My 401(K) Statement Came Postage Due; Is That a Bad Sign?

‘Tis the season; like many folk I’m getting statements in the mail with the bad news about our retirement (I’m guessing that I’m not alone in getting multiple statements: I have a Rollover IRA, Nancy and I both have Roth IRA’s, I have a 401(K) from Vitas and a 403(B) from SDHIPM, and Nancy has a 403(B) from UCSD).

I’m certainly not the only one who’s portfolio is bleeding copious amounts of money, but it is upsetting to see that while we’ve been contributing generously, the value of the funds have gone down. I don’t see either of us retiring for at least another 12 to 15 years and in that sense we’re in good shape. As a matter of fact, this is a good time to buy stocks and I’m confident we’ll look back on this and be happy we stayed the course.

The financial meltdown that we’ve all be watching is troubling because it happened, but also because of the reaction. There’s enough finger pointing to go around, and let me add my two cents: It’s everyone’s fault. It’s not just the greedy investors, it’s not just the politicians who demanded that all this stuff be deregulated, it’s not just the people who lied on their mortgage applications, it’s not just the mortgage brokers to told first time buyers not to worry about the adjustable rates, and it’s not just the buyers who didn’t have a plan if the rates went up. It was all of them.

Now I’ll freely admit that Nancy and I have been lucky: we bought our house in 2001 with a fixed rate and refinanced in 2003 to get a better interest rate. We live in a wonderful house in a wonderful neighborhood that we could only have afforded because Nancy’s father lives with us and owns half the house. BUT we bought what (actually less than) we knew we could afford. I saw the monthly house payment and knew that every month for the next 360 months I would have to have enough money in the bank to write that check and I didn’t sign anything until I was sure I could do it. Not everyone did this.

Now come the recriminations, and I have to say that I have the right to be screaming the loudest. As a taxpayer I’m partly on the hook for a $700,000,000,000 bailout when I did nothing wrong. And yet I support this. There is a quotation I love (but whose source I can’t find) that states: “Not everyone is at fault but everyone is responsible.” In other words, despite the fact that I’ve followed the rules and done what I’m supposed to do, I do feel a responsibility to be part of the solution.

I do believe that we can’t do nothing. For better or for worse our economy depends on the availability of credit and we can’t function without it. To allow this to “take its course” would lead to massive layoffs and unemployment. Both Nancy and I work in healthcare and our jobs would be pretty secure but that’s of little comfort if we see friends who work in retail or service jobs lose everything.

There is no way to talk about this without acknowledging the long shadow of the Presidential campaign. We choose a new leader in 23 days and we must choose wisely. I honestly believe that Senator Obama is better able to deal with this than Senator McCain. He and his supporters (Phil Gramm being the most obvious) have been the architects of the problem. We now need architects of the cure.

Reflections on Holy Thursday and Five Years of War

In the Christian Calendar today is Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, depending on your tradition. We Catholics read from the 13th Chapter of John’s Gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Tonight at mass Fr. Jairo spoke eloquently about the need for leaders to be in service and not dominate.

Alas, this would have been a good sermon for President Bush to hear. As I reflect back on the 5 years we have been at war in Iraq I grieve for the 3992 of our brave men and women who have died (if you’re keeping track it’s 1675 since this time last year) but I also grieve for what our nation has become. It goes without saying that since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago the United States stands alone as the world’s largest superpower. But in the last 8 years we have not used that power well. We have not been servants, but tyrants. We have treated our allies as subjects (and are puzzled when they do not cooperate with us). We have treated countries like Iran, North Korea, and others as blights on the world worthy only of destruction. And we have treated ourselves as the only country worthy of respect.

Our next president will have an immense job. He (or she) will have to reach out to our allies and mend fences; will have to reconcile with old enemies and prevent making new ones; will have to understand that science is not the enemy and we really do need to face up to global problems like warming and pollution. Our next president will have to see our economy as part of a larger world economy that ultimately should serve everyone, not just the wealthy.

We swear in a new president in 305 days and that day can’t come fast enough for me.