The Great Retirement Con

The Origins Of The Retirement Plan

Back during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress promised a monthly lifetime income to soldiers who fought and survived the conflict. This guaranteed income stream, called a "pension", was again offered to soldiers in the Civil War and every American war since.

Since then, similar pension promises funded from public coffers expanded to cover retirees from other branches of government. States and cities followed suit -- extending pensions to all sorts of municipal workers ranging from policemen to politicians, teachers to trash collectors.

A pension is what's referred to as a defined benefit plan. The payout promised a worker upon retirement is guaranteed up front according to a formula, typically dependent on salary size and years of employment.

Understandably, workers appreciated the security and dependability offered by pensions. So, as a means to attract skilled talent, the private sector started offering them, too. 

The first corporate pension was offered by the American Express Company in 1875. By the 1960s, half of all employees in the private sector were covered by a pension plan.

Off-loading Of Retirement Risk By Corporations

Once pensions had become commonplace, they were much less effective as an incentive to lure top talent. They started to feel like burdensome cost centers to companies.

As America's corporations grew and their veteran employees started hitting retirement age, the amount of funding required to meet current and future pension funding obligations became huge. And it kept growing. Remember, the Baby Boomer generation, the largest ever by far in US history, was just entering the workforce by the 1960s.

Companies were eager to get this expanding liability off of their backs. And the more poorly-capitalized firms started defaulting on their pensions, stiffing those who had loyally worked for them.

So, it's little surprise that the 1970s and '80s saw the introduction of personal retirement savings plans. The Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) was formed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) in 1974. And the first 401k plan was created in 1980.

These savings vehicles are defined contribution plans. The future payout of the plan is variable (i.e., unknown today), and will be largely a function of how much of their income the worker directs into the fund over their career, as well as the market return on the fund's investments.

Touted as a revolutionary improvement for the worker, these plans promised to give the individual power over his/her own financial destiny. No longer would it be dictated by their employer.

Your company doesn't offer a pension? No worries: open an IRA and create your own personal pension fund.

Afraid your employer might mismanage your pension fund? A 401k removes that risk. You decide how your retirement money is invested.

Want to retire sooner? Just increase the percent of your annual income contributions.

All this sounded pretty good to workers. But it sounded GREAT to their employers.

Why? Because it transferred the burden of retirement funding away from the company and onto its employees. It allowed for the removal of a massive and fast-growing liability off of the corporate balance sheet, and materially improved the outlook for future earnings and cash flow.

As you would expect given this, corporate America moved swiftly over the next several decades to cap pension participation and transition to defined contribution plans.

The table below shows how vigorously pensions (green) have disappeared since the introduction of IRAs and 401ks (red):

(Source)

So, to recap: 40 years ago, a grand experiment was embarked upon. One that promised US workers: Using these new defined contribution vehicles, you'll be better off when you reach retirement age.

Which raises a simple but very important question: How have things worked out?

The Ugly Aftermath

America The Broke

Well, things haven't worked out too well.

Three decades later, what we're realizing is that this shift from dedicated-contribution pension plans to voluntary private savings was a grand experiment with no assurances. Corporations definitely benefited, as they could redeploy capital to expansion or bottom line profits. But employees? The data certainly seems to show that the experiment did not take human nature into account enough – specifically, the fact that just because people have the option to save money for later use doesn't mean that they actually will.

First off, not every American worker (by far) is offered a 401k or similar retirement plan through work. But of those that are, 21% choose not to participate (source).

As a result, 1 in 4 of those aged 45-64 and 22% of those 65+ have $0 in retirement savings (source). Forty-nine percent of American adults of all ages aren't saving anything for retirement.

In 2016, the Economic Policy Institute published an excellent chartbook titled The State Of American Retirement (for those inclined to review the full set of charts on their website, it's well worth the time). The EPI's main conclusion from their analysis is that the switchover of the US workforce from defined-benefit pension plans to self-directed retirement savings vehicles (e..g, 401Ks and IRAs) has resulted in a sizeable drop in retirement preparedness. Retirement wealth has not grown fast enough to keep pace with our aging population.

The stats illustrated by the EPI's charts are frightening on a mean, or average, level. For instance, for all workers 32-61, the average amount saved for retirement is less than $100,000. That's not much to live on in the last decades of your twilight years. And that average savings is actually lower than it was back in 2007, showing that households have still yet to fully recover the wealth lost during the Great Recession.

But mean numbers are skewed by the outliers. In this case, the multi-$million households are bringing up the average pretty dramatically, making things look better than they really are. It's when we look at the median figures that things get truly scary:

Nearly half of families have no retirement account savings at all. That makes median (50th percentile) values low for all age groups, ranging from $480 for families in their mid-30s to $17,000 for families approaching retirement in 2013. For most age groups, median account balances in 2013 were less than half their pre-recession peak and lower than at the start of the new millennium.

(Source)

The 50th percentile household aged 56-61 has only $17,000 to retire on. That's dangerously close to the Federal poverty level income for a family of two for just a single year.

Most planners advise saving enough before retirement to maintain annual living expenses at about 70-80% of what they were during one's income-earning years. Medicare out-of-pocket costs alone are expected to be between $240,000 and $430,000 over retirement for a 65-year-old couple retiring today.

The gap between retirement savings and living costs in one's later years is pretty staggering:

  • Nearly 83% of retired households have less saved than Medicare costs alone will consume.
  • One-third of retired households are entirely dependent on Social Security. On average, that's only $1,230 per month a hard income to live on. (source)
  • 34 percent of older Americans depend on credit cards to pay for basic living expenses such as mortgage payments, groceries, and utilities. (source

As for Medicare, the out-of-pocket costs could easily soar over retirement. The Wall Street Journal reports that the current estimate of Medicare's unfunded liability now tops $42 Trillion. Such a mind-boggling gap makes it highly likely that current retirees will not receive all of the entitlements they are being promised.

And the denial being shown by baby boomers entering retirement is frightening. Many simply plan to work longer before retiring, with a growing percentage saying they plan to work "forever". 

But the data shows that declining health gives older Americans no choice but to leave the work force eventually, whether they want to or not. Years of surveys by the Employment Benefit Research Institute show that fully half of current retirees had to leave the work force sooner than desired due to health problems, disability, or layoffs.

Add to this the nefarious impact of the Federal Reserve's prolonged 0% interest rate policy, which has made it extremely hard for retirees with fixed-income investments to generate a meaningful income from them.

The number of Americans aged 65 years and older is projected to more than double in the next 40 years:

Will the remaining body of active workers be able to support this tsunami of underfunded seniors? Don't bet on it.

Especially since their retirement savings prospects are even more dim. With long-stagnant real wages and punishing price inflation in the cost of living, Generation X and Millennials are hard-pressed to put money away for their twilight years:

(Source)

Public Pensions: Broken Promises

And for those "lucky" folks expecting to enjoy a public pension, there's a lot of uncertainty as to whether they're going to receive all they've been promised.

Due to underfunded contributions, years of portfolio under-performance due to the Federal Reserve's 0% interest rate policy, poor fund management, and other reasons, many of the federal and state pensions are woefully under-captialized. The below chart from former Dallas Fed advisor Danielle DiMartino-Booth shows how the total sum of unfunded public pension obligations exploded from $292 billion in 2007 to $1.9 trillion by the end of 2016:

(Source)

And the daily headlines of failing state and local pension funds (Illinois, Kentucky, New JerseyDallas, Providence -- to name but a few) show that the problem is metastasizing across the nation at an accelerating rate.

Affording Your Future

The bottom line when it comes to retirement is that you're on your own. The vehicles and the promises you've been given are proving woefully insufficient to fund the "retirement" dream you've been sold your whole life.

That's the bad news.

But the good news is that the dream is still attainable. There are strategies and behaviors that, if adopted now, will make it much more likely for you to be able to afford to retire -- and in a way you can enjoy.

In Part 2: Success Strategies For Retirement, we detail out these best practices for a solvent retirement, including providing 14 specific action steps you can start taking right now in your life that will materially improve your odds of enjoying your later years with grace.

For far too many Americans, "retirement" will remain a perpetual myth. Don't let that happen to you.

Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

Would Glenn make a better bounty hunter or a Jedi? You'll have to find out in a new episode of the Beltway Banthas Podcast, where Glenn goes deep on Star Wars with host Stephen Kent. In this 45 minute discussion, Stephen and Glenn explore the political themes of the Star Wars franchise, Darth Vader's redemption from Return of the Jedi, Glenn's earliest memories of seeing the films and even debate elements of the latest Star Wars films.

If you enjoy the pop culture and nerdy discussions that Glenn, Pat and Stu get into on the radio show, you'll love this! After you're through, you can also check out Stu Burguiere's appearance on Beltway Banthas to talk Star Wars. You can find that here.


It's never too early to start your Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanzaa shopping. Or even birthday gift shopping. Especially if that special someone in your life is a Democrat. Because at last count, pretty much all the Democrats are now running for president. And that means there has never been a wider selection of official candidate merchandise to choose from. Whether you're into environmentalism, feminism, classism, socialism, or just plain love, there is a smorgasbord of classy items that you and yours will treasure forever... or at least until the next presidential election.

We have browsed each of the candidates' online stores, so you don't have to (it only took us three months). We have curated only the finest items from each of the Democrats running for president of the United States of America. Without further ado, here is your handy progressive gift guide – or maybe your what-not-to-gift guide.

First, the bargain basement options. Hurry! Time is running out to grab your Beto bandana, or your Delaney pack of golf balls, because at this point Stu has as much of a chance as these guys of getting the nomination.

Tom Steyer, for example – is he still in the race?


https://shop.tomsteyer.com/collections/frontpage/products/tom-2020-pattern-tee


There's way too much Tom here. That shirt's got more Toms than a Caucasian dentists' convention.

For the slightly more moderate Democrat in your life, perhaps they'd like to join the "Yang Gang"…

https://shop.yang2020.com/collections/bumper-stickers/products/yanggang-decal


Andrew Yang is a lock for Math Club president…


https://shop.yang2020.com/collections/apparel/products/math-hat


But for actual president? Well, I wouldn't make plans for how you're going to spend your $1,000-per-month Yang allowance just yet.

If you happen to be shopping for your dog, may I suggest this lovely "Dogs for Delaney" dog collar…


https://store.johndelaney.com/products/dogs-for-delaney-collar


John Delaney's definitely going to secure the canine vote with this kind of outreach. As for any human votes, that's another question entirely.

How 'bout this tastefully understated "Natural Canvas" Michael Bennet tote to remind you he's also still here?...


https://store.michaelbennet.com/michael-bennet-for-america-natural-canvas-tote/


Then again, it's a tote. So, it'll end up on the floor of your closet and you won't have it with you until that one random moment when you're out somewhere and you really need a tote bag. Just like Democrats will really wish they had a moderate when we're in the middle of the socialist nightmare of their creation.

Captain Planet himself, Jay Inslee recently dropped out of the race, but don't let that stop you from picking up what may be the greatest single item sold by anyone in this race…


https://store.jayinslee.com/elvis-the-elves-the-mystery-of-the-melting-snow-by-jay-inslee/


A children's book called Elvis & the Elves: the Mystery of the Melting Snow. Written and illustrated by Governor Jay Inslee. Talk about a whodunnit – how could that snow possibly be melting? Spoiler alert: it's because of evil, white, patriarchal capitalism. And Donald Trump.

Then there's the candidate who thinks you're a moron that can't pronounce his last name: Steve Bullock...


https://shop.stevebullock.com/collections/apparel/products/emoji-t-shirt


Get it? Bull. Lock. Oh, so that's how you say the name that sounds exactly how it's spelled.

There's another candidate who also thinks you need help pronouncing his last name…


https://store.peteforamerica.com/collections/apparel/products/boot-edge-edge-t-shirt


And he is definitely right about that. So, thank you, Pete "Boot Edge Edge." That helps.

Just outside the bargain bin section, but just barely, are candidates like Julian Castro and his "El Presidente" t-shirt…


https://store.julianforthefuture.com/julian-castro-loteria-card-white-tee/


When your last name's Castro, do you really want to go with a weird drawing of yourself as if you're a classic Latin American dictator on a postage stamp?

If you prefer a little "dark psychic forces" battling in your candidates, you'll love Marianne Williamson's "Turn Love Into a Political Force" rally sign…


https://store.marianne2020.com/collections/signs/products/love-rally-sign


"Turn Love Into a Political Force" would be an even better title for a Marianne Williamson album of 80s cover songs. And if you think I'm joking, then you haven't heard Bernie Sanders' classic 1987 folk album, We Shall Overcome. That's not a joke. Well, it is a joke, but it's also a very real thing.

Now, just a quick pause to consider the peculiar baby-wear that way too many candidates are selling…

…including Elizabeth Warren's trans-pride flag onesie. Let me get this straight – we can't force any gender on a child, because that's just cruel. But we can force a political advertisement on a baby? How do we know that baby is actually a Biden or Warren fan? The child may not even be a Democrat or a Socialist at all. That baby might self-identify as a Libertarian, or Republican, or even worse – a moderate Democrat.

Now to the premium items from the premium candidates. Elizabeth Warren – the candidate with the most honesty in her advertising…


https://shop.elizabethwarren.com/collections/apparel/products/impolite-arrogant-women-make-history-unisex-t-shirt

-AND-

https://shop.elizabethwarren.com/collections/drinkware/products/strong-american-unions-mug


Warren's merchandise reflects the woman herself – cold and humorless (watch her "This isn't funny" clip from the last debate here at the 4:27 mark). I'm sure she's really fun once you get to know her. Then again, maybe not.

Speaking of serious women, Kamala Harris wants to be president very badly for you, the people, as you can tell from her "For the People" poster…


https://store.kamalaharris.org/poster-for-the-people/


At $29.99 though, she's sure not charging "people's" prices. Of course, she might be having to pay royalties to a certain someone for riffing on their poster. Just saying.

For the race's number one socialist, there's a whole lot of capitalism going on in Bernie Sanders' campaign. He sells so many delightful items that it's hard to choose. But we did anyway. The most random item is this hundred-dollar, black, "Art of a Political Revolution – Artists for Bernie Sanders Coaches Jacket"…


https://store.berniesanders.com/collections/apparel/products/artists-for-bernie-coaches-jacket


Coaches across the land will be clamoring for this one. You know, since coaches are such a strong Bernie-socialist demographic.

If that's a little over your budget you might consider a "Feel the Bern" fanny pack, to help store all those government freebies you'll get from Bernie…


https://store.berniesanders.com/collections/apparel/products/feel-the-bern-fanny-pack


This is the only context in which you'll ever want to hear "feel the burn" and "fanny" in the same sentence.

And finally, from front-runner Joe Biden, we have this fine "Women's Fitted Biden Polo." Which is just about the best polo description ever…


https://store.joebiden.com/collections/apparel/products/biden-polo-womens-fit


It promises the kind of snug approach that Biden loves to provide women. Even when they don't ask.

This was one of the first homesteads in the area in the 1880's and was just begging to be brought back to its original glory — with a touch of modern. When we first purchased the property, it was full of old stuff without any running water, central heat or AC, so needless to say, we had a huge project ahead of us. It took some vision and a whole lot of trust, but the mess we started with seven years ago is now a place we hope the original owners would be proud of.

To restore something like this is really does take a village. It doesn't take much money to make it cozy inside, if like me you are willing to take time and gather things here and there from thrift shops and little antique shops in the middle of nowhere.

But finding the right craftsman is a different story.

Matt Jensen and his assistant Rob did this entire job from sketches I made. Because he built this in his off hours it took just over a year, but so worth the wait. It wasn't easy as it was 18"out of square. He had to build around that as the entire thing we felt would collapse. Matt just reinforced the structure and we love its imperfections.

Here are a few pictures of the process and the transformation from where we started to where we are now:

​How it was

It doesn't look like much yet, but just you wait and see!

By request a photo tour of the restored cabin. I start doing the interior design in earnest tomorrow after the show, but all of the construction guys are now done. So I mopped the floors, washed the sheets, some friends helped by washing the windows. And now the unofficial / official tour.

The Property

The views are absolutely stunning and completely peaceful.