M for Money for Nothing

How much land does a man need, anyway ? Whether you feel that Tolstoy’s famous short story was a cautionary tale against the evils of capitalism or simply a thinly veiled paean to the socialist way of thinking  (though sometimes a good story could be, you know, just a good story !) the obvious moral of the story cannot be disputed. Our own physical needs are finite, even if we often pursue the accumulation of physical objects with caprice and boundless ambition.

I was reminded of this fable, sadly, when a few weeks back I read about the conviction of the former chief of McKinsey who was also  a Goldman Sachs director. I say sadly, because by all accounts his was a story of a man who by his own admission, rose from a life of modest means and sparse circumstance through sheer dint of effort and merit and accomplished pinnacles of achievement, success and wealth. And yet, it seemed the cornucopia was still lacking an exotic fruit or two ! The need to walk a bit more and claim some more land led to this sorry denouement, best captured in the words of the prosecuting US attorney:  “(he)..once stood at the apex of the international business community. Today, he stands convicted of securities fraud. He achieved remarkable success and stature, but he threw it all away..”

Money for Nothing is a seductive concept. Hence those promoting get-rich-quick schemes seem to be the ones who do get rich quickly ! What we are seeing is a technical variety of the Money for Nothing mantra – money for very little something. That little something can range from other people’s money (often labeled with gravitas as “leverage”), access to the right information (as in the case above) or access to the right people.

Speaking of access to the right people, if you listen carefully, a strain of the same notes can be heard wafting from the pre-election political din in the United States these days. There is a lot of talk of fiscal responsibility and balancing of budgets – but no one actually says how they will do so. One side insists on a socially equitable but likely unpopular measure of raising taxes for some while continuing to support the many. The opposing side proposes, well, an opposing viewpoint: cut government spending while lowering taxes to “stimulate the economy”. Nice rhetoric and television tagline tattle, but these current and wannabe leaders of the free world seem to have traded lingual eloquence for basic math, as neither plan shows how the current deficit will be reduced or income matched to expense.

Politics seems to have its own version of money for nothing: say it loudly and convincingly enough and somehow it will just happen. However the dirty little secret of this great democracy is that the tax code is simply too complicated and rigged for a solution that simple to actually work. If the answers (even if philosophically opposing) are simply turning the knobs and pulling the levers of demand and supply side economics, why do the rules enabling those need to be so complicated ? The only reason they are is because access to the right people can buy you (or your business) a personal off-ramp from the bumpy road of either (or frankly, any) path that needs accountability and the occasional sharing of pain. In other parts of the world it is simply called corruption, in America it goes by the more sophisticated name of lobbying !

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