O’Connor: Judge Judy rules; our pension accounts don’t

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

OK, college graduates, let’s clear this up: Judge Judy is not on the Supreme Court.

According to a survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 9.6 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree or better believe that make-believe magistrate Judith Sheindlin — who’s not a judge but plays one on afternoon TV — sits among the nine wise souls on the highest court in the land.

Clearly, this is wrong. If Judge Judy sat on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia would lose his shirt at every one of the justices’ poker nights, court sessions would open and close with an ad for the 1 Second Slicer, and the famous Miranda warning — “You have the right to remain silent ...” would go like this: “You have the right to shut up and I suggest you use it because I eat morons like you for breakfast.”

Nearly 59 million people have college degrees, so this statistic suggests there are 5.6 million people walking around the United States of America under this delusion. Worse, they might be driving. They probably don’t vote, except for “American Idol.” But what’s particularly troubling is that these same people are in charge of investing their own retirement money.

Guilty of being human

Still, that kind of dumb doesn’t completely explain why, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security, Americans between the ages of 40 and 55 have set aside a median retirement account balance of a mere $14,500, even though they’ll need 20 times to 30 times that much when they stop working. Even if those grads could quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent in Citizens United v. FEC from memory, they’d still face a shaky retirement, notes Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics at the New School for Social Research and author of “How to Retire With Enough Money.”

That’s because America made the switch from guaranteed pensions to a do-it-yourself system of Individual Retirement Accounts and workplace 401(k)s that fetishize self-discipline and personal responsibility. But all the new system really does is set up trusting and naive retirement savers to lose.

“All they need to do is have a financial education in fourth grade, figure out what the Bundesbank is going to do with oil futures and then predict where interest rates will be in five years,” Ghilarducci says. “It’s not a matter of stupidity or self-discipline. It’s a system that is designed to make people fail.”

Wired to spend, not save

Humans aren’t programmed to value our future selves 30 or more years down the road as much as we value the present. That’s why a system that includes things such as Social Security, unions, pensions and automated, professionally run investment plans is needed so we don’t constantly have to choose between getting the kids braces today or living on cat food when we’re 70.

Even when workers do save for retirement, they’re tripped up by recessions, investment fees, pay cuts, rising health care costs, layoffs and other hardships that can force them to tap retirement money.

“We’ve moved from a system where we can be responsible adults and human beings at the same time, and offered up a system that says, ‘Only the good humans can succeed and the bad humans have to work.’ That’s a system that’s based on shame,” Ghilarducci says. “It’s impractical and it’s crumbling — as would be expected.”

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Ghilarducci and Hamilton James, president of the money management firm Blackstone, advocate creating a national guaranteed retirement account to supplement Social Security. That would be a hard sell today, but the looming retirement crisis that hits when baby boomers with too little savings have all retired — and crashed the economy — could make it a reality.

In the meantime, all retirement savers can do is save as much as they can, avoid debt, get good investment advice, avoid tapping those accounts and automate their savings as much as possible. But even the most successful retirement investors shouldn’t kid themselves that the current system works for the majority of the country’s future retirees.

As Judge Judy would say: “Don’t spit on my cupcake and tell me it’s frosting.”


Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”