How We Spend

It’s tax filing time, which in our home means it’s time for the annual “How the hell did we spend so much on THAT?” ritual. Maybe that’s why I found this snapshot of how the average American household spends its money so interesting:

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Source: Digg.com

Apparently, the average household has 1.3 earners, 0.6 children and 0.4 seniors, which explains why there is Social Security included in income. What I found most surprising is the health insurance number at $3,414 per year. That works out to $285.50 per month which, quite frankly, I find almost unbelievable. Here’s why:

My wife and I have been married for 27 years and for almost all of those years we’ve both worked for small companies or been self-employed. As a result, we’ve not had access to large group health insurance or, better yet, the health insurance available to government employees. If I were to make a conservative estimate, without having the numbers in front of me, I’d say that we have averaged $8,400 per year ($700/month) in health care premiums alone. Throw in co-pays and deductibles and we were almost always in the $10,000/year range.

Now, we have three kids so that obviously put us beyond the average, but health insurance isn’t necessarily linear so you can’t draw a direct corollary between the number of kids (people) and premiums. If you’d asked me to guess what the average household spent before I’d seen this data I would have said something like $5,000-$6,000 a year. That just shows how my own experience has skewed my perception of what health insurance costs, and perhaps why I felt more strongly than many of my peers that the ACA (Obamacare), as imperfect as it was, was at least an effort towards reining in the exploding costs of health insurance and health care.

As for the other numbers? Well, let’s just say this time of year also features the annual “We eat out too much” ritual self-flagellation.

Time to Get Over Our Millennial Obsession Syndrome

So, have you heard about this Millennial Generation? <Insert sarcasm here>. Of course you have. We all have. Repeatedly. Over and over and over and over…you get the drift. We’ve been reading, listening or watching stories about the Millennials longer than some of them have been alive and most of those stories focus on gross generalizations like “they’re more entitled than previous generations” or “they’re soft – participation trophies have made them emotionally fragile and needy” or “they think they’re too good for entry-level positions.” Well, as the parent of three millennials and as an employee of a trade association that trains literally hundreds of millennials every year, I can tell you that I find these generalizations to be sheer and utter bullshit.

Here’s what I see when I see Millennials these days; young adults who have the same character traits that their parents and grandparents had when they were the same age – impatience, brashness, exuberance, some misguided swagger, a belief that their parents and grandparents are out of touch and a bedrock belief that their generation will fix what their predecessors screwed up.

I also see a huge group of young adults whose world is very different from their parents and grandparents and who are reacting in the same way that I sincerely believe we older adults would have if we were in their shoes today. They are starting families far later than we Xers did, but that’s a very logical thing to do when you’re saddled with student debt, wages are stagnant, rents are soaring and the barriers to homeownership are much higher than they were 20 years ago?

Later household formation has a ripple effect. Huge numbers of them are reaching 30-35 years of age without having experienced many of the rites of passage that their parents – and grandparents in particular – experienced between 18-30. They haven’t gotten married or had kids so they haven’t had to learn what it’s like to lose control of their own daily lives. If most of us older folks are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that our young, single selves exhibited the same traits as those we disparage in Millennials; we just had a shorter window of time to do so.

And there’s the not-so-small matter of the changes in society between our coming of age and the Millennials’. In an interview with Rolling Stone, newly-minted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, probably the most prominent Millennial-aged politician in the United States right now, makes this observation in response to the question, “What do you think you know that the old guard doesn’t?”:

One of the things that I bring to the table is a visceral understanding that people under 40 have been shaped by an entirely different set of events. We’ve literally grown up in different Americas. They were shaped by a Cold War America, a post-World War II America; and we are an Iraq War America, a 9/11 America, a hyper-capitalism-has-never-worked-for-us, Great Recession America. People are used to talking about millennials as if we’re teenagers. We’re in our thirties now. We’re raising kids and getting married and having families, and we have mortgages and student-loan debt. It’s important that [Congress is] in touch. People tend to interpret this as me railing against older people and being ageist. But that’s not what this is about. It’s a problem of representation. We don’t have enough intergenerational representation. We largely have one generation. That’s not to say that one generation should be out of power, it’s that others should be here as well.

You don’t have to agree with her politics in order to recognize and accept the reality that she’s pointing out: the world these young adults grew up in is very different than the world their parents and grandparents did. Again, this is nothing new. The world we Gen Xers came of age in was very different from the world that many Baby Boomers (especially the older ones) and the World War II Generation came of age in. We were all influenced by our environments and in retrospect, our behavior at that time was exactly what you’d expect. I think in 20 years we’ll say the same is true of the Millennials, so let’s just admit that in principle they’re like every generation that preceded them and we’re like every generation that preceded us – grumpy old(er) people who wish those young folks would quiet down, watch how it’s done, and wait their turn.

The reality is this: all of us are playing the same roles our ancestors played, we’re just using wearing different looking costumes and dancing to different sounding music. What we older folks need to remember is that part of our role is to be ready to help our successors because we know how hard and cruel the lessons of life can be and when they get to the other side of those lessons they’re going to be just like us. Actually, based on what I’m seeing I think they’ll be better than us, and for the sake of our world, I hope I’m right.

Forgiveness is Required

From the Wikipedia entry for “forgiveness”:

Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, forswears recompense from or punishment of the offender, however legally or morally justified it might be, and with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Forgiveness is different from condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning, and reconciliation.

I’m writing this post exactly one week before the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States. Yesterday I sent in an absentee ballot and I’m relieved to have done so because I’m already exhausted with this election and I want to stop thinking about it. I’m also aware that my country is experiencing an important moment in its relatively short history. It’s not as momentous as many others – anyone who compares it the periods of time surrounding the Civil War, Reconstruction, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement needs to find themselves a serious dose of perspective – but it is an important point in time for this country.

Why? Because we have a set of elected officials who are as divided, inept and cynical as any we’ve had in recent history. They are headlined – notice I didn’t say led – by an absurdly narcissistic opportunist the likes of which we haven’t seen since at least the Nixon administration over 40 years ago. I don’t know any of them personally, so I can’t speak to their personal lives, but in their jobs, they are all guilty of ineptitude at best and criminal negligence or corruption at worst. And yes, we chose them.

So what do we do about it? Obviously, we can fire them by voting them out, but would that solve the problem? Even if we elected an entirely new stable of congresscritters and a new president, our newly elected officials would inherit a populace that has just been subjected to extreme abuse. Abuse of our trust, abuse of our community, abuse of our time and treasure. Why should we believe any of the newly elected officials would be any better? Why should we trust anyone to lead us to be a better society? And what about the people who got us here – both the people who were elected and the members of the electorate who embraced and promoted their divisiveness – what should we do about them?

My first step will be to forgive all those who abused our trust, and that includes President Trump, and to forgive those who I might believe have embraced an ideology that offends me and hurts others. Until I forgive them, they own me and more importantly, they prevent me from moving on to more productive endeavors. For our elected officials that doesn’t mean that if they broke the law they shouldn’t be punished, or if they worked against the greater good of the country they shouldn’t lose the election. For those fellow citizens who spew vile and hateful comments towards those they perceive as “others”, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be dismissed and ignored by those whom they’ve verbally abused, or escape legal consequences if they’ve threatened or actually physically harmed others.

What it means is that once I’ve done what I can do – voted against those elected officials I think have harmed our country, tried to share my point of view with those who might value it, tried to defend those who have been attacked, and tried to refrain from sinking into a tit-for-tat argument with those whom I disagree – that I give myself the gift of forgiving those who I feel have harmed/insulted/abused me or my fellow countrymen. That I release them to the dustbin of history and wish them well with the rest of their lives so that I can go on living mine in a way that, hopefully, leaves my little part of the country better than I found it.

Next Tuesday, once all of the election results have been tabulated, no matter who wins the only way I will have lost is if I haven’t found my way to forgiveness and that is completely within my control. That thought alone gives me a sense of peace I haven’t felt in a long while.

Judging the Judge

Yesterday featured the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing dedicated to testimony from Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, of sexually assaulting her in high school back in the early 80s. By all accounts, it was a remarkable day in recent US history, but for me, this had a weirdly personal feel to it. Why? Because I’m the same age as Ford and Kavanaugh, I grew up within a 20-minute drive of them in the DC suburbs, and this whole episode is bringing up intense memories of my own high school and college years.

So yes, it hits close to home. And because I can’t know what happened I, like everyone else, have to wrestle with what I believe happened. And I do have those beliefs and they are influenced by the biases I have based on my experiences, but that’s not what I’m going to write about today. What I’m going to write about is what I saw during yesterday’s hearing and why I think that’s what needs to be focused on when determining if Kavanaugh is fit to serve on the Supreme Court.

What I saw were two people who seemed to sincerely believe their version of events. I saw a woman who tried to remain as composed as possible during her testimony and did about as well as you could expect given the situation. I saw a man who also tried to remain composed, but could not contain his rage or his disdain for many of the Senators on the committee and at some points could even be described as petulant.

Many of Kavanaugh’s defenders/proponents in my social circles have said something to the effect of, “His reaction is totally normal for someone who feels falsely accused of sexual assault in front of the whole country.” I agree, but for a nominee to the Supreme Court, I expect better than normal. I expect the extraordinary. I expect an exceptional level of grace under pressure, someone who can remain composed in the most adverse situations, and perhaps most importantly, a person who can retain their objectivity towards all parties no matter their personal feelings towards any of them in a dispute.

Yes, Kavanaugh’s emotional reaction was what I’d expect from an average man in his situation, but I don’t think the citizens of the United States deserve an average person on the Supreme Court. We deserve an extraordinary person and yesterday’s hearing revealed to all watching that Kavanaugh is simply an ordinary man unable to rise to an extraordinary challenge. We can, and should, do better.

Today’s 30-Year-Olds Face Steep Challenges

The graph below, which comes from this Axios article, paints a pretty clear picture of the challenges being faced by today’s 30-year-old Americans:

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My kids – 25, 24 and 21 respectively – face a different economic reality than their mother and I did at their age in the early ’90s. On average they and their peers are earning the same amount of money as we did, but all of their expenses are higher. The result? Far fewer are getting married, having children or buying a home by the age of 30.

These trends are already having an impact on our country. At my day job I spend my time thinking about housing, the apartment industry in particular, and I can tell you that we’ve been seeing the impact there. That decline in the rate of homeownership you see in the graph above? That translates into more rental housing, which is obviously a positive thing for the apartment industry.

Even when they do get married, this generation isn’t rushing into parenthood mode. From the article:

  • Having fewer children: When Boomers were in their 20s, the fertility rate was 2.48, well beyond the replacement level of 2.1. Today, it is just 1.76.
  • When a recent survey asked why they were having fewer kids, most young adults said “child care is too expensive.”

And these folks are understandably more risk-averse than we were. After all they saw what happened during the great recession, when millions of people lost their “American Dream” homes to foreclosure. They are much more likely to wait until they know they’re financially solid before they venture into parenthood and homeownership.

So how do we fix this? Well, it begins and ends with household income. Until household income starts increasing at a faster clip than basic household expenses, we’re going to be stuck in place. Sure we can look at trying to control the costs of everyday life, but inflation is an economic reality so even if we reduce the rate of inflation we still need to make up lost ground on the income side. Easier said than done, but it’s something we must get serious about.