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Movies, money and morals

September 10, 2017

Last night I watched the movie “Going in Style”. Three pensioners, learning that their pension fund is to be dissolved and their homes repossessed, decide to rob a bank. The bank they choose is the one overseeing the end of the pension scheme. They are frightfully ethical about the whole thing – they only want to take as much as the pension fund owed them; they share the spoils with their community and they load their guns with blanks so that nobody can get hurt. Our elderly crooks take the time to remind children not to rob banks. There is no moral ambiguity.

I guess movies that promote lawlessness and make heroes of criminals are not new, but I was intrigued by what “Going in Style” says about society and the particular point we are at.

The movie is billed as a comedy and has some funny bits, but it deals with such a serious matter, how greed destroys lives, that it’s hard to laugh. The idea that the hard-working average Joe deserves something better than abandonment late in life is easy to get behind. The nice people, who look out for each other, are easy to sympathise with.

The faceless Bank, beautifully represented by a lavishly gilded old-fashioned banking hall, is given a concrete identity in the form of an employee who sells mortgages without being too explicit about the terms and consequences. This character is thoroughly unlikeable – uncaring, self-centred, cowardly and not in control of himself. He is easy to dislike.

It’s a movie of our time.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but sadly, it offers us no way out of the place we find ourselves in. While the movie helps us to deal with our sense of outrage and the wrongness of the world as we temporarily enjoy cheering on the protagonists, after the lights are up and we go back to contemplating the bills, bank robbery is clearly not the answer for most people. So I woke up this morning feeling despondent.

Mostly, I found myself thinking about bank employees.

If I were a bank employee, at the level of the guy who sells mortgages, I’d feel a bit cheated by the portrayal of my colleague in the movie. Bank employees at the lower level are just as much victims of the system. They are ordinary people who need a job, take what they can get, and do the bidding of corporate greed in order to keep the job. I have spoken to terrified bank employees who can’t engage in honest conversations about the bank’s products or procedures, for fear of putting a foot out of line. The average bank employee is not a decision-maker; they are simply carrying out the decisions of others.

So, what about those others? At some level, there have to be people who are making decisions. Those decisions are made based on what is best for the business and that generally equates to maximising profits or returns for shareholders, with some concern for long-term viability. Having risen through the ranks, these are people who buy into the idea that some should be quite a lot wealthier than others, and that it’s OK to have an executive earning 300 times what a cleaner earns because that executive is “worth more”. (Which makes me picture one of those moral choice dilemmas: you have the choice of saving the life of one executive or 300 cleaners, which do you pick?)

If I were a bank employee at the executive level, who earns the kind of money that makes ordinary people hate you, or even if I were at a lower level where I make the decisions on how the mortgage terms will work because I hope one day to be at the executive level, I’d be worried. The movie makes it quite clear that laws and property rights are not going to be respected for much longer because such laws support an immoral system. It’s reached the point where ordinary, nice, hard-working people who care about their families and community want to break the law. (Takes me back to the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa…)

Last week I watched Dr Zhivago, a movie that ought to be required viewing for all well-paid executives. The scenes of the wealthy family subsisting in one room of their previously glorious mansion while the other rooms are allocated as living space to the poor has to strike fear into the heart of every overpaid CEO. The scary thing is that even an average middle-class South African like me, who gave up the corporate salary about 15 years ago for an academic one, is still fabulously wealthy by comparison. I write this in my own private study, a luxury I have at home along with my own art studio, all the while picturing how the homeless people who sleep on the pavement along my route to the university could use this space. So, never mind the bank executives, what am I doing to avoid the revolution?

How do we hold on to some moral sense? How do we decide how to act? Where the hell do you start, when the system is just so complex? I’ve been giving these questions a lot of thought, as have many ordinary, decent people that I know.

Here is what I have come up with so far:

1) I don’t think fear should be our motivation to act. I believe there are really only two big motivations in life: Fear and Love. Things tend to work out better when we act out of love, rather than fear. Perhaps we need to act sooner and not leave things too late.

2) It’s really hard to conceive of an alternative to our current economic system, given the complexities of how it all works, but perhaps we can just try to make it more humane wherever we can. One way in which it could be more humane is to have a smaller gap between the highest and lowest paid in any company.

3) I’ve started to think about my money as a system of voting. Each rand I spend is a vote for the company I spend it at. That means it’s a vote for how that company behaves. If I want a better world I need to vote for companies that behave in ways that I approve of and not spend money at companies whose behaviour is immoral. Each vote means more of what I vote for and less of what I don’t vote for.

4) Since I don’t set executive salaries, what I can do is make choices about where I spend my money (and time). To make informed choices I can use public information about executive salaries and, assuming a lowest salary of, say, R10 000 a month (since I don’t have information at that end), I can calculate the ratio. This is how I learned that some banks have their CEOs earning 300 times what the cleaner earns. At the very least I should not be contributing to companies that do that. I can’t imagine a world in which I’d save the life of one executive over that of 300 cleaners.

5) One does not always have a choice, especially when it comes to banking in South Africa, but one can try to vote appropriately as much as possible. Perhaps if people shared information about companies, making these decisions would become easier. It might also create pressure for companies to reduce executive salaries and for executives to be embarrassed rather than proud of their earning power. Where choices are limited there may just be gaps in the market for new companies to fill.

6) We’ll have to work out other measures too that matter to the way we vote – like how well companies treat their employees or the environmental impact of companies.

7) I need to give more thought to where my money is invested. I am indirectly a shareholder in companies that embarrass me and I benefit from their pursuit of profit. Can I use my position to change the way these companies behave, or do I need to invest in other companies? That’s a tricky one that will take more thought.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I’d love to hear how other ordinary, nice people deal with the moral dilemma of living in one of the most unequal countries on earth.

 

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