Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Number by Lee Eisenberg




(Read only if your interest is strong)




Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






Lee Eisenberg’s The Number could have been a well-written magazine article. Instead, it’s a book with a catchy subtitle: “A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life.” Eisenberg proposes ways to think about wealth and financial security, all of which are covered in better-written books. I never quite found what was completely different about what Eisenberg offered. Perhaps financial planners will provide this book to clients to ask and answer questions that are related to “the number”: the amount of net worth that is sufficient to allow one to feel financially secure. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, “The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principles,” pp. 28-31:


It was just five years ago that culturally attuned, affluent boomers saw their own happy reflections in books such as David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise. Bobos depicted a generation soothingly afloat in Frap­puccino, facing daily challenges rio greater than finding the right cabi­net pulls at Restoration Hardware. Today these people are diving for comfort under their fraying Frette Hotel Collection sheets. A dicey job market, a jumpy stock market, an imploding bond market, soaring health care costs, and a looted Social Security lockbox threaten the pu­tative paradise observed in the late 1990s. The result is a forecast that calls for highly unsettled weather. People feel discontented about to­morrow. It isn’t so much future shock as future denial. There are a half dozen good explanations for why people aren’t planning for the next few decades. Call these the Eisenberg Uncertainty Principles, which will guide the twists of the story to come.


A disclaimer before the curtain goes up on the Uncertainty Princi­ples: Deliberately excluded from the list are a couple of the truly big hairy reasons why people close their eyes to the future. These are the obvious uber-dreads that are indisputably beyond anyone’s day-to-day control:


Fear of death. Woody Allen has no monopoly on this one. Fear of dying certainly ranks high among disincentives to plan. It weighs heav­ily on the mind of a psychiatrist I meet at a resort in Florida. We have ten minutes of friendly conversation, then he asks about the book I’m working on. After listening to the details, he says with a smile that he’s so obsessed with death he has never been inclined to sweat the details of something as mundane as retirement planning. I tell him I’d rather not discuss this on my vacation.


Fear of global annihilation. Skittishness over the possibility of a cat­aclysmic event (terrorist, environmental) also renders people disin­clined to plan. In other words, let’s just get through the week, and then we can get cracking on that cash-flow analysis.


The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principles have to do with things we could change if we had the will, or knew how:


1.         The uncertainty that results from living in a society and culture so steeped in the moment, and awash in debt, that there’s little social or peer pressure to get one’s financial house in order.


Easy credit makes it easier to spend than to save, more pleasant to shop than to plan. We throw money around. We piss it away. We treat ourselves to new shoes or a smart phone when we’re feeling blue. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that since 1990, median house­hold income has risen 11 percent, adjusted for inflation; median house­hold debt, on the other hand, has risen 80 percent. Consuming is all-consuming, a full-time job unto itself. Who has time to gather ex­penses onto a budget worksheet, even if the budget is designed to re­strain us?


2.         The uncertainty and lack of motivation that come from not knowing how money works. Doing money right is not a core competency for most people. This is either a baffling irony or a natural consequence of a ma­terialistic culture. People feel stupid about money, so they keep it at arm’s length, sometimes for decades (call these the Lost Years, which we’ll get to). People may be OK when it comes to earning money and quite adept at spending it, but a great many of them confess to feeling clumsy, myopic, and highly inept when it comes to managing it. Surveys bear this out. Many of them indicate that even educated and profes­sionally successful people don’t know the basics, e.g., that a money-market fund isn’t made up of stocks; or that the value of a bond goes down when interest rates go up. Not knowing the fundamentals is def­initely a roadblock to proactive planning.


3.         The uncertainty caused by knowing that the old retirement support systems are withering away. Until recently it was fairly simple to live and pay for a lifetime on the planet. You worked, you retired, and you died shortly thereafter, in more or less dutiful compliance with accepted timetables of the day. There were reliable systems in place to finance your retirement. Most people knew exactly how much money would ar­rive in their mailboxes every month, and it always arrived as promised. For a host of reasons (we’ll get to these, too) it doesn’t work that way anymore.


4.         The uncertainty caused by the immense cloud that hangs over future retirement benefits: bankrupt corporate pension plans; what an angry stock market god might do to smite private retirement savings plans. This uncertainty thrives like mold in the brave new petri dish of financial self-determination. Just as we scratch our heads over where yesterday’s security went, we have too little faith in tomorrow’s. Companies im­plode and take our benefits with them; others try to chisel their way out of old commitments or simply find they can’t fulfill them. United Air­lines recently won a court ruling in the largest pension-default case ever. Its pension fund was short nearly $10 billion, only half of which was insured by a government agency. The government agency itself is going broke. Then there’s that little matter of Social Security.


5.         The uncertainty that comes from failure to see the larger picture in all of the above. It would be helpful to have trustworthy teachers, men­tors, and financial counselors who are accessible to everyone, no matter how rich or poor. Financial life is wildly confusing, fraught with subjec­tivity and arbitrary calls. There are too many decisions and choices to be made, lots of arcane minutiae to juggle. There is endless fine print and gobbledygook about estate planning, tax codes, disbursement strate­gies. Not to mention the fact that those damn politicians down in Washington are always changing everything around in bizarre ways. It’s like a bad stand-up routine. Sunset provisions! Are they nuts, folks, or what? Taxes recede, expire, then come back as if they’d never gone away—unless, of course, they get changed in the meantime, which they probably will be, but who knows where or when? How can any­body plan amid all the confusion and static?


6.         Finally, the profound uncertainty over what truly matters at the end of the day. Let’s assume that you’re lucky or smart enough to navigate the foregoing uncertainties. Having gone to so much trouble, do you re­ally want to wake up one morning, throw open the shutters on a glorious day, gaze at the dewy rose garden below, and watch the sun rise on the rest of your life, screaming, “I’m so wrinkled, miserable, and bored I wish I was dead”? The greatest uncertainty of all may be the uncertainty over what money is good for. We bury this uncertainty under a million clichés. Money can’t buy happiness. Oh, no? Money can buy time and opportunity to do the things we most love. It can help us fulfill our obli­gations as parents to our kids and as kids to our parents. It buys quality health care. But somehow or other, we get our knickers all twisted up when it comes to figuring out the real value of money. Could it be that in the end the reason we don’t plan is because we don’t have anything meaningful to plan for?


The audience for The Number is the hoard of baby boomers who have anxiety about retirement. For any reader, The Number will bring to one place a scattered and eccentric approach to financial and life planning. There are ample questions in The Number, few answers, and ways to think about life that for some readers will be familiar, and for others will be totally foreign. In some perverse way, there’s too much and too little in The Number to recommend it.


Steve Hopkins, April 24, 2006



Buy The Number @ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2006 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2006 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Number.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com