Happy Financial Literacy Month!

by Liana Gamber Thompson and Lana Swartz

April is National Financial Literacy month. Although it may seem slightly outside the purview of a civic engagement research group like Civic Paths, between the Occupy movement and Students for Liberty, we’ve begun to see money matters popping up more and more in our research. With confidence in economic stability at a low, Americans have begun to see personal financial decisions as having political and civic dimensions. Nevertheless, attempts to teach financial literacy tend to avoid the political, focusing instead on seemingly “neutral” best practices like budgeting and saving.

Occupy George

Occupy George turns bills into infographics

After the jump, check out some examples of groups trying to grapple with the idea of finance, both personal and macroeconomic, from an Alternative Reality Game (going on right now!) about electronic trading and financial crisis to a fanvid about economist Friedrich Hayek by young libertarians.

Financial Literacy and Content Worlds — Innovations?

Girl Socouts Financial Literacy Badges

Girl Scouts Financial Literacy Badges


It should come as no surprise given their record of cookie entrepreneurship, but even the Girl Scouts have gotten in on the financial literacy action. The group is now offering several badges that relate to personal finance.  One, “Financing My Dreams” asks scouts to conduct in-depth research to determine if their “dream job” will finance their “dream home.” While home ownership is certainly an important goal for many, the curriculum does not ask scouts to think about the underlying logic of the economic system, only how to navigate it.


Indeed, the financial literacy curriculum has changed little over the years. This 1950 educational video, “The Benefits of Looking Ahead” includes tips that wouldn’t seem out of place today. There are not many other areas of pedagogy that have changed so little in the last 60 years.

What attempts to modernize financial literacy we have seen usually involve attempting to engage young people by drawing on popular culture to make personal finance “fun,” like this  “Budget Blaster” worksheet from Practical Money Skills, a VISA-sponsored financial literacy website. The worksheet is part of a mini financial literacy curriculum that also includes a comic, Saving the Day, which is available in 8 languages, and a teachers’ guide, available in Arabic and English. It attempts to draw from the content world of the upcoming Avengers movie:

“Join Spider-Man and the Avengers in this exciting educational comic about saving money and saving the day. The heroes team up to defeat the villain Mole Man and his evil army, all the while learning important financial skills. The action-packed comic features a budgeting worksheet, finance terms and more.”

Unlike the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that draws direct inspiration from a content world to engage in activism, these attempts are not fan-driven and usually have no deep interest in the content world from which they are borrowing. They often seem like slapping new pictures on old lessons. These campaigns are usually advertisements for a new entertainment property, a financial services company, or both.

Alternative Realities of Finance– A Form of Literacy Education?

Speculat1on.net from Speculation on Vimeo.

A more complex example of using a content world to broaden our understanding of the financial system comes from Duke University’s GreaterThanGames lab, which recently launched an Alternative Reality Game based on the financial crisis called Speculat1on. Like most good ARGs, it’s not giving too much away, but it seems to be drawing from popular scholarship as diverse as Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. Although it certainly doesn’t give advice on personal finance, unlike, say, a traditional game about budgeting, Speculat1on seems to include a critique of the human (and non-human!) actors that produce financial markets. We’re playing along and so should you! Things are getting pretty interesting…


Catalysts For Change is a collaborative game and “real time experiment” to attack structural causes of poverty. It asks participants to envision “paths out of poverty,” which they share in tweet-sized messages. These ideas are mapped, critiqued, and built upon by other participants. The game was designed by Jane McGonigal, Chief Creative Officer at SuperBetter Labs, who says:

“Gaming has come a long way – from the days when we sat around collecting points for Pac-Man to helping solve global poverty Games are powerful tools for breaking through the limits of our thinking. They use competition to build cooperation and as games spread across the Internet, they provide a great platform for linking ideas around the world for a common purpose.”

“Catalysts for Change” is, again, not overtly about personal financial literacy, but it does push participants to consider both macro- and micro- economic alternatives to the global financial crisis.


Doorways to Dreams Fund is a not-for-profit group that produces “financial entertainment” to improve “financial capability, self-confidence and knowledge.” Although it teaches traditional financial literacy skills, such as saving and budgeting, it emphasizes situated decision-making and resource-allocation through casual games that are actually fun. “Bite Club,” it points out “is the first-ever casual video game about vampires and personal finance.” Indeed! What might “planning for the future” look like when you’ve got an eternity on your hands?

It’s a Wonderful Bank

We’ve also seen the use of content worlds to think about finance in bottom-up, meaningful ways.

Although not “financial literacy” per se, people in the Occupy movement drew from the iconography of popular culture to express their economic grievances, as we explored in an earlier blog post.  Similarly, as we also pointed out in 2010, activists involved in Move Your Money— which asks people to divest from large banks in favor of credit unions and community banks– have used It’s a Wonderful Life to make a very subtle point about the intersection of personal finance and the larger economic and political environment.


@Ian_Fraser: We’re not anti-capitalists. But we are ‘George Bailey’ capitalists as opposed to ‘Mr Potter’ capitalists mt @davidbadash #occupywallstreet Oct 8, 2011

As finance journalist Ian Fraser’s tweet shows, It’s a Wonderful Life provides a text for both defining and describing what an alternative to “too big to fail” banks might look like.

“Content Worlds” of Libertarianism– Lessons from Students for Liberty


In this next section, Liana Gamber Thompson reflects on some related findings from her research on Students for Liberty (SFL), a MAPP case study.

Libertarian youth have also been active in the Occupy movement and other efforts to voice economic concerns like those raised by Move Your Money, though their involvement has gone largely unnoticed in popular analyses of both Occupy and the interventions described above. To say that many young libertarians, participants in what is often referred to as the “liberty movement,” are keenly attuned to issues of financial literacy seems almost a foregone conclusion. While most non-libertarians understand the group as aligning themselves with social liberalism and fiscal conservatism, I think most people are unaware just how deep many young libertarians’ commitment runs when it comes to rethinking economic policy in the U.S. and beyond. I’ve talked to a significant number of young liberty movement participants who attend “End the Fed” rallies, participate in their campus economics clubs, and blog about evils of corporate/government collusion. Many have even attended local Occupy rallies or encampments to lend their support to a critique of crony capitalism and government bailouts (though libertarians would bristle at any resulting call for increased government intervention).

But what I’ve also learned over the past few months, is that many libertarians’ commitment to economic transformation, their desire for material change and shifts in policy, is often fueled by an unabashed love for libertarian theorists; their dedication to Austrian economists, anarcho-capitalists, and classical liberals and the fanboy and fangirlishness that stems from that dedication is directly related to a desire to effect economic change, if the interest in theory doesn’t prefigure it entirely in some instances.

Economic Theory Fans


When most people think of famous libertarian theorists, they probably think about Ayn Rand first. When I first started this case study, I expected to find a fan culture built around Rand if one existed at all, and indeed, Rand’s objectivist philosophy is still popular among many young libertarians—SFL distributes free student editions of Atlas Shrugged at all of their conferences and Ayn Rand fan fiction and discussion forums are readily accessible online—but what seems to have replaced a collective obsession with Rand in the liberty movement, is a tangible enthusiasm for Austrian School economists like Friedrich Hayek.

Witness 19-year-old Shimer College student, artist, and musician, Dorian Electra’s love song to Hayek:


Or the first installment in writer/producer John Papola’s series of Keynes vs. Hayek rap battles, which he produced as part of an educational, Mercatus Center-funded venture called EconStories:


Disciples of Murray Rothbard, father of anarcho-capitalism, also constitute a significant fan group within libertarianism. Youtube user Morrakiu, a self-described “atheist, anti-theist, and anti-statist libertarian,” paints a picture of beating up on Paul Krugman and “put[ting] it down for my man Murray” in this “AnCap” (anarcho-capitalist) remix of Wiz Khalifa’s 2010 earworm, “Black and Yellow.”


These tributes represent just a few examples of a vibrant fan culture around theorists that has sprung up within the liberty movement, and numerous other iterations of fandom are apparent in both the media artifacts and material culture of the movement. For instance, at any given SFL event, it is common to run into groups of young Rothbardians, all wearing bowties (Rothbard himself was known for wearing a bowtie) to signify their allegiance. I also had more than one interviewee pause the interview to rummage around in a dorm room dresser and pull out a t-shirt like this one to show me:

To bring this kind of fandom back to a practical application of financial literacy, it’s important to point out that the libertarian love for Hayek or Rothbard extends deeper than celebratory jingles and fashions. The the fan culture I describe is built, not on empty hero worship, but on a deep commitment to a particular brand of economic and political philosophical theory that informs a critique of the current economic state of affairs, one that calls for increased financial literacy as described above.

Education–the Austrian Way


Young libertarians apotheosize scholars like Hayek and Rothbard (and numerous others such as Bastiat, Mises, Friedman, etc.) because they are optimistic that a solution to today’s economic woes lies in the work of these deceased scholars. Ron Paul might be the living face of the liberty movement (an assertion that is itself highly contested), but even he revealed the magnitude of these spectral forebearers’ influence when, in his January 2012 Iowa Caucus speech, he declared in a jibe at Richard Nixon that he was waiting for the day when both Democrats and Republicans could proclaim, “We are all Austrians now.”

Dorian Electra’s song and video, “We Got it 4 Cheap,” illustrates a desire to both explain and apply the economic principles of supply and demand (look for “swag” from the video on sale in Dorian’s etsy shop!):


Similarly (but using considerably different techniques), the PraxGirl series attempts to explain the tenets of Praxeology, the “science” of human action, developed by Ludwig von Mises of the Austrian School:


The Leisure of Economics


When I first started this case study on libertarians back in September of last year, I wondered how it might fit in with other studies that have been conducted by Civic Paths. Groups like the Harry Potter Alliance emerged from a shared content world, the Harry Potter series (which, consequently, has been read by some to contain a libertarian subtext), and a mutual fandom of the books and their themes and characters. The HPA has been able to overlay a structure for civic engagement and politics onto that rich content world. I was doubtful that libertarians would fit that mold at all, and I looked instead for how politics (in the traditional electoral sense) attracted young people to libertarianism. Surprisingly, though, I did find fandom within the liberty movement, and I have learned that many young libertarians find traditional political acts like voting to be quite ineffective and thus, as a strategic move (as opposed to one borne of apathy), swear off the process entirely. Instead, they find the theory itself as comprising a useful starting point for the movement and something that will sustain it long term, unlike a politician or political party.

Moreover, almost all of the young libertarians with whom I’ve spoken describe the enjoyment they experience from reading libertarian political and economic theory. Put simply, reading theory constitutes a real pleasure for them. In his work on fans of cultural theory (Foucault, Zizek, Butler and the like), Alan McKee describes Theory fans thusly:

“Theory fans have a passion for Theory that goes beyond a passive acceptance of whatever they are given by publishers and conference organizers. They actively seek out more work by their favorite authors and build strong emotional relationships with it. While some consumers read Theory for purely utilitarian, work-related purposes (for example, to complete a Ph.D., prepare a lecture, or write an article that will be useful on their c.v.), Theory fans will also read it for pleasure.”

I would describe libertarian theory fans in much the same way, possessing a fervor quite atypical of the average college student. Illustrative of this are the emails and messages that have begun trickling in from past interviewees thanking me for the Amazon gift cards that served as their honoraria; it turns out that many of them have used the gift cards to buy, not something terribly frivolous as I likely would, but books on topics ranging from the compatibility of social justice and economic liberty to essays on applied philosophy. What’s more, they found the prospect of adding books to their theory collections to be utterly thrilling. As someone who is interested in examining how young people are thinking about big economic issues—tough issues—that enthusiasm is something to get very excited about indeed.

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