Saturday, April 10, 2010


Some people find their purpose by taking a competitive attitude to life. In the movie Wall Street the main character Bud Fox challenges Gordon Gekko’s lust for more and more money, asking: ‘How much is enough?’ Here is Gekko’s answer:

It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero-sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses.

The reply will touch a familiar chord with anyone who knows how the big names of the eighties think, talk and write. In the first chapter of his second book, “Surviving at the Top”, Donald Trump reports on what has happened since his first book by writing of his ‘victories’ and of the lessons that have taught him ‘not to take the winning for granted’. A few pages on, he compares himself with ‘a professional prize fighter’. Later, in a more introspective mood, he remarks:

I’m sometimes too competitive for my own good. If someone is going around labeling people winners and losers, I want to play the game and, of course, come out on the right side.

Thorstein Veblen, the crusty turn-of-the-century American sociologist of Norwegian stock who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class would have smiled at the way in which people like Trump displayed their wealth, buying absurdly luxurious yachts in which they seldom had time to sail, or palatial country residences they rarely visited. It was Veblen who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe consumption that has the purpose of displaying one’s wealth, and thus enhancing one’s relative status. Veblen held that, once needs for subsistence and a reasonable degree of physical comfort have been satisfied, the motive that lies at the root of the desire to own is ‘emulation’ — the desire to equal or surpass others. Property becomes ‘the most easily recognized evidence of a reputable degree of success as distinguished from heroic or signal achievement. It therefore becomes ‘the conventional basis of esteem’. Conspicuous consumption, if it is to be effective in enhancing the consumer’s fame,must be ‘an expenditure of superfluities…it must be wasteful.’ The canons of ‘pecuniary taste’ dictate that ‘marks of superfluous costliness’ are indications of worth, and goods will be unattractive if ‘they show too thrifty an adaptation to the mechanical end sought’. The result is a striving that can never be satisfied:

…the end sought by accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the rest of the community in point of pecuniary strength. So long as the comparison is distinctly unfavorable to himself, the normal, average individual will live in chronic dissatisfaction with his present lot; and when he has reached what may be called the normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of his class in the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard. The invidious comparison can never become so favorable to the individual making it that he would not gladly rate himself still higher relatively to his competitors in the struggle for pecuniary reputability.

if, by nature or by socialization, men are more likely to engage in this striving for status than women, that is at once their burden, and their means of escaping the need to face questions about the meaning of their lives. They can go on accumulating wealth since, as Veblen adds:

In the nature of the case, the desire for wealth can scarcely be satiated in any individual instance.

This matches a remark that Michael Lewis reports in Liar’s Poker. When he was a rising bond trader at Salomon Brothers, one of his colleagues said to him:

You don’t get rich in this business, you only attain new levels of relative poverty. You think Gutfreund [Salomon Brothers’ chief executive] feels rich? I’ll bet not.

Indeed, John Gutfreund’s wife, Susan, famous for her exotic dinner parties reportedly once concluded an account of the problems of getting proper staff for their New York and Paris residences by complaining: ‘It’s so expensive to be rich!” In Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe ridiculed the lifestyle of people like the Gutfreunds. In one devastating scene the bond trader Sherman McCoy and his wife, Judy, are invited to a dinner on Fifth Avenue, six blocks from where they live. Judy’s dress made walking impossible; a taxi is out of the question too:

What would they do after the party? How could they walk out of the Bavardages’ building and have all the world, tout le monde, see them standing out in the street, the McCoys, that game couple, their hands up in the air, bravely, desperately, pathetically trying to hail a taxi?

So the McCoys hire a limousine and driver to drive them six blocks, wait four hours, and then drive them six blocks borne, at a cost of S197.20. But this does not ensure happiness:

the driver couldn’t pull up to the sidewalk near the entrance, because so many limousines were in the way. He had to double-park. Sherman and Judy bad to thread their way between the limousines…Envy…envy…From the license plates Sherman could tell that these limousines were not hired. They were owned by those whose sleek hides were hauled here in them. A chauffeur, a good one willing to work long hours and late hours, cost $36,000 a year, minimum; garage space, maintenance, insurance, would cost another $14,000 at least; a total of $50,000, none of it deductible. I make a million dollars a year — and yet I can’t afford that!

Acquisition without limit is another form of escape from meaninglessness. But it is an escape-hole that suggests a fundamental lack of wisdom. By ‘wisdom’, I mean the product of reflection with some intelligence and self-awareness about what is important in life; ‘practical wisdom’ adds to this the ability to act accordingly. The goal of emulation described by Veblen cannot possibly satisfy a reflective mind, and seems not even to satisfy those who do not reflect on what they are doing.

As Veblen suggests, behind the desire for acquisition lies a competitive urge. Already in the seventies, Michael Maccoby, who had studied both psychoanalysis and social science, sensed the rise of a new style of business executive. After interviewing 250 managers from twelve major American corporations, he concluded that for many of these executives, business life was about winning — for themselves, for their unit, or for their corporation. He wrote a book about what he had found, and called it after the new style of executive: The Gamesman. But the book was no celebration of the rising competitive executive dedicated to winning. Instead it contained a warning that if life is regarded simply as a game, then eventually a time will come when it ceases to matter:

Once his youth, vigor, and even the thrill in winning are lost, [the gamesman] becomes depressed and goalless, questioning the purpose of his life. No longer energized by the team struggle and unable to dedicate himself to something he believes in beyond himself, which might be the corporation or alternatively the larger society, he fmds himself starkly alone.

Michael Milken seems to have been a classic example of a supreme winner who gained little satisfaction from winning. When Milken was at the height of his success, a legend around the financial world with a personal fortune of a billion dollars, one of his colleagues told Connie Bruck: “Nothing is good enough for Michael. He is the most unhappy person I know. He never has enough ... He drives everything — more, more, more deals.” In 1986 one longtime buyer of Milken’s junk bonds told Bruck that “there seemed to be less and less joy in Milken — something that had been part of him in the early years — and more compulsion.”

In a critical study of the emphasis on competition in Western society, Alfie Kohn found that many sporting competitors report feeling empty after achieving the greatest possible success in their chosen sport. Here is Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry:

even after you’ve just won the Super Bowl — especially after you’ve just won the Super Bowl — there’s always next year. If “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing” then “the only thing” is nothing — emptiness, the nightmare of life without ultimate meaning.

Harvey Ruben, author of a book called Competing and an enthusiast for competition, concedes that: “The discovery, ultimately, that “making it” is often a hollow gain is one of the most traumatic events that the successful competitor can experience”. Stuart Walker, a sailing boat racer and another author of a book about winning and competing, says:

Winning doesn’t satisfy us — we need to do it again, and again. The taste of success seems merely to whet the appetite for more. When we lose, the compulsion to seek future success is overpowering; the need to get out on the course the following weekend is irresistible. We cannot quit when we are ahead, after we’ve won, and we certainly cannot quit when we’re behind, after we’ve lost. We are addicted.

Again, why did Ivan Boesky risk everything for a few million dollars, when he already had more than he could ever spend? In 1992, six years after Boesky pleaded guilty to insider trading, his estranged wife Seema broke her silence and spoke about Ivan Boesky’s motives in an interview with Barbara Walters for the American ABC network’s 20/20 program. Walters asked whether Ivan Boesky was a man who craved luxury. Seema Boesky thought not, pointing out that he worked around the clock, seven days a week, and never took a day off to enjoy his money. She then recalled that when, in 1982, Forbes magazine first listed Boesky among the wealthiest people in the US, he was upset. She assumed he disliked the publicity, and made some remark to that effect. Boesky replied:

That’s not what’s upsetting me. We’re no one. We’re nowhere. We’re at the bottom of the list and I promise you I won’t shame you like that again ever. We will not remain at the bottom of that list.

- Peter Singer

No comments:

Post a Comment