by Gael O’Brien
How much is enough?
That was a central question John Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group, posed several years ago about Wall Street. It is also an underlying question in Arbitrage, Nicholas Jarecki’s recently released film.
Richard Gere plays Richard Miller, a billionaire hedge fund manager whose greater cause is seeing himself as the orbit point of the universe. He is driven in equal measure by greed and power, wrapped in the self-conceived nobility of doing it all for his family.
When his very risky financial, business and personal decisions backfire in disastrous consequences that he continues to play out, his defiant responses lack remorse, self-reflection, or apology:
“What am I supposed to do?”….”Did you want me to let our investors go bankrupt?”….”I did what was necessary.”….”Everything I do is for us….”
In an interview, director Jarecki said he wanted Gere’s character to reflect an Aristotelian tragic hero: a good man who became corrupted, who read too many of his own press releases.
Wall Street doesn’t have the market corned on megalomania. We’ve witnessed it in politics and any profession when an individual believes he is entitled to write his or her own rules without accountability to consequences.
However public trust in banks and big business remains at an all-time low, not rebounding from the financial crisis. Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions poll this summer indicated that only 21 percent surveyed trust banks and big business a great deal/quite a lot, compared with 63 percent who said that about their trust in small businesses.
Movies like The Inside Job and Margin Call merely reflect what the public experienced, saw, heard or read about the financial meltdown that contributed to its losing trust.
The issue of how much is enough is directly tied to trust. It is a question we have yet to answer.
In Arbitrage, Miller’s wife asks the billionaire, “How much money do we need? Do you want to be the richest guy in the cemetery?” For Miller, there is no limit to the amount needed because it is spent faster than it is made. The end justifies the means in the endless pursuit to obtain more.
Bogle wrote in his 2008 book Enough: The True Measures of Money, Business and Life that “Central to the effective functioning of early capitalism was the fundamental principle of trusting and being trusted.”
As an aside, Bogle might take heart from the Conscious Capitalism movement, which promotes profit and creating “multiple kinds of wealth and well being” that have a positive impact on society and inspire public trust.
Bogle’s book grew out of a 2007 commencement speech he delivered to Georgetown University MBA graduates. He asked them to consider “the role of ‘enough’ in business.” He admonished the graduates: “It is said on Wall Street, correctly, that ‘money has no conscience,’ but don’t allow that truism to let you ignore your own conscience nor to alter your own conduct and character.”
Arbitrage’s Miller can’t be trusted — seduced by his own sense of omnipotence, blind to his impact on others, he is driven by the belief there is never enough.
Gael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics, where this column originally appeared.