Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Future Shock

By Bruce R. Baird

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Watching the gyrations of the stock market last week from the lanai of a friend's house overlooking Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, while my two small kids played with the dog turned my thoughts to what I wanted to do when I retired and how I hoped to pay for it.

Fortunately (and unfortunately) I was, as the market pros say, fully out of the market while it yo-yoed wildly. Fortunately, because unlike a friend of mine, I would have been unable to have considered it merely "Monopoly money." It would have made me sick to see large chunks of useful cash vanishing second-by-second as the digits peeled away from the Dow.

Unfortunately, I was in an all-cash position because I have never saved enough money to meaningfully play the markets. I have rarely met a dollar that I wouldn't rather spend today than save for tomorrow. Sometimes my spending has been on necessities, but more often I have bought things or done things just because I wanted to, without thought for the future.

I attribute this lack of thrift to three factors beyond just innate wastefulness: First, in high school I read an article by Milton Friedman about what the economist called the "permanent consumption function." His analysis was that people's spending at any given time was influenced by how much they expected to earn over their lifetimes. I took his analysis as normatively injunctive instead of merely descriptive. Since I was sure I would enter some kind of professional employment, I calculated that I didn't need to save anything for the future.

My second mistake was to believe that I could make serious money as a professional. In fact, except for certain medical specialists and investment bankers, you can make a good living selling your services by the hour but you can't get really rich.

Compounding these errors was my third miscalculation: I believed for longer than I should have that Social Security would provide me with whatever I needed to live on after I retired. Even after I learned that Social Security was a myth more malign than a childlike belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I failed to adjust my consumption patterns. I had become addicted to the instant gratification of buying whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it. I even blew most of a small inheritance on wine, women, song and other less-benign vices.

Now, when most of my peers are measuring their time to get out of the rat race in "when" and years, my horizons are decades or "if." That estimation has been further complicated by the late addition to my life of two kids who not only need to eat and wear clothes but who also deserve to get an ever more-essential, and even more-expensive, quality higher education.

So, for now, unless I get lucky with some rocket scientists whom I was fortunate enough to trade legal work for in return for equity in a startup, the question of "what" I want to do when I retire is moot.

Luckily, or so I tell myself, I actually like practicing law (most of the time) and one of my friends, by far the happiest and healthiest at his 80+ age, has never retired, even though he could have done so in luxurious splendor ages ago. May I be so fortunate.


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