Analysis

The failure of MaryPoppinomics: Don Pittis

Sure it's a fantasy, but in such volatile economic times, bankers might need to schedule a deprogramming session with their kids after watching Mary Poppins Returns.

Yes, it's a fantasy, but Mary Poppins Returns promotes some flawed financial lessons

In Mary Poppins Returns, Colin Firth plays the evil banker with everything but a twirly moustache. Bankers, prepare to deprogram your children after seeing this movie. (Disney Enterprises)

(Warning: This column contains potential spoilers and economics lessons)

It's just shocking that a popular children's movie should promote such risky behaviour.

Even in a movie that is clearly a fun fantasy for children of all ages, some of the antics in Mary Poppins Returns are more dangerous than others and should be discouraged.

Riding five on a bike as Mary Poppins and her young charges do is a hazardous activity parents wouldn't want to see repeated at home. On the other hand, an attempt at real-life imitation would likely come to a quick end after the first try at balancing the ladder on the rear wheel.

It's possible an adventurous child who really hadn't figured things out would ape the Banks children and dive headfirst into a tub of soapy water. Parents will likely know if they have one like that and supervise carefully.

Don't do this at home

Climbing tall buildings on rickety ladders would stop before it started, and when it comes to the precarious horse-drawn chase scene during a magical animated sequence, even the most wide-eyed child will realize intuitively that you can't really climb into an image on the side of a ceramic bowl. 

But as the headline above will have semaphored, in such volatile times, those are not the otherwise-charming movie's most unhealthy lessons. The concern is economics. And bankers who take a child to see the film should set aside time for a deprogramming session.

Learning from Steven Levitt's bestselling 2005 book Freakonomics and its many lexicological​ imitators since, perhaps it would be fair to call the movie's financial misapprehensions MaryPoppinomics.

Inculcating risky practices. Don't try this at home. (Disney Enterprises)

Compared to skinning a knee during an attempt at bicycle gymnastics, the hazards of financial illiteracy implied by MaryPoppinomics are far more dire, potentially leading to a lifetime of misery.

For the children attending Mary Poppins Returns, the world is a mystery waiting to be discovered. Fantasy helps children examine what is true and what is not. Unfortunately, repeated studies show financial literacy remains a mystery for children of all ages.

In fact, the showing I attended — at the downstairs theatre at Toronto's Humber Cinema, with the added amusing advantage of having the subway trains rumbling in and out of Jane Station a few metres below — included many grey-hairs who likely saw the original Mary Poppins when it hit the theatres 54 years ago.

Object lesson

The new version is a wasted teaching opportunity. In the 1990s, Canada, like other countries around the world, began to recognize that poor financial knowledge and decision-making were having an impact on the economy.

According to a Statistics Canada analysis released in 2017, "Nearly 6 out of 10 Canadian adults (59.6 per cent) do not have a good idea of how much money they need to save in order to maintain their desired standard of living in retirement." And that's just one example.

In some ways Mary Poppins Returns starts out well, if just as an object lesson.

An avuncular banker about the age of Dick Van Dyke (spoiler alert) dances to the rescue. (Disney Enterprises)

The scene where share certificates are lost because they were used as a sketchpad and a patching material for kites should be a good reminder to keep track of your finances.

The fact that the Banks family are going to lose their upper-middle-class mansion in central London because their financially-illiterate, failed-artist dad took out an enormous bank loan is a wonderful warning about the danger of borrowing against your home for current expenses, so common in today's HELOC and credit card culture.

But it all goes wrong when magical Mary Poppins tells everyone to just smile and stop worrying.

Admittedly, there is no reason to live in a tortured state of mind, fearing death in penury after miserable years living on a cat-food diet. But the idea that the solution is clicking your heels and waiting for fate and Mary Poppins to solve your problems is irresponsible.

Teaching kids historical lessons such as that street lighting wasn't always so easy is great, although you might wonder where London's virtual plague of chimney sweeps disappeared to since the 1964 version.

And while it might be easy to complain that poor people don't live in rich-people houses and that the Edwardian middle class would not welcome suitors from the leerie class — the lamplighters, as the film explains — no matter how desperate, a certain amount of artistic licence in favour of equality is welcome.

But MaryPoppinomics on banking is perhaps the worst lesson since Scrooge McDuck cartoons told children that rich people kept their wealth in swimming pool-sized vaults full of dollar bills and gold coins.

Mary Poppins departs once again, leaving children sad, and perhaps, slightly more financially illiterate. (Disney Enterprises)

Certainly there are problems with our banking system, but to blame your financial problems on an evil, thieving banker with everything but a twirly moustache is no help at all. Bankers don't have to throw share records into the fire to win. In fact, if bankers have an advantage, it is almost always by scrupulously following the rules.

The idea that all you need to fix the banking system are nicer guys, like a more powerful Dick Van Dyke-aged banker who (spoiler alert) dances to the rescue, fails to grasp the problem.

And while compound interest is a marvellous thing, snatching tuppence back from a bird lady (cue instrumental reprise of Feed the Birds) and putting it in the bank will not guarantee you a future nest egg. Diligent saving is necessary.

Canada's chief central banker, Stephen Poloz, an advocate of greater financial literacy, will have trouble competing with such misinformation. Maybe at Wednesday's monetary policy meeting he will use song and dance to explain the future of interest rates.

And perhaps in Mary Poppins Comes Back Once Again, expected in 2072, she will have done just a little bit more economic research.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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