Summer vacation post: Have you checked out our Ask the Grumpies tag?

We’ve had ask the grumpies for many many years now. Sometimes we give good advice! More often, the grumpy commentariat gives great advice.  And there’s always great opinions, especially when Leah asks a fun question.


Have you asked us a question?  Any updates?  We were right?  Wrong?  Has your opinion on anything changed or gotten stronger?

Ask the grumpies: cool travel experiences

CG asks:

Cool travel experiences (not just destinations, but specific memorable experiences) for when we can all do that again.

Hopefully #2 is having some right now.

We invite others to share their cool travel experiences and to check out all the yummy food #1 ate in Italy.

Ask the grumpies: Student research assistants

Steph asks:

How do you decide to take on a research student, especially an undergraduate? What qualities do you look for, especially if you only have 1-2 meetings and a CV to make a decision?

I like having research assistants for two main reasons:  1.  There are a lot of drudgery things that need being done that an undergrad can learn from (lists of works cited, repetitive programming tasks) that are easier to do if you know you’re getting paid by the hour and 2. I like watching people grow.  I often take completely untrained students and turn them into somewhat trained students who can go on to work with more prominent people.  I have former undergraduate research assistants who are now themselves professors at top 10 universities, and others who have gotten law degrees from top 3 law schools.

But I’ve also ended up with flaky research assistants and it seems like the ability to pattern match or to show attention to detail has been declining in the population of students I’ve been interviewing.  I can no longer assume basic excel skills or even knowing where to find a file they downloaded.  For a while it seemed like reading comprehension was also completely shot– like they could not follow written instructions, though that seems to hopefully be on the wane now.  A bad RA is more work than they are worth.

It is really hard to pick good RAs, especially if you’re not teaching an obvious feeder class.  I often try to have at least two RAs at the same time, under the assumption that one will end up flaking.  In fact, this summer one has flaked already– he wanted to work 20hrs/week and start before classes got out, but then didn’t get his I9 in for a month at which point he said his other job (that he said he didn’t have at the interview) wanted him to work 40hrs/week so he wasn’t going to start after all.  But… I didn’t ever have to pay for him since he never completed his paperwork, which is better than someone who just makes more work than they’re worth.

So, I can’t really say what makes a *good* research assistant, but I can tell you some things I’ve learned by making bad choices.

You know that story about the rock star requiring a bowl full of green mnms on tour, not because they actually wanted them, but to make sure the venue was reading the fine print?  That’s for real– make the application process just a little more complicated than it needs to be.  For example, I make them send a letter of interest and a resume directly to my email rather than through the university jobs system, not because I really need that but because I want to make sure they can follow directions.  Anybody who can’t do that gets automatically put in the no bin.

Anybody who shows up for the interview late is an automatic no.  (Slight exception– if they are obviously flustered and apologetic and have an actual real reason above and beyond traffic was unexpectedly heavy, it might be ok.  You have to use your judgement here.)  People who are late for an interview aren’t generally reliable for other things.

They need to be able to answer the “Why do you want this job?” question with something other than “I need the money.”  It may be honest, but people who are just there for the money don’t tend to do a great job– I rarely have to fire anyone, but I did have to fire one of these.  You want someone who says they are genuinely interested in the project or wants to know if research is right for them or has a good career or interest reason to be invested in your work beyond the paycheck.  It may be cheap talk, but anybody who hasn’t thought about this question and come up with a good answer is not someone you want to hire.

Getting someone from your classes who is a hard worker– turns in homework, comes to office hours as needed, etc. and has shown attention to detail in your own class is the best bet.  Failing that, strong endorsements from a colleague over the same are fantastic.  But of course, that’s not always possible.

GPA isn’t a perfect predictor, but I’ve started requiring it in my applications.  I didn’t used to.  I know I’m missing out on good people and I’ve had people with higher GPAs who aren’t the best RAs, but screening is hard and it is a helpful piece of information.

For me, the ideal RA is someone who is a little bit OCD in the colloquial sense– someone who has a bit of a perfectionist streak and is ok with taking time to get things right.  If someone has attention to detail and is responsible, I can train them up in everything else.  I also like it when I ask if they’re willing to ask questions the candidate emphasizes that they feel more comfortable doing that.  And people with good pattern matching skills are usually great.

Grumpy Nation:  How do you search and screen for student RAs (if applicable)?  How do you screen new hires more generally?

Ask the grumpies: What do you think of the 4% rule

First Gen American asks:

Once you’ve hit your magic 4% rule retirement number, should you reallocate to a more conservative asset allocation. Why or why not. And what do you think of the 4% rule.

Standard disclaimer:  We are not financial professionals.  Do your own research and/or consult a fee-only certified financial planner before making important life changing decisions. 

I mean, do you have a bequest motive?  Do you plan to make a LOT more money before you retire?

4% rule

The 4% rule is ok in terms of preserving your capital until you die on average.  But it’s bad in terms of volatility and uncertainty.  You don’t know how your monetary needs are going to change over time, so it might be too risky.  It may also end up with you not actually being able to take out enough for your needs during a recession, and if you end up taking out more then you’ve broken the rule entirely.  I think the 4% rule is best if you have an additional emergency fund or have the ability to earn more money if necessary.  I don’t think there is any actual safe rule that will both preserve your capital as needed and ensure that you have enough money for your spending in uncertain times.  The 4% rule doesn’t get rid of the need for lots of money.  So, I probably wouldn’t retire just because the 4% rule says I can, especially not while still youngish and during uncertain times.

If you’re planning on continuing to work, it doesn’t matter that you’ve hit the 4% rule retirement number.  What matters is when you actually retire and stop bringing in new money.  While new money is flowing in, you don’t need as much in terms of conservative assets because your income moderates short-term risk, allowing you to reap the benefits of risky assets that aren’t actually that risky over the long-term.

100% safe vs. 100% stocks

Suze Orman famously keeps almost all her money in safe assets.  She recommends you play the stock market, but she doesn’t herself.  Some wealthy people only keep a little spending money in liquid assets and the rest are all in stocks and other risky assets. When you have a LOT of money, both of these are completely logical because you can live off money that’s eroded by inflation but you will also still be fine if the market drops 40% or more.

The standard calculus changes when you have waaaay more money than you will ever need.  You have to think about what it is you want to optimize.

If you don’t care what happens when you die, you’re probably fine no matter what you do.  If you want to keep things for your heirs, then you will need to think about tax optimization and definitely keep a lot in stocks– your horizon is even longer and your heirs benefit from step-up basis upon your death.


Ask the grumpies: Will we see hyperinflation?

First Gen American asks:

As an economist. How likely is it that The current rate of spending by both President Biden and former President Trump will lead to significant inflation and devaluing the dollar. Why or why not.

Well, we’ve got inflation right now, though that’s mostly because of supply-side problems (factories in China, shipping all around the world) driving up prices globally.  We don’t think it’s been caused by increases in US government spending.

In terms of hyperinflation, it is unlikely that the current rate of spending is going to cause anything of the sort.

I’m sure if Trump got reelected he could cause hyperinflation somehow.  A lot of what causes hyperinflation is loss of trust in systems.  People still trust the federal reserve.  They can still raise interest rates to slow down inflation.  There’s plenty of room for that.  People around the world still trust the US government and our currency.  We will pay back our debts.

I’m not a macroeconomist, but this is just not something anybody (other than some reporters who don’t have economics training) is worried about.  We’re not just printing money.  We still have economic growth.  Here’s investopedia on the topic.

Ask the grumpies: How to keep a marriage interesting and fun

CG asks:

Suggestions for keeping things interesting and fun in one’s long, happy marriage, especially when one or more partners are not at all romantic. :)

#1:  Is this a sex question?

#2:  …

I’m not really sure.  The internet suggests trying new experiences together. For us, we like to try new foods together. Travel together is also nice, though we haven’t done that since pre-pandemic and we’ve been ok.  I mean, even just sharing funny youtube videos.  We have got to be the least romantic people in the world.

Well, that’s not true– I’m the not romantic one.  I think DH is pretty romantic deep down and makes do with me anyway.

Given his romantic streak, I do occasionally do sweet things because I love him and want him to be happy and he seems to appreciate small romantic gestures.  Like he has a lab notebook for work, and I’ll sneak in there and leave tiny little love notes for him to randomly find.  Also, since DC2 started doing a lot of post-it-note art, I’ve added my own contribution of a couple post-it notes to DH’s work space that say things like, “Best husband ever, A++++++++++++++ Would marry again.”  Or he was feeling down the other day because lots of little things weren’t going well and like the oldest child he is, he feels a bit worthless if he can’t be of service (to quote Luisa in Encanto), so he now has a post-it note on his computer monitor where I wrote, “You have value just by being you.”

One of my favorite gifts from him is an acrostic poem with my name in diagonals on wood with the words carved and drawn in silver and my name in gold.  (Ex.  Literati for the I in Nicole and everything is silver, but the first I is gold.)  So maybe I do have a tiny bit of a romantic streak.

#1:  I really think this is a sex question.  Have you tried erotica?

Grumpy Nation, what suggestions do you have for CG?

Ask the grumpies: Why hasn’t the world cracked down on crypto yet?

First Gen American asks:

Why do you think the world has not cracked down on crypto yet?

We should ban it because it allows people to tax evade and launder money for illegal activities, and, of course, the environmental factors.  The longer we don’t ban it the more difficult it will be to ban as pensions start including it in their portfolios.

(Answer from when this question was first asked):  Because President Trump sucks.  We need US leadership to get the world to do anything– see climate change (#Kyoto)

(Answer from this year): Since this question has been asked, China and 8 other countries have fully banned crypto.  But I think the main reason the US hasn’t is because our political process is being held hostage by ultra-rich people who are making money from it.

In other words:  Citizens United

Ask the grumpies: What should kids know before they move out of the house

First Gen American asks:

[What are] things your kids should know how to do before they go to college[?] Socially and practically. (Safe sex, how to make eye contact, manners, laundry, managing money, dishes, etc.)

We live in a school district with zero sex ed.  DC1 got some age appropriate instruction in 5th grade when we were on leave, and DC2 has read both a boy’s and a girl’s version of puberty stuff.  I believe zie asked DH some questions about them and he gave matter-of-fact answers.  DC1 also has the teen vogue issue on sex, though I’m not sure if zie ever opened it.  We’ve spent a lot of time discussing consent.  We’ve also discussed sexual identity and sexual attraction (specifically, why DC1 may not be feeling attracted to anybody yet even though many other 15 year olds are dating).  But we haven’t yet talked about birth control/STDs (DH says they did when DC1 started going through adolescence and we got those puberty books, but it was a talk aimed at a much lower age), or, what I think is more important, how to deal with sex as a teen/young adult (other than the consent thing, which we have emphasized goes both ways).  We will definitely have those conversations before zie goes off to college (or after zie gets a significant other, whichever comes first).

We’ve been focusing on basic cooking skills, including some simple dishes without a recipe and how to follow a recipe.  Both of our kids can now feed themselves and follow a recipe well enough to feed other people with minimal help.

Laundry is another important thing.  One would think people could just read the instructions on the washer/dryer, but given my experiences at boarding school and college, no, people (including high school me) need instruction.  I’d rather have my kids be doing the instruction than the other way around.

How to make a bed.  How to be a good guest.  How to load and unload a dishwasher.

How to drive and pump gas and use a credit card, maybe even a checkbook.  And how not to get into consumer debt.

DC1’s school recently had a “learning how to adult” day, which is new.  But they gave such terrible advice!  The financial person (who works for a local bank) was 100% Dave Ramsey (name-checked him a lot) and said never to ever use credit cards.  They showed them how to write checks and recommended they call up to negotiate the price on their land-line every time the introductory rate changes.  (Which is great advice for all our rotating services, but who has a land line?)  The college person said that everyone should apply to exactly three schools (aspirational, good chance, safety– not bad advice, but for kids in DC1’s bracket, aspirational and good chance blur a lot and they need to apply to more) and either go to the university in our town, or if they can’t get in, then to a specific one of our regional state schools (one that’s about 7 hours away, which is weird when there’s others that are closer).

Grumpy Nation, what do you think kids should learn about adulting before they leave the nest?

Ask the grumpies: Minimalist or Maximalist?

Steph asks:

Are you minimalist, maximalist, or somewhere in between?

#1:  Maximalist!  Especially with books!  Our apartment is stuffed.

#2:  A little from both.  I think I’m sort of a natural minimalist (except with books, spices, and whatever it is I’m currently collecting), so I don’t tend to bring that much into the house, but also I like completing sets.  Right now our pantry is bursting at the seams.  I have a hard time getting rid of stuff too… except a couple times a year I go into major Spring cleaning mode and everyone uses that opportunity to get rid of their unwanted stuff even if I made DH hold on to it earlier.  DC2 literally filled up my car trunk with hand-me-down toys for the 4 year old kid of one of my colleague’s over Spring Break.

It’s weird because I like both clean empty spaces AND comfortable clutter.  Like, I like both simple modern art AND the kind of visual clutter one sees in Dutch Masters.  Similarly with home decoration– I like clean modern looks AND cozy wood with a million things.  Though in reality I don’t like owning bric-a-brac because I have a massive dust allergy.  But other people’s bric-a-brac is cool!

In terms of other stuff… I guess I see a lot of shades of grey.  Like, I do hate evil and don’t want to excuse it and have come around to believing in evil rich supervillains (see:  Trump, Peter Thiel, etc.).  But also I see that most people (who aren’t evil rich supervillains) have complicated situations and it can be hard to make good decisions.  Very little pleases everyone.  Some things (video games) I have to quit cold turkey, but other things I’m fine with in moderation (ice cream).  Mostly I satisfice stuff when it takes time to optimize (new appliances).  But not always (my husband)!

What about you, Grumpy Nation?

Ask the grumpies: Emergency Water

Lisa asks:

[I] keep thinking I need to up my drinkable water storage game in case our water supply is compromised, but have also managed to not do this, either. HELP! Suggestions for what to use to store the water? We don’t drink soda and I don’t want to buy a bunch of 2L bottles to dump. Although they do go on sale for cheap, maybe I should just load up on them.

I just bought a bunch of 2l seltzer and figured that’s water.  We also got a straw purifier.

Alice suggests:

… get a couple of the big 5-gallon jugs and a manual pump device to get the water out in an emergency? That’s basically what we did–we keep a couple of the big jugs in the basement. The basement is our spot because we’re in an area with tornado risk.

It looks like Amazon sells the jugs empty if you want to fill them yourself. You can also buy them already-filled from most grocery/hardware store around here–possibly true where you are? If you do that, there’s some sort of $5 off the next exchange if you bring them back, at least here. Recycling built into the system.

Steph says:

Wirecutter has opinions:

I decided it was just easier to buy bottled water on sale or wherever I could find it cheap. It’s easier than treating it myself, and will last longer AFAIK. I tend to buy either gallon jugs or multipacks of water. I keep some gallon jugs in the back of the fridge (both to limit space and to act as a thermal reservoir), and freeze some smaller bottles. The smaller bottles in the freezer then become good ice packs for hikes or summer drives.