By James Kwak
I recently finished reading Pound Foolish, by Helaine Olen, which I discussed earlier (while one-third of the way through). The book is a condemnation of just almost every form of personal financial advice out there, from the personal finance gurus (Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey) to the variable annuity salespeople to the peddlers of real estate get-rich-quick schemes to Sesame Street‘s corporate-sponsored financial education programs. (Of them all, Jane Bryant Quinn is one of the few who generally come off as more good than evil.)
A lot of what’s going on is just semi-sleazy entrepreneurs trying to make a buck, taking “advice” that is equal parts routine, wrong, and contradictory and packaging it into attractive-looking books, TV shows, and in-person events. A lot of the rest is marketing by the real financial industry, which either (a) wants to make a show of promoting financial education so people will think they are good or (b) wants to teach people that they need their products. (You pick.)
The underlying problem with financial advice—besides the fact that most of it is wrong, conflicted (in the conflict of interest sense), or covert marketing—is that, even in the best case, it rarely works. The underlying financial problem that most Americans have isn’t that they buy too many lattes or pick the wrong stocks. It’s that they don’t make enough money to begin with, at a time when many necessities like health care and education are getting more expensive. (Measured inflation is low in part because things we don’t need, like fancy electronics, are getting cheaper.) This, as I’ve written before, is the fundamental reason why many people won’t be prepared for retirement. Olen has a similar viewpoint: the blind spot of the personal finance industry, she argues, is its refusal to even consider the macroeconomic factors that are the real problem.
But the big question is why this stuff is so popular. As Olen points out, we haven’t always had a personal finance advice industry, and it’s only recently that financial education has been embraced as the solution to all our problems. One reason, she suggests, is that we live in an age of stagnant real wages and rising inequality. Add that to a culture that fetishizes individualism and rejects government support programs, and you have a market that is ripe for self-proclaimed gurus or self-interested advertising campaigns that claim that you can get ahead by (insert your choice) drinking less coffee, or going into more real estate debt, or buying a variable annuity, or picking the right stocks. The governments (state and federal) that promote financial education are like Marie-Antoinette advising people to eat cake; if they could eat cake in the first place, they wouldn’t need financial education.
Many of the people Olen talked to were too embarrassed by their financial plight to let her use their names in the book. Somehow we ended up blaming ourselves for the fact that we don’t have a decent minimum wage, real national health insurance, subsidized child care that made it easier to hold a job, or long-term unemployment insurance (other than in special circumstances). If we saw individuals’ financial struggles as a political issue—or a class issue—things might be different.