on Wall Street,” I look around and wonder how many people really believe that. My reading on their collective plans is that this chimera of making the “big banks and hedge fund managers” pay is ultimately a tax on every working person who has a retirement account. Your 401k, 403b, IRA, or TSP can’t help but be taxed under these plans, because at heart these accounts are nothing more than fractional shares that get traded on a regular basis to keep the fund balanced… and these funds are the definition of big players in the financial market. The Democratic candidates know they’re going to have to tap into huge sources of capital for their plans. I just wish they had the stones to admit that getting it done is going to require levying this backdoor tax on every man and woman in America who’s bothered to make an effort to save for retirement and not just the guy in charge of running the fund.

2. When you can’t even half ass the work. I worked on three things today. Simultaneously. All were a priority of effort… at least to someone. What that really means, of course, is each of them got exactly the level of effort and attention you’d think they got. Instead of half assed efforts, the very best they could hope for was being third assed. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. You’d think after 17 years I’d have started to get use to the idea that most days good enough just has to be good enough. Then again some days don’t even rise to that paltry standard.

3. Facebook memories. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to disable Facebook Memories, because every morning I open the damned app I’m met with the picture of a bulldog doing something alternately ridiculous or endearing. Jorah has done quite a lot in the last six months to patch up the sucking chest wound Winston left behind, but those pictures every morning still catch me directly in the feels. Despite the myriad of issues, vet bills, and costs, I don’t think I’ll ever really get to a place where I don’t miss such a good dog.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Office pot luck lunches. In my opinion there is no more sad and depressing sendoff into retirement than an office pot luck lunch. Somehow showing appreciation for years of dedicated service by taking over the conference room, piling the credenzas high with veggie trays, deli sandwiches, packaged deserts, and lukewarm entrees just doesn’t fill me with a sense of purposeful recognition… it’s more like getting away with a bare minimum level of acknowledgment. I’ve never liked office pot lucks. The “special occasion” pot lucks, though, smack of insult to injury. Al least when my time comes I know what I won’t be doing. Some day, when people come looking for me, there’s just going to be an empty cubicle where Tharp use to sit. No pot luck, no certificate of appreciation, just a vague memory – a shadow receding into the distance just as quickly as his little legs will carry him.

2. Being a sonofabitch. I know it doesn’t seem it, but I’m generally a reasonable individual. My expectations of people are usually limited, based on experience. I’m almost never looking for a fight. I’m almost the definition of live and let live because I so rarely feel the need to engage. There are some times, though, when I have to be the sonofabitch. I can do it. I’m good at it. But all things considered I’d rather be left alone.

3. $10 a pill. I’ve picked up Maggie’s next round of antibiotics… ten days to the tune of $10.34 a pill. I love these dogs and I appreciate the marvel of modern pharmaceuticals, but hells bells, I’m taking whole fists full of human grade medications that don’t carry that kind of price tag all in.

A tempting target…

Back in April, Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Maggie Hassan of New asked the GAO to launch a study on “risks that fossil fuel stocks currently present” to those invested in the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The distinguished senators then go on to imply that the TSP should create funds that “incorporate climate change risk” as part of the 401-k style program’s offerings.

Part of the allure of the TSP is its remarkably small fee structure – it’s very cheap in comparison to many other funds. Fees are low, in part, because TSP is simple. It’s got five basic index funds and five “lifecycle funds” that automatically reallocate participant’s money based on target dates. It’s got an elegant simplicity that’s historically effective at creating wealth for its participants over their long careers.

Look, I accept that climate change is a real thing. I also don’t have any particular love of the energy sector – many leaders in the area are losing value. That’s my real issue with them, though. If we’re going to drop energy companies from a portfolio, do it because they’re not making us money – not because some holier-than-thou senator wants to score a few political points.

Congress never saw a big pot of money sitting around that it didn’t want to stick its whole hand into. With $500 billion in assets under management I can understand why the TSP is an awfully tempting target. That said, the very last thing I want to see is a good thing turned on its ear by driving TSP to respond to whatever political views happen to hold sway at any given moment. Treating retirement funds as just another political football is almost a guaranteed way to manage to take another slug of cash out of my pocket.

There are already fund options out there for just about any special interest that wants to play in the market – whether your “thing” is gender diversity, sustainable energy, human rights, or a laundry list of other causes. TSP should remain a broad-based set of fund options targeted at replicating the market overall and building wealth over time for the wide swath of federal employees. Catering to the few individuals who can’t seem to be satisfied with that just doesn’t make senses… unless of course you’re more interested in enforcing ideological purity than in making good financial decisions. Surely no member in the United States Senate could ever be accused of that.

On the downhill slide…

Even though I should have been happily ensconced today in my home office, I walked in to the building this morning with a little extra spring in my step. Unremarked and unknown to anyone I have slid past an auspicious milestone and that knowledge has, at least for today, has helped give me a little better perspective. 

You see, I’ve rolled by the halfway mark of my anticipated career as a professional bureaucrat. That means, should everything go to plan, I’ve already spent more days sitting in a cubicle than I’ll have to spend sitting in a cubicle in the future. 

Yes, an extraordinary number of things have to go right to make this reality – the stock market needs to match or exceed its historic rates of return, I have to avoid doing anything egregious and getting fired, and I need to not drop dead or otherwise completely wreck my health. 

Still, though, for the first time I’m on the right side of the countdown and I have a rough plan for the way ahead. It’s hard to believe that finding myself on the downhill slide could possibly feel so good… but it does. 

Almost, but not quite halfway…

My “official” calendar in Outlook is often what could generously be called a hot mess. ​It’s filled with blocks of times for actual meetings I expect to attend, meetings that I just need to know are happening, generic reminders of when certain things are due, the full range of vacation days and doctor appointments, and often as much other information as I can cram on to them to make the days at least look productive.

As I was projecting out the schedule on some longer range projects that had known timelines stretching through next spring, when I ran across a chit I had put down long enough ago that I don’t remember doing it. Sitting there on the calendar not too deeply into 2019 was a simple block that read “Career Halfway Point” marking the temporal spot mid-way between January 13, 2003 and May 31, 2035.

I’m honestly not sure if finding this particular Easter egg has left me feeling better or worse. Better that the halfway point is a relatively close-in target now, yes. Worse, because It means there’s still slightly more asshattery ahead than there is behind.

I won’t say that time precisely flies, but it does seem to move with haste. At least that’s how it feels when considering time in long stretches – some of the individual days and weeks can feel like they’re dragging on for years all on their own. There’s a big part of me that feels unqualified glee at the idea of being over the hump. My inner pessimist in me, of course, also can’t help but note that the closer to the end we are the closer to The End we are. It’s not quite a Pyrrhic victory, but it shares a zip code.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Note: I usually let each edition of WAJTW stretch broadly across three topic areas. On rare occasions, I feel compelled to focus in on just one. This is one of those weeks.

Because I refuse to let my social media feeds descend into a single ideology echo chamber, I’m seeing a lot of posts screaming that Justice Kennedy is a “bad man” or has “betrayed the country” buy announcing his retirement. While everyone is entitled to have and voice their opinion, the simple act of having or voicing that opinion doesn’t necessarily make you right.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy is 82 years old. He was first appointed to the federal bench by President Gerald Ford. Take a breath and let that sink in. He was appointed to the US Court of Appeals in 1975 and elevated to the Supreme Court in 1988. Take another breath. That means he has been serving his country as a judge for more than 40 years – longer than I’ve been alive and certainly longer than the angsty millennials who seem to make up the largest block of those calling him a “traitor” have been around.

I don’t always agree with Justice Kennedy’s reading of the law, but after entering his 9th decade and serving 43 years on the federal bench, I’d say he’s entitled to move off into retirement any damned time he wants to. If you think an 82 year old man wanting to retire is an act of political cowardice, I suspect you’re the one who has a particularly craven view of politics.

Here’s a pro tip – if you can’t somehow manage to see life through any lens other than politics, go outside for a while, or pick up a book, or watch a movie, or do whatever you need to do to get your head a little unfucked. Seriously. Do it. You’ll thank me later.

By 35…

I’d never really thought of MarketWatch as a leading newsmaker, but after their social media post noting that “By 35, you should have twice your salary saved, according to retirement experts.” They’ve experienced their 15 minutes and then some.

The thing is, if you’re contemplating what it takes to achieve a “normal” retirement at the “normal” age in the “normal” way, their post isn’t broadly off the mark. Their point, beyond being something that seems to beggar belief to millennials, is that if you ever want to retire in the traditional sense of the word, you need to plan for it… and more importantly you need to save for it. Only you know for sure what right number – 2x, 10x, or 50x your annual salary invested – is going to meet your needs at any given time along your glide path.

“But,” you say, “Everything is so expensive. I have loans, and bills, and kids, and a master’s degree in advanced basketweaving. I can’t save anything.”

That’s fine. In many cases those expenses came along with decisions you made. That means you placed a premium on those other options rather than building a stable platform for retirement. It means you’re going to have to work past the traditional retirement age or contemplate a significant lifestyle change in order to realign you financial priorities. In some cases, especially for those who decide the whole long-range planning things is just too hard, you may have to accept that there’s a good chance you’re going to die in harness.

I got my first “grown up” job at 22. Making about $30K a year, paying rent, a car note, household bills, buying groceries, and all the other expenses that come along with being a grown ass man. It sucked. Money was always short, but before I saw a nickel of it in my checking account $25 of every check that first year went into my retirement account. Let me be clear on this – to me, back then, $50 was a shit ton of money to “do without” from month to month. There were a lot of things I could have spent that cash on to make life a little more civilized and comfortable that first year. The thing is, even at 22, when I still believed I was on my way to a long and fulfilling teaching career, I knew I didn’t want to still be touching America’s youth when I was in my 70s.

Here’s the kicker: Life isn’t easy. It’s full of hard decision, medical emergencies, and events that don’t work out quite as you had planned. Take it from a guy who changed careers, lived through five regional or cross country moves in 18 years to follow better opportunities, and then took a bath on a house he bought at the height of the real estate bubble. I know this shit isn’t easy.

There are precisely 300 million websites out there that can help you develop the mindset and skills that make retirement a thing that’s possible. But it means you’re going to have to do more hard work and educate yourself on the topics and the tools available. If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to do it for you while shitposting on Twitter, well, I guess you’re right – retirement is definitely never going to happen.