Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An Empty Jar of Olive Oil

Life is so much more complicated than it used to be. Not that long ago you didn’t need to worry about your retirement. The company you worked for provided a pension. The union fought to make it as large as possible and the ideas for 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs, Roth IRAs, and all the myriad of current retirement vehicles hadn’t yet been invented, let alone become everyday worries for millions of Americans. I don’t know about you, but over the past year I first watched my retirement savings shrink until working until I died looked like the only viable option, then I watched them recover so that, just maybe, I will be able to retire some day—in the far off future.
All of that happened and I didn’t have a clue what to do about it. I know we all are supposed to be responsible for our own retirement now, and I am actually pretty literate about financial instruments. I have a law degree and practiced in the financial industry for more than a decade. Now I put real estate projects together and understand how to leverage subsidies, use tax credits and, unlike almost anyone else I know, actually understand what derivates are. I contribute regularly to my retirement account.

I even do my own taxes.

But I don’t know whether the stock market is going up or down. I don’t know whether foreign markets are likely to go further down or not so far down as markets in the United States. I don’t know whether now is the right time to buy stocks or buy bonds or keep my savings in cash.

Look, if Warren Buffett lost $25 billion last year (of course he still has $37 billion left), how in the world am I supposed to manage my modest investments?

It’s not just my retirement that I’m supposed to manage now, though. We are all supposed to become educated consumers of health care. No longer is it enough to trust your family doctor, you are supposed to be ready with pointed questions. Only by doing so can we reestablish a proper market for health care and control the spiraling costs of health care.

I preferred trusting Marcus Welby, M.D.

I’ve been licensed to practice law for twenty-five years and there are still many parts of the law that I don’t understand. I can practically guarantee that anything said about the law by a non lawyer will be wrong—but that doesn’t stop people from constantly offering me their opinion.

I don’t know why I would trust something as important as my health to a fool like me who doesn’t know anything about medicine that you can’t learn from watching television. If real doctors, who have been to medical school and all, don’t know what they are doing, then there isn’t a chance in the world that I’m going to be any help.

But as if it isn’t bad enough that I’m now supposed to be an actuarial and medical expert, I was completely flummoxed this morning by one more thing I am now required to understand—recycling.
There in my pantry was an empty jar that had contained olive oil. It wasn’t a surprise to me because, after all, I’d used the last of the olive oil in making dinner yesterday. The jar was recyclable, but I also know that I’m only supposed to put clean jars in the recycling.

Last year I would just have thrown the jar away. It isn’t easy to clean an oily jar. I filled it with hot water and rinsed it. It was still oily. I tried hot water and soap, but it was still a little oily. I don’t know if it was too oily to put in the recycling or not, but I was now faced with another question: Was the harm to the environment I was causing by running so much water outweighing the good I was doing by recycling the jar?

I didn’t know, anymore than I knew whether the stock market was going up or down or whether I really needed that medicine I saw advertised on the television. So I thought back about what I did when my retirement savings were disappearing—I quit opening the statements—and taking inspiration from that course of action, did the only thing I could think of—left the jar in the sink in the hope that my wife would deal with it.

1 comment:

  1. I wondered about this myself until our utility gave us this tip: "Empty but not clean."