City & Business: Embrace the City, shun Wall Street
Sunday 30 May 1999
From our conversation I believe I established the following two facts: 1) You have written a letter to Goldman Sachs declining the offer of their traineeship. 2) You are talking to an environmental organisation, which may or may not be described as eco-terrorist, about doing volunteer work.
You will not be surprised to learn your mother has asked me to ask you to reconsider. Since she's my sister, I am under some obligation. Personally, however, I am of two minds. I can remember my own youth well enough to recall how hopelessly out of it my parents were when I was your age. If the tooth fairy told me I could choose my career over again, I am not sure I would spend so much of it in the City.
WHEN I began covering the City my plan was to spend only enough time in it to save up some money and get out. But then Sarah came along and the children and the mortgage. I made my peace. In the 1960s, we called it being co-opted. If you want to know the truth, it's worse. I was fascinated by the City from the start. Over time, without properly realising it, I fell in love with the place.
Before I forget, two quick interjections: whatever your mother said about "cutting you off without a penny", she did not mean it. Second, if you could ring her, or at least e-mail, I would be grateful. She is frantic about your having "gone to ground". She wants to send you one of her care packages - multi-vitamins, blue-green algae, and Lord knows what else.
OK, to continue. I am not going to sing the "if-you-are-not-a-radical- at-20-you-have-no-heart-if-you-are-not-a-capitalist-at-40-you-have-no- brain" song. That old City chestnut has always rather disgusted me. There is something terminally vulgar about it.
No arguments about tithing part of your Goldman salary to environmental causes to quiet your conscience. No warmed-over Sixties arguments about "intervening for the revolution at the level you find yourself".
Nor will I insult your intelligence by advising you to delay going into the City to go off to Venice or the Himalayas to find yourself. You know what you're doing. If I may presume to characterise your motives, you wish to choose a career informed by your strong sense, not only of social justice, but also the natural order of life.
My argument is this: you can best serve your moral purposes by going into the City. I went on Wednesday night to a round-table discussion on "exploring the alternatives to globalisation", sponsored by the International Society for Ecology and Culture and The Ecologist magazine at the Royal Geographical Society.
While you, I trust, were watching Man U win in Barcelona, I was taking a trip down memory lane. An Indian woman named Vandana Shiva reprised all the arguments of the 1950s about the British being imperialist. A Swedish woman named Helena Norberg-Hodge reprised all the 1970s arguments about corporate power. A slightly more with-it American named David Korten spoke about globalisation and the financial markets.
The evening was pervaded by a sentimental yearning for an Edenic past. Many present wished to disassociate themselves from all evil - particularly the evil lurking within. When the moderator John Humphries challenged the intellectual sloppiness of the speakers, they became shrill and played to the audience. But the audience had a wavering respect for the ground- rules of logical discourse, at best. Some would have stoned Humphries off stage.
Still, the evening highlighted the arguments I have heard you make. The City is short-termist. Fund managers focus on investment returns from quarter to quarter to the detriment of their own and the economy's longer- term interest. The City has too much power. It is part of a network of financial centres ruling the world.
You would have been interested in a conversation I had recently with one of the City's biggest bond traders. I asked him if we were in for round two of a world financial crisis. He replied that about 60 institutions dominate world financial flows, and any time these 60 have their market positions in line, then simultaneously seek to reverse them, there is bound to be trouble.
THE City represents a money culture dominating life at the expense of other cultures. Or, as it was put Wednesday night, the money culture creates a false reality in which no one accounts for - or is held to account for - global warming and the pollution of the oceans.
Even if Wednesday evening was disappointing, I know there are people who make these arguments convincingly. Your hero John Gray in his book False Dawn, for example. I still have your letter quoting him: "In the 1930s, the free market proved to be an inherently unstable institution. Built by design and artifice, it fell apart in confusion and chaos. The history of the global free market in our time is unlikely to be much different."
My point is that a substantial number of bankers would not disagree with Gray. Which is why you should go into the City. The City has one idea about how financial markets should work. Wall Street - and the unreconstructed idealogues of globalisation concentrated there - have another.
Wall Street is your enemy, Miles. Not the City. There's a distinction. Learn how financial markets work. Use that knowledge to take on Wall Street. You have referred to Gray's "imperatives" of globalisation. But globalisation is too much of an intellectual construct for imperatives.
To become alienated from the forces of globalisation, or fatalistic about them, would be self-indulgent.
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