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Ignorance is Not Bliss

By Patrick Jean Baptiste

We are living in difficult financial times. Open up your average newspaper and stories of layoffs, stocks rising and falling, and the Federal Reserve’s latest attempts to rescue the economy abound. Most Americans are antsy. A lack of financial literacy has only exacerbated this mood. Until the federal government takes an active role in the basic economic education of its constituents, things will not get any easier. From Warren Buffet to Joe the Plumber, the economic vitality of the United States is a source of concern whether one seeks to prosper or to secure a leisurely retirement.

While the news media disseminates a ton of financial information with the intention of informing the public, the barrage of numbers, pompous words, and economic jargon (no-load index funds, moderate growth fund, treasury-inflation protected securities) often tunes the average American out. While many Harvard students read the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times on occasion, some religiously, not everyone is the average Harvard student.

Financial literacy is important in today’s world. Without a balanced understanding of how to save, invest, and spend one’s money, one can develop dangerous habits in all of these three areas that can have disastrous ramifications. People spend, save, and invest on a daily basis, and, without a proper understanding of how to handle one’s personal finances or how the financial markets work, the American economy and its participating members are left without a buoy.

In order to reengage the American public, the Obama administration needs to devise a line of communication to verbalize how the performance of the economy is directly affecting their lives. Some call it “kitchen table economics” or “economics light.” The constant bombardment of dreary economic news loaded with obscure facts, numbers, and forecasts leaves the average American unable to digest what can be useful information.

One improvement would be for the administration to publish weekly documents that help us understand how our pockets are affected by the latest tides sweeping the markets. An up-to-date depository and a glossary of simple financial terms for the average person would do wonders for financial literacy and financial responsibility in an age where the urge for rampant spending so often overcomes common sense.

The financial crisis that struck the world this past November reminded all Americans just how important literacy of the financial markets and sound business practices are to economic vitality. President Barack Obama and the leading economists at the world’s biggest bank proclaimed that this was the most severe economic shock since the Great Depression. Articles were written, memos were circulated, and legislation was signed, but all to no avail.

It is a bonanza on Wall Street. One of the Obama administration’s purported goals was to help Main Street. The stimulus package, health care reform, and tax credits were all ways in which it was and is trying to achieve this goal. But when John Smith opens up the newspaper, he reads about “Bonus Day” on Wall Street. There is very little about how President Obama is directly working to inform the public of his plans to salvage a deepening recession and how the financial markets are affecting their daily lives.

Issues such as retirement, social security, and health care premiums have been eclipsed by economic jargon spewed out from economists who are reputed to say things that are 100 percent accurate but 100 percent irrelevant. Ask an economist for his address and you will receive his latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, which are perfectly correct but useless to those without a compass or navigation system.

The government should resolve to educate the American public about the fundamental idea of economics: the idea of having unlimited wants but scarce resources. To be fair, the government established a Financial Literacy and Education Commission in 2003 and the treasury established its Office of Financial Education in 2002. But most Americans have not heard of these commissions because of a lack of publicity. With a little more accessible financial knowledge and understanding of how things such as interest rates can affect one’s pocketbook, Americans will make smarter decisions, invest more money into the economy, and participate to a greater degree in the dialogue that dominates our newspapers and our thoughts.

Patrick Jean Baptiste ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Cabot House.

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