Abstract

This article analyzes Money, Explained, a five-episode video series produced by the American explanatory journalism organization Vox and distributed globally by Netflix, as an exemplar of the recent proliferation of digital media content explaining economic issues to a general public. Such content reflects the increased prominence of news-about-relations in economic news coverage, a news form that aims to explain why current trends and events occur while also echoing early twentieth-century corporate pedagogic films and more recent personal finance journalism that instructs audiences on proper capitalist behavior. The Vox series considers several financial topics all centered on economic problems that individuals experience, involving get-rich-quick schemes, gambling, retirement saving, credit cards, and student loans. It focuses on individuals' psychological flaws as a cause for the problems they encounter and suggests that viewers can change their disposition and modify their individual behavior to surmount these problems. The series identifies some aspects of the economic system as unfair but does not consider the capacity of individuals to act collectively to restructure it.

Introduction

The rapidly digitizing infrastructure on which the economy now rests has accelerated economic change and destabilized society more generally (Rosa 2016; Wajcman 2014). In many countries, people now navigate complex financial and labor markets independently (Arnold and Bongiovi 2013; Hacker 2006), with a limited capacity to act collectively to reshape these markets. The audience finds the economic arena complex, arcane, and abstract (Goddard et al. 1998). When considering such abstract and dense topics as the economy, the audience can be especially dependent on the media (Gavin 2018). This makes the availability of a clear and broadly accessible mediated account of economic issues crucially important. But might the very digital infrastructure that has contributed to economic acceleration and destabilization also provide opportunities for crafting innovative, appealing, and broadly accessible accounts of the economy and its impact on individuals in their multiple roles as consumers, workers, and citizens?

In this article, I examine the themes (Davidson 2012) and genre-based conventions (Buozis and Creech 2018) used to represent and explain complex economic dynamics in online videos. Such videos have become increasingly popular, as producing, distributing, and consuming them has become easier with the emergence of cheap audio recorders, digital cameras, illustration, animation, and editing software, near-universal internet access, and inexpensive mobile communication devices (Waldfogel 2017).

I focus on the documentary video series Money, Explained, which was produced by Vox, a leading digital media organization, and distributed by the global video streaming platform Netflix (Vox Media 2021). As I analyze this series, I briefly contrast it with other video series: one produced in collaboration with the French news organization Le Monde and another produced by the Israeli news organization Haaretz (Tamir and Davidson 2019).

I argue that the Vox series explains the difficulties that individuals experience when saving for retirement or using credit cards by drawing on psychological explanations that emphasize financial consumers' individual cognitive flaws such as their tendency to focus on the present rather than on their future interests. Employing such an explanation depoliticizes the financial system that individuals are navigating, encouraging viewers to accept the system as immutable, and hence as one they must engage and play to the best of their ability but not as one whose rules they could politically reform. In a form reminiscent of early twentieth-century pedagogic films and contemporary personal finance journalism, the series features erring individuals and then relies on expertise to scold them into less flawed financial behavior. Josiah Ober (2017) argues that a key principle of a true democracy is that people are treated with dignity: they have free access to a common knowledge base and the freedom to express themselves and communicate with one another without fear of humiliation, in a bid to shape their lives together. In a democracy, individuals are not infantilized. They are not asked to participate docilely in a system over which they have no control. This series (and a lot of other content in the personal finance genre) infantilizes the audience, admonishing them for their psychological flaws and expecting them to adjust themselves to a financial system they cannot and should not govern.

Literature Review

News as a Form of Knowledge

A genre approach to cultural production suggests that cultural producers create texts according to stylistic conventions common in their cultural milieu in dialogue with other genres and the broader historical context (Buozis and Creech 2018). Such an approach identifies four analytic foci: medium, subject, style, and context. Medium refers to how a text is distributed and the constraints that each medium places on the text. Subject examines the topics a genre addresses. Style refers to the ways a genre treats a particular topic: stylistically, genres treating the same topic can differ in the prominence of narrative and in their reliance on various other genres in constructing their own style. Context refers to the various factors that shape the production and consumption of a genre such as the producer's business model and consumer demographics.

A genre emerges in response to changing technological affordances, regulatory practices, as well as industry and organizational structures, and the capacities that cultural producers have to gauge the preferences of their audience (Peterson 1990). In recent decades, new forms of producing and distributing news such as websites, mobile applications, podcasts, social media posts, and online videos have proliferated. To consider this proliferation of form and content, one can draw on a distinction between news-as-impression, news-as-item, and news-about-relations (Nielsen 2017). News-as-impression is most prominent on social media, where often news organizations and other actors distribute snippets of information that then appear on users' newsfeeds cheek by jowl with personal posts, entertainment, and other short-form texts. News-as-item corresponds most clearly to news articles reporting on current events, and though there is evidence that such news is in relative decline over time in the United States, it still recently occupied about half of the front-page “news hole” (Fink and Schudson 2014).

News-about-relations appears to be on the rise in the form of data journalism, explanatory journalism, and narrative journalism. All three in different ways attempt to consider why things happen. While asking “why” was once considered “the dark continent of American journalism,” an often-neglected aspect of news reporting (Carey 1986), these contemporary genres now use various approaches to consider the causes of a phenomenon and their meaning for the audience. The genres do so by offering the quantitative analysis and accessible presentation of data in verbal or visual forms in the case of data journalism; by attending less to incremental events to explain more general developments such as war, pandemics, or economic crisis in the case of explanatory journalism; or by telling in a deeply reported manner the story of a particular event, person, or organization, as is done in narrative journalism. However, explanations can vary widely, since the relations constituting a complex phenomenon such as economic life are numerous, and different texts might focus on different relations at different levels of analysis, from those internal to an individual to those governing a whole society.

Popular Economic News

Public discourse both in the press and by political leaders after the 2008 crisis has tended to moralize the crisis, linking it to the failures of a profligate public. It has tended not to discuss the structural factors that contributed to the crisis and focused on the activities of powerful political and financial actors in a fragmented manner (Bickes, Otten, and Weymann 2014; Doudaki, Boubouka, and Tzalavras 2019; Kelsey et al. 2016). Overall, business press analysis has tended to focus on mainstream media organizations and the business press that cover economics daily and report on recent events (Schiffrin 2015), hence focusing in their analysis on news-as-item. To the best of my knowledge, other forms of popular economic discourse (resembling news-about-relations) that are not tied to daily events, such as documentary films and explainer journalism, have been less analyzed. Here, I consider the central themes and genre characteristics of a prominently distributed explainer video series drawing on literature on journalism and didactic filmmaking.

Didactic Filmmaking on the Economy

For over a century, industrial corporations, states, management consultants (Hoof 2020), and media firms have been using film to instruct and persuade individuals—as pupils, citizens, and workers—to embrace capitalism. Motivated by the belief that the public is highly susceptible to external influence and limited in its capacity to comprehend politics and act as independent and rational citizens (Lippmann 1922), modern states and corporations used film to promote the utility of the market mechanism for production and consumption.

Early in the twentieth century, “cinema came to be seen by many as a mimetic machine. Certainly much of this was constituted negatively, as concern about its impact on displaced laboring populations. But it came also increasingly to be configured—during wartime and thereafter—as a component of new strategies of governance and of consumer persuasion” (Grieveson 2017: 222). Both the American state and corporations used film didactically to encourage dispositions compatible with capitalism such as an opposition to labor unionization, an embrace of the privately owned car and car culture more generally, and admiration for private industrial production. Many of these films depicted generic individuals erring: a teenage boy gets caught up in a factory protest and is brought home to his grandfather by a policeman (310); female Western Union telegraph workers commit technical errors, gossip on the job, or fail to consult with supervisors (Groening 2011). The films then correct the erring individuals' ways: the grandfather takes his grandson on a walk through town to explain how central the (ununionized) factory is to the community's well-being and to emphasize the common interests that bind managers and workers; the hands of Western Union supervisors circle female operators' technical mistakes; and related corporate media discourage female employees from workplace gossiping and ridicule their supposed preoccupation with their external appearance. Many of these early twentieth-century films focused on individual decision-making and action rather than on collective action, presenting common individual mistakes and modeling proper behavior. Below, I consider such an emphasis on erring individual action in economics-themed videos produced approximately a century later.

Vox and Money, Explained

Money, Explained, a series of five twenty-two- to twenty-three-minute videos (see  appendix A for a list of episodes), was produced by the digital media company Vox and distributed by Netflix in 2021. I chose to analyze this series because both Vox and Netflix are prominent firms in their respective industries. Vox is one of a few major media startups that were established this century in the United States, as online-first ventures focused on digital distribution and consumption of nonfiction content, whether through websites they control directly or through external platforms. In its founding manifestos in 2014, Vox emphasized “thoroughness over speed” (Carlson and Usher 2016: 570), enabled by its ability to overcome space and time constraints typical of conventional news distribution by taking advantage of the web to explain the news in text, audio, and video. From its inception, the company included a video team producing short videos for distribution on YouTube. As of October 2021, it had produced 1,355 videos with 2.6 billion views and 10 million subscribers to its YouTube channel, suggesting that it is one of the most prolific and widely watched producers of English-language visual current affairs programming online (Vox Staff 2021).

In 2018, Vox began distributing videos on the subscription streaming service Netflix, under the title Explained, which built on the existing prominence of “explainer” texts and “explainer” branding on its news site, podcasts, and YouTube channel (Johnson 2018).1 As of April 2022, Netflix was the largest video streaming service in the world, with approximately 220 million subscribers (Sperling 2022). When first introducing the series, the Vox editor in chief and the head of its video unit argued that in traditional journalism:

Slow-changing topics were often neglected in favor of fast-breaking stories. As the old journalism adage goes, the first three letters of “news” spell “new.” But we believed there was a need for more deep reporting on the questions, forces, and ideas that rarely find themselves in the bright light of the daily news cycle. (Klein and Posner 2018)

In the use of the moniker “explained” as well as in the editors' explicit attention to questions, forces, and ideas, the series seems to constitute a prominent exemplar of news-about-relations. The producers' description of the videos as “mini-documentaries,” and their hope that the videos “will still be useful and relevant to people a year from now” (Johnson 2018), suggests that the series might indeed reside at the intersection of news and documentary production, with a shelf life that is not tied to particular news events and therefore more suitable for on-demand consumption on a streaming platform not focused on current events.

Games, Individual Psychology, and Unseen Structures

Three prominent themes emerged inductively from the analysis of the Vox series: the use of games as an organizing metaphor, an emphasis on psychological and neurological understandings of economics, and the exogenous and peripheral position of the 2008 economic crisis and political structures more generally to contemporary economic life and the problems that individuals encounter within it.

Finance as a Game

The Money, Explained series consistently uses the notion of a game played by an individual as the verbal and visual framing device to explain these topics. How should we understand the choice to explain financial activities using the game metaphor? Market economies require participants to embrace a mindset that values risk-taking and individual responsibility. To succeed, economic and political authorities ask individuals to act as entrepreneurs of the self and create the needed mindset to embrace the market (Foucault 2008; Neff 2012). Various cultural tools can be used to aid self-modification. For over a century and a half, games have enticed participants to play a simulation of life increasingly centered on economic action. In antecedents of the Game of Life board game (around the turn of the nineteenth century),2 “life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave” (Lepore 2007). The game is governed by God and a belief in Christian morality. However, in the original version of the Game of Life first sold in the 1860s, players were asked to make many decisions and were better off when devising a plan. In the game, choosing a political career usually landed the players in prison. The “game rewards Industry and Perseverance with Wealth and Success. It has no use for Patience or Charity.” Presaging later games and the gaming themes in the Vox series, political and collective action are marginalized, and individual action is placed in the center. In more recent iterations of the game, the players' goal is to accumulate enough cash to secure a wealthy retirement (Lepore 2007).

More recently, self-help gurus have explicitly designed games as a tool to educate people to adopt a “financial mindset” and acquire calculative tools that promise financial independence. In one prominent board game, CASHFLOW, “the structural conditions that determine and reproduce the position of the individual in the economic structure are absent from the game” as players compete to maximize profits from fictional investments (Fridman 2010: 434). One player noted that he had to “train my brain” to identify financial opportunities. Financial success was divorced from existing wealth and tied directly to how the individual exercises agency. Fridman argues that players believe in the capacity of the game to train them to achieve financial success in “real life” without recourse to job security or a strong welfare net.

Echoing these cultural forms, most of the Vox videos represent the individual as playing a game, whether through shots of board games or animated sequences of video games. The board or video game represents the rules that individual players must contend with when they act financially. In episode 1, individuals are drawn into get-rich-quick programs—Ponzi schemes, multilevel marketing operations, chain-letter scams, fake cryptocurrency ventures. If they elect to play one of these games, they are—the narrator warns—destined to lose. However, later episodes on student debt, credit cards, and retirement present these domains as constituting games that viewers must play to win the game of life.

Hence, in a subsequent episode, the players are individually engaged in a competition to maximize the benefits they can draw from the use of credit cards while minimizing credit debt (episode 2). The game theme is evident throughout the video. The producers visually represent the credit score system as the scoring system of a 1990s video game, with individuals playing to maximize their scores. On-screen, a personal finance expert notes: “Some would argue it's [credit score] not super fair, some would argue that it's not a true projection [of the consumer] but it's what we've got as a way for banks to frankly be able to judge you in a way that they can judge everybody else.” It might not be a perfect scoring system, the personal finance expert implies, but it is one the viewer must respect.

Later, the video game metaphor is used to distinguish between credit card users by visually featuring different user types as players in a game. This segment simulates the common stage in video gameplay when human players are asked to choose an avatar to represent themselves within the game. Here, an unseen player (implicitly the viewer or the video producers) selects “the revolver,” a credit card user who does not pay outstanding credit card balances immediately but, rather, accumulates debt (see fig. 1a).

The video then proceeds to represent the revolver as a human avatar within a single-player side-scroller game with graphics reminiscent of early arcade games and background audio resembling the music typical of such games. In side-scroller games, the player usually must gobble up prizes to accumulate points while evading various enemies, with a dashboard keeping score of the points tally. In the game depicted in the video, the revolver avatar buys with credit a refrigerator for $1,000, and a dashboard titled “debt” appears (see fig. 1b). As the avatar delays paying the balance and time passes—represented by the continuous scrolling of the game background on-screen—the debt in the dashboard increases. As in the pedagogic films of the early twentieth century, so in the Vox episode the figure of the revolver represents the erring individual who requires instruction in the ways of the contemporary economy. The video then instructs viewers how they could pay off their debt or avoid accumulating it in the first place by playing the credit card game like “a transactor” (see fig. 1a), always paying off their card balance at the end of the month.

The video does not examine only individual action. It also hints at the credit card industry's unfair practices, and at some ways the federal government has tried to curb these practices over recent decades. However, the concluding segment of the credit card episode features a personal finance expert who notes that the industry presents credit cards as a tool to build a better future. She says on camera that to use it as a tool for good, “it does require following some important rules,” as she moves her index finger in a circular manner and then punches the air to emphasize these rules, visually embodying a discourse of authoritative proximity—common in personal finance journalism (Davidson 2014)—in which an author/narrator presents themselves as trusted guides whose advice should be heeded. The rules include find the card “that's best for your needs,” “know what your credit score is,” “use your card like its cash.” Such discourse echoes the didactic and sometimes intimate tone evident a century ago when corporations used film to educate employees to be accurate and punctual (Groening 2011) and used print advertising to identify shortcomings (such as bad breath) that individuals could manage through the consumption of their products (Marchand 1986).

Games are an organizing metaphor in two other episodes. The episode devoted to student debt begins with a montage of American college commencement speeches promising graduates they are finally beginning adult life. Vox then features The Game of Life to illustrate the challenges facing young people and notes that in later versions players had to decide—as in real life—whether to go to college or not, and whether to take a loan to fund their studies. The narrator notes that in the game loans are paid off: “That's how it works in the game, and for some people in the real world, too. But for others, it doesn't go so smoothly or so quickly.” Meanwhile, photographed representations of the board game are replaced by an animated avatar moving on a graphic representation of the board. The implication here is that when dealing with student debt, people must excel individually to avoid mounting debt and a bleak financial future.

In episode 4, on gambling, the central object itself is a game, though one with potentially significant real-world financial consequences. Brief testimonials by “ordinary people” suffering from financial malaise are featured (as they do in other episodes) to illustrate the risks involved and what individuals can do on their own to minimize these risks. Such testimonials echo the use of generic individuals in the didactic films of the early twentieth century. Near the end of the episode, the focus shifts from gambling to day trading. Semyon Dukach, a professional gambler (and present-day professional investor) who participated in an MIT effort to beat the gambling industry, emphasizes as he wryly smiles on camera: “Let me just clarify, day trading isn't investing. Day trading is actually gambling.” Then a science and technology studies researcher, Natasha Schull, notes that the popular trading app Robin Hood is designed like social media and gambling apps, and an illustrated version of the app appears. Dukach returns to stress that “it's good for people to think about investing, it's educational, but it's also dangerous, of course, because if people start day trading, if people start gambling with their investing, they could lose a lot of money.” Vox echoes here the boundary work that the financial industry has been undertaking over more than a century to distinguish between rational, systematic investing for the long-term and gambling in order to legitimize financial markets as morally sound and socially beneficial (Preda 2009).3 While embracing the analogy between finance and games, Vox emphasizes that there are good ways of playing finance and bad ways, and the responsibility to play it well lies with the individual. In the final Vox episode on retirement, the organizing metaphor is not a game explicitly but a different leisure pursuit, carpentry. Throughout the episode, retirement is depicted as a stool, and the future retiree as the amateur carpenter. While not strictly a game, this clip also focuses on a goal-oriented individual activity as a metaphor for understanding a financial activity, eliding its collective and structural dimensions.

The Public as Psychologically Imperfect Players

Life is a financial game that players can win if they heed expert advice. However, as mentioned above, the videos feature multiple short testimonials of ordinary people who have experienced financial loss—they lost money gambling, they are mired in credit card and student loan debt, they have failed to save enough for retirement, and they have fallen for get-rich-quick schemes and lost their savings. The videos explain these failures by focusing ontologically on individual actions, and the psychological and neurological limitations that lead most people to behave suboptimally.

In explaining the allure of get-rich-quick schemes, a consumer advocate notes that “everybody, even myself, everyone is susceptible to becoming a victim of a scam.” The video then ties this susceptibility to our need to trust others in our daily lives. Hence it suggests that gullibility is endemic to our lives as individuals and social animals. When discussing retirement, episode 5 begins with the difficulty that people have identifying with their future self to explain why we do not save enough for retirement when we are young. A behavioral psychologist who has empirically documented this difficulty is featured throughout the episode. In one segment, images from an experiment that the psychologist ran show participants wearing virtual reality headsets projecting an artificially aged image of the participant into their eyes. The psychologist reappears to explain that such images caused participants to express an increased intention to save because they identified more with their future selves.

In the gambling episode, the caption Netflix features on its user interface to describe the episode before viewing it reads: “Feeling lucky? Explore the ways our brains work against us when we're looking to beat the odds—and how the gambling industry takes advantage of it,” suggesting that the brain is an adequate metonymy for human beings. Mike Robinson, presented in the episode as a “Neuroscientist and addiction researcher,” describes the attractive experiential aspects of gambling in neurological terms: “It's all about the pause, that moment between when we place a gamble and when the possible outcome may occur. . . . it is likely that some of that additional dopamine is what makes reward gambling so fundamentally attractive” (episode 4, 9:45). When explaining the neurological and chemical basis of gambling and comparing it to addiction, the video featured animated illustrations of an experiment with monkeys in which the promise of a possible reward creates dopamine in their brains. It then highlights the correlation between gambling and other pathologies. Such a chart clearly emphasizes a physiological and neurological basis for gambling, and while it does tell a story of relations, the relations it depicts are limited to a single individual's neurological reaction to the gambling experience.

The focus on individual action is also implicit when showing a chart noting that there are more gambling addicts in disadvantaged American neighborhoods. The video does not provide a sociological or political framework to explain the prevalence of gambling addiction in such neighborhoods. Instead, it uses the image of black men looking upward in hopes of illustrating these neighborhoods. Lacking such frameworks, one could easily fall back on an individualized explanation for this correlation, echoing racially coded tropes of the poor as undeserving individuals who fall into poverty as a result of the choices they make and their own innate shortcomings (Gilens 1999).

The gambling episode contrasts the failures of the masses with a select few professionals such as former professional gambler and current investor Dukach. The narrator notes that it is hard for people to play the “long game” when gambling or investing because “we're human.” Simultaneously a graphic illustration of a grid reminiscent of a board game or a diagnostic medical device appears, and then the video zooms in on one square in which an individual is struggling to break out of the square, an apparent representation of the struggle all people have against their psychological imperfections (see fig. 2). Then Dukach reappears, saying: “We never allowed the emotions of winning or losing to interfere with optimal play.” The relationship he emphasizes is purely internal and psychological. Dukach, in contrast to gambling addicts, epitomizes individuals who successfully manage to subordinate their emotions to the overriding goal of optimal play.

The reliance in the Vox episodes on psychological frameworks when explaining economics might reflect the increased recognition in economics (and in the public sphere more generally) over the past few decades of the ways that cognitive limitations shape human behavior and constrain humans from acting rationally (Sent 2004). The finance industry is increasingly drawing on a model of humans as pleasure-seeking organisms focused on “short-term gratification rather than work and abstract contemplation of long-term goals.” Further, the industry draws on terminology from “evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and psychology” when advocating gamification as a way to help individuals rewire themselves to act rationally (van der Heide and Želinský 2021: 718). Hence, the pairing in the Vox series of games and psychology to explain deficiencies in the public's economic behavior and offer actionable tips on how to overcome them reflects a discursive tendency in the finance industry when marketing financial services to the general public. Both the media industry and the finance industry share an affinity for individualized explanations of human behavior when they tell stories about and for their customers.

The 2008 Crisis as an Exogenous Shock and the Futility of Government Action

Political and macroeconomic contexts are rarely portrayed in the series. When Vox presents the 2008 crisis, it portrays it as an exogenous shock unrelated to the financial problems that individual citizens experience. This crisis and individuals' financial problems—falling victim to financial fraud, accruing credit card and student loan debt, day-trading losses, shrinking retirement savings—are both outcomes of an overfinancialized system (Tooze 2018) in which investment banks and other financial actors have come to dominate the economy, and through it society. However, the series presents the 2008 crisis and the financial travails of individuals as having unrelated causes. The crisis affects individual lives like any other major shock—a hurricane, a pandemic, a war—would. This decouples public policy from individual economic experiences. In episode 5, an elderly animated character is featured tending to retirement—depicted metaphorically as a stool—as the narrator invokes the 2008 crisis (“you could still find your life savings slashed by a recession”). Suddenly, a cloud appears, and the three legs begin to crack and disappear (see fig. 3). The distraught character is left only with a seat lying on the floor. The crisis is also mentioned as background to 2009 legislation (the CARD Act) that tackled unfair practices in the credit card industry, although the common root causes of both the crisis and rising consumer debt are not considered.

By ignoring the link between large-scale crisis and individual difficulties, individual experiences remain grounded in individual psychological constraints. Even if systemic inequalities and structural injustices exist, they can always be overcome by smarter individual action with no recourse to political action. In fact, when political action is invoked, it is often portrayed as incompetent and incoherent: in the gambling episode, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia fails to regulate gambling properly, and gambling interests decamp to Nevada. In the episode on student debt, politicians fight over ways to solve the debt crisis, and it just keeps worsening. In the retirement episode, an alternative UK retirement model is invoked, but no explicit argument for adopting it elsewhere is made. When discussing get-rich-quick schemes, the narrator and a cast of experts note that law enforcement cannot track down all the scam artists about whom complaints are filed. One historian is featured, arguing that it is difficult to ascertain guilt in such cases because it revolves around a person's intent, and that distinguishing between a swindler and a legitimate entrepreneur is sometimes impossible. Elsewhere in the series, the CARD Act drives down credit card fees, but the industry maintains profitability by relying more on income from interest it charges to cardholders. Together these claims suggest that government action cannot provide a solution to the financial challenges of ordinary people, and individuals must remake themselves and act rationally to overcome financial difficulties within the financial status quo.

The Relations Emphasized in Popular Economic Videos

The Vox video series is an example of news-about-relations. However, in its adoption of personal finance principles and the use it makes of games as an organizing metaphor, and psychology as a guiding perspective, it limits the set of causal relations it considers to explain consumer debt, financial fraud, or old-age poverty. In the early twentieth century, psychological theories of individuals' malleability informed states and corporations' use of films for didactic purposes to acclimate audiences to a capitalist system (Grieveson 2017). In the Vox series, psychology is no longer just a motivating framework behind the scenes but is, rather, the language it uses explicitly in the series itself to persuade individuals to adjust to a financialized system. The front-stage role that psychology plays here seems to be of a piece with the common use that books, magazines, and organizational consultants made in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century of a “therapeutic emotional style” when proffering advice, asking individuals to be constantly aware of their feelings and adjust themselves to environmental demands (Illouz 2007: 6). One could argue that this explicit use of psychological theories in the series enhances their performative aspects (Fourcade and Healy 2007) as tools that not only describe the world but have the capacity to shape the actual behavior of its audience. The videos infantilize the viewers as bad players who—if they are attentive to professional advice and their own flaws—might learn how to individually win the financial game. Further, they ignore the viewers' capacity and right as citizens in democratic polities to reshape the relationship between finance, society, and the state.

The focus in the Vox series on the economic behavior of individuals embodies a narrative choice to rely on psychological factors to explain economic outcomes. Other recent didactic video series on the economy have chosen to consider the actions of institutional actors such as the state, central banks, firms, or professional actors such as economists and investors. For example, in the Dessine-moi l’éco (DME)4 series produced between 2012 and 2019 by the French educational technology firm, Sydo, in collaboration with the French news organization, Le Monde, institutional actors abound. The relations among them shape economic outcomes.

The DME clips have a recurring narrative structure. An economic phenomenon is serially sketched out. Chains of cause and effect are discussed, and in some cases these chains are anchored historically. In a minority of clips, a debate over the causes of a phenomenon or the means of solving a problem is presented, with two or more positions serially presented. All the clips conclude with a shot of the whole sketch. This allows viewers to pause the clip and examine the system sketched out in its totality. For example, a clip on “the consequences of bad news for our economic system” (clip 1,  appendix B) begins with instances when large firms turn to the financial markets to fund new projects. The clip is also populated by illustrations of a bank, a financial market, investors, suppliers, employees, and households. Financial markets are represented here and in other clips as a rocky plateau on which stands in this clip a shivering bank and worried sweaty investors (see fig. 4). The rocky plateau is perched precariously on a slender column. While the financial market in the Vox videos is a natural arena for capital allocation, in which individuals are invited to participate judiciously, in the DME clips it is a fragile construction, the domain of specialized investors, banks, and regulators, and one easily unbalanced by external shocks.

Bad news (the narrator notes as examples: the Greek crisis, the economic slowdown, the bankruptcy of a large firm or of a bank) is visually represented as thunderbolts emanating from newspapers and directed at the precarious financial market and at households. As a result—notes the narrator—“firms find it difficult to monetize their shares” and turn to banks that in turn are worried by the news and hence offer firms loans at higher interest rates. The clip suggests that this leads deterministically (and illustrated with multiple one-directional arrows) to fewer orders from suppliers, and hiring fewer workers, which in turn lead households to spend less, harming the revenues of firms, which leads them to hire even fewer workers or fire some of those employed.

In a final shot, this system of actors connected by arrows and thunderbolts appears, depicting a causal system reflecting Le Monde's promise to use the videos to identify the “great mechanisms that govern the economy” (Le Monde.fr2012). A similar mechanistic system is depicted in the case of a clip explaining deflation (clip 2), whereby deflation drives households to consume more in the short term and less in the long term. Decreasing consumption as an arrow then initiates a “vicious circle” depicted as a vortex of arrows connecting decreasing sales, indebted households and firms, decreasing state revenues (the state as a top-hatted young man morosely slumped over an open treasury), and declining investments. How can viewers shape the economy to their advantage? In some of the DME clips devoted to national elections, electoral politics is the implied avenue that viewers can use to influence economics.

Israeli explanatory journalism videos produced by Haaretz's business news unit depict the structural causes of the 2008 credit crisis as faulty lending practices and public corruption, then their consequences for the public in unemployment and reduced pensions, and finally the public's use of protest to pressure political actors to change public policy (Tamir and Davidson 2019). Hence, the relations it identifies are more varied than those highlighted by Vox or DME. While Vox almost wholly focuses on individual action and responsibility and DME focuses mostly on the actions of institutional actors and the public's limited ability to affect those actors through electoral politics, the Israeli videos consider both the private actions of individuals as financial consumers within the existing economic system and the public's use of collective action as citizens to reshape the system.

Conclusion

The Money, Explained series is a prominent exemplar of the explanatory journalism genre while also echoing didactic tropes evident in films that American corporations produced in the first half of the twentieth century to train employees and educate the public. Stylistically, the Vox series is eclectic, drawing on the graphic language of cartoons and video games, on statistical charts and on practices more common in documentary film and television such as voice-over narration, expert interviews, and ordinary person testimonials as well as clips from conventional news shows.

Personal finance as a journalistic genre, games as a cultural form, and psychology as an academic discipline all focus on individual actions.5 The human attributes they have been developed to consider or manipulate are mostly rooted in individual personality, emotions, and skills. Hence, although the series is well produced, entertaining, and sometimes even funny, the explanations it provides and the relations it delineates are partial at best and misleading at worst, suggesting that systemic economic inequality and precariousness can somehow be alleviated through individual action. In bracketing out political action, it falls short of Vox's promotional pitch to provide explanations “so that we can all help shape” (see footnote 1) the world.

Explanatory journalism need not be focused solely on individual agency and divorced from collective action. This is evident to an extent in the DME clips, which focus on the relationship between institutional actors, and the impact these relationships have on workers and households. However, the levers that the viewing public possesses to shape these relationships are limited in the DME clips to electoral politics. Perhaps a golden mean combining the role that individual agency plays in economic life as depicted in the Vox series and the structural accounts evident in other recent video series is required to provide audiences with a broader set of explanations that they can use not only to play the economic game as it is currently structured but to restructure the game in ways that make it serve a broader constituency.

I presented an early version of this article at the 2022 HOPE conference, “Economics as News.” I wish to thank Duke University Press and the Center for the History of Political Economy for hosting the conference. I would like to warmly thank Tiago Mata, who organized the conference, for his many useful comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank the conference participants, the editorial team at HOPE, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions. All remaining mistakes are solely mine.

Notes

1.

Vox launched in 2018 Today, Explained as a “daily news explainer podcast” (Rockey 2018). On its website, Vox.com, in April 2023, its explanatory focus was evident in a prominent tab devoted to Explainers and in a fundraising pitch celebrating its nine-year anniversary in which it asked readers to contribute to the media venture’s operation: “From TikTok to Donald Trump to Pokémon Go to Covid-19 to wildfires to AI, we all needed explanatory journalism. That’s why we’re here: to help everyone understand our weird, wonderful, complicated world, so that we can all help shape it. That’s also why we keep our work free. Clear, high-quality information is a public good. Will you help us keep Vox free . . . ?”

2.

This game is featured in a Vox episode discussed below.

3.

Boundary work refers to the rhetorical effort that various groups, often occupational, invest in distinguishing themselves and their expertise from those of other competing groups. For example, in the nineteenth century, scientists argued for a distinction between their work and that of religious clerics in a bid to secure their public authority to explain natural phenomena and guide public policy (Gieryn 1983).

4.

Draw me the economy (translation by the author). The name seems to echo a famous phrase in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s (1944) modern fable Le Petit Prince in which the little prince asks the storyteller, a marooned pilot, to “draw me a sheep” (p. 12). The pilot after a few attempts that do not meet the little prince’s standards finally draws to the prince’s satisfaction a small box with three perforations, which he says contains the sheep. Allusion to this phrase highlights the difficulties all of us face when we attempt to represent a complex phenomenon, whether a sheep or the economy.

5.

Additionally, the medium—streaming platforms—audiences use to consume the Vox series is one that emphasizes individual action. On such platforms, “content selection can be more purposive rather than a matter of the ‘least objectionable’ option . . . and it is easier for viewers to choose content to achieve a certain end” (Lotz 2022: 40). Moreover, the Vox series is only one example of the rapid proliferation of popular economic content on interactive digital platforms in the form of videos, online forums, and podcasts, which rely on individualized on-demand consumption. This individualized consumption mode could amplify the thematic focus on individualized financial action.

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Appendix A

Money, Explained episodes

Episode 1. “Get Rich Quick,” https://www.netflix.com/watch/81345771

Episode 2. “Credit Cards,” https://www.netflix.com/watch/81345774

Episode 3. “Student Loans,” https://www.netflix.com/watch/81345773

Episode 4. “Gambling,” https://www.netflix.com/watch/81345772

Episode 5. “Retirement,” https://www.netflix.com/watch/81345775

Appendix B

Dessine-moi l’éco clips mentioned in this study

1. “Pourquoi la déflation peut-elle être dangereuse?,” May 2015, https://youtu.be/U0oti-8Wc6E

2. “Conséquences d'une mauvaise nouvelle sur notre système économique,” January 2012, https://youtu.be/U0zl9f5wTzo