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.