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Child's Play

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Who is your financial role model: Elmo or Cookie Monster?

That was the headline I was greeted with when I logged on to Moneyland, Time Inc.'s new personal-finance website. The right answer is, of course, Elmo, who assiduously avoids "impulse buys" and saves for the future, unlike Cookie Monster, who is all about instant gratification.

The item links to a new "Sesame Street" video series on spending, sharing and saving, clearly aimed at young children. But "the basic lesson, about delayed gratification," Moneyland tells us, "is one that needs to be learned by plenty of kids and adults alike."

Welcome to personal-finance journalism, circa 2011. Unemployment is stubbornly high, the outlook for housing is bleak, Congress is arguing over the debt ceiling, and there's talk of a double-dip recession. But the personal-finance press is still -- still! -- imploring us to RETIRE RICH, as evidenced by the cover line of the June 13 issue of Fortune magazine, which of course is illustrated by yet another happy couple frolicking on the beach, this time with the help of what appears to be a seaplane. Or, like Moneyland, it's admonishing us to learn impulse control from a bunch of Muppets, or alerting us to the fact that we can buy an iPhone 4 for only $147 at Walmart. Relatively inexpensive, sure, but what would Elmo say?

Interestingly, both Fortune and Moneyland spring from the media kingdom of Time Inc., which also puts out personal-finance stalwart Money magazine and its related website. It added website Moneyland to its personal-finance stable just a few weeks ago, complete with a mission statement of sorts by contributor Zachary Karabell that breathlessly links the new site to the legacy of -- who else? -- Henry Luce.

The Time co-founder, we are told, "understood that during what he dubbed 'the American Century,' economic questions were at the heart of the American future ... So he brought in celebrity economists like John Kenneth Galbraith to adorn the pages of both Time and Fortune and do weekly features and substantial studies such as 'The Changing American Market,' 'The Fabulous Future,' and 'Markets of the Sixties.' These articles ran thousands of words long, and were then published as separate books read by hundreds of thousands."

OK, fine. But to be clear, since Karabell really isn't, those long-form, economically minded features he's extolling all ran in the pages of the more plutocratic and business-focused Fortune, not the mass-market, general-interest-focused Time. Not that Time didn't dabble in economics, finance and business -- it did, and Karabell rolls out a 1950 cover with a charging bull to prove it. Still, the "substantial studies" he is so enamored of were mostly Fortune's bailiwick.

No matter. Just as we are feeling all warm and fuzzy about Time, Luce, economics coverage and old-fashioned, long-form journalism, we are told that we shouldn't expect any of that on Moneyland. Sure, we need informed debate on "all matters economic." After all, "America is yet again at a crossroads," just as it was in Luce's day, even if "now the headlines aren't about affluence per se but rather its possible limits." But "gone are the times when these issues could be hashed out in tens of thousands of words appearing every few weeks or months." Moneyland's goal "is to cut through the noise and offer some sense of what matters, what doesn't, and what should."

Which brings us to Elmo, the Cookie Monster and impulse control; the $147 iPhone; and other "Smart Spending" tips, from how to host a profitable yard sale (be prepared) to how to get lunch for a buck (LivingSocial). There are pieces on real estate, including one item arguing against high-end rentals, and the usual stock-picking fare ("Tech Stocks: Should You Buy the Bubble?").

Moneyland does have a section tagged "Economics and Policy," which so far seems mostly concerned with the battle over debit card swipe fees in Congress and contains a piece by Karabell suggesting that Americans worried about the effects of the Greek debt crisis can help by vacationing in Greece. It's all a far cry from the Fortune that Karabell invokes in his ode to Luce, the one that not only employed Galbraith, but James Agee and Archibald MacLeish and other literary luminaries.

The bottom line here is that the sainted Luce, an immensely successful magazine publisher, probably would not have turned his back on the Muppets or Moneyland, if they succeeded in making a buck. That, and the belief that we all really just want to frolic on a beach, may well be the real legacy of Luce's Time.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.