Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Inside Job", Entitlement, and Deserving what we earn

I recently watched the 2010 documentary, "Inside Job", about the global economic recession. It's a great movie, and it made me indignant and angry. It makes the connection between profligate spending on the part of investment companies and bankers, and the loss of people's savings.
                What it did even better was show how the really powerful economists, the investment bankers, and those entrusted with people's savings didn't make that same connection. They seemed to feel that their staff "deserved" what they earned. Yet their earnings and bonuses were coming from taking extreme risks with other people's money, predatory lending, and so on. One core problem was this sense of entitlement, this sense that one deserved one's salary so there was no real commensurate responsibility-- even at the highest levels of these companies-- to figure out if the system fueling these crazy salaries was sustainable, responsible or moral.

It's easy for me to get very angry about the ignorant nonchalance of economists and bankers depicted in the film.

Yet most of the time, if you were watching from afar, my approach to beggars and to my finances would imply I also think I justly earn what I have. That it is right for me to have the life I have. Perhaps that's how the investment bankers felt. They hung out with other rich people and it became normal to have certain perks. They worked long hours and New York and London are expensive cities, after all. Right? Right. Along these lines of thinking, perhaps morality was reserved for later in life, when one has secured one's place in life and doesn't have kids to support or student loans to pay back. Some of my good friends were (are) right there at the big banks, investment and consulting firms- the halls of power- most of them for reasons I totally understand and respect (saving for med school, paying off school loans, experience). Which makes my story interwoven with the real-life villains in the documentary.

I don't make these connections because I'm interested in guilting myself or you, and I'm certainly not letting the companies responsible for the global financial crisis off the hook. What I am interested in thinking about is the responsibility our earnings- and our spending- convey to us.

The challenge is that in a global economy it's hard to feel responsibility to people we don't know or see. It's hard when our work is abstract and our value is whatever other people say it is. It's hard when the world is just so overwhelmingly complex. I don't want to shy away from the responsibilities involved with having an education and being one of the rich, but a lot of those responsibilities I'm totally blind to because of my perspective on the world.

So I'm wondering if earning less and doing more- being more connected to the very basic actions of feeding, sheltering, clothing myself and my family- is better for me.  I don't want to buy into the story that says that If I work enough I'll provide all my needs, and if others work enough they should be able to provide theirs. This is an economy of scarcity where we all take as much as we can in case the world implodes or whatever- this is an economy where we try to get as far away from the people we're taking from. This is not the economy I want to be a part of.


Darren B said...

It's an interesting question, Jo. You rightly point to a level of abstraction in our economy, where our choices seem really disconnected from the people they effect.

In pursuing a simpler kind of life, you're trying to live in a such a way, where you can more directly influence your surrounding world through your choices. It really does take a paradigm shift.

Carla and me occasionally talk about moving someplace in the country, where we can have a huge garden, grow our own food and where we can allow our kids to play in the sunshine, but when we come face to face with the sacrifices this would entail, we pause. In many respects, you guys are doing, what many of us would do, if we had the courage.

Something, I've come to realize is that living simpler, doesn't necessarily mean making perfect choices. If this was the case, I would be paralyzed into inaction. That said, it does mean making incrementally better choices, and thinking how my actions can result in small incremental changes. Anyway, it's something I'm still working through.

Concrete Gardener said...

Thanks very much Darren. That's a really helpful comment- and your most recent post is very helpful too.

Yes, and I don't think that living more simply is an end in itself, so this was only a half-formed post in a way. Maybe what I'm still working through is how to cultivate gratitude: one can have a level of gratitude for something one grew that it's hard to have for another $5 earned, and it's clearer the respect that that thing was afforded.

I guess my discovery was that this documentary was important, but sitting in judgement (which me and most people watching might be drawn to) perhaps isn't.