Money – take two

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Just in case you missed it the first time around, here is Margaret Atwood’s response to Stephen Harper’s comments on the arts:

What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of country do we already live in? What do we like? Who are we?

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we’ve been punching above our weight on the world stage – in writing, in popular music and in many other fields. Canada was once a cultural void on the world map, now it’s a force. In addition, the arts are a large segment of our economy: The Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada’s GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an “estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined).”

But we’ve just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn’t care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.

Every single one of those people is an “ordinary person.” Mr. Harper’s idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that’s attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures – cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. “Ordinary people” pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for “the arts” in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. “The arts” are not a “niche interest.” They are part of being human.

 

Money, money, money – it’s a rich man’s world

The revelation that Bernard Madoff — brilliant investor (or so almost everyone thought), philanthropist, pillar of the community — was a phony has shocked the world, and understandably so. The scale of his alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme is hard to comprehend.

Yet surely I’m not the only person to ask the obvious question: How different, really, is Mr. Madoff’s tale from the story of the investment industry as a whole?

The financial services industry has claimed an ever-growing share of the nation’s income over the past generation, making the people who run the industry incredibly rich. Yet, at this point, it looks as if much of the industry has been destroying value, not creating it. And it’s not just a matter of money: the vast riches achieved by those who managed other people’s money have had a corrupting effect on our society as a whole.

Let’s start with those paychecks. Last year, the average salary of employees in “securities, commodity contracts, and investments” was more than four times the average salary in the rest of the economy. Earning a million dollars was nothing special, and even incomes of $20 million or more were fairly common. The incomes of the richest Americans have exploded over the past generation, even as wages of ordinary workers have stagnated; high pay on Wall Street was a major cause of that divergence.

But surely those financial superstars must have been earning their millions, right? No, not necessarily. The pay system on Wall Street lavishly rewards the appearance of profit, even if that appearance later turns out to have been an illusion.

Read the rest here.

Money, money, money

Global Ponzi Scheme

“The Madoff saga cries out for a modern-day Shakespeare to plumb its infinite depths of depravity, pathos, and comedy (yes comedy). It is maddening, perplexing, enraging, and hilarious. It is alas unlikely to ever receive the treatment it deserves. Madoff’s cold-heartedness is truly epic; but his mastery of the deeply human desire for the soothing reassurance which comes from finding and entrusting one’s fate to a guru and a sage, is what elevates this story to empyrean loftiness. He will be (and deservedly) forever reviled; but the vastness, and long duration, of his “success”, and the untroubled credulity of his victims, requires that we shine a pitiless light upon ourselves”.

— David Geller, Brookline Massachusetts

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TRAPPINGS OF SCANDAL Bernard L. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme helped to finance his lavish lifestyle until his arrest. From left, Mr. Madoff’s beachfront mansion in the Hamptons, his apartment on 64th St. and his villa in France.

I have to admit a certain fascination with the details of this sad story. It makes me think of Aristotle, surprisingly enough, and his ideas about virtue and friendship. For Aristotle, “magnanimity” was a virtue; needless to say, it could only have been a virtue for the very wealthy, those who have the financial wherewithal to be magnanimous. For many, it seems, this magnanimity was funded by Madoff’s ponzi scheme. Madoff’s scheme was made possible through the vast network of friendships he cultivated with those who thought they were buying into an exclusive club – no hoi polloi allowed. As Aristotle said, however, such friendships are relationships of pleasure and use, not the real friendships of virtuous people, and dissolve when the circumstances that allowed them to flourish dissolve.

Read the New York Times article on Madoff’s worldwide reach here.