The Money Issue

4 Jul

I work near Wall Street. Now let me say: thems some easy pickins’ for a writer. At 4:00 take a look at how the market closed and you can immediately gauge what the vibe will be at the local taverns. If it drops 200 points, it’s beer and whiskey and gloomy stares at water stains on the wall. If it’s up 200 points, it’s Huzzah! and cocaine and hookers for all.

I’ve been acquainted with a few brokers and money managers in my day. I can’t say I particularly liked them. I didn’t hate them or anything. But our worlds have rarely overlapped. I believe in good government, the social contract, common decency, and that a society is measured not by those at the top, but by those in the middle. They believe in money.  Their money, which is theirs. And your money, which will soon be theirs.

Of course, this is a dramatic oversimplification. I have preconceived notions of Wall Streeters, just like a lot of you do. Call it a prejudice based on a small sample size. Similarly, I don’t know many cops (all racists who beat up innocent black men), firefighters (heroes during the day, drunk assholes at night), people in the military (I can kill you with a stare), doctors (I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me – unless he’s a specialist I recommend to you).

Which brings me to this insightful article by Christian Lorentzen, which details the many failures (and few successes) of fiction writers tackling the world of “big money.” In it he states that a natural encumbrance for writers is that they:

…[derive] their income from their status as writers (by teaching) rather than from their actual writing, tend to carve out lives somewhere within the middle class but find themselves at a remove from the higher and lower echelons of economic activity.

Basically: writers don’t understand the rich well enough to write about them in a competent fashion.

I took a bit of umbrage from this idea as it plays into the whole “write what you know” concept, which most consider to be a modest heaping of bullshit. Obviously, for someone to write about money matters, he needs to know something about them. That’s what research is for, something most good writers will do for accuracy’s sake. But Lorentzen goes deeper than saying that writers don’t understand how the markets work. He says that writers don’t know what makes the big money people tick.

And that I took a lot of umbrage with. If there is one thing that writers should know is how people work, why they act in certain ways. To a great extent we are armchair psychologists. Good writers understand people, and great writers are able to get the reader to understand people as well.

But the more I thought about it, the more I got what he was saying. The more I realized that I actually don’t understand what makes certain people act in certain ways.

So I went back and reread a post I had started and stopped from a few weeks back.  It began with a couple of recent events:

First, the $2 billion dollar loss by J.P. Morgan. (Which we now know could be upwards of $9 billion.)

The other was the bankruptcy of Dewey Leboeuf, one of the world’s most prestigious law firms.

Both companies made certain financial mistakes, none of which I will try to explain here, because I don’t really understand them myself. (Middle class writer who doesn’t know a lick about the financial world.) But both seemed to act as if it were still the seven years of plenty, when in fact it was the seven years of lean.

After this I sorta ranted a lot (one reason I didn’t continue this post was that it was even more of a polemic than my usual screeds).  What I wrote, however, could be boiled down to a few simple questions:

Why more? Why do some always want more? Is it status? Do people measure themselves against others and say “to win I must have more than my colleague?” Is this all a capitalist pissing contest? Or is it something deeper? Is it about a bottom line to show shareholders? Do people desire more not out of want but out of fear? Why is Donald Trump idealized? Why do some measure a person’s financial net worth as equal to that of the person’s total net worth as a human being?

I asked these questions because I don’t know. Maybe Lorentzen is right, maybe there are certain worlds that writers can never quite understand. It’s like Eyes Wide Shut when wealthy Tom Cruise gets sucked into a world that even he with all his money cannot quite fathom, a place that makes his wealth look middle class by comparison.

Most people do not judge themselves by how much money they have, but worry about how much money they don’t have. Most fret about paying bills and saving for the kids to go to college. They plan for vacations that they can only barely afford. They buy cheaper (and less healthy) foods. And if they get some money, most people are not going to throw it all away on luxury cars and fancy homes. They put it away. They save it for those seven years of lean.

As a writer I probably should try to better understand finance and the motivation for some to continually strive to amass More. (Especially when I write my book all about greed, Wall Street and financial improprieties.) As a human being, however, I am thankful that I can – for the time being at least – be blind to the matters of the monied class.

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