The dream of easy money for all is bust
19 September 2008
At the offices of a high street bank, I was waiting to meet the manager. The door to a boardroom was half-open and, on the wall opposite where I was sitting, there was a blackboard on which various ra-ra business affirmations had been written. “You cannot score a goal when the ball is in your own half” was the slogan I remember.
When the manager turned up for our meeting, I remarked that this message seemed oddly aggressive for a bank – the emphasis was less on winning customers than caning the opposition. He was surprised by my surprise. That was the way of the world these days, he said.
And so it was at that time, which was early in the century. Only the naïve still thought that banks merely banked, building societies offered loans and savings, insurance companies insured. Many of these institutions – those considered the more dynamic of them – had discovered that far bigger profits and bonuses were to be made by using other’s people money to play the global market. In an excitingly deregulated world, there was no limit to the ways a profit could be turned and personal fortunes amassed. It was capitalism’s wet dream.
Where are they now, the sharp-suited anti-heroes who strutted before our appalled, admiring gaze in books, films and in real life – the “big, swinging dicks” of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, the “masters of the universe” of The Bonfire of the Vanities? The answer, almost certainly, is that they are still out there, making a packet. While others lose their jobs or their savings, they will be gambling on decline, growing fat on failure.
On the other hand, the universe of which they liked to believe they were masters is in poor shape. It turns out that many of those flashy, brilliant men and women whose self-interest was said to be powering an economic surge did not have judgement to match their greed. They played they system, failed, and we are all the losers.
The recession, slump or crash will cause misery and hardship for individuals but this time, surely, a wider lesson will have been learned. It is foolish for a society to glamorise and reward beyond all sanity those whose business is dealing in money. When the money culture – or, rather, the money-for-nothing culture – filters outwards, its effect is damaging. From the National Lottery to TV programmes encouraging get-rich-quick property deals, a process of propaganda was leading people away from doing or making and towards speculating, away from earning a living towards dreaming of an unearned bonanza.
It is seductive, the idea that, just as the masters of the universe in the City or on Wall Street could pluck millions out of the air, so each of us might be able to pull off the same trick on a more modest scale. It can even look like the advance of civilised values. The trend towards teaching financial literacy in schools, encouraging children to understand debt and investment, even to set up a bank, has often dipped into cheer-leading for the business, for money-making rather than saving.
There is a grim symmetry to what is happening now. The effect of those something-for-nothing years is being corrected not only in the markets but in the way we look at the world and live our lives.
* The news that Candace Bushnell, the creator of Sex and the City, is to extend the franchise to stories for teenagers has cause a certain amount of alarmed clucking. The classroom is hardly the place for erotic liberation, it is said. The truth is that Sex and the City was always a children’s story at heart. There was a girl gang, gossip, adventures and embarrassments in the great adult playground of Manhattan. Candace Bushnell has come home.
And now for the Shipping News: hot air, bluster, gloom increasing…
There are few less attractive contemporary archetypes than the moaning writer, who has found success but still chunters on about the hardships of the literary life. Hollywood has failed to do justice to his book; the pressure of interviews is too much for her; the fans are too demanding.
The current Queen of Whinge appears to be Annie Proulx. After the success of her first novel, The Shipping News, she complained that festivals were “head-hunting for trophy writers”. When the film based on her novella Brokeback Mountain was nominated for eight Oscars, she attended the ceremony but, when it won a mere three, wrote a hilariously self-important article attacking the “conservative heffalump voters” who had awarded the Best Picture award to “Trash – excuse me – Crash”.
Now Wyoming’s own Granny Grumps is complaining that readers are bothering her with their “ghastly manuscripts and pornish rewrites” of Brokeback Mountain. These people expect her to reply and congratulate them for the work they had done. They were a constant irritation in her private life.
There are solutions to these problems. Avoid festivals; ignore Oscar ceremonies; send a polite standard note to those who like your stories enough to be inspired by them to write, pornishly or not.
Annie Proulx, who was once rather sensible about the pressures on authors, seems to have become unnecessarily ill-tempered about the way the world treats her. Celebrity, she once said, is not good for human nature. There was no need for her to prove the point.
It’s a dog’s life for pooches at Crufts
Here is a tricky one. Crufts, that cosy annual celebration of our doggy friends, has suddenly become associated with, if not cruelty, then a certain cynical heartlessness towards animals. A recent BBC documentary suggested that systematic inbreeding has led to various forms of genetic weakness and illness within certain pedigrees. “We’ve become completely and utterly desensitised to the fact that breeding these deformed, disabled, disease-prone animals is either shocking or abnormal,” says the RSPCA’s chief vet. The BBC, which televises the show, is said to be considering its position.
This was a row waiting to happen. There is indeed something distinctly creepy about watching fluffed-up, coiffed, inbred creatures as they are led up by their mad-eyed, fanatical owners. Claire Balding and the BBC team attempt to present the canine freaks on show as smarter versions of what millions of people have at home, but the case is unconvincing.