money


Image from forbes.com.

Image from forbes.com.

Who am I? A pretty good indication of my sense of identity can be inferred from the things that I habitually do. In this season of the year, call it Advent, the Christmas Season, the end-of-the-year-holidays, or the Winter solstice, we are prone to return to whatever habits that shortened days, light displays, Christmas trees, and the like evoke in us (some places in the world don’t have strong associations with this season–I’m referring primarily to North America here). For some, the habits that float to the surface involve religious readings and rituals. Many have well-formed inclinations towards connecting with family and friends. Hearty sorts look forward to outdoor activities possible only under frigid conditions. Then there is shopping.

In his 2007 book Consuming Jesus, theologian Paul Louis Metzger suggests that, in twenty-first century North America, philosopher Rene Descartes famous statement “I think therefore I am” is a less apt description of contemporary attitudes than is the sentiment “I shop at Wal-Mart, therefore I am.” We identify most deeply, in other words, as consumers rather than as thinkers. What we have and use is more important to us than what we imagine and believe.

I’ve written before about the things we own being an important aspect of our identities. At the time I was thinking mostly about possessions in a static sense–the things that we’ve already accumulated and that now sit around our houses. What if, as Metzger seems to be suggesting, what most defines our identities is not what we already own but the process by which we acquire more? Then we would be most truly ourselves at Wal-Mart, or pursuing bargains at Target or Macy’s, or making our selections from the cornucopia that is Amazon.

What would it be like if we gave ourselves over entirely to the trend that Metzger identifies? Rather than seeing ourselves as homo sapiens, we would define ourselves as what Metzger, following Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, calls homo consumens. Correspondingly, we would view our worth in terms of our buying power–those who can purchase more are worth more since they both better support the economy and better exercise the ultimate human act of product selection. In this view of ourselves, our ultimate function would not be to worship God, be stewards of creation, gain knowledge, or exercise reason, but go to the store and buy more stuff, either to keep or to give to family and friends.

I want to be defined by worship, stewardship, curiosity, and reason rather than by consumption. At this time of year, though, I am constantly tempted–via catalogues, billboards, advertising circulars, social media, store displays–to define myself instead as a consumer. May I–may we–be given grace to resist the temptation.

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During my recent tour to Israel the group visited Bethlehem. While there we went to a gift shop run by Palestinian Christians. Tim, our guide, told us that Palestinian Christians have a hard life. Tim didn’t mention the conditions under which Palestinians in general live, but just by looking out the bus windows we could see that things aren’t so good. Compared to Israeli areas, buildings are more dilapidated, cars are older and fewer in number, and more rubbish is visible. “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” but, from what we saw, at least some of its residents may find bread hard to come by.

It was apt in a way that the place of Jesus’ birth is relatively impoverished. He is the one who, as Philippians 2 puts it,

“though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.”

He was not born to royalty, or even to a well-established family in reasonably prosperous circumstances, but, as Deborah Smith Douglas puts it, “to a transient girl in an occupied country in an improvised shelter not even meant for human habitation” (‘The Poverty of God,’ Weavings, Nov./Dec. 2003). The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were surely intentional. As Douglas puts it,

“The whole amazing mystery of the Incarnation is about nothing else: out of unimaginable love God desires the deepest imaginable solidarity with our radical and inescapable insecurity.”

We all are insecure, of course, even though we defend against our lack of security by denial. Evading awareness of how little security we have is part of the modernist project: Charles Taylor describes us as having constructed “buffered selves” that minimize our sense of vulnerability. We Americans have taken this project of buffering to extremes, using both wealth and empire to quell the discomfort inherent in being creatures for whom our next breath could be the last. Douglas asks how such strategies affect our ability to appreciate what God has done:

“How can we, who go to such lengths to deny our own vulnerability, hope to see the astounding vulnerability of God in the Incarnation? Can we even want to encounter divinity become powerless? Can we even begin to imagine the total ‘self-emptying’ (see Phil 2:7) that Jesus undertook in love in order to ‘live and die as one of us’?”

Our tour may have brought us closer to Jesus in some respects–by showing us the land in which he lived, by taking us places important in his narrative, and by teaching us about his culture. This trip didn’t overcome the gap between the vulnerability we avoid and the vulnerability he embraced, though. One problem was that we traveled as first-world tourists who were provided with accommodations at the opposite extreme from the humble stable celebrated in the nativity story. Fortunately, we were occasionally reminded of the privilege which surrounded us. The bathroom accommodations were often enough so primitive (men were regularly sent behind one set of bushes, women behind another; in one emergency, the facility was two umbrellas by the side of the road) that we became very grateful whenever an actual toilet was available. One day in Jerusalem we took a shortcut through an area where trucks were unloading garbage. We hurried past as quickly as possible, but I was glad that my nose had the opportunity to sniff aromas that were probably much more like what Jesus smelled than anything I’ll ever encounter in church. Of course, these brief episodes didn’t expose us to poverty in anything like the way that Jesus encountered it.

One question I’m left with after the trip is what am I going to do about that? Am I going to respond to Christ’s vulnerability on our behalf by becoming more vulnerable myself?  I’m not thinking so much here about risking my safety as I am about being willing to look unflinchingly at the sufferings of others, even when doing so discomforts me. Am I willing to reach out to them in love? I’ve certainly done some of this, but nowhere like what Jesus did. I certainly can do more. To follow him is to tag along even when he’s on his way to be with the poor, weak, and needy.

"The Nativity" by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.

“The Nativity” by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.

 

the big short

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

The Big Short, the movie about the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis, is styled as a comedy, with flippant pop-cultural explanations of finance and humorous repartee between the characters. More than anything, though, it is an angry movie. Writer-director Adam McKay is clearly outraged at the deceit, the manipulation of markets, the collusion, and the fraud that occurred, not in just a few cases, but throughout the system. He’s angry, too, that ordinary workers and homeowners suffered the most, while the bankers who were responsible not only evaded prison but also received government bailouts to keep them from ruin.

The movie focuses not on the financial establishment but on the few investors who saw in advance that the mortgage securities market and derivative financial products were unsustainable–who knew that the system would crash. if you knew all that and could short–bet against–that market, you could make a lot of money. The movie tells the saga of these investors (the movie uses different names for most of the principals, but they are based on real-life counterparts) and how they won their bets.

On second thought, it doesn’t seem as if anyone really won. Of the main characters, only Jared Vennett (played by Ryan Gosling) seems to be unperturbed by the financial crisis and his role in it. Three characters in particular end up saddened or shaken by what happened. Their reactions are reminders that dealing in large sums of money isn’t a morally neutral activity. Someone is bound to become greedy, fearful, or envious; relationships will be destroyed; life will cease to be about human well-being and instead be about accumulating wealth.

The first character who is disturbed by what happens during the few years covered by the movie is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a medical doctor and hedge fund manager who is socially inept. He functions in the world of numbers, apparently as compensation for his inability to function in the world of people. He is the first to bet against the mortgage market, to the tune of 1.3 billion dollars. His fund loses money as he waits for the collapse he’s sure is coming, and his investors get impatient. Their relationship progressively devolves into threats and lawsuits. Eventually, Michael confesses “Making money isn’t what I thought it would be. This business kills the part of us that is human.” He is eventually vindicated, but at tremendous emotional cost.

Another character markedly affected by the bubble and its aftermath is temperamental hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), based on the real-life figure Steve Eisman. Mark has undergone a recent family tragedy, and his personal sorrows and the nation’s sorrows eventually merge for him. He is uncertain about the scale of the crisis. When finally convinced after a conversation with a banker who unconcernedly reveals that the potential risk was much larger than he could have imagined, Mark instructs an underling to short “everything that guy has touched.” He walks off abruptly; when asked where he is going, he says, “I’m going to try to find moral redemption.” He is clearly shaken by the danger to the world economy and his role in bringing the crash closer. Soon afterwards, he confesses to his wife that the work he is in “changed me into a person who couldn’t reach out to someone.” He is probably referring to the family tragedy here, but also may be thinking of the fate of millions of innocent (or in some cases, foolhardy) investors, homeowners, and workers. The ill wind for others that blew money his way also blew melancholy over what had happened.

The third troubled figure, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), is a legendary financial guru who is already so disillusioned that he has left the industry to hibernate in a rural retreat where he grows his own food. Two young traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who recognize the bubble but need help getting access to financial markets convince him to lend them a hand. When at one point the young traders become elated about their prospects for success, Rickert calmly lays out what success would mean. Don’t they know, he asks, that they are making a bet against the US economy? If they are right, people will be losing jobs, homes, and pensions. Many will suffer, so those who profit should have their spirits saddened, not lifted.

So, the movie invites us to reflect on our reaction when we prosper while, or even because, others suffer. The world is set up so this situation happens often: for example, slavery benefits most of us. In the end, Ben goes back to his farm. That response reminds me of Candide, who witnessed the world’s suffering, then decided to tend his garden. Not much help, but at least it limits the harm the gardener will be doing going forward. Maybe sometimes that’s the best we can do.

In one classic Peanuts cartoon, the first three panels show Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally with a blank expression on her face, holding a balloon.  In the final panel, she wonders, “What’s so fun about a balloon?

What's fun, indeed?  Image: clker.com

What’s fun, indeed? Image: clker.com

I thought of Sally’s reaction when I read a recent piece in The Atlantic about the relationship between having stuff and being happy.  Psychologists have known for a while that people tend to be more happy spending their money on experiences rather than on things.  A recent extension of this line of research found that, among highly materialistic individuals, more happiness is produced by thinking about a purchase beforehand than by actually owning the desired object.  Marsha Richens, the researcher who conducted the study, reported that “Thinking about acquisition provides momentary happiness boosts to materialistic people, and because they tend to think about acquisition a lot, such thoughts have the potential to provide frequent mood boosts.”  The actual purchase also elevates mood, but not as much as anticipating it does.

I can think of several possible implications of this study.  For example, you don’t really have to go into debt for possessions to add to your happiness; window shopping with the idea that you might actually buy something should do the trick just as well.  Also, the rich person who can buy whatever they want is likely to get much less mileage out of a purchase than a person of modest means who has much more opportunity to anticipate the purchase while saving for it.  Also, I wonder whether the satisfaction that one gets from anticipating a purchase has to do with one’s sense of self.  For  materialists, possessions are important to their sense of who they are.  Anticipating a purchase of some new, neat thing isn’t just a matter of thinking about the object; it also entails thinking of being the sort of hip, successful person who owns new, neat things.  The inevitable disappointment comes with the realization that one is stuck with the same self as before, albeit a self now encumbered with more stuff.

As for Sally, it seems the best advice is for her to think as much as possible about how fun a balloon is going to be, but to put off actually getting one as long as possible.

Going to see a film version of a favorite book, especially one so highly regarded as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is likely to be disappointing.  I loved Gatsby since I read it in college, and enjoyed re-reading it again last month in preparation for Baz Luhrmann’s adaption, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carrie Mulligan as Gatsby’s love object Daisy Buchanan, and Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. I approached the movie with trepidation—what favorite scenes would be omitted?  What dialogue mangled?  How well would the book’s atmosphere survive?

Gatsby

I was pleasantly surprised at how carefully the book’s plot was followed.  Only one of my favorite scenes has been omitted—the interaction between Nick and Gatsby’s father when the latter showed up for his son’s funeral.  The dialogue is faithful to the original.  The excesses of the Jazz Age are portrayed effectively, with the switch of musical style to hip-hop rather than jazz very appropriate for conveying the swagger and brashness of the era.  The parties are every bit as gaudy and extravagant as I imagined, and the contrast between the mansions full of revelers and the bleak valley of ashes reveals the vast inequity between rich and poor.  DiCaprio is a wonderful Gatsby and Edgerton is suitably loutish as Tom.  Unfortunately, Maguire is too befuddled and Mulligan too innocent for their respective roles; the former shortcoming was merely an annoyance, but the latter contributed to what for me was the main flaw of the movie, namely that, despite adhering closely to the book, it significantly modifies the character of the story.  I’ll take the rest of the post to explain what I see as Fitzgerald’s central themes and how well the movie does with these.

The three main themes that I find in the book are the arrogance and destructiveness of wealth, the dangers of self-invention, and the problems that occur when one constructs an object of longing that differs from the original source for that object.    As noted above, the movie shows the excesses of the age effectively, and Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan, the embodiment of old wealth, is every bit the haughty, chauvinistic cad that Fitzgerald made him.  Thus, the movie does well with the first of these themes.  It is with the other two themes that it lets us down.

Jay Gatsby is a classic self-made man, even his name being an invention.  Near the end of the novel, Gatsby’s father shows Nick the back cover of a book in which the boy Jay had written his daily schedule for self-improvement as well as his “General Resolves,” the latter including “No wasting time at Shafters,” “No more smokeing or chewing,” and “Read one improving book or magazine per week.”  Following such routines left the teen-aged James Gatz well-prepared to turn a chance encounter with a wealthy old man into an apprenticeship in the ways of the world, and, later, to success in the halls of power.  All this seems admirable, seemingly a case study in achieving what would later be called the American Dream.  Yet, as Fitzgerald portrayed him, Gatsby was fatally flawed.  Here is Fitzgerald’s most direct statement about Gatsby’s self-invention:

“His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.  The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

Gatsby himself could be considered meretricious—superficially attractive but lacking in inherent worth.  The web of favors and relationships that had sustained him would be insufficient to support him in the end.  Nick describes him as having “an extraordinary gift for hope,” and such hope is certainly a central driver for self-invention.  Why bother to remake oneself unless motivated by hope that one’s efforts could change the future?  The movie seems to regard Gatsby’s self-invention as admirable, and in particular extols his hope for an idyllic future with Daisy.  In contrast, Fitzgerald saw the danger of Gatsby’s brand of hope.  Here is how the novel ends:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning—

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Hope that sees only future possibilities is never likely to reach fulfillment.  The past that we try to erase with our efforts at self-invention is part of who we are, and to deny our origins is to fight against a current more powerful than us.  Fitzgerald’s caution against the ahistorical impulse towards endless self invention that has always been part of the American character has never been more pertinent than now, surrounded as we are with life coaches, personal branding experts, motivational speakers, and various other largely self-made experts telling us we can be whatever we want to be.  Only a small fragment of Fitzgerald’s warning has survived in Luhrmann’s movie.

I know I have one more theme to consider, but this post is getting long and my time is getting short, so I’ll come back to that in a future post.

A recent article by Liz Kulze on the Atlantic website gave counterintuitive information about abuse of prescription drugs in America.  It’s not those who are seeking to escape the misery of poverty or discrimination.  It’s not older people who inadvertently got hooked on pain meds.  It’s not gang members.  The group who is far and away the most likely to abuse prescription drugs are young, white, affluent males.

oxycontinSubstance abuse of all sorts can be viewed as an attempt to deal with a problem.  Often, it is an escape from something intolerable.  So what’s intolerable about a life of privilege?

Kulze suggests that privilege itself is the problem; having never been challenged, these teens and young adults haven’t developed any sort of resources to deal with even the ordinary struggles of high school and college.    She cites Dr. Madeline Levine, a psychologist who suggested in her book The Price of Privilege that an elite lifestyle is detrimental to character development.   According to Dr. Levine, “Indulged, coddled, pressured and micromanaged on the outside, my young patients appeared to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to develop on the inside.”  Research suggests that a childhood containing a modest amount of stress is associated with better long-term adjustment than childhoods with either severe stress or no stress.  For example, a study of Illinois Bell employees during a company crisis in the 1970s and 80s found that those who handled the turmoil well—staying healthy, keeping their jobs or quickly finding new ones—tended to have had fairly tough childhoods.  Indulging children doesn’t do them any favors; it leaves them ill-prepared for adulthood and, as often as not, perpetually immature.

Kulze also notes that, ill-prepared as they are for even average accomplishments, privileged children are often saddled with unrealistic expectations for success.  The gulf between capabilities and expectations seems unbridgeable; no wonder that anything that dulls awareness of this huge discrepancy is appealing.  I particularly like the following sentence:  “Bereft of any authentic sense of self and the grit it takes to form one, and relentlessly pushed to socially defined ends, a privileged adolescence becomes the consummate breeding ground for self-harm, however unintended.”  I wish Kulze had elaborated on her point about the deficient sense of self in privileged adolescents.   Selves are developed though such processes as consistently receiving accurate feedback, testing oneself against some challenge, or interacting regularly with those who are different from oneself.  None of these things are likely to happen regularly among those who are coddled, protected, and given a sense of entitlement.

As a psychologist, I haven’t worked very much with privileged children, but I have seen a number of parents who raised their children by giving indiscriminate praise, providing a surfeit of material goods, and foregoing any meaningful standards for mature behavior.  In nearly every instance, when grown the children coped poorly with college, work, or relationships; many were substance abusers.  Having been taught that they weren’t to blame for anything, most learned little from repeated failures.  We don’t do our children any favors when we treat them like little princelings.

The Queen of Versailles, now showing in theatres, is a documentary about the efforts of time-share mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie to move out of their cramped living quarters into something a bit bigger.  The family lives in a mansion that has 17 bathrooms and sprawls over 26,000 square feet, but, with seven children of their own, an adopted niece, numerous pets, and 19 servants, things are a bit tight.  They plan to build a 90,000 square-foot house with 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, two tennis courts, a skating rink, a spa, a bowling alley, a gym, and a full-sized baseball field.  The new house is named Versailles; they planned it after a visit to Louis XIV’s palace and added more details after seeing the Paris Las Vegas hotel.  Director Lauren Greenfield started filming in 2007; footage from that year shows the couple reveling in their opulent lifestyle—having their portrait taken while they sit on an ornate throne, flying in a private jet, riding in a limousine, and hosting all 50 Miss America contestants. (Jackie herself was a beauty queen—Mrs. Florida of 1994.  Thirty years younger than her husband but now over 40, her artificially enlarged breasts and Botoxed face provide no more than a parody of beauty.)  The new house is planned to display even more wretched excess.  However, the 2008 recession slams David’s business, and most of the film details the Siegel’s fumbling attempts to live life within limits.

Jackie is the heart of the film.  She grew up in modest circumstances, got a degree in computer engineering, and once worked for a living.  However, she seems to have forgotten how the middle class live.  After flying commercial to visit family in Binghamton, New York, she asks the Hertz attendant “What’s the name of my driver?”  It takes her a minute to realize that Hertz doesn’t supply chauffeurs.  Back in Orlando, she goes to McDonalds to pick up a meal in a chauffeured stretch limo.  She buys Christmas presents for the kids at Wal-Mart, but spends way more than she needs to, then blows budgetary restraint by buying herself a huge tin of caviar—estimated value, $2,000.  “It’s my gift to myself,” she chirps.

Jackie’s inability to constrain her desires is matched by her husband’s inability to show warmth and kindness to his family.  As the financial crisis deepens, he holes up in his paper-strewn den, barking at his wife when she tries to cheer him up.  He seems to have little relationship with his children; an older son, who toils loyally for David when credit dries up and they are in danger of losing their property in Las Vegas, the centerpiece of their holdings, indicates that there is little warmth between them.  The relationship is “all business.”

Jackie displays a generosity of spirit lacking in her husband.  She takes in and raises her brother’s daughter along with her own children, holds a thrift sale to aid community members in need, and, though under severe financial strain, sends $5,000 to a childhood friend whose house is about to be foreclosed.  She is also charitable to her husband, excusing his sullenness as the result of hard work and stress.  He on the other hand describes her contemptuously as “like having another child.”  Despite her kindness, though, Jackie is trapped, just as her husband is, by her own faults.

When watching the movie, I was reminded of the eight deadly thoughts listed by fourth century monk Evagrius.  We tend to think of the rich as possessed by greed, but this doesn’t seem the primary deadly thought for either Jackie or David.  Jackie is much less interested in accumulating money than she is in indulging in life’s pleasures.  The “gift” of caviar is but one example—there’s also a warehouse full of antiques, a full spa planned for Versailles, the elaborate glasswork there, and the huge closet she plans to stuff with her clothes and shoes.  David ruefully remarks at one point that she’s never satisfied with just one of anything.

For his part, David is trying to make as much money as he can, but he hasn’t tried to hold onto it the way a greedy person would.  For him, money seems to mark his accomplishments.  His deadly thought is pride.  Early on, he brags to the camera that he got George W. Bush elected and, when asked why he’s building Versailles, smugly replies, “Because I can.”  He tells of all the people he’s helped, the emphasis being not on the people but on his virtue for helping them.  As the financial crisis starts to subside, David could solve his financial woes by turning his Las Vegas tower over to the bank and living on the huge amounts of wealth generated by his other properties.  He won’t do it; he says it’s because he has too much invested, but it seems much more likely that the building is the jewel of his empire and losing it would be a blow to his ego.  We tend to think of wealth as providing us with freedom, but for both Jackie and David wealth seems to just set the hook of their desires more deeply.

The movie starts out cataloguing the lifestyles of the wealthy, but ends up revealing the flaws of two ordinary human beings.  The Siegels, trapped as they are in deadly thoughts, are beset by the same weaknesses that trouble us all.  I particularly like what A.O. Scott said about the movie in his review for the New York Times: “Schadenfreude and disgust may be unavoidable, but to withhold all sympathy from the Siegels is to deny their humanity and shortchange your own. Marvel at the ornate frame, mock the vulgarity of the images if you want, but let’s not kid ourselves. If this film is a portrait, it is also a mirror.”  The movie demonstrates powerfully that wealth doesn’t exempt anyone from the human condition.

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