Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Popular finance: It isn't the system, it's you.

Look out evolutionary psychology, popular finance may be overtaking you as the most egregious contemporary movement that prides itself on explaining powerlessness and inequality with status-quo loving pseudo science.

Take this delightful Slate article on entertainer/finance guru Suze Orman:
Orman is that most modern breed of capitalists, the human-industry, self-mythologizing. "Suze has a unique grasp of the role money plays in our lives, as well as the gift of timing: she tells us exactly what we need to know, precisely when we need to know it." So, at least, claims the jacket copy of one of her books. She addresses her fans either as "my friends" (learned from John McCain, perhaps?) or as "girlfriend." Although she published a comprehensive—and very useful—guide to personal finance in 2001, her first two best-sellers focused on the "emotional roadblocks" to financial freedom. Suze has a lot to say about emotional roadblocks, among other things: "Falling in love is simple—or so it often seems in retrospect"; "Tears are God's way of forgiving you"; "You will never achieve a sense of power over your life until you have power over your money"; and "The stock market is like a pot of soup."

She has less patience for statistics. Although study after study has shown that personal bankruptcies are caused primarily by catastrophic events like divorce, job loss, and, above all, medical bills and that most of us are struggling with a gap between our income growth and the soaring cost of necessities like housing, Suze tends toward psychological causes that invariably blame the victim. Who is struggling these days, according to Suze? "People who grew up without much money and later earn a comfortable living sometimes spend too much to make up for what they didn't get as children. ... People who feel entitled to the good life, or are unconsciously copying a mother or father who lived beyond her or his means. ... If you feel the need to impress people with what you have rather than with who you are, you are at high risk for credit card abuse." This from a woman who spends $500,000 a year chartering private jets and who sells "Cruise With Suze" packages on an Italian luxury liner.


Suze, my friends, has been lying to us, and we know she knows she's been lying because she herself tells us that she ignores her own advice. (Apparently, it's more important to brag about how many books you've sold than to hang with your peeps.) Which brings us to the awful truth: What we're supposed to love about Suze Orman is not her knowledge and certainly not her prescience, but her ability to turn circumstances to her advantage, the resilience of a waitress-turned-bank-vice-president who squandered a great gig only to make a fortune off of you and me by having the courage to be rich. We are to admire her, just as many of us secretly admire Bernie Madoff (who promised remarkably similar returns to Suze Orman's 11 percent stock market) and the equally smarmy CEOs of those crooked banks that she tells us to trust for their gumption. Despite her obvious flaws, we admire Suze so much that millions of us will fork over more of our dwindling dollars for her new FICO kit—co-branded with Fair Isaac Corp., the largest credit-scoring company in the country—because she now assures us that a high FICO score is the key to our financial future. True, her previous book promised us that we would never be a financial victim again. Not only that, but we would receive the life we deserved, which sounds suspiciously like one of those insidious credit card offers, but whatever. When was the last time an evangelist predicted anything correctly or the phone psychic told you something that you didn't already know? So what if we cannot retire because Suze has been telling us to buy stocks and trust the fat cats? Suze, my friends, possesses the courage to be rich. The rest of us are suffering from a collective emotional roadblock.
Like evolutionary biology, popular finance relies on the illusion that there is some advanced science for understanding why things aren't as good as they should be. But worse than evolutionary biology, popular finance also tells us we are the reason for our own economic "failings," that there is a science to it, but we could change the result if only we really wanted to.


T said...

"explaining powerlessness with status-quo-loving pseudoscience"

I love it! Great post.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I read the tarot, often for money and prizes... and yeah, I hate to admit it, but I've learned a lot from Suze! :P tee hee!

"I am NOT happy with YOU at ALL!.." (pouty-unhappy face)