Author Archive

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Readers, Aunt Pythia needs your help. She’s decided to start a women’s magazine, inspired by this recent article and this front cover suggestion:


My idea would be to expand the “sex advice” section a bit by adding sexual fantasies, written from the women’s perspective, to talk about the pros and cons of shaving in general (with a bottomline recommendation not to give in to pressure from the patriarchy), and to list the 10 easiest ways to get rid of douchebags from your life (go ahead, text him, see if he wilts). Stuff like that. Other ideas from Facebook friends include: how to choose birth control, how to get good plumbers and electricians, and how to decide when to say “fuck you” in response to comments about your fashion sense (answer: pretty much always).

As usual, I’m looking to you, dear readers, for yet more awesome ideas on how to make women’s magazines great. Whaddya got?

After thinking up more subjects for listicles, and after disagreeing vehemently with Aunt Pythia’s ill-considered suggestions below, please don’t forget to:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Aunt Pythia,

I had a very bad time in the first year of my graduate program. Nothing went well. Now I feel much better, but the thoughts of people who caused me lot of problems in the first year keep cluttering my mind. Sometimes, I just can’t get over it. Can you help?

Cluttered Mind

Dear Cluttered,

I’m sorry that those shitheads got to you. And I know how you feel, because I’ve been there. Here’s what has helped me. You can totally ignore this plan but the good things about it for me is that it’s a plan, and it has worked for me.

First of all, give yourself some time each day to think about what happened. Like, not a huge amount of time, maybe 20 minutes. Think of it as a meditation on this issue. The important thing about setting aside time to think about it is that, the rest of the day, you don’t have to. In fact avoid thinking about it the rest of the day, knowing you’ll have ample time later. Clear up the rest of the day from thinking about this. That’s just as important as setting aside time to think about it.

Next, during those 20 minutes, think about what happened, why it happened, why you reacted to it the way you did, and so on. After you remind yourself of those things, and try to learn lessons from it – but don’t dwell on lessons, that’s not the point – imagine it all stuffed into a box. Now imagine the box in the corner of a room. Now imagine that room expanding, bigger and bigger. That room is your existence, or your mind if you’d prefer it, and that box is pretty small compared to the size of the room. If that box consisted of stinky cheese, it would be stifling if the room were small, but since the room is enormous and growing larger all the time, it’s barely noticeable. It’s not gone. It’s still there. But as the room grows, it just doesn’t overwhelm the room anymore. No more clutter!

Do this every day for a month, and then take stock of how much less it hurts after a while. If you decide you don’t have time to think about it on a given day, good. That’s progress.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Should I take condoms to mathematics conferences?

Can One Negligently Damage Own Marriage?


Absolutely, you should, but it’s part of a general rule that you should take condoms everywhere, especially as a woman. By the way, your sign-off is also a question, and the answer to that is also, obviously, yes, but it’s also part of a general rule that you can damage any relationship through negligence. To sum up: bring condoms, don’t be negligent.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I would like to start an organization in my department that will give math PhDs easier access to industry opportunities that will utilize their mathematical expertise. I’ve noticed that when students get to their 4th and 5th year and realizing that they likely won’t get an academic position or they no longer want to pursue academia, they are lost and don’t know what to do with their expertise in math. There are so many opportunities for us to make an impact in industry actually, it’s just not obvious to most grad students. The club will bring these opportunities to the forefront and will proactively prepare math PhDs for success in industry to complement their preparation for success in academia.

Do you have any advice on how to open the door to industry mathematics to pure mathematicians? One idea I had was to have guest mathematicians from companies here in Chicago give us talks about what they do. I know that you jumped from academia to industry. What opened your mind to that idea? Thanks so much!

Curious math PhD student

Dear Curious,

Great idea. Don’t do what I did, which was just move to the only job I absolutely knew about existing, namely being a quant at D.E. Shaw, simply because I got recruitment emails about the job and knew people who had done it. I wish I could go back in time and explore more about non-academic math opportunities.

Having said that, I’m not sure how many jobs there are for pure math Ph.D. folks without extra training. I was in a sense super lucky that D.E. Shaw was prepared to train me from scratch. It seems like nowadays the opposite is true – even data science jobs require specialized knowledge. Personally I was turned down recently for a data science job because I didn’t have experience with a specific algorithm, which I found bizarre.

Maybe what you could do is think about starting an internship program in the summers so that graduate students can go work for free or for very little and at the same time learn about an industry. I’m not sure how hard that would be to set up, but I bet it would work. Just an idea.

Keep in touch and tell me what happens!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I am a guy and have never had any luck with online dating, because I am short for a guy. So now that Aunt Pythia (sadly, but I guess I see the logic in your post explaining your change of position) no longer recommends math conferences or, I assume, math seminars as places to try to meet a woman to form a relationship, I guess I am thinking about the gym or the grocery store.

I have hobbies (mostly sports), but they are even more male dominated than math – and the male competition is extremely fit and muscular, unlike typically in math. Also, I am interested in a relationship, not solely or even immediately sex – there is a difference as was pointed out in the comments to your explanation (although you said that for people asking out at a conference, most people thing they are asking for sex).

Any advice for I should I go about picking up women at the gym or grocery store? Or perhaps I shouldn’t because if I ask them out the first time I meet them, they have to assume I’m asking for sex, which I’m not (not immediately, anyway). Not interested in the bar scene; want to pick up a classy lady.

Man not at a bar


That’s the shitty thing about online dating. They ask for very few, poorly chosen statistics, and if you don’t fit into what people think is desirable, you’re totally fucked. Unless you lie, but that leads to other obvious problems. That’s why Aunt Pythia came up with her own online dating questions which she thinks would far outperform the standard ones.

So far, though, no major online dating site has taken up the call, so it’s not helpful to you. That’s bullshit, since you still need to find a girlfriend.

Here’s what I’m going to go with: friends of friends. Don’t people have parties anymore? Can’t you meet the friend of your best friend’s girlfriend somehow? I remember there being lots of people being semi-set up through friends and it working out pretty well back in my day. Or they’d just have parties and everyone would drink and make out. Maybe that was just me, in Berkeley, in the early 1990’s? I know that wasn’t just me.

Also, I’d suggest that women at bars can be quite classy. Don’t rule them out. I’ve been at plenty of bars myself. Not sure if that raises the bar though.

What do other people suggest for MNAAB?

Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized

Slides for Stockholm

I’ve been busy preparing the data science tutorial I’m giving next week in Stockholm, and I thought I’d share my prezi slides with you. Almost everything in these slide decks is stolen from the web, and the more I worked on my presentation the more I realized how much of a tool the web itself has become for learning and explaining things.

The tutorial will be divided up into three parts. The first part I call “Data,” and it takes 2.5 hours. In that time I introduce the kind of data used in various fields of data science, how to get the data, how to store it, and how to do basic exploratory data analysis, cleaning, and basic statistics. Here’s the slide deck.

The second part is called “Models,” also 2.5 hours, and during that section I discuss the modeling process, including defining success, finding proxies, understanding information, choosing algorithms, understanding results through visualization, the problem of overfitting, and how to avoid it. The slide deck for Models is here.

In the final part, which is 1.5 hours, I am calling my presentation Product, and it addresses the various ways data science projects are published, whether through production code in higher level languages, or academic journals, or data journalism. Here I address end-product visualizations, keeping models updated with new data, building in feedback loops, and documentation. I’m not quite done with this one but close enough. That slide deck is here.

Tell me if you think I’m missing something!

Categories: Uncategorized

It’s time to stop watching football

My husband and I have boycotted football. It’s hard, especially at this time of year when baseball is winding down, and our traditional Sunday and Monday night activities involve beer and relaxation while watching bunches of men in tight jumping on other bunches of men in tights (although the Mets being in the World Series certainly helps for now). I’ve been a football fan for more than 20 years, so it’s a deeply held habit.

Nowadays, though, every time I hear the familiar crunch of football helmets crashing against each other on the front lines or the receivers being thrown to the ground, all I can think is “concussion.” And it’s more than just one concussion, or even a few. It’s known to accumulate and lead to a serious and debilitating brain disease, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Memory loss, dementia, that kind of thing, at young ages. Here’s a wiki page listing the players who are known to have CTE and who are involved in a lawsuit against the NFL for concussion-related injuries. The lists are far from complete. In fact, a recent study showed that 96% of deceased players suffered from CTE. So a good approximation of a complete list would be “all football players, ever.” Acute readers have pointed out that the group studied in this paper were self-selected, so there’s likely a bias involved. Even so, nobody would argue that football isn’t rife with CTE.

Here’s the thing. I have three sons, and I wouldn’t let any of them play football. So what does it mean that I let myself be entertained by other people playing it?

It’s similar with the military. I would absolutely avoid my sons entering the military if possible, because of the inherent danger. It’s an extremely privileged position to take, because I’m not claiming the U.S. shouldn’t have armed forces, but I would still act to prevent my kids from being involved, at least as it is now.

On the other hand, I am also fully aware that one reason we enter wars the way we do is that the children of the privileged are by and large not on the front lines. In other words, I am willing to engage in a conversation about what kind of army we would need to have, and what kind of military engagements we would enter, if everyone were a soldier for at least a little while, including women. In principle, it would be a better system. We would all have a serious stake in making it better.

Football is different, of course. Nobody needs to play football. That means I don’t need to consider sending my son, and other sons, off to training camp in order to have skin in the game. If the past few years of child abuse, wife abuse, and violent and criminal tendencies leaking out of NFL and college football locker rooms haven’t convinced us we need to clean that up, then I don’t know what would.

The analogy of the army and football is apt, however, in some ways. One of the most uneasy aspects of my enjoyment of football has always been the way the NFL and even college football coaches and media play up and play to the military aspects of the game. They talk about war, they talk about preparing for battle, they discuss the shame of losing a game as if it involved lives lost. They perform weirdly contrived rituals when there is military presence in the audience. It makes you think of the worst kinds of forced patriotism. Rudy Giuliani-ism, if you will. It’s not earnest.

And it’s too much. Last Saturday night I was having trouble sleeping so I listened to sports radio, which is what I do. Much of the coverage centered on the dismal performance of a Miami college football team in a 58-0 loss. If you didn’t know what they were talking about, the words they were using, and the coach’s interview, sounded like the end of the world. If I had been a player on that team, I might have considered suicide, it was so bad.

What the fuck is wrong with us? Why do we take these games so seriously? Especially when young people are concerned, it makes no sense. And I’m saying that as a huge sports fan: we need to realize this stuff is just a game. We need to enjoy the victories and ignore the defeats. And crucially, we need to treat college level sports like we treat minor league baseball, namely not that important because it’s young kids learning to play the game.

I’ve lost patience with the violence of it all. Kids are losing their lives from injuries, and better helmets aren’t going to fix this problem. The NFL is avoiding dealing with the problem, because there’s so much frigging money on the table. Instead they shove yet more military might talk and fake patriotism down our throats, hoping we won’t think too hard about it between rounds of beer.

So I’ve been boycotting football this season. I have meant to do it for a few years, but this season it’s finally stuck. That doesn’t mean I don’t encounter football by accident. In fact it happens all the time, because it’s everywhere. Just the other day I was at a bar with some friends and I went to order a beer, and looked up at the TV, and there it was, Sunday night football. The play had been suspended because a player was lying unconscious on the field. Another head injury.

Categories: Uncategorized

In Praise of Cabbies

My son’s tibia (shin) bone was broken last Thursday, after school, in a totally random soccer accident (shin against shin). That has resulted in four excruciating days of pain for him, though thankfully each less bad than the last. Even after your leg is in a cast, any kind of micro-movement that vibrates a broken tibia even in the slightest gives you pain. So getting into or out of bed, going to the bathroom, or god forbid getting into a cab, is very slow and often very traumatic.

He’s had to get into and out of 4 cabs since it happened. After the first, we figured out that carefully pulling him backwards, across the seat, while someone else hold his leg as still as possible, is the best approach. It hurts, of course, but not as badly as other systems.

Three out of these four times that we did this, the cabbies were infinitely patient and kind. They had no problem waiting, for as long as it would take, and they even offered to help. I was so grateful, because obviously it’s not good money to be waiting around for a crying 7-year-old to calm down and move one more inch.

But for one trip, to get the permanent cast put on at Mount Sinai, I had to miss the cab trip in order to be downtown for my Slate podcast, and my husband went without me. The cabbie volunteered to help, and as Johan put it, he was “infinitely strong and infinitely patient” and somehow managed to port my son backwards across the back seat in a perfect, smooth motion, that made him think he was levitating. It was the least painful of all the journeys.

Can I just take a moment now, and mention how grateful I am to all of these guys? These four cab drivers were all extremely kind and sympathetic men, any of whom would have immediately done whatever they could to help my son. And here’s the thing, I don’t even think I was particularly lucky; I think that’s actually pretty normal for cabbies. They are some really great people, willing and able to help out strangers all the time. That’s their job. And in a big, crowded city that might seem anonymous and pitiless, it’s a super comforting feeling to know they are there.

Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Readers, Aunt Pythia is a bit sad and a pinch exhausted today. On Thursday, Aunt Pythia’s sweetiepie 7-year-old had an accident at school and broke his tibia bone. And it really caused him such excruciating pain, readers, that it was terrible to behold. You all would have been crying alongside Aunt Pythia if you’d been there.

Now he’s got a good cast on, thank goodness, and a waterproof one at that, which means he can take showers and even baths with it, and things are normalizing, but it isn’t great, and bathroom visits are a real ordeal.

The moral of that story is, thank goodness for casts.

You can even swim with it. The water goes in but then drips out.

You can even swim with it. The water goes in but then drips out.(this is not a picture of my 7-year-old)

For that matter, can we take a moment to just appreciate penicillin too? And our present-day understanding of hygiene? And surgical techniques and such? That stuff is amazing, and I’m glad I’m alive today to enjoy it all. Who’s with me?

After meditating on modern medicine, and digesting the questionable content below, please don’t forget to:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I need your help! I am a (relatively) young womanly person of late 20’s who is striving to become more conscientious about where to ethically invest my earnings. When researching how much I need to have prepared for retirement, all of the online calculators and financial advisers I’ve consulted have thrown a figure my way in the ballpark of $2-3 million assuming a retirement age of mid to late 60s and a 4% gradually increasing annual withdrawal rate.

While I make a decent income (70K), there is not much of a chance that I can save that much in the next 35 years without falling into the trappings of Wall Street investment returns. I can’t do much about the restrictions my employer has placed on my 401K investment options, but I do have control over my IRA and general savings/investment practices.

What micro-level advice do you have for people starting out in ethical retirement planning/investing? Any resources or must reads? Much obliged.

Confused And Tentative

Dear Confused,

First, let me just say that you are way ahead of your peers in planning this stuff. I really haven’t started planning myself, because kids cost so much and so on, and I’m figuring I’ll just work until I die.

Second, there’s really no way every person can have $2-3 million in retirement savings. I just don’t think it’s reasonable or realistic. Think about that as a social policy: hey everyone, I know you’re still paying off your student loans, and that the cost of renting is sky high, and homes are already overpriced and poised not to rise, and daycare costs more than ever, but please save $2 million on top of everything else. WTF.

Not a viable expectation for the average household. Politically speaking, retirement in this country is going to have to change as the post-Boomer population gets old and continues to be broke.

Also, you’re right, there are few options for ethical investing that aren’t risky. I mean by that that you can always sponsor your friend’s ethical business, but most businesses fail, so it is super risky. More generally, if you’re interested in avoiding fossil fuel investments, take a look at this, and if that catches your fancy, check out this website.

But my general advice is to do your best, and stay healthy, and not worry too much about money. If you have retirement investments, great, and think of putting some in an ETF that tracks the market just as a hedge against political manipulation more than anything else.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I love your column. It feels like a community of warm hugs. I have gone back and forth on sending this embarrassing question so many times, but I finally decided that I need your honest insight.

As a minority grad student in STEM, I routinely come across mean, patronizing jerks. I have learnt to survive my interactions with them with my sanity somewhat intact. However, what catches me off guard is my reaction when someone decides to take an interest in me and mentor me academically and personally. I end up developing a crush almost every time.

I want to make it very clear that I don’t want a physical connection with them at all. But, I do fantasize about an emotional and intellectual bond with them. Some of these relationships have actually led to some wonderful (strictly platonic) mentoring relationships.

Grad school and academia can be very isolating, so it’s so nice to have someone to talk. And if this someone has been in your field doing the work that you dream of doing one day, that’s even better. Still, I can’t help feeling guilty for feeling so vulnerable that even the slightest bit of attention or praise from them makes me feel so exhilarated.

I have friends outside of my field and am a somewhat social person with a fairly fulfilling personal life. So, what is it about charming, passionate, and kind STEM people that brings out these intense feelings in me? How do I avoid developing these silly crushes?

Lastly, (I’m not even sure that I am prepared to hear an honest answer to this), do you think my feelings are obvious to them? I am always respectful and deferential to them, but I wonder if they might have an inkling anyway. I love what I do and I don’t want my work to be undermined by these stupid feelings that I can’t seem to be able to control right now.

Great Regrets About Pining Heart


Dear Pining,

Oh my god, I am so glad you wrote. I am the same way. Seriously. And the crushes can be quite intense, sometimes, right? I remember when one of my sons (I won’t name his name because he’ll hate me for it) went through his first crush when he was about 6 and he said to me, “I love her so so much, it’s getting worser and worser!” and he looked positively anxious about what would happen to the explosion happening in his little heart. Well, I got him at that moment, and I get you now.

But wait, and here comes what will become my tag line, what’s the problem here? You haven’t actually told me why this is a bad thing except for how you sometimes get embarrassed by them.

To answer your question: do people notice your crushes? Maybe, probably not in an exact way, but even if they did it would be super flattering. And since it’s platonic, and you’re looking for an emotional bond, I’m thinking that’s exactly appropriate, and probably also what they want.

Finally, I’d say you are controlling yourself with respect to these feelings, in spite of your sense that you’re not. In other words, you can’t control your feelings directly, but you can control what you do in response to them. And since you haven’t actually done anything super impulsive, and stuff hasn’t developed beyond intellectual and emotional realm, I am not only proud to say I get you, I’m proud to say you’ve done great.

You know what? I feel sorry for people who aren’t like us, and for whom it takes weeks if not years to develop strong emotions for people and things. They don’t get to experience the intensities that we do! And yes, it means they spend less time lying on couches crying about broken hearts to dear friends who have heard it all before many times, but whatever, we always eventually pick ourselves up again and go find a new person to love. Plus we buy our friends beer and they merrily forgive us.

Many warm hugs,

Aunt Pythia

p.s. there really is no way to avoid this, it’s part of you, like your arm. I’ve tried. Just buckle up and try to enjoy the ride.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m in my early thirties. I have a newborn, my first child, and I find it so damn hard to take care of him. He’s now 8 weeks old, and I’m on maternity leave for 6 months (luckily I’m in Europe, can’t imagine what I would have done in the States).

Both my husband and me live abroad and have no family around to help. I consider myself a pretty capable person, and I keep thinking how the hell do other people manage. There are so many babies, children, people in this world. How do all millions of moms manage, when I’m barely surviving?

I have figured out how to be highly successful academically and professionally. I have learned to have good relationships and a pretty good life. But I am probably average at taking care of a newborn. I find it so hard.

Dear Aunt Pythia, did you have a hard time too when you had your first baby (and second and third)? What helped? Any tips? Ideas? Strategies? What would you do differently if you had your first one again?

Maybe Overthinking Motherhood

Dear MOM,

Thanks for asking. I tell this to everyone I know with a newborn, especially if it’s their second.

Namely, the first 4 months of a baby’s life, and especially the first 6 weeks, is really really hard. In fact the way to survive it is to try to quantify how difficult yesterday was, and compare it to today, and take note of the minute differences. Give yourself a break, and a chance to cry, every time there’s been a regression, and give yourself a party every time there’s even the smallest amount of progress. In other words, keep your head down, in a day-to-day sense, and you will slowly begin to see how certain things have gotten easier (breastfeeding, putting them down to nap, walking around without pain) even as other stuff is momentarily harder (sleep deprivation, never getting a chance to take a shower, running out of groceries). It’s super painful, and surprisingly difficult, but after a few weeks you begin to see things improving, and then by the time they’re 6 months old, you almost feel human again.

Oh, and the moment they try to keep themselves up to say up with you when they’re tired is the moment when you can train them to sleep through the night. This usually happens at 5 months or so. And the trick there is, if you notice a bunch of fussing with an 8pm bedtime, then put the baby down at 7:30 the next night. And if they’re fussy at 7:30, try for 7pm the next night. Sounds counter-intuitive but it works.

Finally, the only moment where I really felt truly desperate was when I had a newborn and a 2-year-old and my husband went away for a math conference for a week, and I was working. Please kill me now, I thought, and I meant it. But even that ended, and now those two kids are like, almost adults, and they are my favorite people to hang out with. The younger one just explained fission to me the other day.

In the words of my wise mother, sometimes you just have to muddle through. Also, good babysitting is worth it. Go into debt temporarily if necessary, it’s still cheaper than therapy.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I want to fuck an aunt.


Dear Manoj,

Thanks for the note. It reminds me that, as a WordPress Premium member, I get to look at all kinds of statistics with respect to how people got to my blog, what they looked at and when, and which links they click on while they’re here. It’s interesting, and I look at such statistics daily.

One of the categories is a list of search terms that people used to get to my blog, and by far one of the most common ones has been, over the years, something about aunts and sex, so a kind of incest fetish thing. For example, here’s a screenshot of today’s search terms:

Every day. Every single day.

Every day. Every single day.

So, what can I say? Aunt Pythia constitutes – possibly defines – her own bizarre porn fetish category. It’s somewhere in between flattering and repulsive.

So Manoj: thanks, I think.

Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized

The internet is no place for conversation

I admit I’m lucky. On a daily basis I think to myself, “damn my commenters are smart, and thoughtful, and they make me think and rethink my positions.” That’s amazing! I love you people!

But it’s really not like that in general. The crazy, outsized responses and reactions to responses you find on almost any unmoderated discussion are just… terrible.

Case in point: a few people yesterday – including some wonderful commenters! – pointed me to this Atlantic article on calculating the chances that a 20 person panel at a math conference would contain only one woman.

[As an aside: the assumption was that the pool of possible panelists was 24% female, since 24% of recent Ph.D.s are women, and the probability mass function from a binomial distribution was used, which is reasonable. What’s possibly controversial is the assumption that every person who has a Ph.D. is equally qualified and available to be on a panel. The reasons they aren’t are interesting and complicated, and what’s important is that we understand it, not that we put all the blame on people who organize panels. Although people who organize panels should obviously try to do better than 1 female panelist out of 20.]

Well, take a look at the comments from this article. The very first comment contains this:

Of course panels like this will be dominated by men. If the women had a panel, most of them would want to talk about volunteering at– you got it– the local PTA.

And – guess what? – the conversation doesn’t get better after that. It’s such a shame, and such a wasted opportunity. Only people willing to resort to very low level, hostile accusations are willing to wade into that muck.

I’m just not sure what can be done about this. Do we turn off comments? Do we turn off comments except for moderated comment sections, like the New York Times? That’s very expensive. Do we devise algorithms that try to detect hateful or hostile speech and put that stuff in a harder-to-reach area? To some that stinks of censorship, but on the other hand those people often have a weak understanding of freedom of speech. Here’s a good explanation.

I guess the question is, what do we owe to the idea that everyone gets their say, and what do we owe to the idea that we want to have an actual meaningful conversation?

Personally, I moderate the first comment someone suggests, and once they’re in, they’re in. It doesn’t always work – sometimes I have to delete further comments by someone, if they become disrespectful – but it mostly does. And it really only works because on a given day I get a dozen or so comments. I wouldn’t be able to do it for a large site. Even so, I’ve really appreciated the resulting conversation.

Categories: Uncategorized

Minority homeownership and wealth-creation

I don’t think it makes a ton of sense to invest in houses right now. They’re overpriced in many areas, they pose much more risk as a homeowner than as a renter – assuming the renter laws are locally strong – and there’s no reason to believe their value will increase faster than inflation in the next few years or decades. When the topic comes up, I urge people to rent.

But it’s hard to say that to people, and minorities in particular, when homeownership is taken as a large part of the American Dream, and especially when the recent financial crisis has been so brutal with respect to black homeownership. Because when someone says “don’t buy a house,” what black people might hear is that only white people will ever own homes in this country, and that is somehow the way things should be. But of course that’s not the point, nor is it the starting point of this discussion.

First, we should remember that historically, the government propped up the mortgage market and deeply inflated housing prices first by giving a tax deduction for mortgage payments and second by creating Fannie and Freddie, which established the existence and (relatively) easy attainability of the 30-year mortgage for many, and moreover kept liquidity high, which eventually led to mortgage-back securities, yadda yadda yadda. But the point is this: the easier it is to get financing, the higher prices get. Look at college tuition. The cheaper the monthly payments are, moreover, the higher prices get.

At the same time, government and government-sanctioned policies kept minorities away from buying good houses and obtaining good mortgages in the post- WWII era, which was by far the best time to buy a house. Then homes just kept getting more and more expensive until the financial crisis.

In other words, homes were set up, by the government, to be a good investment about 50 or 60 years ago. That doesn’t mean they are a good investment now. In fact I don’t think they are. But in the meantime, black people were prevented by and large from taking part in this wealth creation, which is absolutely shameful, but it doesn’t mean that they should now be pushed into buying homes in some vain attempt to get a piece of the wealth-creation action. It’s not only historical, either: even now, wealthy minority neighborhoods have less home value per dollar of income than wealthy white neighborhoods.

Part of the confusion around homes and owning a home is the very definition of homeownership. People seem to think they own a home when they’ve signed a mortgage. But, given that down payments can be small, as little as 3%, the difference between having some cash in a savings account and “owning a home” is small, and not especially in favor of the “homeowner.” It simply means you’ve signed a contract putting you on the spot if the roof leaks, if the basement gets flooded with water or oil, or if the housing market dips. It’s true that you get to live in the house, which is a great and useful thing, but you also get to live in a rented house, and you don’t take on all of those risks.

Let me put it this way. If you bought a pie and only had 3% of the money for it, you wouldn’t really think it was your pie, because your slice is extremely small. Plus if a dog came and ate up the pie, you’d be responsible for rebuilding the pie. It is a lot of responsibility and very little in the way of benefit.

A mortgage is basically a highly leveraged and risky financial instrument for the homeowner. And where before the government could be counted on to allay much of the risk through policy, they’ve run out of way to do that. Or, put it another way: what would the US government have to do to make houses even more expensive. given the affordability crisis we now have? And what’s the likelihood they’ll do that?

There’s one good thing, potentially, about entering a mortgage contract for anyone who does it, namely forced savings. If you’re lucky enough that your roof doesn’t leak too often and your basement doesn’t get flooded too often, and if you got a non-predatory mortgage that you can afford to pay in perpetuity given your salary, so it doesn’t matter too much when the housing market dips, and if you don’t lose your job, then mortgage payments – eventually – start going to principal, and you end up saving money for real, as long as the dips aren’t too bad, and that’s a good thing (as long as you don’t refinance with new mortgages that take money out of your house). But that’s a lot of ifs.

Instead of focusing exclusively on homes, I’d like us to move on and think of other ways to help people save money. Of course this starts with them making enough money to have extra to save.

Categories: Uncategorized

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,680 other followers