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The morals of making money

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Tuesday, 4 November 2008


Naïvely, I pursued a career in medicine partly because of money and then spent the past decade plugging away in impoverished public hospitals. Watching my peers in financial circles make squillions has been painful. I pretended not to care, that I was fulfilled in a job with a greater innate value.

But the warm, fuzzy feeling meant to come from helping the poor and the elderly did not dent my mortgage. I felt like a charity worker, receiving pats on the back for sacrifice but little in the way of social status.

Friends who performed moderately in school were earning several multiples of my salary and jetting around the world like kings, cutting deals and winning massive bonuses. The business deity Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, said Wall Street "was the biggest group of mediocre people making the most money".

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I yearned to be one of them.

My financial friends - the ones who used to scull beer and headbutt one another playing rugby - have truly inherited the earth. Their world has become our world. Where was my career counsellor when I needed him? Nobody pointed me to the burgeoning boom in global capital and its offshoots. I don't remember hearing the term investment banker until I was 25. Only months ago, I thought subprime was a cut of dodgy meat, and I was on the losing end of the spoils of globalisation, trapped in the dwindling public sector in an age of Milton Friedman-inspired Reaganomics.

And now this. Despite the understandable schadenfreude in seeing them and their rich clients lose millions of their stupendous wealth, the financial chaos underlines how the modern language of money and markets dominates our consciousness.

Money is unique in human affairs. It serves no biological purpose but permeates almost every aspect of modern existence. In its simplest form it is merely a tool. But in its modern form it has become a symbol of secular salvation, of freedom and status, and is even embodied with a moral worth.

Ayn Rand, the libertarian philosopher, said "money demands of you the highest virtues". She defended the moral worth of making money because she admired the productive, rational, independent person. By making money, economic agents spread trade, values and prosperity.

Her views are central because Alan Greenspan, the former governor of the US Federal Reserve, was Rand's most famous ideological protégé. His suspicion of any government intervention in financial markets is believed by many to be the central contributor to the current crisis. Greenspan admitted as much last week. In turn, he showed a resolute faith that those participating in financial markets would act responsibly, imbuing them with a kind of nobility.

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While his ideas and the notion of the trickle-down effect failed to spread wealth equitably, the underpinning philosophy was redistributed more successfully. The age of the super rich has devalued many activities whose aims were not solely to make money. Doctors, academics, architects and teachers found themselves in regular states of inadequacy as the new financial class outbid them for houses, schools, space and possessions.

This insecurity occurred while the new masters were proclaiming us all to be much wealthier, perhaps the industry's greatest confidence trick.

Meanwhile, the brightest in science and mathematics soon realised using their skills to engineer derivatives was far more profitable than the actual profession of engineering. Attempting to cure cancer was a painful chore compared with fashioning credit default swaps.

The result is outlined in Warren Buffet's 2005 annual sermon, where his deputy, Charles Munger, said that never before "have so many in the intelligentsia been engaged in buying and selling pieces of paper".

It remains to be seen whether recent events will change these trends. At a careers night I attended earlier this year, almost two-thirds of the year 12 students wanted to work in the financial markets. The combination of technology and deregulation has favoured the industry disproportionately. Unlike previous booms, the financial services boom may leave us with little infrastructure of value. Perhaps its demise is linked to the ludicrous system of rewarding those activities of dubious value, at the expense of things which actually are useful.

Money will remain at the centre of human affairs, weaving its way into matters of love, death and social connectedness. But the return of a sense of scepticism about the innate moral worth of money may be the most valuable outcome of recent events.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 28, 2008.



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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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