I want to begin with a big bravo to Robert Reich and Nation Magazine for the special July 19/26 double issue on the growing inequality of wealth in the United States and how it is ruining the nation economically, a subject that I have dealt with extensively in this blog lately, including on June 14 and June 15. I urge all my readers to get a copy of this issue of The Nation, which besides an essay by Reich, includes articles by Dean Baker, Jeff Mandrick, Katherine Newman & David Pedula, Orlando Patterson and Matt Yglesias. Anyone with a little extra cash should consider subscribing to The Nation, which consistently serves as an accurate and thought-provoking alternative to mainstream and right-wing media.
Speaking of wealth, last Saturday’s New York Times had another exercise in indoctrination masquerading as an advice article, this one by Ron Lieber in his regular column, “Your Money.”
Lieber attempts to answer the question, “Daddy, are we rich?” and other queries that children and teens sometimes ask about the family financial situation. I want to look at three ways that Lieber subtly infuses his article with the mindless consumerist, keep-up-with-the-Jones values that have so many Americans jonesing on commercial transactions as the only source of satisfaction and the primary means of interacting with the world.
Lieber’s first trick is one I have written about often: selection of experts. Lieber quotes four experts, all financial consultants.
But wait a second. When a child asks a money question, one of two dynamics is in play:
- An opportunity to transmit basic family values, which may differ a little, a lot or not at all from the prevailing values of society and the community in which the family lives
- The necessity to deal with a family trauma (loss of job, for example).
It seems to me that a financial consultant has no standing as an expert in these situations. Lieber should have instead asked those experts who could provide some help dealing with the emotional issues that really frame most complicated questions asked by children, in other words, a child or family psychologist.
Child and family psychologists have both the training and the experience to advise parents on how to speak to children about difficult or complicated subjects. Financial consultants might help in training children about financial matters, e.g., the importance of saving or why not paying off a credit card at the end of the month leads to spending more than you need to on the things you buy. But the putative subject was not financial education, but communication on how financial issues affect the family. That’s a job for a psychologist.
Another of Lieber’s propaganda maneuvers involves his choice of examples, which all assume completely consumerist values. Here are some examples, after each of which I will provide some interpretive comment in all caps:
- “My wife handled it better, noting that if we had spent money on a second home, our daughter wouldn’t have been able to go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this year or on a beach vacation.” BUT WHATEVER WE DO, IT WILL INVOLVE CONSUMPTION.
- “They may just be worried about running out of money or wondering why you don’t live in a mansion.” THE ONE EXAMPLE OF A CHILD ASKING WHY THE FAMILY HAS MORE THAN A HOMELESS PERSON IS BURIED AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE (SEE BELOW).
- “…says he believes that most questions about salary spring from the schoolyard. ‘There is so much comparison going on there…Who is best looking? Who is most popular? And money just plugs right into that system. Who has the richest parents?’” THAT’S ONLY IF THE PARENTS HAVE EITHER TRAINED THE TEEN TO BUY INTO CONSUMERIST JONESING OR ALLOWED IT TO HAPPEN BY JUST GOING ALONG.
- “This may not work as well for teenagers, who care mostly about whether they have as much stuff as their friends.” AGAIN, IF THAT’S HOW THE TEEN HAS BEEN RAISED.
Lieber does consider voluntary simplicity (although he doesn’t call it that), the way of life in which you live on less and don’t consider buying things and experiences as the sole goal of life and the sole way of measuring and manifesting all emotions. But he begins this alternative only in the last one-eighth of the article.
This placement is the third way that Lieber enforces consumerist values. By mentioning the one example of a family that embraced voluntary simplicity by selling their large house and buying a smaller one, Lieber moves the article slightly towards having some balance, but only if you read to the end. In the case of the print edition, that means going to another page; online it means scrolling all the way down the page, in some cases after linking from the first paragraph tease to the full story. And the one example of voluntary simplicity comes after the section on how to tell kids that they will have to do without something they are used to having because the family has to cut back since “mom lost her job.”
The theory of montage states that the order in which you place information will color how it is perceived so much that this ordering creates a meaning beyond the information itself. By placing the one example of non-consumer values after advice on what a consumer might say to children when the money runs low, the writer creates the hidden implication that there is a causal relationship between the two that in fact does not have to exist in the real world.
By using these three rhetorical tricks—selection of experts, coloring of quotes and positioning of information—Lieber is able to reinforce the prevailing value system that has sent so many Americans down the road to financial ruin and is taxing the Earth’s resources.