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Dan's Blog

DC Travel Blog: Adventures in 403(b) Advocacy 🧳

September 17-20, 2019

Day 4: A Visit With Two Courageous Karens

Thanks to Dave Baker of BenefitsLink, Scott and I got put in touch with the Pension Rights Center, an organization fighting to ensure that "older Americans will have enough money to live on when they are too old to work." Founded in 1976 with seed money from Ralph Nader (who was a trail blazing consumer advocate long before he ever ran for president), the organization has had many triumps. It was our great pleasure to meet with director Karen Ferguson and executive vice president and policy director Karen Friedman. Thoroughly delightful is the best way to describe our nearly two hour meeting. Almost immediately it felt like we were all longtime friends and collegues. That's the way it is when you meet like-minded advocates. We have much in common and look forward to our next meet up with the Karens.  

Day 3: Between Two Ferns + A Foolish Trip Across the River

Our day started with a visit to the offices of ICMA-RC, a firm that has historically focused on the municipal 457(b). Last January the company entered the K-12 403(b) market. Scott and I were invited to tell the 403bwise story and discuss our advocacy efforts. We were joined by Washington DC teacher turned-planner Andrew Katz-Moses (our interview subject on podcast 76). President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Schultze welcomed us, the 50 employees in attendance, the Richmond office which was participating via video feed, and more than 100 other employees listening remotely. Mr. Schultz shared a story we know all too well: His daughter in-law, a teacher, was saddled with awful 403(b) choices. Mr. Schultz said for him, the 403(b) issue is personal. He said his firm is committed to serving the K-12 403(b) market the right way. The session flew by as Scott, myself and Andrew, seated on a stage flanked by what we joked was “Between Two Ferns-esque” shared first how we got into 403(b) advocacy, 403(b) horror stories, and then answered a series of excellent questions from ICMA-RC staff. One comment from the Richmond office was jarring and indicative of the state of the K-12 403(b). A woman commented that she felt physically ill after hearing how teachers are being treated. The K-12 403(b) is indeed sick. It’s good to see that more companies want to help provide medicine.

After an excellent Mediterranean lunch at Roti in Union Station, Scott and I zipped across the Potomac River to the offices of the Motley Fool, a company whose often humorous approach to investing information has always had a special appeal. Way back in 2000 when 403bwise first launch, I authored a story on the K-12 403(b) for the firm. It led to what remains our single biggest day of site traffic. The purpose of this visit was to sit down for an interview with veteran Fool and friend Robert Brokamp host of the Motley Fool Answers podcast. It was a blast catching up with Robert, touring Fool Headquarters, learning about all of their cool health focused employee perks, and experiencing a real podcast studio. The interview also flew by and hopefully Scott and I sounded more Foolish than foolish. Motley Fool fans will know what that means.

Day 2: Down But Not Out

It's easy to get down about the state of the K-12 403(b) and the death of a meaningful fiduciary standard. Then you visit a place like the Consumer Federation of America and meet with Director of Investor Protection, Barbara Roper, and Financial Services Counsel, Micah Hauptman. These two are deeply engaged in meaningful, complicated consumer protection work. It was a pleasure for Scott and I to meet with them. Barbara and Micah were not only interested in K-12 403(b) issues, they had excellent suggestions about how to advance the cause. Thank you, Barbara and Micah.

Ironically, the CFA is located adjacent to the White House, which as has been well documented, torpedoed a meaningful fiduciary standard. And next to the White House is the Consumer Financial Protection Board which has been rendered almost toothless. So it's easy to get down again but then you walk through the National Mall. For me, the Korean and Vietnam Memorials are particularly inspiring. I think they convey the horror of war in a way other memorials don't. The K-12 403(b) is messed up but it's not war. But that doesn't mean it's not a cause worth fighting for. 

Day 1: Is That Airport Food or a Bad 403(b) Vendor List?

It is a privilege to have enough extra money to contribute to a 403(b), and it is privilege to be able to fly. But as my podcast partner, Scott Dauenhauer, and I made one bad food choice after another at Chicago Midway International Airport today, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between 403(b) vendor lists and bad airport food. There are a surprising number of similarities starting with the illusion of choice.  

  • As we began our four-hour layover on the way to Washington, D.C. — who plans a trip with a four-hour layover? — I was taken by the choice: Greek food, a Chicago White Sox themed restaurant (Is that legal in Cub loving Chicago?), an Irish restaurant, tacos, sushi, and hot dogs. And those are only the ones I can remember seeing. 
  • Most 403(b) vendor lists are notorious for their length. As a Redlands, California resident I routinely point out that if you teach in this city you have 44 403(b) vendor choices (BTW only three are any good). The insurance industry and its protectors like the NTSA love to point out the power of choice. They are, of course, silent on the quality of the choice.

Be it a 403(b) vendor list, or an airport food court, the brain pops with possibilities. But what happens when you begin to sample the items? To be fair, Scott and I only tried a few restaurants but each one was terrible. And expensive. In fact, I heard Scott say something I thought I would never hear about Chicago pizza: “It was uneatable.”

Where is the Roth IRA restaurant when you need it?  

Yelp did rate the pizza restaurant Scott tried a 1 star. Of course, we discovered this after the fact. We were just glad there weren’t any surrender charges, but maybe there would have been if Scott had actually eaten his pizza. As his roommate for the week I’m even more supportive of his decision to abstain.

Note: For those flying out of Phoenix, one restaurant that never disappoints: La Grande Orange Cafe. Please share other good airport food choices.