Everyone’s A Huckster

In a capitalist society, it sometimes seems that everything’s for sale and everyone’s a salesman. That’s perfectly fine, but it’s a fact of life that needs to be understood by more people and taught to children at an early age.

For example, recently my company hosted its annual "401(k) Update" session. This involves a presentation by the company who handles our retirement investments, and in it they discuss changes to the portfolios they offer and general discussions about stock market trends. That’s the first half of the presentation, but then they start their pitch about how you should increase your monthly contribution percentage or face starvation after you retire! How can anyone argue with all those seriously frightening numbers towering on the screen?

While it’s true that we all need to save as much as possible in order to have a comfortable retirement, these strangers seemed a little over-concerned about my well-being. Was it out of the simple kindness of their corporate hearts, or because I’m giving a nice chunk of my paycheck to them each month for safekeeping while they siphon the interest? While it’s true that they provide the valuable service of conveniently socking our money away in groups of stocks organized by risk level, can their advice on the proper level of monetary contribution be trusted?

The best we can do in this situation is take their advice with a grain of salt, then seek out other opinions. This is an important lesson of cautious consumption–never take anything at face value, and always look at alternatives. If everyone were to memorize and practice such healthy skepticism before committing to a product or service, fewer people would succumb to dishonest and deceptive business practices.

In the case of our 401(k) reps, they provide an important service and offer an easy way to save for retirement while maximizing those savings through stock market investment. They may benefit from the interest on the money they hold, but we also benefit from the stock interest and the streamlined investment services they provide.

So yes, it’s part of their job as good capitalists to encourage us to increase our 401(k) contributions. And it’s also important for everyone to save for retirement, though the percentage of your income that you should be saving is debatable (see this fellow’s book). Different people need to save in different ways, depending on their individual plans for retirement. For this reason, the scare tactics used by these 401(k) reps seem unnecessarily heavy-handed.

I suppose everything that’s for sale will always be over- or under-sold to some degree by the hucksters, while the truest sales pitches will be the ones that simply present the facts and let the consumer decide. Knowing what’s true can be difficult, but it’s a good skill to hone.

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