Wall Street and the Game of Life

There are 2 moments in Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic ‘Wall Street’ that offer the core philosophical backbone to this movie.

One, the ‘Greed is Good’ speech, has been burned (inadvertently) into the collective American conciousness as a spirited affirmation of American capitalistic values; the other, a scene where the indignant Bud Fox confronts his erstwhile mentor Gordon Gekko, actually sets out the raison d’etre for this film by the movie’s writers and the movie’s director, Oliver Stone.

That scene is actually worth reproducing at length here:
                 BUD
Tell me, Gordon–when does it all end? How many yachts can you waterski behind? How much is enough?

                GEKKO
Buddy, it’s not a question of enough. It’s a zero sum game, sport. Somebody wins and somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another. Like magic. That painting cost $60,000 10 years ago. I could sell it today for $600,000. The illusion has become real. And the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest.

                BUD
            (again)
        How much is enough Gordon?

                GEKKO
The richest one percent of this country owns half the country’s wealth: 5 trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds of it comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulation to widows and idiot sons and what I do — stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. Ninety percent of the American people have little or no net worth. I create nothing; I own. We make the rules, Buddy, the news, war, peace, famine, upheaval; the cost of a paper clip. (picking one up) We pull the rabbit out of the hat while everybody else sits around their whole life wondering how we did it…(crosses to Bud)…you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, Buddy? It’s the free market. You’re one of us now…take advantage of it. You got the killer instinct, kid, stick with me. I got things to teach you…

Think about that, why did this illuminating speech about the true nature of the American economy become forgotten and yet a speech about, effectively, the prinicipal-agent problem of managerial capitalism, get heralded like Moses coming down from the mountain?

It makes you want to hit your head against the wall. When a film comes along once every blue moon to administer a straight dose of reality about the game of life, why do people stupidly hook on to the satirical aspect?

The movie’s deepest truth is that capitalism is an arbitrary game with arbitrary rules and arbitrary outcomes. Much like the original intention of the creators of the board game Monopoly, the real life lesson to be learned is that we don’t have to blindly accept all the outcomes of the market just because a person ‘wins’ this “illusion”.

Perhaps the greatest way to foster an understanding of this is to play a game of Monopoly. The game itself traces its origins back to a 1903 version created by a woman named Elizabeth Phillips to illustrate the limitations of capitalism as a way to order society. As a player you’ll find the person with the most fortuitious rolls of the dice at the start of the game quickly compounds his head start (if the player has any common sense) and invariably wins. Its also a zero sum game. One person’s success derives from another’s losses.

Now as a player you might shake the winners hand after the game – sure it took some amount of skill negotiating a way to get all of the same colour group, albeit from a position of strength, but great they won. You certainly wouldn’t start worshipping them though, or calling them a ‘property creator’ or giving them differential treatment under the rules in further games in recognition of how ‘skilful’ they are. And I can guarantee you certainly wouldn’t use this game to decide who to bestow respect towards in a group situation.

So why do we afford such power and privilege to those that ‘win’ an arbitrary game of capitalism?

That dice, ladies and gentlemen, its like life. Its like the guy who was lucky enough to roll a 7 and be born in America and not Zimbabwe. Or like the person who rolled doubles and was lucky enough to have 2 good parents that stuck around/survived to raise him in their formative years. Or like the person who avoided landing on ‘go to jail’ and was lucky enough to be born without a debilitating mental or physical condition. Or the colour of his skin. Or his parents financial situation etc etc…

Then we just sit back and watch how his life ‘choices’ about his geography, physical state, family etc are compounded in real time, and he invariably ‘wins’.

Maybe he’ll get a job on Wall Street.

Which brings me back to the movie.

The value that the ‘free market’ gives to a private equity baron that plows other people’s debt into a company only to asset strip it and pay himself for the privilege of doing so is arbitrary. The value of high end art is arbitrary. The value that a hedge fund manager collects from society by shorting securities is arbitrary. The hereditary land ownership concentration of a feudal system is arbitrary. Your crazy army general dictator’s laws are arbitrary. Your religious leaders rules for how you should live your life are arbitrary.

There is no inherent ‘rightness’ or impregnable moral justification for many of the things we take for granted in our society – including the market. Calling some people “winners” and some people “losers” makes no sense.The element of circumstance as a determining factor in relation to a person’s life chances is of such high magnitude it actually boggles the mind. Most people never even realise it.

Thus, some may try to take the concept of the ‘free market’ and attach to its machinations some political or social meaning and make bold pronouncements about how things should be, but at the end of the day its just their unenlightened opinion, dressed up in a very simplistic, and unnuanced economic term to lend it an air of objectivity.

And that’s the lesson of Wall Street – by all means go out there and “win” the game of life my friend, but you’re going to come across someone else who got even luckier with his dice throws, will negotiate your sorry ass into the ground from a position of strength and make you pay for the privilege of staying in his hotel for the rest of your life.

Maybe you’ll start to question things then. Maybe you’ll start a blog to tell others about how dumb the game is. And maybe, just maybe, when you play the game long enough, you’ll even realise everything you are is ultimately just a culmination of the roll of a dice…just arbitrary.