Poor money. It’s having a rough time of late.
Baby New Year was barely born when the national and international markets landed with a thud. (Thanks, China.)
This helped set up the periodic hue and cry “Break up Wall Street,” as did the critically acclaimed film “The Big Short,” based on Michael Lewis’ book about the hedge funders and brokers who profited from the housing and credit crisis of 2007-08. Folks, it’s also 2016, a presidential election year. Wall Street — as in “We’ve got to rein in Wall Street” — is always on the campaign platform in a big election year.
But who’s kidding whom here? Where do Democrats and Republicans get their contributions from? Oh, that’s right, from donors, sometimes very large donors — the Koch brothers, anyone? — who make their money in part from being financiers and/or investors. The Ben Franklins certainly don’t grow on a billion-dollar tree.
America has always had a love-hate relationship with money. We love to spend it and we hate to part with it. That’s why money is always a good thing in the first person — my money, our money — but a bad thing in the second and third person — your money, his money, her money, their money. Add to this a Protestant work ethic that is still the backbone of this country which says making money is godly while the love of money is the root of all evil, and, well, you see the problem?
That ambivalence is compounded by another issue — the relationship of love and money — which is older than Jane Austen and as contemporary as the Chinese “Matchmaking Parties” that Audrey Ronning Topping writes about on page 18, in which latter-day Aphrodites exhibit their, um, assets in the hopes of snagging millionaires. Before we go blaming women for continuing the tradition of marrying “up” in our postfeminist age, we must note that men increasingly do the same. As Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellows at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wrote in the Nov. 15 edition of The New York Times: “… the idea that men will be the ‘senior partner’ in marriage is no longer realistic; soon, there will be as many successful women as men. This means men need to get used to the idea of ‘marrying up’ — and women to the idea of ‘marrying down.’ This seems to be happening to some extent already: In 2012, 27 percent of newlywed men married ‘up’ educationally.”
But haven’t men always married up — into the business of the wife’s family, for instance, and thus perhaps into a better socioeconomic class? What is a dowry — an ancient, possibly prehistoric tradition that still exists primarily in the Balkans, North Africa and Asia — but a form of marrying up for the groom, who receives money, property and/or goods from the bride’s family? Even the traditional wedding — with the bride’s father paying for the shindig — is a kind of dowry.
In reality, love and money have always been married, because money does indeed make the world go round, as per the Kander and Ebb song in “Cabaret.” Sure, you could barter for goods and services, as our prehistoric ancestors did — and as some people still do today. But that presupposes, Aristotle noted, that what one party wants is similar or equal to what the other has to offer. In his “Politics,” he observes, “When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use.”
Money, then, made commerce far less cumbersome and inequality practical and even advantageous.
The man who understood all this was, of course, Alexander Hamilton, the guy who put the “founding” in Founding Father. “The bastard brat of a Scotch peddler” (Really, John Adams, are such insults necessary?) from the West Indies island of Nevis who reinvented himself in New York as George Washington’s aide-de-camp and speechwriter, Hamilton would go on to become many things, including an early abolitionist, champion of the Constitution and founder of the Federalist Party. But his greatest contribution to the fledgling nation was to put it on a viable financial footing as the first secretary of the treasury — organizing its debt and centralizing its banking.
Hamilton understood that “power without revenue is a mere bauble” and that Wall Street would intersect with Main Street, becoming over time the rippling tide that would lift all boats. (And if you think that isn’t the case, just watch the Dow drop precipitously and watch everyone sit up and take notice.)
Thanks to the Hamiltonian understanding of money, we not only have homes, Ph.Ds, careers and vacations, we have probes that go to Pluto. And, perhaps more important, we have the means to help others.
No wonder he’s the subject of a Broadway phenomenon (the musical “Hamilton”), a new book (“Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged Forged America” by Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams) and the kind of admiring Time magazine special issue that’s usually reserved for Marilyn and Elvis. (It features such articles as Belinda Luscombe’s “The Hunk In the Frilly Shirt,” accompanied by an illustration of Hamilton surrounded by bikinied babes.)
Fiery and eternally inner-directed, Hamilton was in truth his own worst enemy, always defending an honor that would cost him his life.
Alex the Great knew that money doesn’t buy happiness.
But he also recognized that it can make misery a hell of a lot more comfortable.