Greater Fools – Financial Illiteracy

The New Yorker

Greater Fools

by James Surowiecki

The depth of our financial ignorance is startling. In recent years, Annamaria Lusardi, an economist at Dartmouth and the head of the Financial Literacy Center, has conducted extensive studies of what Americans know about finance. It’s depressing work. Almost half of those surveyed couldn’t answer two questions about inflation and interest rates correctly, and slightly more sophisticated topics baffle a majority of people. Many people don’t know the terms of their mortgage or the interest rate they’re paying. And, at a time when we’re borrowing more than ever, most Americans can’t explain what compound interest is.

Financial illiteracy isn’t new, but the consequences have become more severe, because people now have to take so much responsibility for their financial lives. Pensions have been replaced with 401(k)s; many workers have to buy their own health insurance; and so on. The financial marketplace, meanwhile, has become a dizzying emporium of choice and easy credit. The decisions are more numerous and complex than ever before. As Lusardi puts it, “It’s like we’ve opened a faucet, and told people they can draw as much water as they want, and it’s up to them to decide when they’ve had enough. But we haven’t given people the tools to decide how much is too much.” …

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