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Richard (RJ) Eskow

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Money Is a Concept: Pain, Hip-Hop, and Economic Soul-Sickness

Posted: 08/16/11 10:02 AM ET

The old folks used to say money was "the root of all evil." Anyone watching our economy over the last few years might be tempted to say that "evil is the root of all money," or to paraphrase that old John Lennon lyric about God and say that "Money is a concept by which we measure our pain."

But there's more to be said on the subject -- by Kanye West and Jay-Z, by William Jennings Bryan, by the great Chuck D and the immortal Otis Redding.

Pain Threshold

Last week economist Jared Bernstein mentioned Buddhism's "Eightfold Path" in a blog post. I hope I didn't embarrass him by drawing attention to it. Frankly, I was mostly killing time. My activities are limited because one of my hands is in a brace. It's the result of days spent obsessively playing and rearranging an old song to try making a version that's my own -- not as good as other versions, maybe, but my own. My tendons and muscles aren't used to that kind of work anymore.

So with the one-finger magic of Twitter I mentioned Bernstein's link and wondered if economics might be the science of quantifying dukka. That Buddhist word is usually translated from Pali as "sorrow." In one of those fun, unexpected online moments, Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg replied that "Dukka = Pain." I responded, "$ is a concept by which we measure our pain."

The idea isn't as abstract or hippie-ish as it sounds. It can be seen in the fires of London and the churning of the stock market, in the riots that have been and those that are yet to be. It's the same thing the old people used to say, except that we use the word "pain" more comfortably than "evil" these days. But the two are closely connected, as the old Sufis knew. "We're not punished for our sins," they said, "we're punished by our sins."

But sometimes it takes a while for the punishment to be distributed fairly.

Otis Power

Watch this video of Jay-Z and Kanye West doing a new track called "Otis" and tell me what you see:


I see two talented guys appropriating an old, sweet song from the 1930s, as interpreted by the sweet-hearted and soulful Otis Redding, only to brag and boast like Wall Street traders.
The song is "Try a Little Tenderness." Remember? "She may get weary
... wearing the same old shabby dress."
But their new lyrics are filled with Rolexes and private planes and $300,000 cars.

"May all your pain turn to champagne," says Kanye. But it would take a magnum of Dom to wash away the mouthful of ashes left by this video. Jay-Z seems to be phoning it in for a quick payday, but Kanye seems addicted to the acquisitiveness -- and tortured by it too.

I worry about Kanye sometimes. We don't need to lose another star, and his song "Power" goes from bravado to cranked-up obsession -- "the clock's tickin', I just count the hours" -- and finally to self-destruction: "It'll be a beautiful death, jumping out the window, letting everything go ..."

Otis Redding helped my through some of my hardest childhood years. One night I had a vivid dream that he had died in a plane crash. The next day he did. I'm not one to make claims for the paranormal, so I merely offer the story -- "submitted," as Rod Serling used to say, "for your consideration."

I've never been "street," but I've been Wall Street. The characters in the Kanye/Jay-Z video, both of whom may be fictional, are a power player and a self-destructive addict. Both of those personality types are as common on Wall Street as they are on any other avenue.

Cross of Gold

Money, once something valuable like a conch shell or precious metal, became a token that represented (and could be traded for) gold or silver. That's what William Jennings Bryan's famous "Cross of Gold" speech was about. The words of this Democrat were thrilling for his time, and would never pass today's 'centrist' standards:

"Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial (shopkeeping) interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Basing the dollar on silver in 1896 would have increased the value of the income earned by farmers and merchants, among others, but it would have hurt Wall Street. Bryan didn't prevail, but the government continued to treat the dollar as something that could be converted into precious metal until Richard Nixon was President.

Bryan's fight still isn't over. It's just taken a different form.

Wall Street Riders

Today's stock market 'investor' only cares what other investors do. With financial firms once again capturing almost 40% of U.S. profits, there's less and less connection between market performance and events on the ground. Today, for example, the real economy was tanking -- but the pseudo-economy was booming. That's like being at a race track where the horses are all dying but the lines at the betting windows keep getting longer, and the purses keep getting bigger.

Even traders who are responsible, sober professionals are being strained to the breaking point by market dukka. 'I have plenty of gray hairs to show for last week,' said the managing partner at a Boston investment firm. A market rally may be reassuring, but it won't turn gray hairs black again.

Then there are the other guys, the adrenaline junkies, cutthroat narcissists like the Morgan Stanley traders who famously liked to celebrate a successful deal by saying "I ripped his face off." The face he was referring to belonged to his own client.

Pain, Gain, and Cocaine

Wall Street in the go-go nineties was filled with parties and bonus gifts that didn't appear in your paycheck, with hired 'models' and Gilded Age opulence like the lavish dinner where actors dressed up like characters in famous works of art stood still for hours -- while the real works of art hung on the wall behind them. For some people the party's still going on. But it's getting frenetic.

Those people think they're winners, sometimes. But there's always somebody with a bigger plane and a bigger car. And there's always the chance that in the dark of some evening in a penthouse apartment, the breeze from an open window will touch them like a passing thought or a half-remembered song:It would be a beautiful death...

But, nah. Most money addicts usually cling until it's too late, until the money or the wife or the liver is gone. They're furious -- furious! -- at the idea that they might be asked to obey the law and pay taxes like other people. But for all the talk, nobody's actually made them do those things yet. So they keep reading the polls that reveal how much they're hated by everyone who passes them on the street.

And they look at the politicians who wink and smile and take them to fancy dinners, the politicians who bail them out and ignore their crimes while telling voters they want to reform Wall Street. Then they think to themselves:

I ripped their faces off.

Respect

Chuck D could not have been more respectful to Kanye and Jay-Z when he released this answer track to "Otis." It's called "Notice ":


"Notice" is a homemade creation that lacks the production values of "Otis." That makes it even more impressive. Chuck D's even using his laptop camera as he says, "Trickle down got us less than zero... whips (expensive cars) wheelin' are a million miles from what people are feelin'."

Chuck knows and uses the real unemployment number of 16.2%, not the lower official figure which ignores discouraged workers. He notes the "depression inside a recession," adding that in a world where people are "losing homes, Holmes, these stats be on smart phones."

Otis Redding died before his character could fully unfold. But a recent biography of James Brown has the Godfather of Soul telling a writer that Otis Redding was starting on a new project when he died. According to Brown, Otis was organizing a "Black Performers' Union" to win more influence, control, and profits for African-American entertainers. Then that private plane went down ...

"Try a little compassion," says Chuck D. "Y'all the heroes. Notice. Know this. Notice." And an eternally young Otis sings in the background.

Whiskey Dreams

The stock market, like the dollar, has increasingly distanced itself from physical and human realities. Bill Wilson, who later co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, had an idea in the 1920s. Pre-Depression America was a huge country with a primitive communications network. Investors on the Stock Exchange no longer understood the businesses they were investing in. So Wilson bought a motorcycle (with a sidecar for his wife Lois) and went driving across America, planning to physically inspect the factories and other ventures whose shares were being traded.

The external storms of the Depression and the internal storms of Wilson's alcoholism ruined his idea, which otherwise might have worked back then. But not today. In a post-global economy, the physical or fiscal state (as in inventory and receivables) of most American businesses don't really matter. Otherwise we couldn't have seen the stock market perform like it did today. Even after a New York manufacturing report showed dismal results, the market actually went up. The Empire State rules nothing.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

When the rioters broke into those London stores they were acting out the same addictions that drive Wall Streeters. They were acting out a variation on the theme of craving that Bill Wilson knew so well.

Some Buddhists translate "dukkha" as craving, in factNot long ago I visited my home town of Utica for the first time in many years (I wrote about it for Tricycle magazine.) Utica's a ruined city in many ways. It's already an archaeological dig where anybody with a shovel can dig up the artifacts of the now-dead American blue-collar class of my youth. It's also a home to refugees from around the world, including Asian Buddhists and European Muslims.

The words of Thai master Ajahn Chah seemed to fit those Utica streets, which have seen their share of dirty needles, as well as those of London and Birmingham: "Dukkha sticks on the skin and goes into the flesh." Ajahn Chah also compared people who failed to avoid bad consequences with boxers who got their teeth knocked out and then try to avoid the punch afterwards. It was a warning fit for any greed-crazed addict -- or any nation in need of financial regulation, for that matter.

"You have to duck before they slug you," he said.

A Little Tenderness

Yesterday, in a conversation with Rob Johnson and Drew Dellinger on Terrance McNally's radio show, Johnson said something that suggested real human happiness can't be found in the solitary pursuit of satisfaction. Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster documents the paradoxical serenity and satisfaction people have sometimes by banding together to save each other ... and themselves.

These are disastrous times for millions of people, and our zero-sum money system can only enrich the few by bringing pain to the many. (Notice.) Can we build an economic policy out of our shared crisis and find a common purpose in its solution?

I've spent a long time failing to follow that eightfold path Bernstein mentions, and I'm not proud of that. But Chuck D offers an excellent power of example by acting both compassionately and confidently, like a boxer who hasn't had his teeth knocked out.

That's about as much as I can type with this wounded hand. I said I'm not much for the paranormal. But the song I worked on so obsessively for so long, the one that damaged my hand in the days before I heard these new videos by Kanye and Jay-Z and Chuck D? It was "Try a Little Tenderness."

Something in the zeitgeist? Maybe. Coincidence? Probably. Submitted for your consideration ...

Champagne Paradise

As for Kanye West as for the bank CEOs and all the guys from Morgan Stanley, they're doing just fine, thanks so much -- at least financially. Down on Wall Street there'll need be some changes, for society's greater good, before things get better.

But whatever happens and whoever pays, may all their pain turn to champagne. Or better yet, into something that doesn't cause a hangover.

Maybe all that pain can even be turned into a little glimpse of paradise -- the paradise that's already waiting to be built where you least expect it, right here in the middle of hell.

 

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