Communication Currents

Work, Wealth, and Worry: The Benefits of Communication Study for Economic Literacy

December 1, 2010
General Communication Studies

News about the economy and financial issues has increased drastically over the last few years. Sadly, most of it has been bad. The first decade of the 21st century was replete with optimism over booming housing values, easy credit, and prices held in check by foreign trade and globalization. The failure of markets in 2007 brought attention to the fragile connections between Wall Street and Main Street. The political slogans of  the ballyhooed “ownership society”—free market, limited government, and the entrepreneurial spirit—gave way to the realities of mountainous debt, a global credit crunch, and crisis prone economies. Gambling market players nevertheless were rewarded handsomely with bailouts and bonuses for crashing operations “too big to fail."

So, the neo-liberal formulas for success, economic expertise, financial engineering, deregulation, and free trade, were transformed into toxic assets for politicians and global publics alike. The mathematical formulas managing the up-to-the-nanosecond data flows of capital circulation, it seems, could not restore a key communicative ingredient to the mix, consumer confidence, a vital aspect of public trust. An economic crash of such size and scope had not been known for generations.

 The 1930s Great Depression brought about profound changes to the American experience.  The restless searches of jobless and homeless populations came to define a lost generation. The state was changed as well providing relief to the impoverished, regulation to business, and a limit to financial fraud. The Great Recession now furnishes a similar bleak horizon for us--though experts disagree as to its nature, depth, and need for intervention. The logics of institutional practice, the credibility of national parties, the validity of policy, and the affective enthusiasms of publics are contested. 

For example, anger fuels a new Tea Party movement, while western-style feminist populism animates a Reagan-less Republican Party. The university with its varied disciplines, including the field of communication, is also changing.  The circulation of students from across the globe, the social networks connecting departments, think tanks and publics, the inventiveness of new media offer positive signs of renewal. Given the great impacts of global change in business, finance and welfare across states, market economies constructed by the mediation of communication practices should move from the periphery to the center of our field, beginning with criticism and critique of economic literacy.

We envision a turn to the study and reconstruction of communicative competence, the capacity to develop critical resources for participation and intervention into expert-driven modern institutions, including all those with whom we must do business. 

Finance literacy has energized economic departments and business schools across the board to teach basic concepts, of course.  More than concepts, market talk evolves across different media as new trends appear and authoritative voices ebb and flow. Development of critical capacity to read these communications involves analyzing the topics, tactics and strategies of financial choices in market contexts at individual, organization, and institutional levels. 

For the last ten years, digital technologies have developed systems of control, information gathering, and debt management that work down to the granular level—extending the persuasion of commercial advertising by targeting audiences and individuals with payment schemes, selected information, and penalties. Communication study should shift to develop and teach critical reading and strategic responding to all these phone-treed, interactively platformed methods of control, thereby restoring the power of agency at crucial moments of life choices. 

For example, when serious medical questions arise, we take the precaution to learn something about the problem and consult more than a single doctor.  Finance requires the same commitment to learning and consultation, complete with figuring out basic formulas in play, alternatives available, and references investigated.  Just as individuals sharing health issues talk in private clubs or over the internet, so similar moves are necessary to build economic competence. Finally, just as those with medical problems now look to procedures in foreign countries to avoid costly care, so comparative analysis is necessary to avoid local traps with varied insurance, real estate, and education costs.

The study of argumentation, rhetoric, and deliberation offer tools available for transformation of expert-client, organization-individual situated risk interactions and economic exchange.  The lures of advertisers, the powers of persuasion, and the fallacies of wily sales strategy have been traditional subjects of the field; should finance, credit, debit, and investment not soon follow?

Recently, the study of communication has brought to critical capacity the powers of cultural critique. Economic rules and risks do vary and change for abstractly calculated groups as well as concretely invested communities. Competencies are vulnerable to shifts in power that alter the ways of doing business--who gets the rewards and who bears the risks. Critical rhetoric inquires as to whose interests are served rewarding some groups and leaving others to take the risks. As one participates in institutions, answers to these questions may also increase competence because client trust and public confidence are the products of matching good policy to strong communication.

Effective critique extends beyond such strategic adjustments to ask broader questions of power, interests, and transparency. Such questions come home to roost in evaluating trends that are talked up but are on the brink of collapse (real estate), in instruments of information acquisition that are not transparent to those captured (Web 2.0 networking), and in the complex finance of education, legal support, medical care, or auto-finance (pick a payment plan).  Critique equips one to ask tough questions of  financial contacts whose public offers belie sophisticated formulas that exploit publics, and of politicians who substitute fear appeals and anger for workable regulations and timely intervention.

Predictably, competence does little good when industry and government collude.  Then cronyism overpowers congress, regulatory agencies become tools of the very industries they are required to hold in check; the federal government refuses to enforce fraud laws and blocks state actions. In such cases, rhetorics hosting populist anger should be carefully dissected and chatty television news placed under suspicion as well. Talk show polemics can be studied for whose interests are served, but even closer attention should be paid to what is being taken off the books in a system that for its own reasons becomes ever less transparent.

Economic literacy has a home in the field of communication which stresses the development of critical capacity to communicate with competence and dignity as a buyer and seller, provider and client, investor and laborer.  Such literacy requires a reflective turn also to evaluate taken-for-granted distributions of opportunity and to imagine the possibilities of change.  In the end, such concerns are not abstract questions but come down to crucial choices in the complicated, personal and public worlds of doing work, incurring debt, subscribing to services, and achieving credit. Economic literacy is an ongoing learning process. The greater the risks, the more attention should be paid. 

However, competence depends on habit.  Our "buyer beware" culture demands that all "offers" be put to the microscope, so the colorful, chatty, big-printed deals that stream constantly from phone pits, TV infotainment, internet platforms, and post office circulations can be compared to the traps, snares, tricks, and teasers of let's make-a-deal come-ons hidden in abstractions, detail, or equivocal appeals. Communication studies offers strategies to attain competence in critically evaluating these mediated messages, enabling better engagement and promoting critique which pushes toward alternatives other than habitual resignation to business booms and busts. 

About the author (s)

G. Thomas Goodnight

University of Southern California


Sandy Green

University of Southern California

Assistant Professor