Wealth Creation and Labor as and for Human Flourishing

The below represents the transcript of a speech I gave June 4, 2015, in Phoenix, AZ at the Collegiate Academy of the Alliance Defending Freedom. The audience was extremely active and ambitious and worldview-oriented undergrad college students in their upperclassmen years. The topic is approached with no pretense that it will be exhaustive, but with an angle that was very much intentional.

I want to preface my comments today on this topic which is so near-and-dear to my heart with a word of gratitude for Jeff Ventrella and his co-laborers at the Alliance Defending Freedom. I assume you all believe this as well and that is why you are here this week, but the work ADF is doing ranks them in the domain of heroes as far as culture warriors and Kingdom warriors go. Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, and if I am speaking to an audience so young that they have never heard of this masterpiece of a movie, I officially give up and count myself as a senior citizen at the age of 41, “deep down in places you don’t talk about parties, you WANT me on that wall; you NEED me on that wall”. For those of us who believe in the vision of the founders for this country, and for those of us who believe in the Kingdom mission assigned to us both in creation and again in the Great Commission, we WANT and we NEED organizations like ADF on the wall. I have been blessed to serve on their Blackstone Institute faculty for over ten years now and have seen firsthand what ADF is doing to prepare the next generation of legal thought leaders. Events like what you are attending this week excite someone like myself who is committed to fighting the good fight because it encourages me to see your enthusiasm and participation as attendees, and because I know the good men and women of ADF are advancing the cause. My pitch for ADF goes beyond their organizational mission and effectiveness, though. Jeff is, in the core of his being, a servant. He doesn’t judge people for their lowest moments but facilitates their highest moments. Only the Lord restores the years the locusts have eaten, but friends and co-laborers like Jeff are setting the table for a glorious banquet ahead.

With that said, I would like to introduce for you the topic I am hear to speak about today, and that is the benign, non-controversial, simple field of economics, wealth, money, calling, vocation, and affluence. Many ideological topics these days provoke great emotion and disagreement, but not this topic. The idea that economic growth is an engine for lifting people out of poverty, even though the “winnings” from that growth may not be equally distributed – indeed, should not be equally distributed – in a market economy is surely not controversial.

But alas, I must remove the tongue from the side of my cheek now. For indeed, the positions I will promote today are exponentially more controversial today – both in society at large, AND in the church – then you would ever imagine them to be. The reality is that some of this controversy is warranted – a theology of wealth is more complicated than the politics of wealth ought to be. And much of the controversy is rooted in ignorance – basic lack of economic premise training has created a world of problems with conclusions generated. Sadly, this is what I suspect takes place in the church more often than not, and it is what folks like myself and my dear co-laborers at the Acton Institute are trying to remedy. But fundamentally, if we get the theology right and then the economics right, will we all draw the same conclusions? Maybe not. Certainly not in all of the details. But let’s at least start with some foundational truisms and see if we can’t improve the odds a bit.

I am going to lay out as my speech’s Thesis Statement the following:

“God’s desire from creation is for man to be economic agents of growth, and laborers who glorify Him in their productivity. The economic and existential implications of this are that we may grow in our material blessings while also growing in joy and contentment for our vocational callings. The responsibilities of this are that we flee from pride and idolatry, and maintain the heart and habits of a tithing cheerful giver”

Now that is sort of a mouthful, and I would not be surprised if you find yourselves unwilling to accept each piece of this thesis statement at face value. So I will now break it apart in pieces.

It is no coincidence that I started with the doctrine of creation. The doctrine of creation is where I get my capitalism, and I get it straight from Genesis chapter 1. It is why secular Randianism does not cut it for me, even when she (or they) often get things accidentally right. I have often said that there are few things more frightening than an evangelical Randian, and what I mean by that is when one gets certain conclusions right with wrong premises it usually falls apart rather spectacularly; but when one falls into that same trap of wrong premises/right conclusions WITH BIBLE VERSES SPRINKLED AROUND, all hell breaks loose. The need of the hour is a better anthropology – an understanding of God’s intentions with men from the outset of creation – and for that to color our worldview as we apply it to economics.

And what that anthropology does is teach us that God made man in His image. It teaches us that God made man with dignity. It teaches us that God made man to grow in communion with Him, while stewarding the earth, and “making it big”. Growing it. Multiplying it. Being fruitful with it. I just said the entire tenet of free market growth economics with three or four buzz words, all of which were plagiarized from Genesis 1:27-28. But the appearance of the words is an inadequate argument – the normative and the theology are where the power lies: God made us special; He made us with souls; and He manifested this dignity and this special creation status by what???? Asking us to work. Asking us to cultivate the garden. Asking us to be creative by naming the animals. Asking us to grow and subdue that creation. In Genesis 1, in the very doctrine of creation, you get BOTH the early foundations of free market capitalism, and you even get the early foundations of environmentalism. Now, the left has so bastardized the term that I can respect folks preferring words like stewardship etc., but the reality is that all of my opposition to statist fraudulent token environmentalism does not change the fact that the Christian man and woman is a worker – a steward – of the earth.

“Okay. So David, we are economic agents of productivity and growth from creation. But sin came? What about the fall? Didn’t that change everything?”

It sure did. What God made beautiful and core to our existential purpose (work) now was accompanied by the curse of toil – of anxiety – of pressure. God didn’t curse work after the fall; He added the curse of toil to the blessing of work. If the work itself is a curse than one has no choice exegetically but to also conclude that the birth of children is also now a curse. We seem to have no problems getting that part right – that the blessing of children and of womanhood (am I still allowed to use the word “womanhood”?) is accompanied by pain in childbirth etc. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, no pun intended. Yet with work, theological laziness has caused us to conclude that work itself is a curse – of no interest to God – and a mere necessary evil.

And this ignores the second theological doctrine we must cover. The doctrine of redemption. I do not merely believe that God created the world, and by the way, created it for us to be economic agents of growth who find much of our meaning and purpose in creation mandate functions (growing – building – developing – etc.). I also believe He is presently redeeming this world to Himself, and that redemption includes His people, which is to say us. I believe that this story of redemption is both soteriological (the salvation of our eternal souls) but also experiential and comprehensive. In our fallen state, we are not static, but living under grace, being redeemed day by day with purpose and calling towards a future Edenic state. I do believe part of this material – the Garden was a material and physical beauty, and the streets paved with gold will be the same – but I really don’t need that point to stick right now. The redemption message becomes important because I will argue that while this canvas gets painted out, it gets painted out with our creation mandate come to fruition. Yes, we work with toil under the curse; yes, we grow and cultivate with the hindrance of sin and this side of the fall; but in this great redemption, we work as image-bearers of Christ, which is to say co-creators with God. He is created us to go create. And whether we have ever heard this terminology before or find it prima facie comfortable, the fact of the matter is that for many of us this co-creation as image bearers of God comes in the marketplace.

Creation and Redemption lay out the exegetical foundation for us to work with dignity, and to enjoy the fruits of our labor as we build. I am offering no specificity at this point as to what that means for you – as to whether or not our building and cultivating and growing is to be as a violinist, an attorney, an entrepreneur, or a portfolio manager. I am making no argument for whether or not the earned wages should be $50,000 per year or $50,000 per week. What I am arguing is that God didn’t make us to work because He hates us, but because He loves us. And in His love, it is His heart’s desire that we be fulfilled in our calling, achieving maximum dignity. “But David, life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it’s just a miserable grind.” And how right you are! But through that grind is what the incomparable Arthur Brooks calls “earned success”. A minimization of economic productivity, or worse, a welfare state aiming to redistribute wealth so as to change the distribution of prosperity – robs people of a success they can earn – of the dignity that God intended for them in creation.

Perhaps the most tragic contribution the left has made to our basic way of thinking is that they have taken away the very possibility of success in our society, and they have done that, ironically enough, by tirelessly working to take away the possibility of failure. Let me say it stronger, for I am not making a technical point or an academic one. We have strangled the glory and triumph of success right out of our lives when we operate as if failure is something to be ashamed of – something to be loathed – something to be artificially avoided. The unintentional consequence of trying to neuter failure is to annihilate success – to strip away from man the most essential and greatest achievement he can ever feel – the success that comes with overcoming failure. Success does not exist without failure. When you attempt to eliminate valleys you only succeed in eliminating peaks. When a disinterested third party like Uncle Sam comes in with their nanny intentions of delivering everyone a sort of unearned success, they not only strive to do the impossible, they rob man of the drama, the dignity, the glory of real success. This, my friends, is an unforgivable act by an out of control magistrate. It must be stopped.

If it seems like In just upped the ante out of the theological and to the political, you may be right, but I only did so with the explicit theological foundations I tried to present just before. The secular greed-is-good camp that probably thinks the same way I do about minimum wage laws, price controls, and govt regulation misses something pivotally important here: When you START your defense of affluence and achievement with something man-centered and not God-centered, you will HAVE to admit at some point that you have NO BASIS for stopping at what is legal, or what a plurality of people say you should and should not do, or what a market may punish you for doing, etc. YOUR anthropology is Darwinian – you have no right to tell someone that accounting fraud is unproductive, or Ponzi schemes are dangerous – for truth to be told, accounting fraud and Ponzi schemes are HYPER productive IF you do not get caught … And if that is all the Randian secularists want to say – that the highest ethic is not getting caught – let them come out and say it. But for those of us defending the profit motive, defending the accumulation of wealth, and defending the free and open marketplace as the ideal venue for human interaction and exchange, let us do it with the right premises – that God created man with dignity, and that dignity is compromised when we make him a dependent ward of the state. Let us say that the profit motive is good, not for the purpose of creating false idols, or storing up treasures for moths to destroy, but because we are by creation profit-creators – agents of growth. We are entitled to the fruits of our labor, even as we vigilantly maintain hearts of humility, hearts of generosity, and hearts of compassion.

The current political environment is not isolated from the current ecclesial environment. Largely because today’s compromised church spends so much time playing catch-up with the world, but it is both in the church and political paradigm that we find income inequality to be the pressing issue of the day. And with a Bible that so comprehensively discusses motivations, incentives, work ethics, prudence, responsibility for the poor, and other such crucial elements of conversation, is anyone else perplexed that the singular element we have chosen to reign in on is the DELTA – the spread between rich and poor? In an economy struggling to grow at 2%, the delta between rich and poor – a delta that can no more be resolved by policy than most any other economic issue – is the least of our concerns. Would the bottom 25% of earners bemoan the wealth of the top 1% if the whole economy was growing at 5%? I know the answer to this because history has provided it. Emphatically, no. Politics of guilt and envy will always be there, but the sort of systematic obsession with income inequality is a misdirected frustration over absolute growth, not relative growth. The reality is that the poor are richer than they were 20, 30, and 40 years ago, and they are so exponentially. The rich are richer too, and in many cases more so. The late and great Lady Thatcher famously said to her socialist opponents, “You’d rather the poor be poorer, just so long as the rich not be richer.” The Bible provides no ethic centered around relative wealth. The objective of believers and those seeking economic enlightenment is total growth, the absolute kind that lifts all boats. Leftist ideology and statist redistributionism may very well grab on to income inequality for political points, but I believe there is the aforementioned flawed anthropology at play as well. Lest I be so cynical, they may really get this thing that wrong after all! What I mean by that is they may honestly prefer a magic wand of policy to somehow make the rich slightly less rich and the poor slightly less poor, all the while failing to understand that (a) Such a thing is most certainly not sustainably possible, and (b) It denies folks of their dignity, who were created by God to earn success

There are a lot of reasons – some complex and some simple – that income inequality has expanded in our society. I could address some of that in Q&A if so desired. But I don’t want to make this any more political than it has to be. Income inequality is a faddish consequence of the zero-sum fallacy – the belief that there exists a fixed amount of global wealth, and that one actor’s gain in wealth comes about as a result of another actor’s loss of wealth. This is the economic thinking abyss we find ourselves in. And while I want to blame John Maynard Keynes and Paul Krugman and the other great 20th century statist economists who sincerely did get so much wrong, the reality is that our First Things gave us the doctrine of economic growth. One man does not get richer by stealing from another in the Biblical ethic, because stealing is wrong, and dishonors the dignity of he or she who is being stolen from. The rich need not get richer by stealing from the poor, AND THE POOR NEED NOT GET RICHER BY STEALING FROM THE RICH. In the free and virtuous society, they both can get richer together as the total wealth pie expands – regardless of the distribution therein – from activities of growth, productivity, and innovation. You know, then kind of activities we were created for!

There is no dispute as to what the cure for global poverty is. It is not in wealth redistribution, but rather in wealth creation. It is in cultivating a society of not just wealth consumers, but actual wealth producers. It is in generating not just job-seekers, but job creators. As global poverty has decreased by 80% since the year of 1974 when I was born, no person of compassionate intelligence can argue that our work is done. People remain in need, and the resources of the world are such that it need not be this way. But the 80% reduction came about via economic growth. Always and forever, growth.

What I am positing is less complex than a defense of the 1% of the 1%. I am positing a defense of the material blessings that result from vocational calling – from hard work – from the creation mandate. I am promoting the improved mental health and serenity that comes from earning one’s success. I am calling for a Christian church to vigorously embrace their God-given responsibilities to care for the poor, to steward the environment, and to be cheerful and generous givers. And I am pleading for all of us to not just do for the pragmatic efficiencies a market economy represents, but because of the principled foundations we know in our First Things – the doctrines of creation and redemption.

This Incredible Journey

In October of last year I made the decision after seven and a half exhilirating years at Morgan Stanley that I was going to start my own boutique firm.  Two months ago I resigned as a Managing Director and Senior Portfolio Manager at Morgan Stanley, and fifteen minutes later stepped into the temporary office space at 4695 MacArthur Court I had secured for the month of April to begin transitioning my business.  The six months in between the decision to go and the actual moment of departure were amongst the most stressful, busy, anxious, and taxing months of my life.  The two months since we made the actual break have absolutely been the most stressful, busy, anxious, and taxing months of my life.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I don’t often use this blog to discuss my personal work and my actual business, and I still won’t use it to disseminate my own investment worldview and counsel.  I will shamelessly plug my business website, www.TheBahnsenGroup.com, and would love for you to sign up there if you care at all about my Weekly Market Commentary or “AD HOC blog”.  I LOVE writing about the markets, and new found independence and freedom will allow me to write (1) Without handcuffs, (2) Often, and (3) With unlimited distribution.  I am not saying that as an employee of a large firm I had handcuffs, was limited in what I could write, and was limited in how it all could be distributed.  I am just saying none of those things will be true any more.  [wink]

But the purpose of this blog today is not to discuss investments, it is not to bemoan the deficiencies of large bureaucratic organizations, it is not to advocate for a fiduciary standard in how wealth management is delivered to clients, and it is not to pitch my new firm in partnership with the first class professionals at HighTower Advisors.  Rather, it is to provide any of you who care a brief pitch for chasing your dreams, not settling, and believing that it is okay for you to tie some of your identity as to who you are with what you do.

I am an investments guy.  God made me to manage two things: Clients, and money.  I believe in the core of my being that this is part of who I am.  Very few people even in my inner circle would believe how much I love the capital markets.  From the deeply challenging role of allocating asset classes for a client portfolio, to the hyper-detailed task of security selection, I have had absolutely no dimunition of enthusiasm for my chosen profession since the day I entered it.  I view portfolio construction as a task enjoyable beyond my wildest dreams, but then I view the task of getting to do so on behalf of actual real life people to be an accelerator of joy and existential purpose.   Running a hedge fund for no one in particular would be a lot of fun, but it would not be as meaningful as running real life money for real life people with real life goals.  It provides an incredible added layer of meaning and joy.  With that said, my passion for the business of managing clients and money has taken on new life these last few months, free of the hindrances a large bureaucratic  firm necessarily represented.  Whatever perceived comforts and advantages I enjoyed in the prior structure had to be risked for the upside opportunity to manage clients and money the way I want.  This was the risk I had to take, and in so doing I believe I have set myself up for two decades of client management and portfolio management unshackled from whatever could impede their successful enactment, and unshackled from whatever could suppress my joy and freedom.

Much of the preceding paragraph may only be understood by people in my business.  Much of it may be disagreeable to people in my business still scrambling to defend large and impersonal institutions (I can understand this).  But I am writing to say that apart from my business and my recent move, my broader point is that the pursuit of an optimal work environment – a culture in which you can fully thrive – is to be promoted and recommended at every opportunity.  When someone says that what we do has nothing to do with who we are, they not only have said something intellectually incoherent, they have said something demonstably false.  What we do is exactly who we are, even if what we do is to be defined more than just vocationally.  My journey has caused me to realize that this whole thing was never merely economic.  I have moved my bar of economic success higher so many times over the last twenty years I have lost count.  Economic success is likely a part of the journey for most people, but it is not synonymous with the journey.

For me, my journey has been about an insatiable desire to believe that i am living up to my full potential at something – anything – in my life.  I have had certain advantages in life of which I can claim no dessert (somehow my family got to grow up in Orange County instead of Mississippi, and because my dad taught at the schools involved I got to receive a private school education growing up).  I also have had to deal with some challenges in life (my mom took off when I was 15 years old and I have not seen her since; my dad died when I was barely 21 leaving me with the deathly fear that I would fail in life without a college degree).  Through a combination of some blessings and some hurdles, I entered grown-up life in my early 20’s penniless and parentless, but filled with a theological and existential commitment to productivity.  Twenty years later I am the humble beneficiary of a life and career that God has smiled upon, both because He loves me, and because I have tried to work tirelessly along the way.  I enter the next 20-year block of whatever God has in store for me with the business I should have assembled years ago (I say that only partially believing it – sometimes I think the right thing also has to happen at the right time, and for me the right time was now, not earlier).  I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything in the world, and I hope you won’t either.  Whatever your journey entails, and wherever you are on your journey now, may it be filled with an unwavering confidence in the legitimacy of your journey, the tools needed to see it through, and the grace of a loving God who cares about your work and calling as if He were sovereign over it all.  Because He surely is.

A Farewell to Mad Men

If Mad Men wasn’t the greatest show in the history of television (geez I loved The Sopranos and Breaking Bad), it certainly was the greatest “business” show in television history, but really that doesn’t come close to covering it. What Mad Men was can best be called an “era” show – capturing the very worst parts and very best parts of a certain era of American culture-history, and pretty much sparing us from everything in between. The series lasted eight years, made stars of some, resurrected others, and generally captivated its audience with its disturbing but nobly honest portrayal of the most unfortunate reality in our heroes: their virtues and vices are often impossible to separate.

Don Draper was a complex person, which is not to say he was likable or sympathetic. He was as selfish as humans can be, which did not make the scene in a early season where he basically brought Peggy back from the land of the lost any less meaningful. Sociopaths have hearts. And Don Draper was a sociopath, and he certainly had a heart. But Matthew Weiner didn’t tantalize us with Draper’s heart – it was his mind that crested the life he had. He was a genius, a creative genius, but also just a genius. Rarely was he ever not the smartest guy in the room throughout the eight years of Mad Men. And THAT is what tore the audience up – how someone that smart, could be that stupid.

The iconic portrayal of Madison Avenue life in midtown Manhattan was worth the price of admission for the entire show. It was a tapestry like I have never seen in any form of screen art. I am a sucker for 20th century New York aesthetics – an obsessive sucker. I have, on many occasions, taken 30 minutes to walk from the elevator to my hotel room door in the Park Avenue Towers of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel where I have stayed over a hundred times, for the simple reason that photo by photo in the hallway I am distracted into stopping, and if not in a hurry, gazing. Mad Men was sixty minutes a week of beauty – pure, uncompromised fashion, decor, culture, and history. If there had been no narrative, no characters, and no plot, but there had still been that imagery, I would have kept watching.

But narrative and characters there were – in abundance.

The series ended Sunday night and bloggers and critics alike are out in full force with their take on the highly memorable ending. Don Draper did make that Coke commercial, and he didn’t make it as a result of having his soul fixed by two days of yoga. He was a deeply broken man and his smug hillside smile was the personal revelation that he is irreparable, but can hide in materialism and crass shallow marketing – successfully – forever. He was gifted in a sort of irreplaceable way, but his depravity held him down. I’m positive he made the commercial and positive he did it back at McCann-Erickson, still broken – just smarter. Weiner had no reason to make it a redemption story. He threw romantics a bone in the final episode with Pete, with Peggy, and even Roger. But Don was broken, and Don was brilliant. The ending gave us both, fully interwoven, in all their paradoxical luster.

The story of broken, brilliant men intrigues me because I am half of one of them. I am broken but redeemed, and when Hollywood (or real life) gives me a look at a broken man without redemption it gives me a look at the God who makes all things beautiful. From Madison Avenue to the grotesque life Don Draper grew up in (Dick Whitman for you literalists), God makes it all beautiful. Many broken men don’t find that redemption, but for those of us who have, it makes the shows actually capturing the reality of human depravity all the more powerful. And that redemption is a tapestry with which even the New York skyline cannot compete.

God’s Business

I heard a well-known Christian leader and author inform 250 successful Christian businesspeople and donors a few days ago that “your business is just a side business; you cannot ever lose track of the fact that your real business is God’s business”.

I am not saying his name or organization because I do not want what I say to be construed as me picking on him, for I am not. His viewpoint is typical of what is said today in American evangelical Christianity, and his viewpoint probably comes from good and decent motives. But what he said is ludicrous, dangerous, and in need of correction.

The notion that we have sort of two tiers to our lives – the extra-terrestrial level where all real spiritual work is done, and then the merely material where we do the “have to” stuff (you know, like run our businesses) – is unfounded in Scripture. I am happy to grant those who hold to this mentality that our business and marketplace efforts do not represent the entirety of our Kingdom identity. Indeed, God cares deeply for our families, our leisure, our church lives, our education, and our cultural endeavors (too). However, the notion that we have a “minor” business (the one we run for a paycheck) which is hugely inferior to the “big one (being God’s business)”, is simply untrue, or better, it is woefully stated.

What exactly, may I ask, IS God’s business? Is not God’s business the redemption of this world? Yes, it is. And does not the redemption of this world include our businesses, our families, our endeavors, our cultural efforts, our finances, etc.? It isn’t His side business, either. He is in the universe business, because after the Fall He covenanted to redeem the universe, and restore it to Himself. He is doing this in history, and in this glorious and eschatological process He has tasked us to work, maximize human dignity, chase our passions and dreams, provide for ourselves and our families, and grow the resources He has given us. The creation mandate is a mandate of growth, and few earthly venues provide more of a canvas for growth than our businesses.

The speaker doesn’t hate business. I know that. But his theology is either consciously wrong or poorly articulated. God’s business is our business, and our business is God’s business. We do not need to tier, prioritize, segment, or belittle anything. We need to work hard, live well, and in so doing, do the business of God.

Why the Stock Exchange Matters

As I gleefully communicated this week to my Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and even clients and professional associates via private email distribution, I enjoyed one of the great blessings of my life this week in participating in the ringing of the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange.

The specific business interest and portfolio strategy that brought me there is not important for purposes of this blog, nor would it be prudent to delve into investment matters on this public blog (a sign-up is available for my privately distributed weekly commentary on the home page of this site). What I do want to address, though, is just why this event would be so significant to me, and why the stock exchange matters.

In a literal sense, the stock exchange as defined by the actual floor brokerage activity going on in the physical building at the corner of Wall and Broad actually doesn’t matter a whole lot any more. There are still some floor brokers there but the entire U.S. equity market could function without those literal activities. The exchange almost seems like a studio for CNBC now, and that is fine by me (I watch CNBC all day, every day). Of course, the activities of trading and market-making and listing securities (etc.) matters a great deal, but massive technological advances have enabled that business to mature beyond our wildest dreams. Execution prices are better than ever. Markets are more liquid than ever. Transparency is easier to come by than ever. And countless traders and market-makers are still employed all over the world.

So why does the actual New York Stock Exchange matter, then? Why was this a milestone event for me as a financial professional? And why is the corner of Wall and Broad important to Americans?

Just as the term “Wall Street” has long been a catch-all phrase for “capital markets” in our country, so is the “stock exchange” a catch-all phrase for the making of markets – the facilitation of the buying and selling of financial securities – and with that, the democratization of financial investment. There are actually few things MORE important to average Americans, whether we are able to realize that on a daily basis or not.

I am sensitive to the reasons many find the demonization of Wall Street so tempting, and I am certainly aware of some of the transgressions that have originated in the halls of Wall Street over the years. I do not offer a Gordon Gekko defense for the merits of greed (though I recommend a vigorous defense of the virtue of the profit motive re-enter American consciousness, and quick). Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason sometimes, and the fact that many Americans see the white collar world of finance as a den of iniquity, greed, hubris, and callousness is most unfortunate (and only in a minority of cases fair).

But I need to return to this concept of the democratization of investment finance. America has been the city on a hill to the world when it comes to finance for over a century. Our national free enterprise system has lent itself to the greatest innovations and advancements the world has ever seen, and those innovations and advancements have produced a lot of wealth. Certain countries have done quite well at generating wealth for their select oligarchs and power-holders, but the United States has seen its innovations, improvements, pursuits of profit, new technologies, and business feats create wealth for the MASSES. Stock option plans have made millionaires out of former pizza delivery drivers. Mutual funds and 401k plans have provided for the retirement savings of millions and millions of blue collar workers, teachers, municipal employees, and administrators. Concentrated stock positions have enabled loyal employees to retire with income far greater than they ever earned in their working lives – all from the publicly traded security of their employing company. Hundreds of billions of dollars of funds in the non-profit sector – foundations, endowments, and charitable trusts – have funded great acts of charity and compassion, all from the fruit of their capital markets trees. Ours is a nation of democratized investment access – from the pension funds millions of employees live off of (or will live off of), to the individual savings people of all incomes and net worths have accumulated. This is a celebration of the American way – a victory of the American experiment – and it is made possible by the “stock exchange” – the hub of market-making and trading that drive American financial markets.

Is this a simplistic summary of the nature of finance in our country? Sure. I’m not intending to do a deep dive here. I am, though, offering an indisputable thesis for how the oft-demonized world of Wall Street has improved the quality of life for so many in our society. I hope they keep that building at Wall and Broad there forever, and I hope I get to go back again, even if by the time I get there they are just running a souvenir shop. The history of that building and its iconic place in our society is powerful – more powerful than most could be expected to understand. This week I not only got to better understand it; I got to appreciate it at the deepest level possible. And this investment manager is permanently grateful not just for my experience ringing the bell this week, but for over a century’s worth of financial evolution that this glorious place has facilitated – to the betterment of all in our society.

(And if you are curious, I do not believe it will ever be just a souvenir shop; there is a glory in that building that will remain one way or another for decades to come – I am certain of it. And is it ever a gorgeous, gorgeous building).