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Economic Illiteracy

3 December 2008
Willie Geist

Willie Geist

Every day on Morning Joe, Willie Geist does a segment called “News You Can’t Use.”   Later the whole crowd joins together to close the show with a segment called, “What We Learned Today.”  Most of the time these are meaningless exercises involving silly stories and jokes.  Okay, okay, they are ALWAYS meaningless and silly segments.  So imagine my surprise today when Willie Geist came up with some news I really could use.  Who knew?  I have never considered him to be more than Joe Scarborough’s funny sidekick who appeals to a certain part of the demographic that I am not a part of and don’t know about.  But today Willie delivered the goods.

Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky

It all unfolded in a segment that featured Economics Analyst, Jean Chatzky.  She bemoaned the lack of knowledge most Americans have about their own economic well being and how to manage their money.  Willie chimed in with what I considered the insight of the day.  He recounted how he learned Trigonometry in High School, as well as how to dissect a frog, but learned absolutely nothing about how to manage his finances.  He went on to say that he has never once used Trigonometry or dissected a frog since leaving high school, but has had to struggle through the day-to-day experience of managing his money.  Now, my lack of earlier respect for Mr. Geist aside, this is a young man of some letters.  After all, he did graduate from Vanderbilt University, no small accomplishment.

Apple seller in Great Depression

Apple seller in Great Depression

While Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski waxed poetically about how their put-upon parents’ generation passed down Depression-era lessons to them, I feel that this is a somewhat overrated claim for those of my age.  While I have written before about the plight suffered by my parents in their childhood experiences in The Great Depression, I must admit that they didn’t really pass that wisdom down to me except in the most passive manner.  Unfortunately, their practical application of the lessons learned from an extremely lean childhood, just looked like stinginess to me and I considered them to be tightwads.  There, I said it in print.  I thought my parents were just a couple of tightwads.  You see, they carried a great deal of shame forward into their adult lives and were never comfortable talking about financial matters with their children, or with anyone else for that matter.  Like sex, it was considered to be a topic unsuitable for discussion with “the little ones.”

Economics by Calvin

Economics by Calvin

So, just like sex, I had to learn financial responsibility on my own.  The results were often disastrous.  You see, neither sex education nor financial responsibility were taught at the public schools I went to in Oklahoma.  Lots of math and science and love of athletics were pushed, but some of the most practical lessons I could have profited from were never offered as courses of study at school.  Therefore, I learned about sex long before I learned where babies come from.  In fact, I was so taken aback by the knowledge of the latter that I called my best friend a liar when he informed me of what later turned out to be the truth.  My poor money management skills, unfortunately, haunted me for a much longer period of time, well into adulthood.  I was a big participant in the credit-driven American Dream and often paid for my foolishness along the way.

mmsOn “Black Friday” we saw yet another manifestation of a fundamental misunderstanding by the American people about their own personal financial health.  The shopping malls were packed with people out spending more credit than they had even the year before.  Astounding!  While economists had predicted dire results on Friday, quite the opposite came to pass.  While the pundits remain in their confused stupor as to the reason for this phenomenon, I was given a good analysis by a psychologist I used to know about a study that was conducted many years ago.  M&Ms were given to two sets of children, one from poor families and one from well-off families.  The way the children “handled” their candy was totally opposite.  The well-off children, not feeling the pressure of want and having been taught thriftiness by their successful parents, ate their candy little by little over a period of time.  The poor children, fearing that there would NEVER be any candy again, partly because they hadn’t had any for a while, and having not been taught any financial responsibility by their unsuccessful parents, gobbled their candy up immediately.  The results hit the “logical” mind right in the head.  But, having been brought up in the latter kind of family, this was my continual reaction to “good times.”  I felt that I had to get everything I wanted because I might not get another chance.

credit-cardsI saw this scenario play out on Black Friday, where the American worker, wondering if the “good times” were about to disappear for God knows how long, decided to make a bee-line for the shopping malls and stock up on happiness while there was still some to go around.  Of course, this “shopaholism” was largely paid for by credit cards, and come January will arrive a reality that is sure to set the economy reeling for a new reason, everybody’s tapped out.  Then what?  Nobody knows, even the smartest economists.  But the problem is tragically real.

food-stamps-who-gets-themThere were two news items on CNN this morning that show the depth of our economic woes at the lowest levels.  One was a report that in the State of Tennessee one in six of all people have either applied for or are receiving food stamps.  This is a startling number – that is 1/6 of all people in Tennessee.  While the Republican politicians of that state continue to tout the “wonders” of supply-side economics and crow about the success of the foreign automakers in the state, one sixth of their constituents are literally on the verge of starvation.  The elite conservative politicians of Tennessee should be ashamed of themselves for denying the problems of so many of those they claim to serve.

georgia04And then there was the other story, a story of service.  It reminded me of the times when I was young and Vietnam was raging and only a draft was able to provide the nation’s military with the manpower to “defend” the world from Communism.  In that time, at least in my unit in Germany, of the first-term soldiers, only about one quarter were “volunteers.”  The rest of us were draftees.  Of that quarter, some were there because they had gotten themselves into some minor misdemeanor trouble and had been given a choice of jail/prison or service in the military, or they were from such poor families that the military was their only option for survival.  A real-life modern family was featured today in a news report on CNN that was caught in this same trap.  It was a young soldier and his wife, along with their two infant children.  He didn’t particularly want to be in the military, but he didn’t see any real option financially for his family.  So he stayed.  In my opinion this young man is being “starved into service.”  Somehow, that seems immoral to me.  Our current President and his sleazy warmongering friends like to point to the legions of happy soldiers who have “chosen” to defend their country.  The plight of this young soldier puts a lie to that grandiose assertion.  It merely adds another chapter to the story of a collapsed economy that is forcing young people to make life-threatening decisions hoping to survive.

Dan Snyder and Jason Campbell passing out turkeys Thanksgiving 2007

Dan Snyder and Jason Campbell passing out turkeys Thanksgiving 2007

Surely, the “richest country in the world” can do better.  We are always being told that’s what we are by our leaders, but somehow those riches are not getting down to the common man.  That is why the “common man” in most of the nation stood up and shouted “hell, no!” this election.  I hope that the Obama Administration will be able to address these problems, and I hope the Republicans won’t turn into a bunch of obstructionists who want to continue the cycle of poverty, adding to its population, by sticking to their typical “do nothing” approach.  I can see from the victory speech given by Senator Saxby “Shameless” last night, that he plans to do just that.  That’s not encouraging, but perhaps some holdover Republicans from blue states like Maine will see the light and get with the program asked for by the majority of the American people.  Only time will tell.

In the meantime, KEEP FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. starshine permalink
    4 December 2008 2:33 pm

    I couldn’t watch Saxby’s speech. He’s a dispicable person. Aargh.

  2. 4 December 2008 11:15 pm

    Jack,

    How soon we forget. How soon we fall back into our old self destructive patterns which are the dreams that drive all psychologists and therapists in the world to jump for joy as they run for their lives to the nearest computer to write the next book to be published about our collective insanities.

    I must have had delusional hope that this year we, as a nation, would get back to what was important. Instead we, collectively, lined up, as told, at 3:00 AM on Black Friday eagerly waiting for the magical doors of Walmart to open so that we could trample and run over temp xmas employees and pregnant women just to be the first on our block to get one of the three flat screened TVs that were being offered for below cost. Does this sound as insane as I think it does, or has my mind finally gone over to the dark side where I feel that all I want to do is stay in my safe little bed and watch reruns of The West Wing, trying to pretend that our President is a man named Josiah Bartlet and that they are the really good guys.

    My fear is that we all may be too far gone from the reality of what it is really like in a real world where we, as a people, have to be concerned for all. I guess I am more tired than I had thought. The election glow is fading more and more each day and I fear that as soon as Barack Obama’s hand comes off the bible on January 20th, that the gloves of the rest of our wonderful government will come off as well.

    Thanks for another great post. I am off to read your latest, and hopefully I will not be as wordy for the next one. I need to know that I still have the fight in me…..

    • Left-Eyed Jack permalink*
      5 December 2008 7:00 pm

      To: Willpen,

      Your witty comments gave me quite a chuckle, and I NEEDED IT! When you read my post today, you will see that I, too, am having trouble seeing the glass half full. As you rightly point out, our national insanity is on full display not just at the Wal-Mart but at the car dealerships and gas stations. I did, however, in my deep funk this morning look out the row of windows that open onto my wooded back yard and observed beautiful pink clouds floating in the sky at sunrise. Somehow, we will get through this, but I sometimes think we will have to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way.

      I keep hoping that Daddy Obama has the strength to lead us out of the darkness. All we can do is to KEEP FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT!

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