This morning I suckered myself into a discussion that came dangerously close to the truth, which is never pretty in a cube farm. I mentioned a nearby bank robbery to a co-worker, he remarked how rare those are, and I opined that if a certain Wall Street investment firm had a branch in Seattle more people might line up to rob "those criminals." He gave me a studied, deadpan look, clearly in the mood for a debate, and asked how these could rate as criminals. Sliding over the edge, I let go on how these same folks had lent others billions of dollars, then managed to get reimbursed (without obligation) when their clients were bailed out by the US Government. As my grandchildren might get to pay off this debt and executives involved were likely to invest their haul in other, more growth-oriented economies, I ranked them as thieves. Woe is me.
See, ok: Companies that lend unwisely only to be rewarded when somebody else's bacon is saved by the taxpayers are (a) lucky and (b) doing right by their own investors, I get that. As a company, they're functional, possibly even good, but I reject other, implied value propositions. Lots of mechanisms execute their functions well while doing harm -- companies, governments, chemicals, guns, and (yes) markets. And, yet...my co-worker was ready to dance with this. This latest scheme was supposedly part of a venerable equilibrium which sustains us all. This money will return as opportunities, and it's not like this sort of thing hasn't been going on for centuries, right? I wasn't done, however. The scale, I said...I don't care how far back you go, nobody has been as rich as the rich are in this world today. There have never been so many orders of magnitude separating the likes of a Wall Street executive and the normal worker, whose income mostly doubles back into their lives (cars, houses, education for their kids, etc.).
Another co-worker piped in. They're young and, though attached, free of dependents and happy with their opportunities. I contend over the last thirty years the real options available to people with education and average initiative have dwindled -- we need dual-earning households to pay for homes and an unexceptional car or two, to say nothing of the sick cost of college degrees. Add to that typical concerns from a decade or so in a given career, children, and the odd chronic illness and "opportunity" has a different meaning. But no, that's ridiculous -- the things people want drive them to work harder, the nicer cars, bigger houses, gadgetry, etc. Really, I ask? That's a supply-and-demand perspective, yet I see no weakness in supply of...well, anything. Cars, houses, electronics, you name it are all in abundance at historically low prices.
Wasn't the drive for equal rights for women in the workplace, for example, driven by necessity rather than a yen for extra spending money? That particular dam seemed to break...when....just before Ronald Reagan came around to save the world, right? Ah, but there was more.
I pulled my head out of my ass and shot back with two of my favorite things: professional basketball and European cars. Some years ago I watched a documentary called Hoop Dreams
, about the divergent lives of two urban youths trying to break into the NBA. A remarkable statistic opens this film: 80% of young men in inner cities are certain
they will become professional basketball players. Not that they "have a chance" or "have the talent", but will
. While it's true many professional players come from this background, this conviction remained widespread despite the slim likelihood any respondents even knew of somebody who had made the grade. That...is exactly how the American middle class continues to function, despite all the ills we'd discussed. One in perhaps ten thousand of us have the good fortune, talent, and drive to break and keep that first million, yet we all convince ourselves we're certain to, some day.
Isn't this motivation a good thing? I grant you the latitude to succeed, to identify and exploit economies of scale, competitive advantages, etc. is a brilliant quality of American society, but does that somehow require us to put up with the likes of investment bankers swimming in our tax dollars? The door started to snap shut on me by this point, as I was spiraling into the dead end of socialism or something more categorically pathetic in public discussion, so I dug in my heels. Wait!, I said: Think of BMW!
If you ask executives at BMW if they want to be the biggest car maker in the world, they'll give you a (perhaps) surprising answer: Of course not. As they tell the story, a long time ago there was a company which made 100% of the electric toasters in the world (General Electric), yet the year this dominance was achieved that very division lost 150 million dollars. Why? Because being the most powerful (or the only) of anything isn't all it's cracked up to be. As one commands more of a market their identity deteriorates, and the capacity to adapt and grow goes with it. BMW will tell you they've found their place, and they like it. They'll defend and adjust their niche should larger forces shift, but that's it. A different kind of goal, realized. How does this apply to the rest of us who don't make expensive, overcomplicated cars and motorcycles (as a former owner, I get to say that...)? Why, let me tell you.
Look at other, more insular western democracies: the Scandinavian nations, France, Germany, even the UK and Canada. Higher standards of living, better cradle-to-grave services, more leisure/creative time, more employee protections, a better life. Right? Not quite, came the response -- how about their tax rates (25%, 30%), oppressive regulation, and lack of an entrepreneurial identity, etc. At this point I stalled and grew nervous. We'd reached a disconnect -- these things didn't seem bad to me, and I was on treacherous ground in a business setting. How could any sane person abandon the superiority of choice, mobility, freedom, for...a modest, comfortable existence? A place, as in the BMW example, yet not necessarily dictated by one's specific potential. Why do so many people from these countries come to the US to escape these very things, however? Why don't we hear of Americans fleeing to (e.g.) Denmark or Ireland?
Well, for one, most of these countries aren't letting anyone in, at least not without ancestral ties. One may interpret this as stinginess, but based on my limited travels in Europe I'd say it was a considered choice that's simply alien to the American mindset. These particular cultures have notions of themselves that aren't growth and opportunity driven. Plenty of people come to the US from these places, as well, though it isn't nearly the desperate rush we see from the developing world. My will ebbed as this reasoning made a victory condition unclear -- I desired different things and was less attracted to unlikely possibilities. Then came a hammer blow. That Wall Street investment firm of which I spoke? They're a major stakeholder in the hierarchy of companies I work for. Though I may not be culpable, I survive squarely within the influence of their scandal.
Do I have the nerve to sacrifice my standard of living for a slice of moral superiority? Hmmm? What was that? I quieted now that we'd come full circle, then professed exhaustion and retreated, more embarrassed at how wound up I'd gotten than the substance of the discussion. Not here, I thought, not now. None of this was worth fighting for with all the work left to do in the day.