Warren Buffett might not be planning to leave much of his copious fortune to his own children, but it seems he has no qualms with offering financial advice to other people's kids. (Tip #1 -- "Find parents who are more generous than I am.")
The Berkshire Hathaway chairman has reportedly agreed to lend his voice and likeness to a DIC Entertainment-produced animated show called "The Secret Millionaires Club," which will be built around the investment guru's patented lessons in financial literacy for the pre-teen set. With a 13-episode initial order, there's a good chance the show could end up on this fall's Saturday morning sked at CBS or Fox (with whom DIC has inked development deals), particularly given the FCC's recent crackdown on networks that fail to offer sufficient "edutainment" programming for kids.
According to DIC President Andy Heyward:
The premise of the show concerns a group of kids who save a run-down youth center in Omaha, Buffett's home base, after they find a box of old sports memorabilia that turns out to be highly valuable.
After they make millions from selling the items and paying off the mortgage on the youth center, the four central characters become "secret" millionaires who quietly make investments with guidance from Buffett. The show will aim to drive home the famous Buffett tenants of long-term, value-oriented investing in companies with proven track records, Heyward said.
I don't fault the premise. Really, I don't. It's a noble idea. Megan McArdle posted recently about the dearth of public service announcements encouraging people to save, and I agree with her insomuch as, if government bureaucrats insist on spending these funds one way or another, I'd much sooner they go toward something that is actually potentially useful to some viewer than on yet more hysterical anti-marijuana propaganda.
Along those same lines, if the Blue Meanies at the FCC are hellbent on depriving kids of enjoying Saturday mornings as they should -- curled up with Bugs Bunny and a heaping bowl of rot-your-teeth cereal -- then so be it. I'd sooner they be taking investment lessons from Warren Buffett than be indoctrinated into Captain Planet's cult of enviro-fascism.
But still, I can't help but notice a little hitch in this plan that it would seem the show's producers haven't given adequate attention. Namely...
Kids don't have any idea who Warren Buffett is!
Hell, in most cases, their parents don't know who Warren Buffett is. So while, to those of us who have followed his career, it seems quite a remarkable thing that a living legend, the world's second richest man, would deign to turn himself into a cartoon character, none of that will mean squat to the show's target demo.
That being the case, what, ultimately, is the point of having Buffett play himself? Generally speaking, creepy old dudes don't exactly have the same appeal as sword-wielding Japanese monsters or wise-cracking wabbits. Even if they happen to be old dudes with a whole buttload of bling. And especially if they are old dudes whose shtick involves preaching to kids to save their pennies and invest for the long-term. Sound advice, yes, but only a half-step removed from "Eat your carrots and be nice to your sister." Kids watch cartoons for escapism, not to be lectured to.
Case in point: Scrooge McDuck -- in many ways, the closest cultural antecedent to "Uncle Warren" -- works as a character because he is the foil for Huey, Dewey and Louie's pranks. They love their uncle, and would defend him against any malevolent outsiders, but he has to be fallible to be endearing. The appeal of the series lies in offering kids the promise that no adult is too rich or too powerful to be immune from the designs of a scheming gaggle of wisenheimers. For kids, who occupy a space in society where they literally have no power and no authority over anyone or anything, being able to escape to a place where they can turn the tables on the authority figures in their lives makes all the difference in the world.
Now, it's certainly possible that Buffett and company have this all figured out. Perhaps Buffett has agreed to allow himself to be the butt of the joke once in a while or perhaps they've imagined a way to portray investment and entrepreneurship as sexy and subversive, as something that parents and teachers and clergy would frown upon. If so, I commend them.
Nonetheless, I must admit I'm skeptical. It's not that I think Buffett has nothing interesting or funny or original to say to kids so much as I suspect that he will refuse to do so. Oft-repeated truisms and moralistic lectures are always safer, and Buffett is nothing if not cautious.
But I wish them the best. A little bit of financial literacy can go a very long way, and it's never too early to begin learning those lessons. Particularly in this country, where the poverty line rests on a giant pile of Amway brochures and lottery scratch-off tickets.