Interviews

Can Americans Retire? (Part II)

In part one of my interview with National Institute on Retirement Security Director Diane Oakley, I mentioned that the Obama administration is endorsing an automatic IRA. The plan would mandate employers who do not already offer savings plans to provide a government-approved private alternative, with automatic enrollment.

This is in many ways similar to the Affordable Care Act, also proposed in part by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and is a compromise from a more government-involved and subsidized proposal from the Clinton era. It’s now mostly opposed by conservatives and industry groups.

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From Counting Pennies to Letting Things Slide

When I was first starting out and making very little money, I thought carefully about every single dollar and made sure I always got my exact change. I was also careful about never getting charged ATM fees, because when every dollar matters, paying to take out your own money hurts. It doesn’t hurt as much anymore, and perhaps that is a sign of success.

“I have decided that I am a person of means, a wealthy person,” I told Ester yesterday. “Because although my bank gave me my money back, I still have $10 in ATM fees from the fraudulent withdrawals, and don’t feel like calling them to have that $10 credited back to me.”

She laughed.

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Can Americans Retire?

Union support for pensions is broad, but defined benefit plans don’t have a lot of other organizational defenders. I wanted to learn more on the organization’s perspective, so I chatted with Diane Oakley, NIRS’ executive director.

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How David Shapiro, Creator of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, Does Money

David Shapiro is the pen name of a writer who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. He then wrote a novel (You’re Not Much Use to Anyone, out now) about a character named David who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. We talked about his career and his money.

What do you do?

I work as a summer associate at a white-shoe law firm. I hope to get an offer to come back to my firm after I graduate law school next year, meaning I would start full-time around September, 2015. I also write a little bit at The Wall Street Journal (in the paper) and The New Yorker (online). And I also wrote this book, obviously, the reason we’re here.

What does white-shoe mean?

It generally refers to old, large, well-respected law firms. Like, my firm has about 1,000 lawyers. It’s peculiar—in America, in general, the biggest corporations are the best at one particular thing. ExxonMobil is the biggest/best at producing oil and gas. Pfizer is the biggest/best at making pharmaceuticals. In other parts of the world, it’s different—Samsung, the biggest/best corporation in South Korea, makes toilet seats, phones, coffee machines, cars. They own an amusement park. In May, when the CEO of Samsung had a heart attack, they took him to Samsung Hospital. But law firms in America, the biggest ones (which are generally the best ones), can provide any kind of legal service that you need—much closer to the Samsung model than the Pfizer model.

So that’s what I do, this summer. I work in the private equity group.

Is your real name David Shapiro?

No. My legal name isn’t David Shapiro. I’m a lawyer and law student under my legal name, and I write under the name David Shapiro. I picked it because it’s like the John Smith of Jewish names. It’s hard to Google. I wanted to separate my writing life from my legal life because when I was 22, me and my friend wrote a Village Voice story about heroin dealer/addicts and I thought no employer would ever hire me if they knew I had spent time with heroin addicts. That seems naive now (I didn’t actually do the heroin with them), but I felt paranoid about it then.

But being David Shapiro has some definite upsides—someone on Tumblr the other day reblogged my post announcing my book, and he said, “I’m so psyched about this book, I loved his scholarship on the Shakespeare author debate, I’m definitely going to order this,” and I was like, “Sick!” There is David Shapiro the poet, David Shapiro the party photographer, there was a David Shapiro in the index of my constitutional law textbook.

My publisher was not excited that I had chosen this name because it does indeed make my work very difficult to find through Google, which makes the marketing department’s job harder. I used David Shapiro, Jr. for a while, which is the opposite of David Shapiro, because among Jews, it’s untoward to name someone after a living person, so there are almost no David Shapiro’s, Jr. There is one, actually—I think he is about 14 and he may or may not have frosted tips [in his hair]. But then I switched back because it sounded really stupid. So now I’m David Shapiro again.

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Talking to Alan Lastufka About Starting DFTBA Records With Hank and John Green and What’s Next

While you might have heard of John or Hank Green, you may not have heard of DFTBA Records’ other original co-founder, Alan Lastufka. When he announced in June that he was selling his stake and leaving DFTBA (an initialism for “Don’t forget to be awesome”), I asked him if we could talk about his work with the record label as well as some of the financial lessons he learned while going from “artist and YouTuber” to “President of a successful business.”

So, readers of The Billfold (and Nerdfighters!), consider this a special treat. A conversation with Alan Lastufka about his work on DFTBA Records, from co-founding the record label in 2008 to selling his stake in 2014.

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An Interview with Sara Knox Hunter on Founding and Funding a Discussion Residency

In 2011, Sara Knox Hunter founded Summer Forum, which takes the model of an artists’ residency and uses it to support reading and conversation. Each Summer Forum residency has a broad theme, assigned texts, invited guests, and a carefully chosen location, all of which serve as starting points for discussion. This year’s residency will take place from July 6 to 13 in Joshua Tree, California. The 34 residents (chosen from a pool of about 100 applicants) will sleep, eat, and attend the program for $350—one-third of the actual cost per person. Sara (who just moved to New York from Richmond, Virginia) and I (who live in Chicago) talked about Summer Forum over Skype.

What led to your starting Summer Forum?

Originally I was planning to finish my terminal master’s degree and then apply for a Ph.D. program in comparative literature. On my way to doing that, instead of picking a more traditional thesis focus, I started to look more at the institution and examined this specific publication called Profession [the Modern Language Association’s "journal about the fields of modern languages and literatures as a profession"].

I started looking at articles from the mid- to late-1970s and compared them with the academic articles that were coming out and all the mainstream press that academia was getting after 2008, and the issues were so similar: education is too expensive, we hire way too many adjuncts, we’re losing full-time faculty positions, we’re accepting too many Ph.D. students so that there are too many unemployed Ph.D.s once they graduate. It was pretty depressing to me. We keep talking about a crisis in education, but it’s really this ongoing slow drag.

So how did you come out of your thesis research thinking about something like Summer Forum?

At the same time, my partner, Michael Hunter, was going to different artists’ residencies. And a lot of my close friends are artists, and they would all go away for the summer. I was like, maybe there’s some way to create something discussion-oriented that utilizes that model, where you don’t have to be in grad school, you don’t have to commit to five-plus years for a Ph.D., you don’t have to pay for a terminal master’s program, but you can still have these opportunities for intense study and commitment with a group of people who are all curious and interested in discussing ideas and willing to commit a smaller amount of time and a smaller amount of money. That was my starting point.

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How to Run an Indie Convention

When I talked to Oni Hartstein two weeks ago about her car that wouldn’t stop, she and I agreed it would be interesting to continue the conversation and talk about what’s really keeping her up at night: running the indie convention Intervention, which will be held this year in Rockville, Maryland from August 22-24.

Intervention is different from other geek-themed conventions in that focuses on how to create awesome stuff. It’s a bit like Maker Faire meets How To Network, with a few rock concerts thrown in. I’ve been part of Intervention every year since its launch in 2010, but I’ve never really talked to Oni about how she manages to run the show, year after year.

So that’s exactly what we did.

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An Interview with Leanne Brown, Author of the (Free) $4 a Day SNAP Cookbook

Leanne Brown is a Canadian-born NYU food studies graduate whose masters’ project was Good and Cheap, a free PDF cookbook for food stamp budgets ($4/day). She posted the PDF on her website, and it was downloaded over 100,000 times after being discovered by Reddit. Now, she’s launched a Kickstarter to print the book so she can get copies to people in need, and she’s already well past its initial $10,000 goal. I recently talked to her about cooking on limited incomes, food studies, her experience with Kickstarter, and more.

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Brief Periods of Unemployment After College, as Told to Me by Friends

A few months after getting my first steady job since being unemployed, I still hadn’t let go of a lot of the habits and anxieties I’d developed during that time. I’d go up and down the grocery store aisle price-comparing boxed pasta, shaming myself for ever spending more than $20 at a time. I joked to friends that I was a recovering unemployed person, working my way through a twelve-step program.

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‘The More Your Job Helps Others, the Less You Get Paid’

Last summer David Graeber wrote an essay in Strike! Magazine about the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs”—”the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist.”

At Salon, Thomas Frank has an interview with Graeber about why “the more your job helps others, the less you get paid.”

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