Helaine Olen on The Daily Show: ‘It’s Not Our Personal Finances, It’s Our Collective Personal Finances’

Freelance journalist Helaine Olen appeared on The Daily Show Wednesday night to promote her new book Pound Foolish, in which she attacks the financial planning industry as a group of snake oil salesmen. The show didn’t have enough time to air the full conversation, so viewers had to go online to www.thedailyshow.com to hear Olen’s proposed solution for de-emphasizing the importance of investing.

It must have shocked anyone who believes in personal responsibility. Olen’s answer to the personal finance industry can be found in a core tenet of the Occupy Wall Street movement:


"I felt the one thing that Occupy really got, whether you agreed with them or disagreed with them, was this idea that we’re all in it together, that if your house is being foreclosed on, you can’t pay your student loan, you don’t have a job -- instead of us all being individual failures, going down separately, we’re in this together. It’s not our personal finances, it’s our collective personal finances. And I think the first step is to really begin acknowledging it in that way, and perhaps then we’ll start seeing change."

This is a woman whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and other major publications, so she’s not exactly un-influential. But there’s one major problem with her analysis: not everybody is a failure. Not everybody struggles with their personal finances. Many people have made wise investing decisions, and those investments have contributed to their wealth. Should the successful investors allow the “failures” to bring them down?

It sounds as though Olen is calling for communism. What else does she mean by the oxymoron, "It’s not our personal finances, it’s our collective personal finances"? Personal finances are not collective. If your house is being foreclosed and I can’t pay my student loan, I don’t want any part of your problem, and my guess is that you don’t want any part of mine.

What's more, attempting to increase your personal wealth is most certainly not selfish. Folks who can grow their nest egg can pass on an inheritance to their children, leave money to charitable enterprises, and do all sorts of other things that a broke 80-year-old simply cannot do. It's just that those choices to redistribute personal wealth are made by those persons, not Ms. Olen's political heroes.

Below is a partial transcript of Olen's discussion with Jon Stewart:

JON STEWART: Is there a space there for real, true – I would say, in changing a system and weighting it back towards valuing work, and – you know, the idea that investment is somehow better for people – like, you should be able to – we should have an economy that allows people to say, ‘If I work hard and steady for 40 years, I’m not gonna have to worry.’ Not ‘If I work hard and steady for 40 years, and I learn about retirement investment accounts, and I throw some money down on the next new startup, and I can do this stuff, maybe I have a chance.’

HELAINE OLEN: I think you’re seeing it online, is where you’re seeing it, in the blogosphere. I don’t think you’re seeing it on televesion, though, because what ads are going to support that network?

STEWART: Right. So it’s not, it’s a question of, that type of thing would be toxic to the system that’s been created.



OLEN: Well, would people who are advertising on CNBC advertise on that network? ‘Don’t buy our funds’?

STEWART: Yes! What a great – no, you’re right. I guess that wouldn’t work. Yeah, no, I guess that’s right. So where do you see this going, then? You talk a little bit about, like, there’s those financial therapists, and that seems like a whole bunch of hooey too, so what do you think is – [your book] ends on kind of an enigmatic note.

OLEN: Well, I think the answer is we need to start talking about this. I felt the one thing that Occupy really got, whether you agreed with them or disagreed with them, was this idea that we’re all in it together, that if your house is being foreclosed on, you can’t pay your student loan, you don’t have a job -- instead of us all being individual failures, going down separately, we’re in this together. It’s not our personal finances, it’s our collective personal finances. And I think the first step is to really begin acknowledging it in that way, and perhaps then we’ll start seeing change.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.