Monday, May 28, 2018

Can Stacey Cunningham Humanize Wall Street?


No. I could leave it at that one-word answer, but then this would be a very short commentary. While it is about time that the New York Stock Exchange had a woman at the helm, she would not be there if she promised anything but business as usual.

Judging by the reactions of other women in leadership positions, this historical appointment (the NYSE is 226 years old and Cunningham is the first female president) is barely significant in achieving the goal of gender parity in the financial services industry, let alone any other kind of milestone. As Kathryn Kolbert of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies was quick to point out, the fact that we are still celebrating every newly-minted woman CEO shows how rare this phenomenon remains. According to Kolbert, you need to reach at least a thirty-percent threshold for critical mass, when the good 'ol boys business model begins to transform and truly accept gender equity in terms of leadership roles.

The NYSE may in fact be eager simply to change public perception of itself as a stodgy institution of greedy White men with little concern for the average American citizen who is increasingly "minority" in every sense of the word. Well, good luck with that. We are not so easily fooled into believing that a fresh face, female or otherwise, is anything more than a facade for what some would call the most destructive entity in our economic sphere.

Public enterprises on the NYSE, Dow, and other registers have succeeded largely by exploiting labor, eroding consumer protections, and lobbying for deregulation to absolve themselves of harm to the environment. Did I mention they have also cannibalized each other in mergers that are permitted by lax anti-trust laws? No? Well, they do. Wall Street should add a dog to the bull and the bear because it is a dog-eat-dog world they have created. The only survivors, the only constants, are shareholders. Shareholders are people wealthy enough to invest in public companies. The fast majority of us, if we called a financial advisor, would be laughed at and then hung up on. We don't matter. Never have, probably never will.

Changing that callous culture is what we all want from the next appointed leader, regardless of what gender they identify as. One would like to be optimistic in this case, but feminism has created something of a monster. Young women have been taught that if you want to succeed in a man's world, then you must behave like a man. You must set aside your sentimentality, your desire for compromise and cooperation, and be ruthless to be accomplished in the business world. No room for warm hearts here. What a shame. What a failed promise of feminism to heal the wounds of economic warfare, to make businesses more humane. Indeed, to make society more accountable and trustworthy.

Do not get me wrong. I have not met Ms. Cunningham, and have no personal axe to grind. She may be a truly gentle human being. I will even assume so. It is just that I fail to see why anyone of either sex would want anything to do with an institution so hell bent on concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Wall Street is symbolic of greed because it enables a financial model that creates and rewards greed. This is what has to change, and anyone who advocated for a system that was more fair would not be granted a leadership position. They would be sent packing.

It may simply be the scale of Wall Street that has become the greatest part of the problem. A similar model scaled down to the size of a local economy, with vastly lowered investment thresholds, might work just fine. The more shareholders the better. The less exclusiveness, the better. The more diversity, the better.

Cunningham is likely to be the continuation of the problem here, not because she could not change Wall Street for the better, but because her affluent constituents have no will to do so. They are being served already. Well, let them all be served with this notice: the revolution is coming. You will know by our lack of participation in your transactions as we turn to local commerce, and invest not in products and services but in experiences, charitable organizations, and assign more value to intangibles.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Wedding, Wealth, and Masculinity


It is perhaps tragically ironic that we have prom season and the royal wedding setting up the perfect storm of inevitable disappointment for the average high school male bent on wooing his dream girl. When you aspire to fantasy, have unrealistic expectations, and are more concerned with how you stack up to other male students, it is not going to end well for you. Meanwhile, women are collateral damage.

Our collective obsession with the royal nuptials Across the Pond is troubling if not disturbing. We revel in pomp and circumstance, and I dare say long for the rigidity in standards for what constitutes "marriage material" in stodgy old England. We want rules to be explicit, if only so we know when we are breaking them, but often because we have failed to properly construct our own moral compasses. We rely on externalities instead. America has few formalities, and even those may vary from state to state.

Consequently, our young men are left to their own devices, their own warped perceptions of idealism in the female form. How boys and men handle their romantic defeats is what should make you a gentleman or a loser. Here in the U.S., we do not learn how to deal with those perceived setbacks in any positive, meaningful way. At best our male students simply become more determined to achieve victory in the socio-romance game, and maybe set their sights on college coeds once they graduate high school. That simply perpetuates the cycle of reducing women to prizes to be won, by any means necessary.

The tragic part is that for men like this, women are a means to an end, the end being enhanced status for the guy. There truly is a trophy wife mentality whereby men measure each other by the....what, "hottness" of their spouse or girlfriend. Women cease to be anything more than an accessory to this kind of sorry excuse for a man. This is how we ruthlessly objectify women, and it does not even have anything to do with women. It is all about the male hierarchy.

At some point in our evolution did this become a strategy for becoming the alpha male? The accumulation of food and other necessary resources certainly made some males more desirable to females, but eventually there was enough to go around thanks to agriculture, improved weaponry for hunting, and the ability to preserve collected foods. What separates us now, then? We created the unnatural resource of money, currency that is not perishable, wealth that demonstrates you have risen above mere survival. We announce the existence of our fortunes through expensive automobiles, luxurious homes, second homes, yachts, jewelry, and other rare and precious commodities....and attractive, younger women.

Mating strategies in the animal kingdom are often complex, and none more so than in Homo sapiens. We point derisively to other cultures that rely on arranged marriages, that eliminate a woman's dignity through genital mutilation, or reduce her worth to her dowry, or enslave her in any number of ways by prohibiting her education and disallowing her consent to anything, but are we any better? American men who cannot achieve wealth, or cannot achieve it fast enough, try and bypass the implied route of success and just go for the hot chick. If he can get her, other men will assume he has something they do not. Women are the facade in the male social-success game. Debt is the facade we all use to project that we are wealthier than we are. We must stop kidding ourselves.

Let me repeat that: We must stop kidding ourselves. We must stop believing that we should be aspiring to great individual material wealth and the flimsy social status that comes with it. When we do that we start dropping pretense. We stop pretending. We start being comfortable with who we are. We start recognizing the matrix that is our unsustainable style of living and relating to each other. We stop shaming others. We stop feeling guilty for our excesses because we have realized the futility of indulging in them. We start having meaningful relationships with the opposite sex.

The revolution will be a long one. Men will not go quietly, willingly giving up the power that they have accumulated through greed and womanizing. We will have to overcome our biology and our social expectations, without the help of media and advertising that will even more stubbornly stick to the status quo, the old school rules of engagement. We have an opportunity here to advance civilization to a level of respect it has perhaps never enjoyed. Failure will mean its total collapse.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Nearing the End

I write this as my father lays dying several states away. The hospice care workers tell us that they would be surprised if he lasts until the end of the week. You do not need to know how he got here. You do need to know how I got here, to the point of wishing no suffering on my parent, but not wishing to see him, either.

My father is over ninety-two years old. How he has survived to this point is a mystery, given his alcoholism and Type A personality. Maybe just an angry personality. He was never satisfied with his life throughout his marriage to my mother. After the death of his second wife, his life began to deteriorate. He is not able to function well on his own. That is one trait for which I still take after him, much to my dismay.

Dad and I on July 25, 1966

The things I learned from my father I have had to steadily unlearn. Anger used to be my ruling emotion, too. He demonstrated that rage is how you get your way, how you assert yourself, how you express your pain, but it really just makes people hate and fear you. Dad never learned about empowerment, just power. I would cower as a child during one of his outbursts. Rarely were they directed at me, but threatening my mother has the same effect. Doing damage to property creates an atmosphere of constant anxiety, if only because every day you see the hole in the closet door, the hole in the screen door, or some broken object. He drank, too, of course, and so when I became of age and struck out on my own, that is how I began coping with emotional pain and insecurity, despite the fact I have never really enjoyed alcohol.

Here we are, miles apart, and I am told that I should hurry to see him. Why? I have spent the majority of my life doing what other people have told me I should do, and resenting them for their "advice." No more. They do not deserve my animosity, for they have a right to their sentiments. I have a right to make decisions on my own, though, and I have concluded that it is in my best interest to await his passing from a distance. I could justify a case for either course of action. I could claim that I would rather not remember him on his deathbed, barely conscious let alone coherent, perhaps not even recognizing me. On the other hand I could secretly enjoy seeing him in a position of utter physical helplessness, his power over me vanquished at last.

The last time I spoke with my father was over the telephone, many months ago now. He had made a habit of calling me to tell me goodbye, that he was happy with the life he led and was now ready to surrender. This particular conversation took a different turn when he once again started making derogatory remarks about my mother. I do not hold either of my parents in high esteem, but my mother made untold sacrifices to get me to adulthood, and despite her shortcomings as a parent, I deeply respect her ability to succeed at that with limited resources as a single mother. I told my father that he needed to stop his defamatory tirade. Twice, at least. Because of his near deafness, he could not understand what I was asking. Ultimately, I hung up on him.

How does one honor their parents when they never honored each other? Thankfully, I am learning what real family life is all about through visits with my in-laws. My wife's parents are the polar opposite of my own. Sure, they have their moments, sigh and raise their voices in exasperation when they have to repeat something because the other one can't hear. They overcome their physical limitations through determination and sheer discipline, adhering to exercise regimens that would tax most teenagers. My mother-in-law swims daily, and gets in something like 100 miles each year. I would have drowned before a quarter of one mile. My father-in-law walks seven miles a morning. Pretty sure. All of this is because they recognize they need to do it for each other, their kids, their grandchildren. They share a devotion to God through religion, but never admonish me for not being so devout myself. This is in spite of the fact that their other sons-in-law are both pastors.

I honestly look forward to being myself full-time in the judgment-free zone. That is what my father's death will be: liberation for him from his failing body and mind, liberation for me from my parents' expectations and as a source of disagreement over my future. I will make no apologies for my reality. You did not live it, and I have no siblings to bear witness. Likewise, I have no control over your relationship to me, or to anyone else.

Free yourself from bad relationships, bad habits, and rewire your mind, through whatever channels help you. That would be my advice to others. But really, who am I to talk. I am still a work in progress, but it is finally my own mind and soul in charge.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Last Bastion of Legal Discrimination

A video making the rounds through social media these days asserts that "Diamonds Are a Lie." It points to propaganda by the diamond dealer De Beers that artificially inflated the value of the stones. This hit home for me for a number of reasons and reminded me to write about my long-held perception of the perils of wealth inequality as a whole.

My father earned his affluence by creating high end custom jewelry for wealthy clients in Portland, Oregon. This of course included diamonds and gold and other "precious stones" and metals. There is no question that our society has ascribed arbitrary monetary valuations to certain gems and other natural resources. It is perhaps a logical extension in our evolution for male individuals who want to set themselves apart from competing males by demonstrating financial richness in addition to physical prowess, intellectual superiority, and other characteristics attractive to females. Still, it has to stop.

Status has come to mean one thing: relative financial wealth. It is putting our entire human species at risk. We now have the human equivalent of the peacock, only instead of feathers it is funds, stocks, bonds, yachts, luxury cars, second and third homes, exotic vacations, designer fashions, and yes, pricey jewelry. We celebrate and idolize these people, mostly White males, in the Fortune 500, Forbes, and other periodicals devoted solely to wealth and how to achieve it.

Interestingly, we assign dollar values chiefly to inanimate objects, and non-living natural resources. Living creatures we conveniently refer to as "priceless." The insinuation is that people, other animals, plants, and other organisms are so valuable that it is pointless to put a figure on their worth. The reality is that the convenient priceless tag permits us to devalue life when it stands in the way of resource extraction or our personal ascent up the ladder of wealth. We have no trouble turning our backs on our brothers and sisters, let alone other entire species, if profit is to be had.

What is most staggering is the almost complete success of the brainwashing campaign that has convinced us that great material wealth is something we should aspire to. Why? Well, it is the carrot held before us so that those who are already wealthy can beat us with the stick. Drudgery is supposedly the price we pay for our income. We have apparently resigned ourselves to accept this scenario without complaint, even without union representation. We literally slave away so that company shareholders can reap ever bigger profits and reward the executives with bonuses.

We still believe that if we work hard we will one day own a home, be able to retire to a leisurely lifestyle, and still put our kids through college, too. No, we cannot. Wealth is now inherited far more than it is earned. We can always borrow, because the interest rate is so low. We no longer have a middle class, we have a debt class masquerading as the middle class. We used to be able to get ahead by saving money, but no bank product pays worth a damn because of the low interest rate. Your life is reduced to your credit rating, your ability to borrow.

Should everything be free? No, of course not, but there are entirely too many things we do not need at all. I speak again of objects and accessories that do nothing, or next to nothing, but flaunt our personal affluence. Why must we measure ourselves by dollars? Why do we continue to tolerate, even endorse, discrimination against others based on their inability to pay exorbitant amounts of money for exclusive this, or chic that? It is nothing short of shameful.

What interests me is not the prime rate, it is your willingness to share what you have. It is, as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. decreed "the content of (your) character" that should define you. Your currency of thought, and empathy and humor and empowerment of others is what interests me. Your refusal to judge others, or assume the worst without knowing them, is what sets you apart and makes you my friend. I have no desire to burden myself with material goods, or surround myself with elitist, snobbish friends. Neither do you, right?