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.

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.
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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).

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Principles of “Values” Investing

The following represents the outline of a speech given to the Acton Institute’s university symposium, held each June in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The symposium features nearly 1,000 people from dozens of countries around the globe who come together to advance their understanding of liberty economics within the context of a Biblical anthropology and worldview. I have been honored to be a faculty member of the university for several years now and focused my talk this year on the controversial subject of “values” investing (note that there is nothing in this piece and was nothing in my talk which remotely constituted “investment advice”; the emphasis here is exclusively on an ethic of investing and the worldview considerations a thoughtful person of faith may want to have in engaging the process)

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The assigned topic is to address the moral implications of investing

In Christendom, “moral values” mutual funds have had a certain appeal to them (though that has mostly gone away after a decade of woeful performance)

Outside Christendom, “Socially responsible investing” has become a $3 trillion dollar industry if you believe industry data and market metrics (12% of the $25tn of global investable assets)

* Driven far more by marketers than ideologues

The commitment at the Acton Institute is to a free and virtuous society, and my speech needs to address whether or not our freedom to pursue optimal investment returns in our portfolios is in tension with our desire for a virtuous society.

If it is, where, and what do we do about it?

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My Eleven Takeaways on the Subject of ‘Values’ Investing

a – Any form of investing that fails to aspire to the value of profit-making is not investing at all, and certainly not within any kind of Biblical value system. “Growth” is not merely an economic term; it is the story of creation and God’s plan for His creation always and forever

b – Any form of investing that fails to acknowledge man’s dominion over creation is not within the Biblical value system; a better way to say this is that to explicitly deny man’s dominion over creation in our investing approach is highly problematic

c – To pursue something called “socially responsible” investing means that there must be agreement as to what is socially responsible. How could the plethora of “strategies” offering this all be operating within the exact same framework?

* State-subsidized unprofitable “green” investing may be “virtuous” to some; it is antithetical to virtue for others
* If one wants to associate their investments with a certain ethical image or behavior trend I would recommend avoiding BOTH a filter system rooted in Baptistic fundamentalism AND one rooted in secular environmentalism

d – Worry as much about the SYSTEM of investing as the OBJECT of investing. A faulty system rooted in any number of worldview fallacies which ends up owning a company that has a morally defensible platform is worse to me than a system that is solid and coherent and Biblically intelligent which ends up owning a stock that is questionable

* Greater Fool theory
* Momentum scams
* Astrological schemes

(More on legitimate systems below)

e – Any standard or value imposed upon the investment process that requires the companies or people involved in running the companies to be functionally outside of the fallen world is both undesirable and impossible

* If a company happens to make a super Godly widget and has an employee benefits package that investor A thinks is really ethical, how could an investor know what their vendors, banking partners, and counter-parties are doing? One way or the other, EVERY investor in ANY company is touching something that has a policy we may not like
* Tribalism is no virtue, for an investor or otherwise

f – Any approach to investing that gives assent to the pagan idea that everything in life is a series of random and chaotic events with no sense of created order or rational cause and effect is not within any kind of Biblical value system (and is a denial of the Doctrine of Creation)

* God not only created the world but created it to be governed by laws. He created it with a fair amount of chaos but it is a chaos He controls and a chaos that stems from controlled things within the laws of physics, mathematics, logic, and economics. THIS IS NOT TO SAY that investing can EVER be purely predictable and easy; there is chaos and disorder within investing; but our decisions carry consequences and no part of the investment process is immune from the laws of nature
* I also wouldn’t commend any system of investing that presupposes that the future will always look like the past. Investing competence and worldview seriousness would require something beyond fideism, and would fundamentally deal with changes in market environments, technologies, interest rates, efficiencies, and macro circumstances

g – Biblical teachings on freedom of conscience and obligations under Romans 14 to avoid actions done in doubt apply to investing just as they do to other human action. Smoking is a matter of conscience, and so is investing in companies that make cigarettes. This principle means some may buy a tobacco stock, and some may not

h – Where individual companies make a product or service that is outside of the realm of possibility of good faith or Christian conscience, I don’t have an absolute standard to apply to ownership of that stock – just a word of Proverbial wisdom to avoid it. Not owning a particular stock should never make or break a particular investment outcome in a properly diversified portfolio, so just pass on it

i – Any system of investing which seeks to strike risk from the process or claims to be able to do so ought to be shunned as contrary to basic reason and contrary to the intention of Biblical investment, which is the process of profiting from prudent risk-taking

j – The great “value” of investing is in the ability to participate in the growth of profitable enterprises, the same enterprises that innovate, improve the quality of human life, employ thousands upon thousands of people, create legitimately new wealth, and produce competition with other businesses which drives prices down and the quality of product up. The “value” of investing starts with the “value” of markets, and no one who fails to appreciate the intrinsic value of markets (created by a sovereign God) will ever find a worldview of investing which makes sense or captures the beauty of for-profit investing

k – The investor who seeks an optimal return is to be commended, not condemned. The investor who is epistemologically self-conscious of his worldview in investing is to be doubly commended

Worldview recap: God as creator who wants to see growth and profit; humans as image-bearers who have dominion; God as sovereign; laws of logic and nature and economics as God-created; matters of conscience as ethical and Scripture-bound; the merit of Proverbial wisdom in the gray areas; the intrinsic value of markets in the created order – these things are all part of the investment process whether we are aware of them or not, and when we are aware I believe it to be doubly honorable

Closing sentiment:
Various forms of real processes with empirically testable propositions can be considered and decisions can be made on investment merits with which there will be freedom to disagree. But developing a SYSTEM of investing in the FREE and VIRTUOUS society must seek the freedoms and profits of markets and be rooted in the virtues of the Biblical Worldview

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Janet Yellen’s Debut and the Cause of Low Interest Rates

From Janet Yellen’s first Congressional testimony as the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve:

“The fundamental reason we have low interest rates is because there is a glut of savings relative to the demand for those savings.”

Really? Would you like to test that theory? Pull off the easy monetary policy – the bond buying – the zero interest rate Fed Funds policy – and let’s see where the “natural” rate goes … The idea that the Fed should manipulate the basic interest rate to generate a desired economic result is not an economic policy I agree with, but it is an acceptable idea in modern economics. Calling it that is at least honest (meaning, calling it the controlling of rates to generate a desired outcome). But saying that the rate is low because those gosh-darn savers are holding on to too much money is fundamentally dishonest, and the extremely bright Ms. Yellen knows it.

The reality is that the economy is weak enough that we would have a below average interest rate if it were not being held down via excessive accommodation. But it wouldn’t be this low, and the chairman knows it. Of course the Fed agrees with me here, because otherwise, why would they be doing it?

What the hangover result will be from this period of monetary accommodation is not something I can predict. I repudiate the folks who claim with confident hubris, despite a couple generations of being embarrassingly wrong, that hyper-inflation will be the result. But I find it incontestable that severe malinvestment is a highly likely outcome from this regime of monetary policy. Incontestable. Regardless, the driver behind low rates (at least rates this low) is not “excess savings unable to find investment demand”. Differing economic belief systems are one thing. Fundamental honesty is another.

The Wolf of Wall Street Reviewed

I read Jordan Belfort’s book the first week that it came out five or so years ago. I knew immediately that the talk of it turning into a movie would happen, for the book itself read like it was written to be put on the screen. Here was a guy convicted in one of the largest white collar crime cases in history, and a 300-page book barely made mention of what he did for a living (legally or illegally). The book read from cover to cover about the crazy shenanigans they did when they WEREN’T working, which apparently would have been most of the time – from sexual exploits to drug and alcohol binges, etc. No one writes a book about their business success and redemption from a life of white collar crime without mentioning barely a thing about their business or white collar crime unless they are intending for someone to read it, or in this case see it, via the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo Dicaprio highly-hyped film rendition of The Wolf of Wall Street.

I saw the movie the day after it came out, primarily because it came out on Christmas Day. I have seen Wall Street over 20 times and I am probably getting close to that same count with Wall Street 2, and I doubt you could name a movie that indirectly covers New York finance in its narrative that I have not seen, often multiple times. These range from the mediocre (Arbitrage comes to mind) to the remarkable (Margin Call is one of my all-time faves). Scorsese had me on this one from the day the book came out.

I cannot begin my review and commentary without one very important caveat: I doubt that even 5% of you should or will want to see this movie. The aforementioned sexual exploits of the characters involved are not covered in regular graphic Hollywood style “R” movie fashion; it is over-the-top, gratuitous, close-your-eyes-constantly, disgusting stuff. I mean, bad. Fortunately for me that stuff entertains me about as much as watching the paint dry, and I was well-prepared for the odd direction Scorsese set out for here. So for those of you prepared for the offense you will walk into and with eyelids that have quick reflexes, you may or may not want to see the movie. Regardless, I’d like you to read the commentary below … But just take this caveat and warning seriously: This is a graphic movie, and then it goes five steps beyond that.

I have to be careful in reviewing the movie to delineate my thoughts on the film itself from the story the film was capturing. In real life, I think Jordan Belfort is an immensely talented dirtbag, and that is to say he is not that big of a deal. The world is full of talents, and it is full of dirtbags, and it is full of people who combine both flavors. I find the idea that the Feds would offer a plea to a guy they had so dead-to-right, a plea that ended up meaning a mere 22 months in prison just for him to help them bring down a bunch of low level inferiors to himself, bizarre. I also don’t believe it. There is something about this that will never make sense to me. But yes, Jordan Belfort ran a complete sham of a company for years, eluding regulators time and time again, and finally got caught with irrefutable evidence of fraud and conspiracy, and he ended up doing far less prison time than most television burglars do. In exchange, the Feds got corroboration needed to arrest a few other low level dirtbags with no ties to organized crime or any other activity involving sophistication greater than Lincoln Logs. This case makes no sense to anyone who has studied it. But with that said, Jordan Belfort is a fun study in the science of sociopaths, and a textbook sociopath this man surely is. He is a gifted orator, has a tenacity level that absolutely guarantees success, and very likely would have been a high achiever in any field he pursued. This is not because of a rare and special intellect – rather, it is because of a rare and special charisma/tenacity. These things intrigue me, and I suppose like a guy turning his neck at a freeway accident, it particularly intrigues me when the charismatic tenacious talent is a morally bankrupt sociopath. I should work on that.

But here’s the thing … Scorsese’s movie is not a deep narrative about the pathology of Jordan Belfort. It is not a financial crime thriller. It is not a tragic tale of one who had it all and blew it with hubris and immaturity. It is not a dive into the saga of good vs. evil. Indeed, it is a story without a story. And that may be the most frustrating thing about it to me …

I actually do not agree with some of the criticism that my fellow capitalistic friends have offered – that the movie is depicting all capitalists as greedy moral degenerates. The movie portrays these “capitalists” that way, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the movie is attempting to paint with any broader a brush than that. You would think that I would have a hyper-sensitivity here, being engaged in the business of providing investment advice to wealthy people for a living. In fact, I think it is amusing when Hollywood offers cartoonish portrayals of the bottom 10% of our business. Oliver Stone’s depiction of all investment bankers as being a certain way in 1987 was not to be taken seriously then, and Scorsese certainly couldn’t succeed in painting a picture of all investment advisors of being a certain way now (not to pop anyone’s balloon, but you will not find a floor of people anywhere dialing for dollars any more, let alone doing so to pitch a “hot stock”; that was a relic of yesteryear, and while it makes for good cinema, the reality that those giving financial advice now are primarily family guys – and girls – in offices, not cubicles, totally devoid of sales techniques and stock trading – would probably bore people to tears).

The Jordan Belfort saga is not an indictment of capitalism, and frankly, it is not exactly a story of innocent senior citizens being duped by degenerate pump-and-dumpers either (though close). It would have been fun for Scorsese to evaluate the pathology of both the seller of these penny stock shams AND the buyer (were these buyers all totally innocent? If you believe that, you may be a person who would be wise to avoid all telemarketers). But Scorsese didn’t use the movie to portray the human tragedy of someone blowing their life savings on a penny stock transaction, and he didn’t use the movie to dig into the indictment of society intrinsic to ALL pursuits of ill-gotten gains … Rather, he left the crimes of the story – the “business” of the movie, well, out of the movie. In fact, there were two or three occasions where DiCaprio (playing narrator to the movie) started to talk about the nature of what they did, and then just said, “oh geez – you guys don’t care” (talking to the theater audience). And he was probably right – why make a movie about a business crime when you can make a movie about an orgy, which is what they opted to do.

If there was any moral to the narrative I suppose it could be the portrayal of what drug abuse did (and does) to people, but even then there wasn’t a clean hit. Some will argue that the movie glamorizes the drug use, but I would strongly disagree with that criticism. The movie portrays it in all its glamour , yes, and that is certainly part of the lifeline of the drug user turned addict. To deny that there is a glamour and excitement to that culture is dishonest or naive. But the movie does not fail to show the end of this story, either. The ugliness of Belfort’s drug abuse is on big screen display, and Scorsese does a good job tying in the excess of the drug use to the excess of everything else in these people’s pathetic journey.

The positives of the film are as follows: It is scored MARVELOUSLY, and I mean that in the most superlative sense possible. The song selections are fantastic and the timing of their usage is brilliant throughout the movie. The other positive is Leonardo Dicaprio, who really is Oscar-worthy in this portrayal. I would not take away from either of these sincere compliments to the movie in what I am about to say.

But the negative is this: The film totally failed to forge an identity. I would have been in total disagreement with the filmmakers if they attempted to infiltrate some silly left-wing agenda into the movie, but they didn’t really even do that. There was nothing profound of any ideological bend in the movie, and there was no morality tale that forced viewers to agonize over a particular dilemma. It was just a long, long, long movie about a guy who had all the ability in the world, and chose to waste it all on a narcissistic, hedonistic journey surrounded by some of the biggest idiots on the planet. I would call them God’s little clowns, but I doubt God wants anything to do with them either. What was the internal struggle that pained Belfort into the life he was living? Scorsese doesn’t dare tell us. My own theory is that it was the “impostor syndrome” – Belfort knew he was making a killing, but he knew he was making it as a bush league, bottom shelf dirtbag; he treated the disappointment he felt that he was not rolling in the big leagues of Wall Street by spending and partying as if he were; this all fed on itself and create a negative feedback loop implosion that was always inevitable. Belfort wanted the high life, but he wanted it as a real player, not a Long Island scam artist; he treated his own reality as an impostor with every stereotypical mask the world has to offer. It’s not rocket science – but the intricacies of Jordan Belfort’s psyche are not addressed in this movie. The pitiful attempts at regulators to catch up with a really low level scam artist are not fleshed out. The moral fiber of a society that would ever allow a Stratton Oakmont to exist to begin with was not discussed. It just simply lacked a point. The movie had moments of comic genius – painfully good writing – and much of Belfort’s story is entertaining.

But at the end of the day, if I wasn’t going to get a dramatic business movie out of The Wolf of Wall Street, some kind of morality tale or psychological introspection would have been nice. Jordan Belfort is portrayed as nothing more than a party animal who lost his moral compass at age 22. And if the moral of the story is, “don’t be a party animal who loses your moral compass at age 22″, then fine, mission accomplished. But I suspect there was a lot more in the real life story than that – a lot more.