I wrote this essay on contract for Time magazine – but then lost touch with them. (I know, you’d think Time would be a big target.) I figure after a year of no contact, the piece becomes mine again; especially if they never paid for it. So I’ll share it here.
“A hundred pennies make a dollar,” my father would say, encouraging me to surrender the coin in my hand to a narrow slot in the head of a porcelain pig. It was all for the promise of a transubstantiation of loose change to cash, metal to paper, that confounded my understanding of both economics and material reality. Still, his authority earned my confidence and, like so many other children my age, I made the sacrifice, dreaming of the day that piggy would finally be smashed open, and I would be rich. A postponement of joy for some future, but existentially uncertain, pay-off.
It was a useful belief to have internalized by adulthood, when an entirely new cast of parent figures, from the fund manager on CNBC to the stockbroker at the bank, tried to convince us that the only sensible thing to do with our money was to invest. A “buy and hold” strategy graced with “compounded yields” would turn meager monthly contributions into millions by the time we’d need it. They showed us the pie charts to prove it.
Like churchgoers making weekly donations for the promise of a good afterlife, we contributed to our IRA accounts in preparation for an even more certain judgment day: retirement.
Yes, in America today, the 401K-plan has become our new path to salvation. The most compellingly mysterious portal awaiting us is no longer the transition to death, but to retirement. The afterlife now begins at 65 (or, if we’re lucky, even earlier) and lasts as long as our cardiologists can manage. And the pearly gates of that Elysian golfing community will not be opened by St. Peter’s keys but by a well-administrated Keogh plan. Have you prepared for that day of reckoning?
So instead of tithing to the church, we tithe to brokerage houses. We’re still donating our money to the elderly: It’s all going some old person in the future who will just happen to have our name. And it’s even a charitable act, reducing the burden that we would otherwise pose on society, or on our children.
As the stock market took its downturn, we were told that our contributions weren’t merely saving us – they were saving the economy. The continued investment by us “little guys” wasn’t simply filling in the lowest levels of the pyramid scheme – it was a patriotic gesture of faith in the American Way.
Like the devout believers who prepare for ultimate judgment by postponing current joy, we denied ourselves those digital TV’s and aboveground swimming pools in order to put a few more dollars into Tyco, WorldCom, and Lucent – the retirement account darlings of the 20th Century. And now that these once-blessed issues are worth pennies to the dollar invested, we are being told that we have been punished for our greed.
Unlike the greedy profiteers and corporate chieftains who actually made money on those stocks, we were not acting irresponsibly. No, putting money into retirement accounts felt like spending on insurance. It was a disciplined, impulse-denying, and entirely responsible place to invest one’s earnings. It seemed even more adult and accountable than putting money into a savings account. Buying stocks meant we were willing to surrender liquidity, day-to-day price stability, and peace of mind to the painful realities of the “long haul.”
We were the pious, no more self-interested in our savings than anyone else who hopes to be saved. And our disillusionment at the way our high priests looted the coffers is proportional to the faith we put in them to guarantee our passage into the great beyond.
But that’s where we went wrong. Our fear, guilt, and, occasionally, even jealousy over the way the elderly are separated from workaday reality has led us to think about the “golden years” as something that takes place in another realm. It’s as if retirement day were judgment day, when everything we have done up until then – and nothing we have yet to do – will determine the entirety of our fate. As a result, the object of the game is to make a pile and then drop out as quickly as possible. That’s why those who most felt the market drop were workers who thought they had already won “early retirement.” Now they’ll have to remain productive and participating members of society a little while longer.
And while the fate of our immortal souls may be determined by a process forever out of our control, the rules governing our speculative marketplace are of entirely human design. Our ultimate salvation may rest with God, alone, but the rules governing savings have been written – and violated – by mankind. It is up to us to enact the regulation, oversight, and judgment necessary to insure that the correct rewards and punishments are doled out to the correct people.
As for those corporate criminals who get away with a slap on the wrist and a villa on Paradise Island to live out their own waning years? Don’t worry. They’re the ones who the real Judgment Day was meant for.