Tag Archives: money

Following the money, missing the point

 

It really is just a pile of dead trees.

It’s with equal degrees of bemusement and resignation that I read articles speculating on how the real-life breakup of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may affect the box-office performance of Breaking Dawn, Part II.  Nor is it any stretch of the imagination to suspect that the morning following the Aurora massacre an emergency meeting was called in a studio boardroom somewhere to discuss how that tragedy would impact the ticket sales for The Dark Knight Rises.  The biggest questions in the presidential election revolve around money – how much of it Mitt Romney may or may not have paid in taxes, how much his campaign is raking in from billionaire Super PAC donors, whether or not Barack Obama can become the first incumbent president to be outspent and still secure re-election.  Austerity, whether advisable or not, and deficit reduction dominate the agenda of every government on the planet.  The rich are vilified in one circle for acting like feudal overlords, and praised in another as job creators.  Money is the filter through which we examine everything – we have become a species of accountants obsessed with numbers and the bottom line.  And yet we’re more miserable than we’ve ever been:  impatient, demanding, and more prone to outbursts of rage for the most insignificant reasons.  Something is clearly askew.  Is it perhaps time to undertake the first step in recovery and admit that we have a problem – that obsessing over money isn’t getting us anywhere?

I’m not naïve enough to suggest that the acquisition of wealth is ever going to fade away as a motivating factor in human behaviour; it’s been that way ever since the first Australopithecus looked out with longing at the bigger, cosier cave his neighbour across the way was occupying.  But that motivation is rooted in the biggest lie of all – that having more means being happier.  Marketers and advertisers understand this, which is why every commercial you’ve ever seen is designed to make you feel inadequate and envious, and to suggest, in somewhat the same manner as a drug dealer would, that you just need a hit of whatever is being sold – cars, shoes, cologne or designer jeans – to ease the pain of your unendingly terrible existence.  We all know better, and yet we buy in – pun most depressingly intended – to the lie, sacrificing what we’ve earned for temporary relief, at least until the next ad comes on and we begin to think ourselves lacking in some other area.  It does not have to be this way, and yet we have been conditioned in the same manner to define success in dollars alone – not influence or reach or the fundamental amelioration of our collective humanity.  Somewhere along the way, the virtue of working hard as its own reward transformed into only a means to the end of securing one’s fortune at the expense of the well-being of our peers.  Men of business the world over with less moral integrity than the average cockroach are revered as leaders and held up as ideals to emulate because they have managed to accumulate piles and piles of cash, with little, if any, consideration given to the lives that have been destroyed by their greed.  We are forced to listen to their obscene rants and give credence to their perverted worldviews because we have decided that they deserve our attention based on the size of their bank accounts.  Opinions that would otherwise be dismissed the ravings of lunacy shape policy for billions of people, because money defines the parameters of the conversation.  To our everlasting shame, we have allowed it to – in whom we have voted for and whom we have chosen to place upon gilded pedestals to admire.

Enough is enough.

Some would argue that there is a moral imperative within each soul born upon this planet to leave it in a better state than which they found it.  This is an aim hardly served by pillaging and plundering the earth’s treasures for the benefit of a select few.  What is needed is a reorienting of our values and a new form of currency, one that cannot be tied to the whims of banks:  a currency of ideas, in which the ideas are evaluated on their substance and not on how much cash is flowing behind them.  Do I think this is ever going to happen?  Well, probably not in my lifetime.  The forces of money are too deeply entrenched within the corridors of power.  But we can get the process started – by refusing to grant those forces our slavish attention, and by shedding the ridiculous belief that someone is better than we are because they are wealthier.  By not caring anymore how much so-and-so gets paid for his latest album or her starring debut.  By emphasizing quality over quantity, and evaluating character completely independently of the size of a person’s wallet.  By making “successful businessman” roughly the same estimation of a man’s worth as “frequent water drinker.”  Not going so far as vilifying financial success outright, but making it the very least important of the measures of a human being.  Saying “oh, you’re a billionaire casino entrepreneur?  How nice for you – my kid just scored three goals at his soccer game last Saturday.”

We cannot achieve true fairness in this world until we stop worshipping those things that make the world unfair.  What’s most encouraging is that we still have the choice to do that.  We just have to make it.

Quis custodiet ipsos numeros?

An emergency board meeting in Margin Call.

Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a 2011 movie about the 2008 financial crisis that stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Zachary Quinto (who also produced).  It features a topical storyline, some strong, subtle performances (particularly from Irons and Tucci), interesting characters and key ethical questions to be asked about the spiritual worth of the pursuit of money.  It is also somewhat difficult to follow if you do not have experience in high finance.  Characters drop references to commercial securities, asset valuations and market fluctuations so fast, without pausing for a breath to catch the audience up, that you almost find yourself wishing for subtitles.  Even when characters make jokes about not being able to understand what they’re looking at, and plead for facts to be explained in plain English (or as Irons says at one point, as if one is speaking to a small child or dog), what follows remains untranslated biz jargon.  Cobbling together what you do comprehend, you conclude that a major investment firm has gotten too greedy and has purchased too many high-risk assets that, due to changes in the market, are about to become worthless, necessitating a massive pre-emptive sell-off that will, in itself, precipitate a further worldwide decline, but may, it is hoped, save a portion of the firm.  (I hope you got all that because I’m still trying to figure it out.)  The moment this becomes clear is when Irons puts it into colloquial terms, declaring, “The music is about to stop and we’ll be left holding a bag of odorous excrement.”

One cannot help but be reminded of the Star Trek trope where one character proposes a long technobabbling resolution to a crisis, summed up by someone else with a much simpler metaphor:  “If we reconfigure the deflector dish to emit a synchronous stream of alpha-wave positrons along a non-linear coefficient curve, we might be able to produce a stable gravimetric oscillation that would divert the asteroid’s course.”  “Like dropping pebbles into a pond… make it so!”  As tiresome as this became, it was done for a reason.  When setting any scene in a foreign environment – be it another country, another world or simply an exotic office – the writer has to walk a tightrope between being truthful to the environment and servicing the demands of drama.  The audience has to be able to relate to what’s going on in front of them, or it might as well indeed all be playing out in Mandarin Chinese.  Yet you don’t want to dumb things down for mass consumption, and you can’t succumb to the dreaded “As you know, Bob” epic fail:  characters stopping to explain things that they already know, and would have no reason to discuss given the course of their day.  If you’re an accountant, are you going to spend any time explaining to your veteran colleague what a trial balance is?  Is Alex Rodriguez going to pause mid-game for a five-minute exegesis with Derek Jeter on the infield fly rule?  Nor does it make any sense for these experienced brokers to sermonize on the basics of brokerage.  Usually a writer gets around this by introducing a “fresh-faced intern on his first day” who can ask the “business 101” questions on behalf of us dummies watching.

There are no interns or other such clichés in Margin Call, which chooses not to explain its dialogue in digestible nuggets for the masses.  Characters in this glass-enclosed world debate, ruminate, decide what they have to do and proceed with their financial chicanery, complicit in what may turn out to be their own destruction.  And after scratching your head for an hour and a half, you discover that what is sneakily clever about Margin Call’s screenplay is how it turns the incomprehensibility of its subject matter into a revelation about its subjects – the wheelers and dealers of the Wall Street world, men and women who are as much prisoners of an impenetrable capitalist system as those of us who can scarcely be bothered to look at our mutual fund statement every month.  No one understands this stuff, not really; they just want it all to work seamlessly and invisibly to make them rich, which is part of what makes the system so vulnerable to collapse.  Depressingly, here in the real world, four years on, the same cycle of greed has circumvented the installation of proper safeguards to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.  It’s too complicated, no one really gets it, they can’t be bothered, it’s trivial, that’s the other guy’s problem, the market will regulate itself as it always has.  But the genie is long out of the bottle.  In a moment of insight, Jeremy Irons’ character judges this world thus: “It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.” 

The problem is we are killing each other over these pieces of paper – we are letting the numbers control our lives, and as Margin Call demonstrates, no one is truly in control of the numbers.  It’s all gambling, and as any experienced gambler will tell you, no matter how well you play, in the end the house always wins.  I’m not sure who “the house” is in this case, but I’m fairly certain that it isn’t us.