Financial Literacy — Protecting Who?

September 16, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

My high school offered a course in drivers ed. I didn’t take it, but it was available. Today, some high schools offer courses in “financial literacy.” Behind these two seemingly different courses lie the same assumptions:

  • bad things happen largely because of individual shortcomings — bad driving, bad financial decisions
  • the road to less suffering lies in education

These two kinds of programs share one more similarity: they don’t work.

Financial literacy courses are not yet widesp4read, but there is a movement to get them into the curriculum. Who would be behind such a movement? Elizabeth Warren? Paul Krugman? You’re way ahead of me. It’s the people inside the world of finance — the banks and brokers and their attendant media. Here’s the graphic that came up when I searched for news of  “financial literacy.” 

CNBC, Financial Times, Fast Company, Charles Schwab, and so on. We don’t know for certain why these organizations have gotten into the fin-lit game. Their official goal is to keep people from making bad financial decisions. But it’s hard to ignore the own self-interest. The implicit message in these programs is that the banks and others are good, reliable, public-spirited institutions so long as you are careful. But beyond that, as Felix Salmon says,

Such curricula also tend to reinforce a libertarian view of financial wellness, based on individual rather than collective action — one where poverty and debt are less a societal problem and more a consequence of bad individual financial decisions.
 
Do Hispanics have financial problems, and if so how can these be solved? The CNBC link
 in my Google results has this:

During Hispanic Heritage Month, CNBC will highlight individuals who are working to teach others about personal finance and empowering them to strive toward a bright financial future.


The Financial Times link  yields a video of a panel discussion. It begins with moderator asking what are the most important things the FT financial-literacy charity can do. The answer:

The sorts of schools that we work with, about half of the children live in poverty. Their aspiration is to have their lives not in poverty. Money is so beyond important to all of them.

The idea that the government might regulate these institutions in order to protect consumers is simply not part of the discussion. Read all the fine print before you sign or click “Agree”; pay no attention to those lobbyists hard at work fighting against consumer financial protection laws. Fin-reg no; fin-lit yes.

I don’t know the history of drivers ed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it was promoted, supported and perhaps designed by the car companies, the AAA, and the oil industry. The focus on good driving frames automobile safety as a problem whose cause and solution lie entirely with individuals.  Meanwhile, Detroit vigorously resisted regulations requiring them to include safety features like seat belts and airbags.

Eventually safety improved. The number of highway deaths declined. But it wasn’t because of drivers ed. The evaluation research on those programs is hardly a ringing endorsement of their effectiveness.

The same is true of financial literacy education. Felix Salmon again:

A 2014 meta-analysis of 169 papers and 201 studies, however, found that “interventions to improve financial literacy explain only 0.1% of the variance in financial behaviors studied” — and that low-income students had even weaker correlations.

It may be a bit too cynical to ask cui bono? (who is it good for?). But at the least, let's just say that  organizations do not promote programs that go against their own interests

White Lotus

August 23, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some random observations on White Lotus. I know it’s just television, and the stories are about the individual characters. But it’s hard not to see the social categories — class, gender, age, race, family role, occupation, etc.

Spoilers abound in what follows. For those totally unfamiliar with the show, White Lotus is a luxury hotel in Hawaii. The show focuses on three sets of guests who have come from the mainland for a week and on some of the staff who must endure them.

1.      Rich people are the problem, even when they’re trying to help.

Rich people are often the bad guys in American movies and TV.* In their pursuit of wealth and power, they resort to all kinds of nefarious deeds, some legal, some not but nasty nevertheless.  In White Lotus, the rich people are not that kind of villain. They are not Gordon Gecko or Montgomery Burns.  They are merely thoughtless. But the results are just as bad. In that thoughtlessness, they unintentionally bring disappointment, disaster, and death to the people who have jobs serving them.

    Three plot lines in the show pair a guest and a member of the hotel staff:

  • Tonya, a wealthy but very unhappy White woman. Belinda, the Black manager of the hotel’s spa services
  • Paula, friend of Olivia Mossbacher, whose family is on vacation at the hotel. Kai, a native Hawaiian who works at the hotel.
  • Shane, young White man on his honeymoon; his money is from the family real estate business. Armond, manager of the hotel, gay.

    None of these ends well, especially for the staff member.

    a.    After Belinda brings Tonya out of her physical and psycological misery, Tonya offers to help Beinda start her own business. But  then Tonay backs out, not even reading Belinda’s proposal. (She does though leave Belinda with a substantial amount of cash.)

    b.    Paula seduces Kai, then tries to help him by convincing him to steal the jewelry of the family that has brought her along. She provides the combination to the Mossbache’s room. It’s a stupid idea, and Kai is easily caught.

    c.    Shane is out to get Armond practically from the start. His complaint is mostly about the room Armond has given him. But in the end, he winds up killing Armond, though the death is more accidental than intentional.

2.    This ain’t Mother’s Day.

    a.    White Lotus is not kind to mothers. Tonya (Jennifer Coolidge, who should be given an Emmy right now) makes it clear that her mother is the principle cause of her personal failings and misery. ( “My mother told me I would never be a ballerina, and that was when I was skinny,”) We’ll never know the mother’s side since she exists only as the ashes that Tonya carries around in a wooden box and periodically tries to scatter on the ocean,

    b.    Nicole (Connie Britton) is more interested in her role as CFO than in her family. Even on this family vacation, she’s rearranging the furniture in their hotel suite for purposes of feng shui for her Zoom with China.

    c.    Shane’s mom (Mollie Shannon) is so involved with running Shane’s life that she crashes his honeymoon, is disdainful of her new daughter-in-law (if she listens to her at all) and is in general a thoroughly dislikeable materialistic snob.

3.    So much for the new masculinity.

    Shane performs the old-style bro version of masculinity., and for that, the show portrays this as something no man should want to be. But the non-bros, the two Mossbacher men (father Mark and teenage son Quinn) are hardly ideal. They are nearly lifeless, without energy for anything and finding little gratification in what they do. Mark seems to has little authority in the family, and seemingly no job. His wife Nicole, is the high-power one.  In the opening episode, Mark is worried that he will literally lose his balls. Quinn, bored and listless, distracts himself with screens — video games and porn.
    
What brings each of them to life is the chance to do something physical and tradionally masculine — fighting and sports. When Mark comes upon Kai burglarizing his room, he tackles him. They fight briefly, Mark getting the worst of it. But his valiant effort transforms him in his own eyes and in the eyes of his wife. They have sex for what is apparently the first time in years. Quinn comes to life only after he joins up with a rowing team. Pulling an oar in the outrigger is the only real thing in his life.

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* The creators of these shows are often rich. I don’t know how much Mike White is making from this show that he created, wrote, and directed — it’s impossible to find out unless someone sues someone else — but I’m sure it’s a lot. Why do rich Hollywood writers make rich business people their villains? For Ben Stein’s Marxist answer to this question, see the post Schmucks With Powerbooks from 2007


Jim Loewen, 1942-2021

August 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The last time I saw Jim Loewen was at the 2018 ASA meetings in Phildelphia, a session on blogging as public sociology. It was in one of those small rooms and there were about forty of us in the audience. Jim was sitting quietly towards the back of the room. The irony struck me immediately. Here were bloggers, public sociologists, whose publics were perhaps a few hundred people, mostly sociology professors and graduate students — and sitting unnoticed was a sociologist whose work had reached more than a million people. My son had read Lies My Teacher Told Me in high school.

After the session, I said hello. He didn’t remember me.  Our grad school careers had barely overlapped; I was in social psych then, not sociology. But a couple of my friends of mine knew him from grad school and from leftist student politics. They both wound up at prestigious business schools, one teaching business law, the other teaching about leadership and doing well-paid consulting for corporate executives.

Jim remained true to the concerns he had back then. As I recall, he now said he was interested in people’s hometown experiences with race and class. I told him that I might not have much to contribute. When was growing up, my hometown had no known African Americans, though my parents had said that there were some families that were passing. “No, no. Write it up and send it to me,” Jim said, handing me his card.

I never did, an omission I now regret.

When Less Is More . . . More Correct

August 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Fewer than one in four people who are pregnant are vaccinated,” said Noelle King on NPR this morning. Fewer? Really? Why not less?

I suppose that Ms. King or whoever wrote the script was thinking of the individual people. Grammarly.com, an online source, offers the same prescription.

To decide whether to use fewer or less with a percentage, you will have to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, “What is this a percentage of? Is it countable?”

Fewer than eight percent of the world’s people have blue eyes.

Although counting the world’s people would be an unenviable task, it is possible to count individual people. Therefore, eight percent of the world’s people is countable and we use the word fewer.

Even if you think you should use fewer when talking about separate, countable things, the NPR lede makes no sense. The only number “fewer” than one in four is zero in four. That would mean that no pregnant people are vaccinated.

Dollars are countable, but we don’t talk about “people whose income is fewer than seventy thousand dollars a year.” The same goes for many other things. We don’t say, “I weigh eight pounds fewer than I did in March,” or “Stop for gas. We have fewer than two gallons left in the tank.”  

All of these statements — vaccinations, incomes, gas tanks — are not not about individual people or things; they are about a level or rate. And when you are talking about levels, it makes more sense to use less.

In the NYT last month, the print edition had a story about Covid rates in counties where “fewer than 40 percent” of residents had been vaccinated. The online version corrected this to “under 40 percent.” I guess the copy editor didn’t have the confidence to change it to less.


I seem to be hearing this kind of fewer more and more. (I wish I had some actual data to show the trend, but I don’t,) Those contests from my childhood where you were asked to write something in “twenty-five words or less” would now be “twenty-five words or fewer.”

What’s wrong with less? My guess is that fewer sounds like what educated people say. Fewer is more sophisticated; less sounds so ordinary. It’s like using fortuitous rather than fortunate. The words sound alike, and in many instance, both could apply — things that are fortunate may also happen unexpectedly by chance. So why not use the one that sounds like something a person with a large vocabulary would say? Of course, I’m fighting a losing battle here.  I expect that in a few years, if it hasn’t happened already, dictionaries will tell us that the meaning of fortuitous has now expanded to cover both. But to my ear, it’s like being served the salad course at dinner and asking someone to “pass the dressage.”