7 Money Lessons from Stephen Colbert


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — We all know what Stephen Colbert has to say about politics. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, think about Bill O'Reilly and take away reason and accountability. For years the host of the "Colbert Report" has made a living acting like a willfully ignorant blowhard, and he occasionally created history doing so (see his brilliant takedown, with Jon Stewart, of super PACs).

That's all about to change. CBS has announced that Colbert will replace David Letterman next year as host of the "Late Show," and with it Colbert will retire his long running character. Over the years, most of Colbert's commentary has focused on politics, but from time to time he's crossed into the our territory here at MainStreet. In honor of the Colbert Report's historic run, here are seven of his best thoughts on money and finance.

1. Don't panic, stocks cycle.

To help him understand 2008's financial crash Colbert called upon the help of Gorlock, his extraterrestrial financial advisor. The message may have come from beyond the stars (or at least a Comedy Central green room) but it remains valuable: stocks cycle, and playing with your portfolio often does more harm than good.

Also, we will evidently soon be enslaved by an armada of green skinned accountants.

2. Unemployment Statistics Can Lie

Early on in the Great Recession Colbert stumbled upon a secret that would wind up driving much fiscal policy in the years to come: to reduce unemployment, you don't actually need to find anyone a job. The unemployment rate, he crowed, only measures people actively looking for work, so anyone underemployed or not reporting a job search to the government doesn't count.

Reducing unemployment is easy, Colbert celebrated. All we have to do is just convince everyone to stop looking.


3. Sometimes a Job Isn't Enough

During last year's fast food strikes, Colbert stumbled upon the McDonald's spending journal along with the rest of the media and made a discovery: minimum wage pays poverty level earnings. Millions of Americans work full time and still don't make a living. Of course, Colbert's concern over the minimum wage mostly amounted to the fact that we have one at all.

"Minimum is a misnomer," he announced. "$7.25? I can think of wages a lot lower. $3.28. $1.19. A pat on the back and a handful of mints. There are literally dozens of other things you could give them."

4. Weed is Worth Money

Pot legalization hasn't just opened up brand new ways to (legally) forget about your Saturday night, it's also created major new sections of the economy. In addressing so-called "ganjapreneurs," Colbert explored just how much money flows through Colorado's newest marketplace and commented on a family of millionaires that struck it rich prospecting for cannabis.

He also managed to make pot candy bars look quite tasty.

5. Investing In Gold Is... One Idea

For a brief period Fox News anchors began pushing their viewers to buy gold. Hard. Colbert picked up on this trend and made sure to pass the network's message along to his audience: the end of times is coming, and the only way to prepare is to invest in gold. After all, it's the only thing guaranteed never to lose value despite the fact that it has virtually no inherent value at all.

Pay no attention, Colbert cautioned his viewers, to the fact that Fox News anchors began pushing gold on their shows at the same time as gold companies began aggressively sponsoring those same programs. The two issues were clearly and entirely unrelated.

6. Obama's Tax Increases Are Warfare Against the Upper Elite Platinum Plus Middle Class

In 2010 Colbert tackled President Obama's plan to let portions of President Bush's tax cuts expire. Through guest Austan Goolsbee Colbert explained not just how the new taxes would work but also how upper level taxes work in general: everyone making over $250,000 would see higher taxes on that income above $250,000.

He also made it clear, with the help of clips from several pundits, that this constituted naked class warfare on the part of the Obama administration. Certainly the wealthy might have the extra money, and raising those taxes might prevent $700 billion in additional debt, but what will happen to their work ethic? Members of Colbert's "upper elite platinum plus middle class," he said, might lose all incentive to work if they're forced to take home a little less out of every dollar above the first quarter million.

7. Be Careful With Credit Cards

Finally, Colbert took to his desk with outrage on behalf of beleaguered credit card companies in 2009 when Washington started looking at reforms. The message: watch how you use a credit card, because careless spending can bite you in the ass.

"Sure there are minor problems," he fumed, "like retroactively changing interest rates or applying payments exclusively to low interest debt. But on the whole this is an honest industry just trying to make 30% on a buck."

Then he cut to video of the credit card industry's representative commenting on behalf of its customer: a serpent swallowing a small rodent whole. Stephen, you may not be going off the air until next year, but we miss you already.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.

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