Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Trouble with “More” in a Finite World

Jacob:  “The amount of money you would need to be able to walk away from it all and just live happily ever after.  See, I find that everyone has a number and it’s usually an exact number, so what is yours?”

Bretton: “More.”

It is a sick comedy that surrounds our current economic anomaly.  One that may provide the setting for a Shakespeareanesque tale that will tell the story of our present to a future world lifetimes from now.  It is a comedy to which present generations blindly bear witness and to which distant relatives will inevitably find absurd.  A way of life built upon infinite growth and consumption in a finite world.  

In the 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, there is a telling scene in which Jacob, a rookie stockbroker, confronts Bretton James, a calculating and ruthless colleague, regarding his objectives.  Jacob represents what many Americans believe or at least wish us to be: ambitious, full of promise and, of course, ethical.  The irony is that James is who we are, or at least, what has come to define us.  He is a calculating man who is equally as ambitious as he is ruthless and unethical. 

Jacob asks him, what is his “exact number”?  What is it that will make him happy?  James thinks for a moment and then with a wink says, “More.”  

In thirteen seconds these two characters articulate an economic and cultural absurdity that holds us captive.  A way of life that predicates itself on infinite growth in order to sustain itself or be deemed “healthy” and “successful” is, in fact, quite the opposite.  It is fatal.  Understand that at some point “more” runs out.  

We needn’t look further than our own existence.  We are born, we grow, we grow old, we pass to history and memory.  In other words, we are finite.

Maybe you prefer history.  Lands have been discovered, frontiers conquered, resources utilized and then exhausted.  Three hundred years ago (a mere moment in time in the history of the world) present day Ohio was a frontier.  Far from imagination was the now defunct—and largely forgotten—Ohio and Erie Canal, the steel mills of Youngstown or the nationally prominent football program of The Ohio State University.

The frontier as we knew it--and the one often ill depicted in John Wayne westerns of yesteryear—no longer exists.  For better or worse, it was conquered. Its resources have been and are being consumed; and all too often compromised for the sake of “development”.  No, that Subway off the interstate has not always been there.  Nor has the Starbucks.  But they are modern day testaments to our expansioncrazed economy.  Their success relies on “more”.

But is “more” actually healthy and is our economy actually better by adding yet another kitsch, fast-food restaurant to the on/off ramp at Exit 102 for Masillon?  

Perhaps more concerning is that in the film it is Bretton James’ character that personifies success—at least on paper.  He is worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, and lives on the edge with expensive toys that most only experience by way of overpriced and mind numbing gaming consoles.  He does all this while promoting global financial and economic ruin.  

That’s not success?  Sure it is. He’s rich and he’s getting richer.  And in the end it’s about the bottom line.

Do you really care how or why the DOW eclipsed 15,000?  As long as we are making money, why ask questions.