Family

Welcome to 2020: Hindsight and Vision

Posted on Jan 1, 2020 in Community, Family, Investments, Planning, Retirement, Tax, Technology

This time of year we often look back over the past 12 months, and as we close out 2019, we also close out a decade. Time goes by in the blink of an eye, and the past ten years are only different in that there has been more change than ever before. That will only be exceeded by the rapid change in the next ten.

We’ll welcome some of this: systemic and technological changes to make life better. Other changes,  like those which require shifts in well-worn habits, or to combat climate change and rewrite our social contracts to reflect life today, will be more difficult, and require more attention.

LOOKING BACK: THE DECADE IN REVIEW

ECONOMICS
We all remember where we ended the last decade, surrounded by the tatters of financial life after the Great Recession (aka the Financial Crisis, August 2007-March 2009). We weren’t sure it was over, and while the recession had technically ended, the impact would still be felt by many for years to come. While we are spending lately like the Financial Crisis is forgotten, some have still not recovered, and the trauma of the event continues to affect almost all of us.

As the decade began, we were told the recovery was happening, then we were hit with a series of smaller crises in financial markets: 2010 Flash Crash (trillion dollars lost in the stock market in 36 minutes, started by automated trading programs); 2011 European Sovereign Debt Crisis (causing a write-down of Greek bonds); 2013 bailout of Cyprus by the European Union (to avert a banking crisis); 2015 Chinese stock market crash, followed by a commodity-driven US stock market drop, and finally a 2018 worldwide stock market downturn, ending last Christmas Eve, when the S&P fell nearly 20% in the preceding three months.

While the economy is NOT the stock market, the two are related. Here is what the largest U.S. companies did over the last decade, in terms of their stock prices:

It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride; we have forgotten the hiccups that occurred because of the events noted above, and others.  But what does this tell us about the economy?  Is it reflective of fundamental strength of companies and demand, or of manipulation of interest rates, and tax laws that favored stock buy backs? Or a combination?

Despite very low unemployment, wages have barely budged for most, and some Americans have taken to working two (or more) jobs. A minimum wage of $15/hour works out to $30,000/year for a full-time job, which hardly meets rent in some urban areas. You enjoy the benefits of a rising stock market when you can invest, and for many, that’s still out of reach.

POLITICS
President Obama was two years into his first term as the decade began, and the push-back to the change he represented was evident. A Republican-led Congress blocked attempts at government spending on infrastructure programs to jump-start the economy and get Americans, particularly those in the trades, back to work in the wake of the Financial Crisis. The Tea Party, a movement within the Republican Party and a harbinger of where we would end the decade, gathered power, pushing for lower taxes, reduced government spending and a reduction in the national debt. By the decade’s end, they’d achieved 1 of 3.

Obama’s first term was devoted to health care reform, and Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in 2010. President Obama’s second term included another big change: in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case that recognized same-sex marriage and overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Reforming our health care system and expanding the definition of marriage were both HUGE shifts in the American landscape.  No question there would be a reaction to big social change.

Part of the reaction to the economic situation was political of another persuasion: the Occupy Wall Street protests began in July 2011 in New York City and spread to 82 countries by October. Bailouts for big banks led to an outcry against financial greed and corruption, starting a new discussion about economic inequality that continues today.

The BlackLivesMatter movement began in 2012 after the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, and went national in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of police. Social media aided both the spread of participation in the campaign against violence and systemic racism, and in the backlash, with the appearance of “All Lives Matter” and Blue Lives Matter, in support of the police.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was the capstone to years of work to bring America back to an earlier time, to re-entrench systems and institutions to support the economic and social structure we created after World War II.  The President’s Inauguration in 2017 kicked off worldwide Women’s Marches, with 420 reported marches in the U.S. and 168 in other countries, becoming the largest worldwide protest in recent history. In March 2018, Stoneham Douglas High School students led nationwide protests over gun violence, called the National School Walkout. By May the protest movement became the March for Our Lives, with demonstrations in 900 U.S. cities.

In December 2018 “Yellow Vest” (“gilets jaunes ”) protests in France that were initially motivated by rising fuel prices and a high cost of living shut down urban centers weekend after weekend; by December 2019, the movement broadened its focus to include opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity measures, which included pension reform that would postpone retirement until age 64 instead of 62. The protests spread across political, regional, social and generational divides angry at economic injustice, with polls indicating than 80 percent of French people supported the movement.

A series of strikes in 2019 for action on climate change drew millions of people worldwide. The third global strike in September, also known as the Global Week for the Future, was timed to occur around the UN Youth Climate Summit and UN Climate Action Summit. The September Climate Strike included over 1,000 strike events in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.  The student-led protests had five demands directed at world leaders and elected officials centered around a “Green New Deal”: to transform the economy to 100% renewable energy by 2030, while creating jobs and ending leases and permits for fossil fuel projects; respect for indigenous land and peoples; investment in communities affected most by poverty and pollution; protecting biodiversity, restoring 50% of the world’s lands and oceans, and stopping all deforestation by 2030; and sustainable agriculture, including the end to subsidies for industrial agriculture. A bold “to-do” list.

We closed the decade with anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong against a bill that was viewed as eroding the “one country, two systems” balance between Hong Kong and mainland China. The protests morphed to reflect broader threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy, as well as underlying discontent in Hong Kong, from the dearth of affordable housing to the demand for universal suffrage for elections rather than use of an Election Committee, which is viewed as non-representative.

Worldwide, there were protests related to housing affordability, economic inequality in general, climate, safety, and the concentration of power in few rather than many hands.

DEMOGRAPHICS
We’ve all heard about our longer life expectancy, and that reality is rapidly coming head-to-head with social safety nets worldwide. Despite reports of a reversal of this trend, looking closely at the numbers, the decline in life expectancy in the U.S. tends to cluster around certain regions, in rural areas where the opioid epidemic, among other factors, is concentrated and driving down life expectancy.  In coastal areas in the U.S., life spans are tracking the rest of the developed world, and increasing.   The safety net failing here is general health care coverage (as well as regulation of pharmaceutical companies).

The other safety nets running into headwinds are those for our elders. In April 2018, Nicaragua announced reforms to its Social Security programs to decrease retirement benefits; 34 people were killed by police in the resulting protests. In France, the aforementioned Yellow Vest protests now include push-back on labor law changes and plans to overhaul the pension system. In the U.S., the Social Security Administration notes on every Social Security statement that as of 2035, only 76% of benefits can be paid; for disability insurance benefits offered through the program, those benefits become unsustainable in 2020.  Medicare is on an even less solid footing.

Meanwhile, and because we like acronyms, a legislative proposal, called the Time to Rescue United States’ Trusts, or TRUST, Act, would create congressional committees to evaluate how to bolster solvency or make other changes to improve the programs. That sounds like kicking the can further down the proverbial road, but further increasing the age when we are eligible for benefits should be part of the solution. The Social Security 2100 Act calls for increased benefits, and increases payroll taxes to pay for it. Also in the hopper are plans to cut both Medicare and Social Security in a second Trump term, based on growing federal deficits, the same deficits Republicans and the Tea Party wanted to avoid, but created by the most recent tax reform legislation.

We are living longer than ever before, and the math these demographics present is straightforward: we need to work longer, pay more in taxes, and start benefits later. We’ll be experiencing exponentially increasing change over these longer lives, and we’ll need to retrain/retool/refresh along the way. All of which argue for a restructuring of how we work, not a return to a post-WW2 ideal, and a reworking of how we enjoy leisure time, “retiring” the current concept of “retirement.”

DATA
Throughout the decade, leaks and breaches of big data caused turmoil large and small:
2013 – Edward Snowden exposes widespread government surveillance
2016 – Panama Papers are revealed, showing myriad ways the rich can stash cash offshore
2016 – WikiLeaks releases Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russia interferes with US elections
2017 – WannaCry Ransomware attack hits computers in 150 countries

Wikipedia lists 138 data breaches from 2010 to the present, from Reddit to Capital One, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to Uber, Premera Blue Cross to Facebook (Facebook was hit five times; in July 2018, a drop in Facebook’s share price on the heels of its latest data leak wiped out $109 billion from its market value, the largest single day loss in corporate history).

By the end of 2018, the UN reported that more than half of the world’s population is now using the internet. Also in 2018, Europe enacts strict privacy controls for European citizens called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), and we can expect the U.S and others to follow.  (Expect California, non-conformist state that it is, to lead here.) We are all in cyberspace now, even if we got there kicking and screaming, and the last decade shows us how we must be vigilant about how we manage our activities and information online. Those of you with kids who want to opt out of learning new technologies, think again; you will need to know about whatever follows SnapChat and TikTok to keep your kids tech smart and safe.

TECH
Social media and gaming were not new when we started the decade, but mainstays that we use today were just emerging: Instagram launched in 2010, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released in 2013, Pokemon Go in 2016. More ways to stream/play/be entertained are on the horizon.

Other parts of the tech community were focused farther afield, and there was no shortage of space exploration over the last decade.  NASA’s New Horizons probe visited Pluto (2015), NASA found water on Mars (2015), SpaceX landed a Falcon 9, the first reusable rocket (2015); a new Mars rover is headed out into space next year, complete with an oxygenator (just like in The Martian) as part of the Mars 2020 project.  Recently, I overheard two middle school kids on the bus talking about the budgets of NASA and the Department of Defense, noting that the former is 1/20 the size of the latter, and if they switched budgets, we’d be living on Mars.  Out of the mouths of babes.

In between our personal screen and the Final Frontier, there are technological developments to herald and to watch carefully.  Automation, self-driving cars, drones, AI-driven “helpful tech” from Siri to Alexa are here to stay.

HEALTH
Major health crises – the Ebola virus in 2014 and 2018, the Zika virus in 2016, cholera in 2017 in Yemen, plus famine in Africa in 2017 – occurred alongside medical breakthroughs: a vaccine 70%-100% effective against Ebola was found by the end of 2016; 3D printing created a lab-grown ear (2013); China created monkey clones in 2018.

Like other new ideas, some need to come with a warning label. In late 2018, a Chinese scientist announced he had altered human DNA in twin girls to make them resistant to HIV, news that was widely criticized by scientists and medical ethicists. The technology that made this possible was “CRISPR” (pronounced “crisper” = Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which forms the basis for genome editing technology. In June 2019, U.S. scientists used CRISPR to treat a 34-year old woman with sickle cell disease. Also in 2019, a second case of sustained remission of HIV after stem cell treatment aided by the CRISPR research was reported. Alas, most of the decade was spent in a patent dispute between the two scientists laying claim to the CRISPR research and the huge educational institutions with which each is affiliated.

A man-made health threat is that of gun violence, and the decade proved laden with examples: Aurora, CO (2012) — Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) — San Bernadino, CA (2015) —
Orlando, FL (2016) — Charleston, VA (2017) — New York City (2017) — Sutherland Spring, TX (2017) — Parkland, FL high school — Tree of Life Synagogue (2018) — El Paso Walmart (2019) — Dayton , OH (2019) – White Settlement, T (2019). Active shooter drills become commonplace in schools.

Technology continues to make us safer, and seemingly simultaneously exposes us to more, and deadly, risk.

CLIMATE
We talked about the climate Crisis the whole decade, continuing the discussion organized through the Kyoto Protocol (a 1992 international treaty to reduce CO2 emissions, the first commitment period of which ended in 2012), followed each year by climate change conferences. In 2015, at the UN’s annual climate change conference (COP 21), almost the entire world came together to agreed to reduce carbon. The U.S. and China, responsible for 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, joined the Paris Accords in September 2016. As of October 2019, the hold-outs were Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, South Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen. In November 2019, the U.S. formally began its withdrawal from the agreement, announced earlier during the Trump Administration. The U.S. will be officially out in November 2020.

The face of climate change activism became Greta Thunberg’s, a 16-year old Swedish teen, proclaimed Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019. I’ll let her final tweet of 2019 outline where we need to go:

NEW IDEAS
The last decade may have been more about disruption than innovation. Tesla made its public debut in 2010, and last year’s IPOs alone brought Uber, Lyft, Pinterest and BeyondMeat into the public domain.

For 2020 and beyond, the unicorns (private companies valued at a minimum of $1 billion) in the pen include CrowdStrike, The RealReal, Cloudflare, Peloton, Progyny, Bill.com, AirBnB, SpaceX, DoorDash, Robinhood, Casper (bed-in-a-box) and Didi Chuxing (China’s Uber competitor, which recently spun-off its autonomous driving unit into a new company), Ant Financial, Droom, Gitlab, Hemptown, Instacart, Neptune Energy, Palantir Technologies, Saudi Aramco. Remember, the companies that go public are rarely start-ups, they’re often many years (and many rounds of financing) old. And while sometimes they do well, Renaissance’s fund-of-IPOs ETF (IPO), for example, was up by about 33% by the end of 2019…but the S&P 500 was up by 29% over the same period, and with a lot less risk.

LOOKING FORWARD: THE NEXT DECADE

Data — If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. The “free” services we use so readily are gathering our personal data into privately-owned assets. You may not be concerned about your Instagram account, but you should be concerned about the silos of health care data that are owned not by you, but by a specific health care entity, and not shared. Look for agitation for a national health care database.

Demographics – Longevity, work and family structures are all changing, and our social safety net will need to change to reflect these shifts. There are ways to adapt our institutions to meet our future needs. Don’t get hung up on fear-mongering about costs and taxes; smart legislation on taxes, program eligibility, needs-testing, and even immigration can adjust programs that have proven to lift Americans out of poverty. As a leading First World nation, we owe it to ourselves to look to the future and blaze a trail.  There is a real opportunity here for elders and youth to unite, creating a “great trade” to reconfigure safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare in exchange for big structural changes like universal basic health care and climate action at corporate and governmental levels.  Both age groups have the numbers of people that could sway the vote, and coming together rather than working for their separate interests could benefit everyone.  Oh yeah, and we’ll still have a planet to live on, too.

Government matters – If the impeachment hearings have taught us anything, it’s that there is a whole slew of civil servants who make our lives work. They labor mostly invisibly, with much criticism and little praise, and even less in these last few years. Our trade, our travels, our place in the world owe TONS to these unsung Americans. Government and the people in it matter.

Power – There are two issues here: power politics and power generation. Leaders with dictatorial leanings are striving to consolidate power, and to change the rules so that they keep it. If you’re content as a serf, no need to worry. If not, you’re going to need to expend some energy here, to protest, to vote, to walk out. On the second front, it’s fine to talk about adapting to climate change when you live in a place with most of your energy coming from hydropower and nuclear power. Our economy is no longer dependent on horsepower, or manpower, but on electricity, and some places are going to have a harder time adapting than others. If you want them on board, you’re going to have to pay for it, so watch for ideas to pay for not using coal- or oil-fired plants. It’s like paying for guns to get them off the streets. If there’s a bailout that might be worth the dollars, this could be it.

Attention – When research tells us that being mindful and intentional makes us happiest, you might hesitate when offered the newest, greatest way to stream/play/get high. The age of distraction that’s coming is built of new forms of tv/streaming/video games along with legal cannabis in addition to booze and offers a challenge to us to stay in the game (life) even when we’d rather check-out.

Voting – The 19th Amendment, giving US women the vote, is 100 years old in 2020. This is one voting block that could decide the 2020 elections. The other is the Millennial generation (1981-1996), which is on the verge of surpassing Baby Boomers (1946-1964) as the nation’s largest living adult generation, according U.S Census projections.

The next time you’re inclined to say something snide about a Millennial, think twice.  They will hold an increasingly stronger hand over the next decade.  And besides, you will need them to teach you how to use that new app or how to control your household robot.

These past 10 years have been tough in many ways, and while I’m always glad to be able to make a fresh start, this New Year dawned with some serious dark clouds overhead.  We have big decisions to make; doing nothing IS a decision, just not one we want to make.  Thunberg said it above: This coming decade humanity will decide its future. Our future is really our kids. And the kids better vote.

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Lessons from Apollo 11 at 50

Posted on Jul 24, 2019 in Community, Family, Planning, Relationship, Technology, Women

This weekend, the Apollo 11 moon landing celebrated its 50th anniversary. The event was just on the edge of my personal history: I was five (and a half – back when counting halves was important). The experience of Apollo 11, and the missions that came after, shaped me and the way I see the world.

I’ve been a space geek since I can remember. A highlight of my life was a trip to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the late 1990’s, an outing during a business conference. Apollo 11 was one of many missions in the Apollo program, which followed the Gemini program and the Mercury program before that. The tour at KSC recreated the last two minutes of the Apollo 8 mission launch. Apollo 8 flew the first humans into the Moon’s orbit, and gave us the famous photograph, ‘Earthrise.’

After a history lesson about how many things had gone wrong – seriously wrong – just prior to that mission, we visitors looked into a room with the actual consoles from that Mission Control room, the jackets and windbreakers with the logos of companies now gone, or merged into others, hanging on the backs of chairs: McDonnell Douglas, Northrup Grumman, North American Aviation.

It was 1998 and we were all thinking about Y2K and what could go wrong. At the time I was at Starbucks and responsible for the company’s banking relationships; one fear was that the electronic ledger that banks used would go kablooey as we flipped into the new century and money would disappear off the books (it did not).

The Apollo 8 launch required more than 400 different systems to work together, systems built by many different companies, each responsible for a piece of the whole. We counted down to zero – Ignition – and the room shook and filled with light and sound. Apollo 8 had launched! Then we walked out into the hangar, out under a Saturn V rocket. All 363 feet, 3,270 tons of it. We sat down for dinner, of which I have no memory. Everything stopped with that rocket.

The technology of the time: The telephone. The typewriter. The transistor.
Not yet invented: The personal computer. The cellphone. The internet. Pong.

Thirteen missions using a Saturn V rocket were flown, all of them successful. They completed these missions and never carried a weapon into space. “We came in peace for all Mankind.”

With a backdrop of great civil unrest and international turmoil, we found the money and the focus to send men to the moon. There were detractors; there were plenty of domestic issues that needed attention, too. The same can be said today.

Destination Moon
In homage to the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, I went to the Museum of Flight outside of Seattle and stood inches from the Command Module, Columbia, that splash-landed in the Pacific, bringing Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong safely back to Earth.

There were a lot of things that had to happen before Columbia came back to us. Tests, mistakes, massive, tragic failures. Many of the Apollo missions you don’t hear much about were testing equipment and different stages of what would become the trip to land on the Moon.

Making mistakes, course correcting along the way
We talk a lot about “course corrections” in planning and investment management, too. We offer questionnaires and exercises to test your risk tolerance, to establish benchmarks so we know whether we’re meeting your goals, and make many small and sometimes big changes to plans as we go and as the environment changes around us.

Apollo 7 tested the Command Module in Earth orbit and Apollo 8 tested it in lunar orbit. Apollo 9 evaluated the Lunar Module in Earth orbit, then Apollo 10 was the “dress rehearsal,” testing all of the stages of a mission to the Moon, up to landing on it. All this work was to prepare for Apollo 11.

The point is that Big Goals are accomplished in many, many small steps. For those of you thinking you “should” know something, or “should” be at a certain point in life financially, know that we all learn as we go. It might have been a little easier for the rocket scientists at NASA to set and keep their goals, given that they had the laws of physics to work with; there are no such rules that govern the stock market. You make a plan, you test the plan, get help as you need it, and course-correct along the way.

Taking a minute to reflect on and take in each success along the way
After landing on the Moon and before stepping outside the Lunar Module (LM), Buzz Aldrin radioed to Earth: “This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

If you listen to the radio transmissions of the whole mission, you hear the milestones; even under the strict protocol between Mission Control and the flight crew, you hear the recognition of each achievement, each phase of the plan as it’s executed. And on occasion, there is a call out just to honor reaching a goal.

It’s easy to get caught up in checking things off your list, then moving right on to the next thing. But there will always be a “next thing.” Satisfaction and joy are found in between. During each Mission, there was always the next thing to worry about, but as stressed and weary as they were, with this huge responsibility, they still took a minute and just allowed themselves to feel the success. Allow yourself your successes, too.

Part of Something Bigger
Every culture has a creation story. Something started this whole thing, and that something is bigger than you or I. Whether you believe a faith-based origin story or not, the result of all of us being here is deserving of respect. And awe.

Most of the research on happiness boils down to having a sense of purpose and belonging. We each need to feel our individual efforts have value and meaning, and also that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. This perspective can run afoul of the American insistence on individualism, on boot-strapping, on doing it yourself. In the words of Irv Grousbeck, co-founder of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, “We have all drunk from wells we have not dug.”

Astronauts in the Apollo program had various personal beliefs about God and how we got here, and appreciated the collective work that was required for what they were doing.  At each step, they called out how this was in every way a team effort. Even if you’re not a space geek like me, it is amazing to contemplate a time when everyone— virtually everyone on Earth—was pointed in the same direction. There was a profound sense of responsibility for what we were doing, and what it would mean for people other than ourselves. Six hundred million people around the world watched men land on the Moon. We knew we were part of something bigger.

There was a continuous refrain throughout the program and its missions that one person doesn’t do this alone. We set aside major differences: despite the Space Race with the Soviets, the astronauts left on the Moon two memorial medals of Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin, space pioneers, along with messages from world leaders. They also left a patch from the Apollo 1 mission, which took the lives of three astronauts in a launch pad fire, but from which we learned vital lessons that later allowed three other astronauts to reach the Moon. On the Apollo 11 patch, the flight crew opted for inclusivity over individual recognition and decided not to include their names, so it would “be representative of everyone who had worked toward a lunar landing.”

It’s a rare client who doesn’t have an underlying goal to feel that what they’ve done during their life has been meaningful, and to want to be connected to others.  For me, meaningful work is my reason for being.   It is my preeminent goal, and it is a privilege to be a part of helping someone else live up to their goals for meaning and connection.

No One is Perfect
As a perfectionist myself, I realize how this limits me, but it’s hard to let go when you feel the stakes are high.  To that, I suggest for both of you and I that we let it go: No one is perfect.  But there are work-arounds!

Perhaps the most surprising part of the exhibit for me was not to see Buzz Aldrin’s helmet and gloves from his Apollo 11 moonwalk (which were awesome!), but to see the notes he had written on his glove.  The display included a magnifying glass so you could read the to-do list reminding him of his tasks during the moonwalk.  Note to Self: get a photograph of a boot print on the Moon! Check!

It’s not just you: Even a rocket scientist needs a crib sheet…

Progress We Have Made
One of the things both inspiring and vexing about a look back at the Apollo missions is that there were women and people of color involved in various aspects of the Program, yet many of them we are only hearing about now, fifty years later:
Katherine Goble Johnson was one of the “computers” at NASA behind John Glenn’s Mercury mission, for which she received the Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2015 (and a film credit in Hidden Figures in 2016);
Frances “Poppy” Northcutt was an engineer, the only woman in Mission Control during Apollo 8, and remained a NASA contractor until the early 1970s when she pivoted to become a lawyer; she now describes herself as a “one time rocket scientist, sometime lawyer, full time feminist”;
JoAnn Morgan was an instrumentation controller for Apollo 11 and the only woman in the firing room. She became the first woman to serve as a senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center.

We have had a history not only of discriminating against women and people of color, but also of leaving them out of the sanitized version of history we record. Were it not for the then-recent invention of television prior to Apollo, we might never have known that there was at least one woman in Mission Control and lots of others who helped one man take a “giant leap for mankind.” After seeing her on TV, little girls from around the world sent Northcutt masses of fan letters saying things like “I didn’t know women could work in mission control.”

These women and others were pioneers of space and also here at home. One of the best parts of their stories was how they helped the women coming after them. As role models, but also actively, by serving as advocates in promoting other women for more senior positions and pushing for policy reforms at their companies, such as parental leave. We may be at a point in our history again where women recognize the power of coming together and helping each other.

Fifty years after Apollo, we have made progress. The big lessons for me are those I note above, along with the message that it’s going to take all of us coming together to push for progress here on Earth, whether that is greater diversity in the workplace, pay equity, leave policies for caregiving and retraining, or new endeavors in space. If we can put a man on the Moon…

The Museum of Flight’s Destination Moon exhibit runs through September 2nd.

For more on the ladies of NASA’s early days, you can read more here:
Poppy Northcutt Remembers Apollo 11 (Space.com)
The Women Who Helped Put Men on the Moon (Los Angeles Times)
Five Women Who Made the Moon Landing Possible (The New York Times (tiered subscription)

And you can follow Poppy Northcutt on Twitter: @poppy_northcutt

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A Mother’s Day Wish List

Posted on May 12, 2019 in Family, Women

 

Mom (on the right), Oak Street Beach, Chicago

My mother was a strong and resilient woman, creative and resourceful, quick to help and even quicker to laugh. I adored her.  People often commented that she’d had a hard life, and she always countered that it was full of interesting experiences. I loved the stories she told about her life, but I also wished she’d had it a little easier.

My mother came to the US in 1952 at sixteen. She spoke five languages, none of which was English. Assimilation was high on her list and she quickly absorbed all that was American: Saturday night dances, movies & television, Elvis Presley.

After secretarial school, she lived with (and paid rent to) her parents while she started work at a bank. She met my father and they married in the early 1960s. They then promptly loaded up everything they had into a Ford Galaxy and headed west, settling in the Southern California suburbs. My father worked part-time and started school on the GI bill. I was born two years later, and my brother two years after that.

My mom had loved her job at the bank, as one of three assistants to the bank president. She loved living in a big city. But as a single woman in the 1950s and early 1960s, her life was limited. It was a challenge for a young woman to live on her own, an even a greater challenge to stay single. Once married and without any family nearby in those early years in California, she was on her own to figure out how to run her house and take care of two small children.

Once my brother and I were in school, she went looking for a job. She found one as a part-time bookkeeper for a local dairy. That job provided much-needed additional income to the household, but also much-needed social connection for my mother, and at least one trip for us to the dairy farm itself, complete with fragrant cow pastures and a dog named Fresca.

By now, it was the late 1960s. We’d sent men to the moon, but women could still get fired for getting pregnant, contraception was not widely available, and banks could refuse to extend credit to women. Betty Friedan exposed “the thing that has no name” in 1963, but my mother already knew what it was: it was the albatross of economic dependence, of limiting cultural norms, and the prevailing expectations about mothers and motherhood.

How much easier have we made mothers’ lives today?

Here’s what’s on my Mother’s Day Wish List:

Pay equity: Becoming a mother should not mean you are worth any less as an employee. Neither parenthood nor marital status should determine pay, yet married men are generally paid more than single men (and most women, married or single).

Paid family leave: We make accommodation for employees to address and recover from other medical events; time to properly heal and bond makes mother and baby healthier and most women cannot afford to take unpaid leave to do this. (Note this is family leave, not just maternity or parental leave; women are more likely to take a second round of leave, when they assume caregiving for elderly parents, impacting their earning potential a second time.)

Access to quality child care: Becoming a mother shouldn’t mean you have to choose between your economic independence and parenthood. Fathers do not.

For those who say we can’t afford to move in this direction, the question really is: Can we afford NOT to? We are increasingly competing with countries that do offer these types of support. Consider these tidbits:

Universal basic health coverage could be paid for from the increased taxes owed by corporations on the higher taxable income they would have once they no longer have the tax deduction for health insurance expenses for workers;
Quality child care costs can be subsidized by the taxes that will be owed on the wages of these new working parents; research has shown businesses would benefit from reduced absenteeism and greater employee retention;
An extra bonus: more workers in the paid workforce mean additional payroll taxes to support Social Security and Medicare.

Being a mother can be a priceless experience. But it shouldn’t be a Hunger Games competition. It shouldn’t rob a woman of an equal wage for equal work, or advancement if she doesn’t have funds to pay privately for quality child care.

All of the ideas on my list would have gone a long way to help my mom. She did a great job despite these hurdles, but while we celebrate mothers today, isn’t it time we make it a little easier to be a mom the other 364 days a year?

Happy Mother’s Day.

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Valentine’s Day Planning

Posted on Feb 15, 2019 in Community, Estate Planning, Family

Sweethearts Candies

If all the pink hearts and chocolates you’ve been seeing in stores since just after Christmas weren’t enough of a giveaway, it’s Valentine’s Day. The first conversational candy hearts were crafted by the New England Confectioners Company in 1866.  Yes, that means we’ve been doing this for over 150 years.  And this year you probably heard that due to a change in control at the company, it would not be producing the chalky, nearly flavorless candies.  Yet Valentine’s Day marches on.  The National Retail Federation projects that we will spend $19.6 billion this year on Valentine’s Day.

All the hubbub can leave many feeling like they’re missing something: a romantic partner, a partner who is romantic, or the right combination of candlelit dinner/jewelry/flowers/candy. Setting aside the consumerist take-over of the day (as well as its dark history), and considering its modern meaning more broadly — as a celebration of love  — that is a worthy goal.  Love is one of the few truly infinite resources we have, and it takes many forms: romantic love, friendship, familial love, self-esteem or love of oneself, and love outside of one’s self, whether that be for humankind, nature, a vocation or God.  Building a truly rich life incorporates as many of the types of love as possible. Celebrating and enhancing these connections is what we strive to do.

Valentine’s and Love

Last week I went to hear John and Julie Gottman talk about love. Not about finding it, but about knowing when you really have it, and about keeping it once you do. The Gottmans were at Town Hall to promote their new book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson founded the “Love Lab” 45 years ago. As the story goes, they were “two clueless guys who knew nothing about relationships” who decided to research relationships.  John recalled how, 33 years ago as a newbie to Seattle, he decided to answer every personal ad in the Seattle Weekly.  In two months, he dated 60 women, and that experience was the start of his “date-a-base.” Over the years at the Gottman Institute, they studied 3,000 couples to see if they could find scientific evidence of the characteristics of long-lasting love. John’s methodology and the Love Lab developed their renown based on their 94% accuracy rate in predicting whether couples would stay together.

Love and Connection

When asked about what keeps people on the hunt for love, despite rejection and failures, Julie Gottman noted that at the core of their research they find that what we all want is connection.  She says this, and the room gets quiet.  At the end of the day, we all want to be valued, to be seen, to be heard, to be loved. Whether we’re coupled or not, this need for connection unites us all.

Love In Many Forms / On Many Forms

The other take-away from the Gottmans’ talk is how the base of any good relationship is in how we communicate. Whether love between romantic partners, friends, within families of origin and of choice, communities to which we belong – all types of love enrich our lives.  You want to enjoy them while you have them, and you might want to leave something to them after you’re gone.  This is where a little planning comes in.

Each of your retirement accounts (401k, 403b, 457, IRA etc) and life insurance policies passes to your heirs by way of a Designated Beneficiary.  You may think your Will controls everything, but it does not control these assets.  Because life is long and things change, you should check your beneficiaries to make sure they are current.  Beneficiaries can be people and/or charitable organizations.  To check yours, you should be able to go online to view your retirement account beneficiaries, and typically you just need to submit a form to change them if needed.  For life insurance policies, beneficiaries  may be viewable online, or call your carrier.  If you’ve gotten married, divorced, had children or have just had a change of heart regarding your legacy, check in to make sure you beneficiaries are up-to-date.

In addition to however else you might plan to celebrate (or not celebrate) Valentine’s Day, do choose a day to check in about your beneficiaries.  Make sure the ones you love are reflected accordingly.

A Note on Galentine’s

If Valentine’s Day isn’t for you, perhaps Galentine’s Day is. In 2010 Amy Poehler’s character on Parks & Recreation, Leslie Knope, invented the notion of “Galentine’s Day.” February the 13th became the day when women celebrate their female friendships, traditionally over breakfast which Knope described as “Lilith Fair minus the angst and plus frittatas.”  Eight years after that TV episode aired, we’re still referencing this holiday.  It’s true both days have been mercilessly merchandised and enforce stereotypes about women (single and coupled), money and what we all want.  But who doesn’t like an excuse for frittatas?

If you missed Galentine’s Day this year but want to plan ahead for 2020, here is more info on How to Celebrate Galentine’s Day the Leslie Knope Way .

In any event, here’s to a happy Thursday and a little love in your life.

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Blind Spots and Seeing the Whole Picture

Posted on Jul 27, 2018 in Community, Family, Investments, Planning, Relationship

I’m a huge movie buff. In a different life, I would have been behind a camera, capturing people’s stories on film. One of the best stories I’ve seen on film is a movie making the festival circuit this year, Blindspotting. Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame, along with longtime friend, poet and fellow actor Rafael Casal, have made a buddy movie like no other. It is smart, funny, painful, intense, and powerful. The writing is tight, the acting top-notch. The pair had been working on finding a way to produce the film for ten years, and its tone and subject matter could not be more pertinent today.

And why am I telling you about this in a personal finance blog? The power of the movie is in its exercise in asking the audience whether they can see more than one thing at the same time: Can you see the two people in profile AND the vase? Can you see a black ex-con and a thoughtful man reinventing himself? Can you see that the friend you’ve known your whole life has a different experience of the world because his skin color is different than yours? Can you see a rich person and someone struggling? Can you actively look to see past your blind spots? This is important because without the ability to do so, you can miss important information about your friends, your family, the people you work with, and the broader world around you, as well as about your finances.

What is “Blindspotting”? You’ll find that out when you go to see the movie. (And seriously, go see it.) We’ve all heard of blind spots: something in your range of vision that you should be able to see, but which is obstructed. The obstructions come from a variety of sources, but they can come straight from you: a blind spot is a predisposition, a prejudice. The most dangerous are the ones that you don’t know you have. Dangerous because you may think you are lighting candlesticks when you are lighting dynamite.

We all have them. We are all products of our own stories and experience: our upbringing, our families, and the shortcuts that help us make sense of the world. Sometimes those shortcuts don’t show us the whole picture and result in blind spots. Here are three common ones that might impact your personal financial life, and one additional that can cause you to negatively affect someone else’s:

Confirmation bias – You embrace information that supports your perspective and cultivate a blind spot to that which contradicts it. You buy a stock and when there is good news about the stock, you acknowledge that and feel you have made a wise investment. When there is negative information about the stock, you discount the news.

Recognizing that you’re likely to have a bias for the choices you make and being able to look past that blind spot and take in all relevant information about an investment will make you a better investor.

Over-confidence – What you’ve done in the past has been successful, so you are confident that you know what you’re doing. You have a blind spot to the role luck can play and to evidence itself, and in investment management, that’s one place where numbers don’t lie.

You invest in real estate and home prices soar. You feel like a brilliant investor. Real estate prices plunge, and you blame the market, not your strategy. The blind spot is your confidence in your ability versus the capriciousness of markets.  Why you were investing in real estate in the first place should be your benchmark: you needed a home and were buying for the long-term, or you wanted a long-term investment in rental property and could carry the on-going costs of the property during the periods you couldn’t rent it. That’s the measure you need to be using as a benchmark for success, not your ability to time a market. It’s hard not to get caught up in a frenzy, which also makes it the best time to go back to your desk and work through the numbers to see if an investment will meet your goals over your time horizon.

Note that the corollary of over-confidence exists as well: under-confidence. You invest in the S&P 500 and the market goes up. You consider yourself lucky. The market falls and you blame yourself for a bad investment. Your blind spot is self-confidence: without question, luck factors into timing of investing. But if you invested in the S&P 500 as a long-term strategy for growth, knowing that there will be market fluctuations, there is no luck or blame, that is a solid strategy.

Rationalizing: You overspend but explain how much you’re saving by buying things on sale. You desperately want to get out of debt but as soon as you’ve freed up some extra income, you’ve committed it to another loan or run up a balance on another credit card. You’ll start saving tomorrow.

We are creatures of habit. We are attached to our rituals, our patterns, our ways of doing things, and accepting that they may not be serving us – to say nothing of actually changing them – is hard to do. The blind spot is what you believe is really important and whether your actions support it. What is your goal? Looking at actions instead of hopes or dreams is where planning comes in. All of the above actions are rational in some way to the person making them. Seeing how the action (buying something you don’t expressly need because it’s on sale) impacts your stated goal (saving for a vacation to Italy) can help you release an old rationale and better align actions with what you really want.

And one more for the other people in your life:

Making an Assumption: This is the quickest shortcut we all use. You don’t give the plum project to the new parent because it involves travel and you assume they wouldn’t be interested in that now. You order a $90 bottle of wine at dinner with a friend, not realizing that her half of the price of the wine was what she was budgeting for the whole meal. You see your neighbor’s new Tesla, their designer shoes, the gardener at their house and you assume they are greedy and material people.

But are you making an assumption that interferes with seeing the whole picture? Your predisposition creates a blind spot. You won’t see the whole picture in each case until you ask questions and learn more. You’ll retain a prejudiced view of what a new parent wants at work, what your friend can afford, and what your neighbor is really like. The effort to see a blind spot takes time and attention and energy, all of which feel for most of us like increasingly scarce resources.

These decisions we make based on our biases, our assumptions, our blind spots, can have a very real impact on the lives – financial and otherwise – of other people. You limit the professional growth of an employee, you burden a friend with an unexpected expense, you fail to offer friendship to a neighbor because you are operating in a blind spot.

Are you seeing what you think you are seeing? Or could there be another way of looking at something? Can you step back and take in the whole picture objectively? Could there be more to the story? People and situations can be more than one thing. In developing an awareness of what we know for a fact, setting aside the shortcuts, expanding our view into blind spots, we get better information for action. Blind spots are not blindness – we can improve the completeness of what we see. It requires observation, attention, and sometimes confronting a limitation under which we’ve been operating.

Financial self-awareness is the first step. Learning to be aware of our blind spots can lead us to greater understanding, compassion, and better decision-making all around.

As for Blindspotting the movie, my experience at the SIFF screening was intense and very personal. There is an art to allowing us to laugh while we cry, something Shakespearean about giving us that release so that we can continue to watch, to engage, to care about these characters, flawed as they may be, in the short time we have with them. This is a powerful film, coming at a time when we are churning up some deeply held beliefs among us, which I continue to believe is the first part of healing. Right now it may not feel like we’re making progress, yet like any problem – or blind spot – you can’t do anything to change it until you recognize it’s there.

It is only a movie. But if it promotes a continued conversation about racial tension, police violence, gentrification, growing income inequality, and how we can promote empathy and compassion while tackling these issues, then it is so much more.  Blindspotting opens nationwide July 27th.

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Planning in the New Year

Posted on Jan 9, 2017 in Community, Family, Planning, Tax

You all know I love to plan. The power of planning comes from setting your intention, and taking action to make it happen. It’s about dreaming, but it’s more about doing.

Starting a new year is a perfect time to set your intention on how you want to affect the world outside your personal sphere. I know I’m not alone in that while I am glad to put 2016 behind me, I’m not altogether too sure about 2017. All the more reason to have a plan about how you want things to go down. It can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. So start at the beginning:

1. FOCUS – Ask yourself what the top issue is for you – it’s overwhelming to try and solve all the world’s problems at once. Believe me, my mom and I tried over numerous cups of coffee. What is the area that you feel most concerned about protecting? Civil rights? Climate change? Women’s health? Choose one (or two, tops) and put your energies here.

When we’re talking about your portfolio, diversification is beneficial. For philanthropic investments, concentrating your giving – of time and money – focuses your precious resources on the specific goal you want to support, and can enhance your involvement in something you care about.

2. Next, DECIDE how you’d like to help. There are three main ways to support the causes that matter to you:

• Gifts to traditional charities
• Gifts to not-for-profits with a political agenda
• Gifts of action

Gifts to Traditional Charities
Our tax code currently provides some incentive for charitable giving, allowing a tax deduction for giving to not-for-profit – and generally non-political – groups. We’re entering a whole new world this year, both with potential changes to the tax code and changes in the political climate.

We don’t yet know how the changes to the tax code will affect charitable giving from a tax perspective. One thing we can know with some certainty is that there will be less spending of our collective tax dollars for social services or human rights protection. Organizations that work in these areas – food banks, civil rights groups, women’s health – are going to need your help more than ever. If they are 501(c)3 organizations, you can take a tax deduction to the full extent of the law as it stands now.

From what we have heard thus far, the new administration is proposing tax reform that stresses simplification, part of which would reduce the number of tax brackets and substantially increase the standard deduction (from $6,300 to $15,000 for single filers, $11,500 to $30,000 for jointly-filed tax returns). Meaning many people who may have itemized and received a tax benefit for charitable giving will now receive no additional tax benefit from this unless their total itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction.

Gifts for Political Action
There are many reasons to give beyond a tax deduction, and giving to groups that lobby or otherwise take political action may now be on an equal footing tax-wise with giving to tax-exempt organizations. Some not-for-profit groups which lobby or otherwise participate in political campaigns don’t have 501(c)(3) status, so your donation may not be tax-deductible.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the many areas of need, and you’re going to need to pick your battles. On one of his first post-election shows, comedian John Oliver of Last Week Tonight offered a solid list of organizations you may want to help. Oliver made a very serious call to action on his program, noting that until now we’ve generally felt that the rights of all Americans would be protected by those in Washington. But many may feel that will no longer be the case, and some groups will need help under the new administration. He organized his list by cause:

Women’s health: Planned ParenthoodCenter for Reproductive Rights           

Climate change: Natural Resources Defense Council

Refugees:  International Refugee Assistance Project

Civil rights: American Civil Liberties UnionNAACP Legal Defense FundThe Trevor Project,

Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund

All of these groups, with the exception of the ACLU, are 501(c)3 organizations and donations to them are tax deductible to the full extent of the law. Note you can donate to the ACLU Foundation to make a tax-deductible gift to support their work on civil rights issues.  Here’s a description of the difference: Giving to ACLU or ACLU Foundation: What is the Difference?

If you want to make your own list — and not rely on one from a fake news show — check out Charity Navigator or Guidestar to search for organizations doing work you want to support. You can search by area of interest.  On Charity Navigator you can start with its Perfect 100, charities that execute their missions such that they’ve received top marks for good governance.

Gifts of Action
You may want to take action beyond writing checks. While you can blog and tweet and email and post about how the world should change, coming together with others is what creates a message that cannot be denied.

You can do this without leaving your house. Just last week, plans to alter the House of Representatives independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) were scrapped after thousands of phone calls opposing the move tied up Representatives’ telephone lines. The fight to curb the power of the OCE was not new, nor was the tool used to voice disapproval. You have your First Amendment Rights for a reason. Likewise, over dinner recently with a long-time friend, she surprised me by saying if the new administration rolls out a Muslim registry, she’s planning to register. She is not Muslim nor of a targeted ethnicity. It was her way to disrupt a rounding up of people according to religion or ethnicity, and she was betting it was unlikely that the authorities would come round to arrest a white, middle-aged mom in the suburbs.

I felt obliged to remind her that that was a reasonable bet now, but perhaps not in the future. (See point #3, below).

3. If you plan to act, PLAN to act

You know this is all really leading up to some planning. Whether you give money – for a tax deduction or not – or decide to take action yourself, make sure you plan for it. It will take time out of your already busy lives, to research a charity, to call your Congressperson, or better still, to show up en masse at his or her office. To work on a committee, to meet up with others to plan, to work, to act. It will use nights, weekends, vacation, PTO. And you’re going to need to protect yourself when you do.

When I was in graduate school, a visiting professor taught a course on ethics. I was skeptical about what ethics you could teach to MBA students, but her approach was pragmatic. Specifically, she talked about how to be prepared in case you found yourself working somewhere in which you found corporate behavior to be illegal or unethical. There is often an enormous toll for speaking out, not only in legal costs but in damage to your career in the short- and sometimes long-term, to your social and professional networks, personal financial security, and to personal health. At a minimum, you need to be able to walk away. We all want to be the kind of person who acts when needed, but not everyone feels they can for some of these reasons.

One of the things she taught us was to have a cash reserve. Yes, I’ll always recommend you have an emergency fund. Beyond cash for a short-term shortfall, consider building another kind of reserve. Have “pin money,” bail money, a Go F*ck You Fund, a reserve in case you need to make a change, or end up at Santa Rita after your weekend activities.

A Brave New World
Progress often feels like two steps forward and one step back. We are at the beginning of a new cycle for social justice, and things are going to get bad before they get better. It’s going to take work and sacrifice to make progress. Civil rights, women’s rights, human rights all seem under threat as we move into this New Year.

You can leave it to others. 56% of Californians and 39% of Washingtonians did not vote, they left the decision to others. Don’t leave the work to others. Plan for your part in it, whatever that is.

I’m encouraged by the numerous people in the media, experts in disparate professions, and yes, even some politicians, who understand what is at stake and who are ready to put their time and effort towards moving us forward. Find your cause, find others working towards the same goals, find your tribe. At a minimum, it’s an opportunity to get to know your neighbors, co-workers, kids, parents in new ways. It’s our connection to others that gives us a rich life, and believe it or not, this year and beyond could prove to be some of the most moving and meaningful times we might have. It takes courage, and time and effort. Set your intention: what do you want to look back on with pride at the end of this year? It is a New World in this New Year, and we need to be brave in it.

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