Another Week Ends

1. This one really deserves a post of its own. So much writing about Wall […]

David Zahl / 1.24.14

1. This one really deserves a post of its own. So much writing about Wall Street greed has the air of jealousy and pettiness around it. Nothing’s an easier target or more convenient prop for self-righteousness than a corporate cog (i.e. “I may not be swimming in it, but at least I believe in something–at least my work has meaning–unlike all those soulless automatons I knew in college who are chasing the almighty dollar. How do they live with themselves?!”). Which is part of what makes Sam Polk’s “For The Love of Money” column in The NY Times last week so remarkable. It’s not just brave and honest (about a subject that people are rarely brave or honest about), it’s compassionate. Having gotten sober in college before going into finance (and doing quite well there), Polk claims that what he saw in himself and his colleagues was more than greed, it was addiction.

il_570xN.518723749_qb03“In the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.

From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.

I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me.

dd3a2687a5ff146af0dca194c3cae2ec-game-of-thrones-propaganda-posters-by-brucelovesyou…Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.

I see Wall Street’s mantra — “We’re smarter and work harder than everyone else, so we deserve all this money” — for what it is: the rationalization of addicts. From a distance I can see what I couldn’t see then — that Wall Street is a toxic culture that encourages the grandiosity of people who are desperately trying to feel powerful.

I generally think that if one is rich and believes they have “enough,” they are not a wealth addict. On Wall Street, in my experience, that sense of “enough” is rare. The money guy doing a job he complains about for yet another year so he can add $2 million to his $20 million bank account seems like an addict.

If that last part reminds you of Alain de Botton’s TED talk on success (and envy), you’re not alone. I suspect Polk will get the kind of blowback that people who talk about sex addiction get. The more laissez-faire side of the peanut gallery will claim that the intoxicating love of money is too commonplace to be called an addiction–it’s just normal human behavior to want rewards, and the sooner we can get over our hang-ups, the better. The more moralistic voices will protest that when we turn greed from a sin into a sickness we neutralize its ethical bite, going easy on the perpetrators, maybe even ‘blessing’ it. Don’t ask us to feel sorry for the Wolf of Wall Street after all–he seems to be having a grand old time.

Whatever the case, greed doesn’t seem to be talked about much publicly anymore, in either a compulsive or moral way. Avarice is just accepted as a baseline, I suppose. To call it out, you run the risk of sounding like a puritan (the source of all evil!) or a communist (hang the rich!). But like sex, money is such a live-wire in people’s lives–it occupies so much mental space and is the engine of more transparent fear and self-justification than almost anything else. Maybe that’s why Jesus talked about it so much. Because you don’t have to have a lot of it to experience its pull. Pastors who cater to big givers with their message are just as culpable as bankers who are always telling you how much they want to spend more time at home but never seem to turn down a promotion. I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that Polk’s essay gave me some patience and understanding for a group of people who are very easy to judge. Another reminder that what we look to as a means of power often ends up taking our power away. Lord have mercy! Cue Brennan Manning.

2. Or even better, cue Craig Ferguson. NPR responded to the recent news of Justin Bieber’s DUI by highlighting the following absolutely amazing video of a late-night monologue Ferguson did in 2007 after Britney Spears melted down. Do yourself a favor and take 10 minutes – I promise you won’t regret it, ht MP:

3. On the less redemptive side of the television spectrum, Vice reflects on “How ‘Friends’ Created a Generation of Neurotic, Self-Obsessed Idiots” and if you can get past the brash title, the main points may surprise you. Aspiration is almost always a code word for little-l law, btw, ht TB:

Unlike Seinfeld and just about every other sitcom before it, with their misfit ensembles of slob dads, nagging moms, drunk priests, stoner sons, and pervert neighbors, Friends was to be the first aspirational sitcom. A comedy where the primary cast were young, good-looking metropolitans without drinking problems or STDs…

Friends’s attitude toward relationships wasn’t bohemian or liberated, it was just annoying. There were no grand theories at play on what a relationship should actually mean; the happenings were just symptomatic of selfishness and self-obsession. “On a break” never really meant anything, besides the fact that one person wanted to break up and didn’t have the heart to admit it to the other. The Ross-and-Rachel saga legitimized something that should have been disregarded as dumb from the very start, birthing a generation of kids talking all kinds of pseudo-psychological relationship garble at each other for over a decade.

In other TV related news: The 1960s Adam West Batman show is finally coming to DVD!! Those who pay attention to such things know that it’s become something of a holy grail in the home video world. It’s enough to make a person want to stand up and say “Pow!”. Also, Holy True Detective! The HBO show is just as good as people are saying. ‘McConaughey continues to astound’ is a sentence I never thought I would write even two years ago.

4. Next, in The Guardian, Giles Fraser discusses Double Predestination in Grand Theft Auto and the results are predictably awesome, ht WB:

[John] Calvin would chuckle. He would love the illustrative potential of GTA. “Wake up!” I imagine him shouting. You are not creating this world. It has been created for you by unseen designers working in Dundee. And it doesn’t give you real agency. Yes, to some extent you can do what you like, but you cannot be who you like. You are cast as a gangster. You can hijack cars, shoot the police and pick up strippers in bars. But you will always be a gangster. That is predetermined. It only gives you the illusion of agency. And this illusion of agency is precisely what the world’s real unseen designers (currently in Davos not Dundee) want you to have because it robs you of any real control.

5. Blogging for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova gives us our Social Science study of the week, “In Praise of Better Praise”.  Both parents and pastors will find quite a bit to chew on (not to mention anyone who’s in a relationship of any kind). It’s not that criticism is somehow good or productive (it’s not!), just that we are so hardwired for it, that we will hear condemnation in hyperbolic praise, especially when it’s aimed at us rather than something we do. In other words, separating the action from the person appears to remain the safest route to healthy motivation. Phew, ht JD:

Game-Of-Thrones-Japanese-Art-3Far from leading to improved learning, praise—especially the inflated kind that seems so prevalent in the “everyone is a winner” age—may actually backfire.It’s not just inflated praise that can backfire; so can praise that links a child’s success to some personal trait: “Wow, you’re great,” for instance, instead of, “Wow, you did a great job.” Brummelman found in earlier research that, after a child received personal praise, she felt ashamed after failing at a subsequent task, but if she had been praised for the activity itself, or got no praise at all, there was no shame. Attributing successes to children’s positive personal traits, the researchers speculated, likewise made the children attribute failures to their personal shortcomings; if they couldn’t do it, they must somehow be to blame.

Carol Dweck, a social psychologist at Stanford University, studies how small changes to a person’s mind-set, or the way she sees herself, can translate to large changes in performance, motivation, and intelligence. “If praise is not handled properly,” she has said, “it can become a negative force, a kind of drug that, rather than strengthening students, makes them passive and dependent on the opinion of others.”

6. Extremely funny one from The Onion this week with “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show”. Less vital but still pretty interesting is Daniel Gross’ “That’s What She Said: The Rise and Fall of the 2000s’ Best Bad Joke” on The Atlantic. Hopefully the vulgarity warning is self-evident. But the find of the week has got to be If you’re looking for a genius-level (and gut-busting) fix of existential techno-dread, look no further.

7. A couple of strays: Books and Culture posted a very intriguing review of a new book on Mormonism. And anyone who’s hit the slopes this season would do well to read “Living with Grace… and Knuckleheads”.

8. Music-wise, Mojo posted a great playlist of The 20 Elvis Movie Tracks You Really Need to Hear and, let’s just say it might be a good way to prepare yourself for the first issue of The Mockingbird – which ships to everyone on our mailing list in mid-February. Finally, your Morrissey autobiography quote of the week is:

“In Manchester, the famous Manchester Evening News desperately attempts to portray the Smiths as ‘fans’ of [Moors Murders serial killers] Hindley and Brady, and finally relent with the almost-invisible [headline] ‘BAD BOYS ARE TOPS’ when Meat Is Murder hits number one. How delightful to be thought ‘bad,’ I muse, as I sit by a reading-light, pawing George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life.”