THE GOLDEN AGE OF GRIFT

A few weeks ago a Florida K-12 teacher was fired for refusing to call a transgender student by that student's preferred name. While certainly a high school needs to have some basic limits on the idea that students can be called – No, the teacher is not going to call you "Fuck Machine" or a racial slur – this teacher's decision is otherwise perplexing. At least on the surface.

As a teacher, literally nothing could be less important than what the students prefer to be called. Steve. Mary. Cipher. Iron Man. Ming the Merciless. Question Q. Mysterio. My Little Pony. Like, there is no conceivable reality in which what a student asks me to call them (whether it is a proper name or some infantile nickname) matters. We just work together. I am paid to do a job, and that makes some things about the students my problem – whether they do the assigned work, behaviors they may engage in during our brief time together in class that violate school policy, assigning them a grade, and that's pretty much it.

Their personal lives? Irrelevant, unless I have reason to think they're being abused, harming themselves, or in danger. The matter of what they want other people to call them, as long as it's not "Lil Dago" or some shit, is so far beyond being worth my time and effort to care about at all, it can't be expressed properly within the limits of English. Frankly I consider it a win if I learn everyone's name (in college, we don't see them but an hour or so per week).

In that light, the Florida teacher's choice of hills to die on makes little sense. But look at it another way and we can see that he is simply behaving rationally in response to current incentives. He figures the meager salary of a teacher pales in comparison to what he can make emulating other right-wing self-made martyrs. The book deal! The spots on Tucker Carlson! The GoFundMe! Hell, he can probably get his teacher salary covered overnight with the right publicity. Get Jordan Peterson to retweet that link and he'll wake up rich.

A more obvious example is that Kent State girl who posed with an AR-15 in her graduation picture. I refuse to link her or use her name. She is engaging in Twitter attention-seeking behavior so over the top, shameless, and obvious that an Officer Darren Wilson sex tape can't be far off if she doesn't get a book deal soon. You have a person who fundamentally is not interesting at all but as a woman under 50 is savvy enough to realize that the bar on the right is so very low that she still could make a very lucrative career out of it. Tomi Lahren Tryouts, live on Twitter.

I don't begrudge anyone earning a living, but it's pretty pathetic to see people openly resume-building to get in on what is nothing but an enormous grift. Take some idiotic "moral" stand and you too can cash in Kim Davis style. Kick some gays out of your failing diner and wake up rich. Regurgitate talking points a child can see through and end up with one of the easiest jobs on Earth. Beats the hell out of teaching or looking for a job with a BA from Kent State.

TONY, PART ONE: THE GOOD

I'm not much for reacting to Celebrity Deaths; they don't make me feel any differently than hearing about the death of anyone I don't know personally. But for reasons I'll elaborate more fully tomorrow, the Anthony Bourdain news got to me a little bit.

One aspect of watching people react to it was actually a positive, I think. This random observation summed up the way I see changes in how people talk about Celebrities:

When I first posted a comment on Facebook about how much I like Bourdain's non-fiction writing, a single comment (since redacted by its author) leaped in to do the tired "HAVE YOU READ KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, IT'S THE BIBLE OF MISOGYNY WHY DO YOU LIKE A MISOGYNIST." Predictably, it was a dude. All of the comments from women were about how much they liked Anthony Bourdain.

It is inarguable that Kitchen Confidential, written 20 years ago, has some cringe-worthy passages in it. In fact, as I pointed out in response, Bourdain has written a number of things reflecting on how he feels looking back at his own writing from that time and seeing how "dated" some of the comments and some of the situations he describes feel. He has been, I think, pretty reflective about his own attitudes. And frankly, anyone who looks at something describing what they thought and felt 20 years earlier and doesn't feel like they've outgrown some or most of it as a person is…a person who is not progressing emotionally or intellectually through adulthood.

The point is, the incessant Dragging and "OMG EVERYONE IS PROBLEMATIC" thing that started a few years ago really feels like it's running its course. I honestly think your average intelligent person is getting a bit sick of it. The point is not "Misogyny is no big deal and everyone should give everyone a free pass." The point is, it adds literally nothing to the conversation to say something like this. Not one person who likes Anthony Bourdain is unaware of some of the things he said and wrote. It's just possible – and here's the part that is starting to dawn on more of us – that it isn't absolutely imperative to define every single person by the worst thing we can find evidence of them saying. Maybe rather than barging into conversations to Out Woke everyone with your dazzling insight about something that is already universally known, consider that people who like and respect a particular person's work are adults who understand that person's shortcomings and failings.

It's a matter of degrees, of course. If Bourdain had done something truly horrific in life (and maybe he did, for all we know) then it's fair to temper how we look at his work. But honest to god, and you can Drag me to high heaven for feeling this way if you prefer, with all the good work he did and as many people as he helped in life I legitimately do not give a fuck that he said "two fat chicks" on an episode of his TV show. I don't. I really do not care at all. The idea that we have to stop liking everything a person did if any evidence of anything Problematic they ever said or did can be unearthed (which, of course, it always can be) is exhausting and counterproductive and it feels like many people who care deeply about the world and people in it are getting a little sick of it.

There were glimmers of this in the recent past when Philip Roth died. Apparently Philip Roth was kind of a prick. Fair enough. But do you really think, for example, that if a person read a Roth novel at a particular time in their life at which that work had a powerful impact on them that he or she is going to retroactively stop feeling that way if you barge into enough conversations like some college sophomore six weeks into his first sociology class shouting "You mean Philip Roth THE MISOGYNIST"?

Shitty people do great things sometimes. And people who create things have a real impact on the lives of people who read, watch, listen to, and see those things. That doesn't have to go away just because someone has a valid criticism of that person. Granted, it's impossible to enjoy anything Woody Allen makes or made anymore, but Woody Allen has done that to himself by being a truly heinous person. He, or someone like Bill Cosby, are a different matter than "Anthony Bourdain used to laugh his ass off while people in his kitchen made crude sex jokes" or, to cite another recent YOU CAN'T LIKE THIS BECAUSE PROBLEMATIC fit, Donald Glover said "fag" on Twitter once five years ago. Yeah OK thanks for the info, I'm still going to think "This is America" is great if that's acceptable to the court.

The point is, it feels like we're working through the nuance, as the post I screencapped here says. Maybe we can save the Dragging for legitimately horrible people and spare it for people who said things they might, in hindsight, have wished they had not said. It's dawning on us that literally any person can be made Problematic and bad, including you, if we insist on defining them by whatever the absolute worst interpretation of the worst thing they said or did is. And we don't have to do that. We don't have to destroy everything and everyone. It is OK, even, if we just fucking enjoy some things and like some people.

And finally, it's OK to recognize that shouting "OMG THE THING YOU LIKE IS BAD, THE PERSON YOU LIKE SAID A BAD THING ONCE SO YOU ARE BAD FOR LIKING THE BAD MAN" does not make you useful or more enlightened or more Woke than everyone else. It just kind of makes you a prick, and a person who isn't growing out of a worldview that is appealing to most of us at 20 but decreasingly thereafter. Everybody fucking knows Thomas Jefferson owned slaves; what are you adding to any conversation that involves him in any way by shouting that at people who are already perfectly well aware of it?

ROPE TRICK

I am in Salt Lake City, UT with thousands of other high school and college faculty grading AP US Government and Politics exams. For the unfamiliar, high school students who pass AP exams are generally (but not always) given college credit for the introductory level course in that field. So, the curriculum is very similar to what one teaches in Political Science 101 – American Government at the college level.

I've graded over 1000 responses, personally, to the same question about checks and balances. That's not a spoiler; the exam was taken a month ago and besides, how does any American Govt class at any level not prepare the students to answer a basic question about checks and balances, separation of powers, and so on. Since all I am doing, 8-9 hours per day, is reading responses to this single question, it has me thinking of how I like to cover this in the classroom.

Take maybe 30 feet of rope to class. Solicit three volunteers to sit or stand in a triangle and connect to one another by looping the rope around their waist (or through 2-3 belt loops) and then to the next person. Ask them to stand apart so that the rope has no slack.

Very quickly they realize that any single person moving is impossible. Perhaps they can stretch it a little bit, but only a little – provided the other two pull back.

Then try the same thing except have the volunteers form a triangle simply by holding on to the rope with one hand. Now when one person tries to move, he or she actually has a decent amount of leeway to move even if the other two remain stationary. Arms are long and they move in nearly any direction. But still, there is a limit. One person can walk away from the other two for a few steps, but then the rope runs out.

Eventually we return to the belt/waist example, where it was harder for any one person to walk away. And I ask, what is the only way the Executive Branch can get from this classroom to the classroom across the hall while tied to Mr. Legislature and Ms. Judiciary like this?

Since this isn't rocket science, someone chimes in pretty quickly with the only non-smartass answer: Executive Branch can move wherever he wants if the other two branches are willing to come with him. Alternatively, the cooperation of one other branch could make, say, Executive and Legislature strong enough to drag Judiciary where she doesn't want to go.

As long as two branches are trying to hold their ground, no matter what manner is used to tie the three together the range of possible motion will be limited. The area to which they are confined, and to which they drift back no matter how hard an individual tries to run away, is the Constitution. The rope is checks and balances. The point, then, is that checks and balances preserve the system defined by the Constitution only inasmuch as all three branches (or two of three) are unwilling to consent to walking away to a different classroom altogether.

The nation began with the rope-around-waist version because the people who came up with this conceived of political competition as among the branches of government ("Congress rules!" vs "Booo, President #1!"). Then political parties changed the way political actors identify from the institution to the coalition. So each branch has had a lot of room to walk around – the rope-in-hand version. We may be about to see the transition to the last example.

PARSE AND DEFLECT

The funny thing about The Internet is that when you throw a bunch of stuff at it, people will eventually notice you. But they'll never notice the things you want them to notice. You write something you think is incredibly important and heartfelt or whatever, and it hovers there for a moment before fading into the ethers. Alternatively, you make some stupid off-hand joke like "LOLOL THIS DOGGO LOOKS LIKE BUTTS" and you wake up the next morning and it has two million hits. The reverse can also be true, but it's a crapshoot, is what I'm saying.

I receive *tons* of "Hey, check this out!" or "You should write about this" links from strangers via social media, as well as from people I know via text, etc. Saturday morning a stranger sent me a link to the website of a private corrections company's website – a company that is a major ICE contractor – including a picture of a prison bus full of baby car seats. Other than a very quick scan to ascertain that it was real (it was, and it was the official corporate website) I saw great "Get a load of this shit!" potential in the picture and reposted it on Facebook and Twitter with a throw-away joke:

No deep thought went into it – I simply found the picture shocking and the phrase "prison bus for babies" funny. I realize that car seats can accommodate a range of children's ages beyond "baby." But hold that thought for a moment.

By Monday, half the internet had seen it and Snopes had written it up ("Mostly True").

When conservatives share things on the internet, there is absolutely no pretense whatsoever of fact-checking or truth. They just fire it out there and it becomes Truth through repetition. When anyone to the left of, say, John McCain shares something that circulates widely, it is dealt with through a predictable and effective strategy of parsing it to death.

Gun Nuts have this down to a science. Ignore the substance of a claim and focus exhaustively on some minor detail that is wrong. "Ha ha can you believe this idiot expects us to listen to her when she doesn't understand how .223 and 5.56 are slightly different?" That sort of thing. They parse the details, which of course must be correct in every possible facet, and ignore the point.

My post was not, obviously, the result of years of investigative journalism. I made zero attempt to hide anything from anyone – including in the post the full link to the company's own website so that anyone who cared to could read in their own words how they put this in context.

Yet two things were, in predictable fashion, beaten to death by critical commenters:

1. The company's post was from mid-2016.
2. The bus is for "field trips" for the private prison company's own Charter School it started to get more money from ICE

For the first point, how could that be less relevant? Does the post being two years old mean the bus no longer exists? Of course not. Second, leave aside momentarily the high likelihood that "field trips" is some kind of creepy euphemism. The larger point is, ICE has so many small children in custody, and they are held in custody for so long, that it needs to set up its own school system to handle them. That, and not what specific use the bus in the photo is put to, is important.

Finally, taking artistic license with the phrase "prison bus for babies" is a fair criticism insamuch as the bus is not literally being used to imprison babies, but here's the thing – I'm not the goddamn BBC. I make jokes on the internet, and the photo depicts something from a company that exists entirely to build and run prisons. When Prison, Inc. buys and outfits a bus, calling that a "prison bus" in a tossed-off, "funny to take the edge off the horror" kind of way is within my rights. And, to whatever extent I, Internet Joke Guy, is responsible for factual accuracy I included a full link to the source website so anyone could evaluate it for themselves. In social media sharing terms, I think that was pretty goddamn responsible. Here it is! I didn't make this up! See for yourselves, in their own words!

In closing, it was fun to experience the double standard first-hand. Right wingers make shit up out of whole cloth, believe it unquestioningly, and circulate it enthusiastically. I tried to call attention to something quite awful using a picture I knew would be attention-getting and a caption that, in my Online Voice, underscored the part of this that should be alarming – that ICE has tons of small children in custody and is holding them for so long that it had to pay someone to make a charter school to put them through K-12.

Go ahead and ignore that part and beat up on minor details, though. That should help.

DSM-V

If you're a regular reader you may have noticed that the Trump content on here is more limited than one might reasonably expect in this political climate. The reality is that I simply do not have the fortitude to spend every day writing about every illegal, insane, or ridiculous thing going on as a result of his presidency. To the people on the internet who manage to cover him exhaustively – Trump Watch, mainstream media outlets, blogs like Wonkette, etc. – I have no idea how they do it. I tip my hat. I can't. However they manage to keep their foot on the gas and reach full outrage over everything that truly merits full outrage is beyond me. If it sounds like I'm being sarcastic, I'm not. I just can't wake up every single day and allow myself to be worked into a full lather over how many truly appalling things happen every day. I'd die of a stroke. We're 500 days into this nightmare and my ability to write "Did you guys realize what a horrible piece of shit this guy is?" for the 500th time is well and truly gone. I can't do it. I'm glad someone else can.

That said, the president's Memorial Day message stopped me short. I feel like this is worthy of comment, because we're collectively becoming so accustomed to shit like this that we barely notice it anymore. But spend a moment thinking, if you have the emotional capacity to spare today, about what kind of malignant narcissist you have to be to hear your staff telling you, "Sir you have to say something about Memorial Day. Sir it's the one for the people who were in the military and died in combat." and processing that into a message in which you congratulate yourself and explain that if all those dead people were alive they'd be telling you what a great job you're doing.

I can't do this every day. But today, think about that. Try to put yourself into the mindset of someone who thinks like that – someone who is told to say something about dead military service people and comes up with, "If they were alive they'd all be real impressed with me."

Have a good day.

SHELL GAMING, PART III

(Part I and Part II)

So colleges – at least the majority of higher ed institutions that are not swamped with amazing applicants like some elite schools are – take a lot of international students for largely economic reasons. What's the big deal? Why shouldn't they take them? Diversity is good!

The problem (and note, crucially, that it's not a problem for the entire university community) is that these students can be poorly prepared to succeed in a US classroom and very little is done to help integrate these students into campuses often located in rural areas that lack much diversity. Let's unpack that a bit, and note that not all international students and not all colleges are identical on this point. Obviously.

First, international students often have an educational background that amounts to intense math, science, and computer skill training with nothing resembling what we broadly recognize as a Liberal Arts type education here in the US. This means universities will do one of two things: either put international students in courses where some will struggle mightily, or alter their curriculum so Tech-oriented students don't have to take any liberal arts or humanities courses. Those are both bad outcomes.

Another big problem is basic facility with English, which I hope we can agree is a prerequisite to any student succeeding in a US college classroom. I don't care if immigrants to the US speak English or not, as history shows that over time they and future generations will learn it inevitably. But for a person coming to the US specifically for the purpose of taking college courses, not being able to speak, read, and understand English is going to be a big problem.

I hope that isn't parsed or misconstrued to endorse some sort of racist closed-door policy. The issue is that – OK let's be real, we're talking specifically about China here – international student applicants are certified to have English language ability in a process that is clearly flawed. I'm not saying Chinese state policy is to cheat standardized testing and fudge applicant backgrounds and qualifications, but…it totally is. This is common knowledge, not a conspiracy theory. Administering standardized tests in China is a nightmare issue for organizations like ETS or College Board, and applications from China regularly have certification of skills and degrees completed that are of doubtful provenance. This is not the students' fault in the slightest. This is a situation beyond their control.

Anyway, the 80s movie stereotype of the Exchange Student who no-speak English is generally false, but in recent years with the sharp rise in recruitment from China there are in fact some issues.

The second big issue is support and integration. You cannot accept a couple hundred Bengali or Ukranian or Chinese or Turkish students and just drop them in the middle of rural western Michigan and say "OK, good luck!" Support resources for foreign students might not be urgently needed in Chicago or San Francisco or Miami, but they definitely are in Rural Rust Belt, Missouri. Real efforts to integrate students with the larger campus are rarely attempted. Instead, schools more commonly take the "self contained biosphere" approach, setting up a separate living environment for all international students and just sort of telling them to make the best of it. I've never been an international student, but it's not hard to imagine how social, personal, and psychological issues could be a big problem. I imagine myself dumped not into Beijing but into some rural city in China where I might be one of only 100 English-speaking white people and I do not have a hard time seeing how that could be intimidating and alienating.

Let's be honest again and recognize that in some parts of the US, the non-campus community might also be hostile to the idea of universities (especially if public) catering to thousands of people speaking foreign languages. I don't need to elaborate here; suffice it to say that is a problem and it is rarely dealt with in a systematic and serious way.

International students are great. Don't get me wrong. It is ironic to me that every non-US citizen student who has ever taken my (often required) Intro to American Government course has passed it, often with an A or B. These are good students as a group; smart people and a pleasure to deal with. Unfortunately they are often (though obviously not always) put in situations where they are going to have a hard time succeeding through no fault of their own. Their government is telling them "Go, do this or you have no future" and on the American end we are saying "Yes, come, show us the money!" and it doesn't take an overwhelming amount of cynicism to see how that doesn't create the best set of incentives.

I don't see a likely solution so long as the vast majority of higher education institutions in the US compete for a stagnant or (in some states) shrinking population of college-aged people. Tuition will go up, but so will the discounts given in what is a very competitive environment for highly qualified students. Someone and something has to take up the slack.

SHELL GAMING, PART II

(Part I here)

Not everything I described yesterday applies universally – obviously. Elite universities tend to play a different game (since they don't need to do anything to get boatloads of applicants) and some public schools are seriously constrained by decisions made in state capitals. But bear in mind that the vast majority of the 6000-plus degree-granting higher education institutions in this country are hurting or starting to hurt for enrollment. For every Stanford that kinda just does whatever the hell it wants there are ten New England or Midwestern private schools scrambling to make their enrollment target.

To summarize Part I:

1. For ethical and economic reasons, higher ed is going all-out to recruit 1st Gen and non-traditional students
2. Those applicants are the least likely to understand that the full stated tuition price is not what he/she is likely to pay
3. 1st Gen students opt out of applying for places they think they can't afford, lacking the insider understanding that, as a heavily targeted and recruited population, he or she is likely to get substantial discounts
4. The cycle of failing to bring in 1st Gen and underrepresented students continues

The question we closed with is: If few students are paying "full freight" at a lot of universities, why is the stated tuition price always so high? What's the point of saying your tuition is x when the average student is paying (x/2)?

There are three answers of varying complexity.

One is a feedback loop in which expectations of discounts (from students with college-educated, hyper-well-researching parents who are likely well-off and successful) pushes tuition higher. If you know everyone is expecting to be able to tell their friends "Junior got a 50% scholarship" but you still need to make some money, pushing the base price as high as possible makes sense. This is simple enough.

Two, universities hurting for enrollment can cultivate what a colleague (not at my current or previous universities) euphemistically calls "no discount students" by targeting marginal or underwhelming students with rich parents. Mom and Dad have money and want Junior to go to a good school. Junior's grades and test scores are pretty bad. Good School says, look, your kid is under the admissions bar here and *ordinarily* we would have to reject this application, but…well, maybe we can make an exception. Think about the incentives here. Mom and Dad are less concerned about money than about Junior's future. Junior would like to go somewhere Good. The university can easily justify sliding a few below-average applicants in under the bar (and when such students end up succeeding, everyone can feel good about that). It's an all-around win, excepting of course for the faculty who have to teach incoming freshmen who may lack the ability to do work at a college level. But no university administrator has ever cared about that, so.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: non-US students. High base tuition rates are primarily intended to soak international applicants. They never get discounts. In fact, some places create a separate, even higher price point for them. And while domestic applicants are sensitive to tuition rates – push it too high and they simply go elsewhere – internationals tend not to be for a couple of reasons. One, the students (particularly from Asia) whose parents are sending them to the US for college tend to be among the very wealthiest. You are *not* getting a cross-section of India's population when you look at students from India coming to US universities. Second, in many cases (China, the Middle East, etc.) neither the student nor their family is writing the checks. When the state is footing the bill, the students could care less. I'd be shocked if some of them even know what the tuition rate is.

Schools of every type are working double-time to bulk up on international students now, creating new programs to appeal to the needs and wants of foreign governments that are, in effect, wealthy patrons. Oh, China wants a million electrical engineers? Well heck, we can expand that program easily. The percentage of foreign students on US campuses – many of which are very poorly prepared to integrate and accommodate the needs of anything other than American white kids – is rising not out of some soft-headed liberal desire for multiculturalism. It is strictly a matter of economics. Every US applicant who comes to campus at a discount has an international student counterpart who is getting reamed on tuition – and probably couldn't care less. Everybody wins!

Of course, everybody doesn't win. But that's a story for another day.

That day will be tomorrow.

SHELL GAMING, PART I

There is a lot of talk in higher education these days about first generation college students. There is an ethical component to emphasizing this (to reduce, or at least not perpetuate, inequality by keeping college the province of kids whose parents are graduates). There is also obviously an economic component to this. As well-off people have fewer kids, colleges need to target a broader range of potential students. That pool now consists, for almost every college or university in the nation, of essentially anyone who has graduated high school.

One area in which 1st Gens are at a distinct disadvantage is in understanding how The System works. Specifically, they and their parents tend to take the information they find at face value. If XYZ.edu says the tuition is $45,000/yr, mom and dad somberly tell Junior, "I'm sorry, but we just can't afford that" while steering the kid toward the cheapest options – low-tier state schools ("directionals") or 2-year options.

People somewhat more savvy to the process would understand that the stated price is not what one pays. Well, almost nobody pays it (more on that in a moment). But universities have what is called a discount rate – the average (choose your preferred term: grant, scholarship, merit aid, financial aid, etc.) given to their student body. And especially at private universities, that discount rate can be *significant*. Which is also the case at universities where getting 1st Gens is an institutional priority. Which is also ALSO the case when the students in question are African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, etc. etc.

Discount rates are often substantial. 50% is not uncommon. 50% plus a bonus for having excellent grades or test scores or other application criteria is not either. 75%-plus for 1st Gen students who excel and belong to underrepresented groups is not rare at all. Not every college will offer these deals to every student, but a student who applies broadly (common applications help with the costs here) to 10-15 schools is very likely to find this kind of deal somewhere unless grades are really abysmal.

And non-college parents don't know this in many cases. 1st Gen students don't know this. They let the stated cost scare them out of applying. They don't realize that applying to – no specific reason for giving these examples other than that they are recognizable private schools – Villanova or Butler or DePaul or Drexel there is not a guarantee but no less than an excellent chance that the actual cost could be only 1/4 or 1/3 or 1/2 of what they see on the website.

You could argue that even with the discount it is beyond what many families can afford. That is a story for another time. The point is that decisions are made based on bad information. In reality, three things alter the math in ways that (no offense intended here, as my parents didn't know this either) unsophisticated consumers do not understand.

1. Every school wants 1st Gen college students, for ethical and practical reasons
2. Since everyone wants this pool of students, schools have to compete to attract them by offering incentives
3. Those incentives can be, and for the very best students often are, significant if the student is willing to consider a range of options

Make no mistake, these same incentives and discounts are available to students who aren't 1st Gen. The only difference between any other applicant and 1st Gen students is that the former is more likely to understand that, at many perfectly good schools, an applicant with good credentials is likely to get grants, merit scholarships, and the like. Public schools may have limited flexibility based on state legislative preferences, but at private universities it's hard to find many students truly paying 100% of the stated cost – "full freight" students, in the biz.

This raises an obvious question, of course: If few students are actually paying the stated price, why not just lower the stated price?

Perch yourself on the edge of your seat. Part II tomorrow.

TEN PERCENT OF CRAP

Among the most reliable genres of economic / financial journalism is the "Americans aren't saving enough for retirement" boilerplate piece. Nothing is easier to write. Cite the low rate of personal savings. Estimate what a person is likely to need to live in retirement for x years. Mention that relying on Social Security is really dicey to prepare people for the reality that it's disappearing in the next decade or two. Get a graphic of a piggy bank with a red arrow pointing down. Go to lunch.

The underlying fallacy of this argument is that there is something meaningful most Americans could be doing that they simply aren't prudent or smart enough to do, that the path to a financially secure retirement is there and most of us are just too dumb to tread it. Sure, anecdotal evidence is pretty easy to find; some people take on a lot of debt relative to their income and some people who could be financially secure spend frivolously on stupid things. Too often, though, those anecdotes become the argument, like during the housing crisis when lazy homeowners who just didn't feel like repaying their mortgages became the accepted explanation for a collapse designed and engineered by an unregulated industry allowed to let their wildest fantasies play out in reality.

Understanding why Americans save so little for retirement comes back, as so many things economic do, to stagnant wages. People who don't make much money are barely meeting expenses, especially in a system engineered to throw large financial obligations at them in random intervals (big medical bills, educational expenses, the car you have to own because public transit sucks, etc). The bigger problem, and one that not just the very poor experience, is that if you save 10 or 20 percent of your income and your income isn't very high, you rapidly realize how little that accomplishes. It is not hard to see why a lot of people conclude that the money is better spent now than saved in a financial system they do not understand (God only knows, the 90% of us who are financially unsophisticated think, what a 403b is going to be worth in 30 or 40 years) for a future that may never come.

If your annual income is under six figures and you're not getting some kind of generous retirement plan benefit from your employer – and the overwhelming majority of Americans fail to meet those conditions – there is an outstanding chance that whatever you manage to save isn't going to be "enough." You can save as diligently as you want and still retire poor. Ten percent of a shitty income is shit. Twenty percent of Not Much is Not Much.

Talk to people in the industry, or get a financial planner three beers in, and they will tell you that the problem with most Americans' retirement saving is that he or she simply doesn't make enough money. You can only cut back so many expenses. You can only scrimp so much. You can only tell people not to spend any money on anything ever so many times. Eventually the math wins and you must confront the reality that even if it's possible (and generally it isn't) for people to raise kids, pay for affordable housing, and meet other expenses on 90% of their after-tax income, saving that 10% doesn't really amount to shit in the long run. The only way to make that look like it will work is to work until age 75 or 80 (reducing the number of years one must live off savings in the model) or to assume some ridiculous, pie-sky rate of return that will never happen.

The definition of a system that does not work is one in which an individual can follow every one of the rules and still come out a loser. Save 10% annually of a median income in this country (about $43,000) for ten years and, congratulations, you have $43,000. Do it for your whole working life at that salary (which will never go up, because of course it won't) and you have maybe $150,000. How long is that going to last in your retirement given what things are likely to cost in 2045 or whenever.

Now consider that half the country earns less than that and do the math again. It just doesn't work. Rather than focusing on the handful of people who spend like idiots, let's talk about the reality that following every single rule of prudent retirement and financial planning is not going to allow most of us to retire until we're ready to drop. With the extinction of defined benefit retirement plans, our savings are tied to our earnings and our earnings aren't moving. It'll be an interesting time to be alive when everyone figures that out.

UNDER THE RADAR

Are you half-decent at geography and keeping up with the news? See if you can guess the country I'm talking about without cheating, and see if you can do it before reading every hint.

1. It is home to the deadliest conflict since the end of World War II, responsible for somewhere between 3 and 5.5 million deaths.

2. It is the 11th-largest country in the world by area and has a population greater than France, UK, South Korea, Spain, Poland, or Argentina.

3. It is the world's leading producer and exporter of cobalt, and in the top ten for diamonds and gold.

4. It is the largest country in the world with French as an official language.

5. Foreman and Ali fought in its capital city in 1974 (the "Rumble in the Jungle").

Still searching?

Well.

6. It used to be called Zaire.

The correct answer, if the final one didn't give it away, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And I am fascinated by it. I have no proper academic experience studying it, but I wish I did. It is the absolute perfect example of the long shadow of colonialism, the minimal attention paid in the western media to conflicts – sometimes enormous conflicts – in the Wrong parts of the world, and a lesson I hoped Americans might learn after Iraq about the fallacy of placing any importance on map lines in that region.

The DRC as a nation-state has zero historical basis. None. It's kind of amazing. This notion of "Zaire" as a historical entity barely goes back 100 years and was drawn up by Belgium with the assent of the other European colonial powers. The USA is a fairly ethnically diverse country, right? We're such a melting pot, right? Well within the modern borders of the DRC there are over two hundred distinct ethnic groups, often with no common language. And some people from outside the continent simply decided, OK you're all a country now.

Hmm. I wonder why it hasn't become a stable democracy yet.

Ethnic conflict is just one of the many reasons behind its enormously bloody civil war, sometimes called the Second Congo War when it is noticed at all. Eight – eight! – different African countries in the region have sent armed groups, massive floods of refugees, or both across the borders into the DRC in the past two decades, contributing to the chaos and death toll. If you think it would be impossible for 3-5 million people to die in a war without anyone noticing, surprise. Here you go.

Like many ex-colonies, DRC is cursed and blessed with resources. If its people had any basis whatsoever for coming together as a modern nation the potential for wealth is there, but of course not only do they have any common national identity but the extensive corruption, in-fighting, and constant outside interference ensure that will never happen.

It is, even by post-colonial African standards, just a broken place. It should not exist as a country, as its people had to be informed that they were to exist as one and were not consulted in the matter. And it amazes me the extent to which such an enormous place with so much turmoil can get so little attention. It's an example begging us to learn something from it, hiding in plain sight. When was the last time you read anything about it on the news?