A toast to the downfall of Lehman brothers,
As a wine drinker and wine lover it has been hard not to be rather cheered up by the images of Lehman Brothers employees walking out of their office with boxes in hand shouting trite like ‘you’re watching history, man’ at journalists. Call this bitter, jealous or misunderstood – but is wine not about sour grapes? And if it’s true that wine is sour grapes then it is also true that it is sour grapes that become more palatable over time, and like my seemingly cynical cheer at the demise of City bankers such an opinion will also become more palatable over time. The reason I believe this is because of one thing that society has temporarily forgotten: value.
My grandfather was a banker and probably spent his entire life working for the same profit a single banker a third his age would have made in bonuses over the last five years. The key difference between my grandfather and the modern banker however, is that my grandfather valued his society, his customers and the future – whilst the banker of today has merely intellectualised greed with a series of financial instruments used to justify the unjustifiable and create as much personal gain in as short a span of time as possible. So much has the plague of greed and lack of value spread that Rhodes Scholars and top intellectuals have been wooed into studying finance, whilst in today’s times of real challenges , their skills would be better employed in engineering, medical research and civil society.
The old institutions were even built with materials of substantial value – marble, granite slab and steel – whilst today’s modern building, like the ‘Gherkin’ in London or many other modern institutions seem to have chosen a material that reflects the high-risk, short-term gain and quick-buck mentality of modern business: glass. Today’s institutions are primarily made up of transparent and easily shattered material – how apt a metaphor.
Listening to a debate on torture the other day I was struck by one of the key tenets of the argument against torture being that it dulls our intelligence community and our ability as a society to ask proper questions and gain reliable information honourably. The strength of the argument for me was that it did not appeal to human suffering but rather appealed to the sustainability of our society – saying that torture makes our institutions lazy and therefore weakens our society. Surely that also holds for using high salaries and bonuses as an incentive to work, and the same argument can be made against the high-risk/ high-return mentality that has been in fashion for a time – not on the basis of an argument against greed, but rather on the basis of long-term sustainability and the value to humankind. Paying signing bonuses and giving large profits doesn’t make people work harder, it just makes them want more for less, and in a slew of defaulting banks one has to wonder where all that money for all those bonuses was coming from in the first place. What will impact the future of society more: the downfall of Lehman Brothers or major headways into stem-cell research? Stem-cell research is the obvious answer. Given that, think of all the wasted talent the job-losses that Lehman represents – intelligent minds distracted by greed who, instead of getting lost in the complexity of derivatives and materialistic pursuit could rather have been adding actual value to society trying to make their mark on history.
In these times of financial uncertainty, three things have actually gone up in value: wine, art and mineral resources. These are all things with perhaps the exception of oil that our grand-children will one day see (assuming the world is still around of course.) Society demonstrates its true wisdom in times of adversity as was the case during FDR. Only when great societies are ascendant do they lose judgement and overextend themselves (think Rome and post-Clinton America). Adversity forces us back to the basics, while opulence encourages indulgence in the superfluous.
If we as a society are to succeed, and our civilization is to continue prosperously and sustainably, then we must focus our efforts on those things that create value for more than ourselves – but for generations to come. Wine is such an area – it enriches families, creates a profitable supply chain, puts focus back into the environment and provides pleasure to the consumer. Whilst old Lehman employees may have hit bottom, they can always get up and dust themselves off and try again –taking comfort with a few friends and a couple glasses of wine. At this time when their employer no longer exists – it will prove that the only thing valuable in their lives is their friendships and their family. The failure of their institution discredits their chosen career and hopefully when the hurt of Monday’s events subsides and the lens of greed is lifted, they can refocus on what matters and ply their brains to creating sustainable value in an industry our grandchildren and children the world over will one day benefit from. Let us not fear economic uncertainty, but merely reflect on the causes of it and then go back to the thread of that which runs through history and continues to last today: art, wine and all that which thousands of men throughout the ages have laboured away at –not for profit or wage but merely for the love of civilization and society. Let us say cheers to the death of Lehman and hope their employees will emerge with a desire to help society and not just themselves…Tags: back to basics, creating value, downfall of Lehman, future, increased value of art, Lehman Brothers out of touch, News, sustainability, unbelievable greed, value of wine