I have gotten in the habit of flicking on the TV while doing my nightly crunches. Since they only take about eight minutes I usually get a slice of something without context, which is fine by me; I am simply seeking visual noise to distract the monotony of combating a flabby belly.
Last week I turned on Channel 2, PBS in Boston, and there is a guy standing on a snazzy set with a studio audience on bleachers all around. The phrase ‘Financial Fitness after 50!’ floats above his head in bright lights. He has this cute little graphic with a pot of gold and he is spinning a tale of Granny, who invested $500 in 1928 -$100 each in five different strategies – and yielded over four million dollars in today’s money. The host possesses impeccable talk show timing, announcing that Granny put $100 in this vehicle, pausing as the graphic dollar slips into the pot, builds tension as the pot glows until out pops a giant number reflecting her investment’s worth today. “$3,000,000 for investing in Small-Cap High-Risk Stocks!” The studio audience bursts into thunderous applause. The camera scans the assembly of well groomed, multi-colored people. You go, Granny!
The set shifts to a pair of PBS ‘personalities’ raising money. They offer me the DVD of this essential financial program for a $72 pledge or the entire Financial Fitness package on disc for only $150.
What is wrong with this picture?
Is it that PBS has become indistinguishable from QVC, presenting infomercials as quality content?
Is it that we don’t acknowledge the almost certain reality that if Granny had $500 in 1928, she probably had to tap into it during the ensuing Great Depression before she ever yielded four million dollars?
Is it that the audience claps so raucously over the hypothetical success of this mythical Granny, as if she had some special power in her arbitrary investing that we consider heroic?
Is it that by extolling Granny’s haphazard investment scheme we debunk the notion that anyone needs a financial advisor? That would include Paul Merriman, the show’s host, described as a ‘noted educator, best selling author and money manager’. If Granny became a millionaire without him, why do I need him?
Is it the math of Granny’s age? If she were fifty in 1928, she would be 137 years old today. Actuarially speaking she would never even see her four million dollars because Granny is dead.
The problem with this program is all of the above, which can be synthesized into one fact. We have lost the basic reason for money’s existence. Money started out as a means of exchange, turned into a symbol of security, then status, and finally into something we value in and of itself. Money is the fetish of our age. We exalt money so much we put infomercials for it on PBS while the tangible stuff of our lives, the vacuums and exercisers and cosmetics, get relegated to channels further up the dial. We applaud Granny for her savvy, even though she never reaped any of her rewards.
Ultimately, we come away feeling insufficient; we cannot possibly match Granny’s financial acumen. Aha, unless we donate to PBS and get this amazing DVD, which means relinquishing money to get stuff that supposedly teaches us how to get more money. The logic of the consumer culture tells us this is a good thing to do – buy so we can save; even though the logic of logic tells us that the best way to save money is to, well, save it. My eight minutes of PBS fund raising schlock is just another footnote in our inane relationship to money, but it is a travesty that PBS buys into the frenzy.
As for my own grandmother, she was 28 in 1928, a young woman with four children and a husband who managed to hold onto a rudimentary job through the Depression. She lived a long and healthy life, and when she died in 1988 she left me a ceramic teapot that I had given her as a gift years earlier. I make tea in it often, and every time it reminds me of her. She didn’t have four millions dollars; she might not have even had four thousand dollars. But what does that matter? She lived a content and happy life and left a legacy of love that sifts through five generations. If she had left me money, it might have made my life easier, but I am better off needing to be a responsible adult who earns the money I need in life. I am also better off because whenever I make tea, I do with my Granny.
I spent 30 minutes responding to your comments and then I think I lost it all when I tried to load my email address. Did you receive my reply?
Sorry, I did not receive anything beyond this message. I appreciate you reading the post.
I agree with everything you said about grandma and the times. The show was designed to entertain, teach enough for the viewer to determine whether this information might apply to them and finally motivate them to make a donation. I retired from my company and spent an entire year putting together the Financial Fit Kit, including 10 hours of DVDs, CDs, a workbook and a new book that would not have been written without this project. I also reviewed the 100 largest 401k plans and made my recommendations on how to get the best asset allocation for conservative, moderate and aggressive investors. I did the same for the U.S. Government Thrift Saving Plan. I also included my recommendations for the ten largest mutual fund companies. And finally I set up a new web site to update the material over time and offered to personally answer questions from the people who contributed to this PBS show.
Creating the PBS show was not easy for me. I have done free public workshops for almost 30 and I have taught CPAs for 25 of those years. Most of the people who have attended my workshops like the idea of evidence-based investing, which means they spend one to three hours with me looking at tables of numbers. PBS tried to eliminate the numbers, make the show fun and get me to lighten up. The producer made it very clear that many of the viewers would find us as you did, in the middle of channel surfing.
I have talked to enough people on the inside of PBS who don’t like these shows on PBS. They do not represent the quality of work they want to bring their viewers. I can assure you they are not proud to run my show after Masterpiece, Nova, Frontline or any of the dozens to wonderful shows PBS offers commercial free. But it turns out it’s not commercial free as there have to be shows like mine that are designed to help them raise money.
None of this would be necessary if all of their viewers, who can afford it, would donate a relatively small amount of money. Only some 2 to 3 out of 10 regular viewers support public television. I’ve talked to people who watch regularly and don’t donate to their local PBS station. The most common reason is, “My taxes are used to support public television. I already gave at the office.” And it’s true, about 14% of PBS expenses are paid by tax payers.
PBS can get rid of people like me if they will make an annual pledge. I have made an extra effort to help PBS because they gave me public exposure I could never have afforded to buy. In 1990 I was the featured guest on Wall Street Week and following that show, a guest on Nightly Business Report. Those two shows generated huge amounts of business for our firm.
I am not making anything from the PBS project, including the book, Financial Fitness Forever. This is my thank you for what PBS has done for me. It is my hope the show will generate over a million dollars for the stations and I can get on with my life.
If you want to see more about the book and PBS show please visit paulmerriman.com. If you would like to see many of my boring number based articles visit fundadvice.com. I have been tracked for many years by The Hulbert Finacial Digest. I have the best 10 year results using Vanguard funds. And mine is the only newsletter that is free.
I am a big supporter of PBS but my main focus is on global-HELP.org, a provider of free medical publications to health care workers in developing countries.
By the way, I enjoyed your blog. I shared it with my kids and they liked it as well.
Thank you for your polite and thorough observations. Your explanations are clear and consistent while my post strikes a more radical view. The whole concept of personal investment as the path to security is an unfortunate one. Only when we come to realize that houses are for living in, not for losing or gaining value, and that security comes from the certainty that we will care for one another rather than accumulating wealth tagged with our name on it, can we return money to its proper role as a means of exchange and investing to its proper role of leveraging capital to bolster the collective good. I encourage you to do research and write a book about when ‘enough is enough’ and show that, on the whole, people with ‘enough’ are happier, calmer, better adjusted and more consistent contributors to society than people who constantly crave ‘more’.