After breakfast this morning, I listened to the second of the 2020 Reith Lectures by Mark Carney. I did not understand all of it, but what I did understand seemed good. However, it reminded me of a scene from the 1983 Film Trading Places starring Eddie Murphy. The nub of the film’s plot centres around a bet by two commodity brokers who have a small wager to see if they can reduce their firm’s manager to poverty and then successfully give his job to a beggar from the street (Murphy). After removing the previous manager, they carefully try to unravel the mysteries of commodity broking to a now smartly suited Murphy. Explaining that their clients wish to buy or sell commodities (gold, coffee, pork bellies, frozen orange juice etc.) in order to speculate whether the future prices will rise or fall, the two brokers then smile and tell Murphy that, whatever happens, they will take a percentage cut for handling the deal. After patiently asking him whether he understands, they see Murphy grin back and exclaim, “sure, you guys are just a couple of bookies!”
When I was a young teenager, my father (who ran a pub) used to take bets over the counter and relay them to a local bookmaker. With an aptitude for figures I became involved, and by the time I left school I had a fairly sound working knowledge of the world of gambling. So I have to confess that Murphy’s explanation of the world of commodity broking made sense and it seems also to helpfully cover stocks and shares, property, banking and the whole world of high finance.
In this year’s Reith lectures, Mark Carney seeks to explore the relationship between financial values and human values. Whilst emphasising that they should be moral, Carney said that we believe a lie, if we actually think the markets really are moral. Perhaps that is why I so readily identify with Murphy’s response, for it does seem that the world of high finance may be fronted by a number of well-tailored bookies.
In the years after my early introduction to gambling, I became a buyer working for three large international companies and an international charity. They all encouraged honesty in their business dealings, and I learnt that it is possible to trade in a way that is good for both buyer and seller – what is called a win/win situation. But by its very nature, gambling is always a win/lose situation. For someone to win, someone else has to lose. If you have read my previous blogs, you will know that I am not averse to gambling as such. When carried out between two people who know exactly what they are doing and who are both in control of what they do, I see nothing wrong in it. However, it seems to me that most high finance gambling is based on peddling the lie that we can all be winners. The bitcoin adverts declare that you can become a millionaire very, very quickly. No doubt some people will, but at some point the bubble will burst, and some will become broke just as quickly. The Bank of England printing presses may churn out £20 notes as fast as they can to ‘quantitatively ease’ our economic crisis, but the lessons of history teach us that we may end up needing a suitcase full of those notes to buy a pound of butter.
In the Reith lecture, Mark Carney highlighted three lies of high finance. One, mentioned above, is that markets are moral, a second that the market is always right and, perhaps the most pervasive and deceptive of them all, this time it will be different.
In the light of the (fairly good) human perception of Mark Carney and Eddie Murphy we may well realise that more fortunes are made by the bookies than the punters. I believe there are two elements of wisdom that we can learn from this – one human common sense and one spiritual. It is common sense that if you are going to be a punter (and it can be fun) it is crucial to plan to fail. Whether at a back street bookies or a high street brokers, never speculate with money that you cannot afford to lose. Write your money off as soon as it changes hands. Any return then becomes a pleasant bonus, not an urgent necessity.
But much more importantly, go back to some of the lessons that Jesus taught:
Do not lay up treasure on earth, for where your treasure is there will your heart be also.
It is better to give than to receive.
How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God.
We live in a fallen world and we deal with fallen systems. It may well be that we need to, or wish to, get involved in some measure and in some circumstances. If we do so with a quickened conscience, enlightened by the Word of God, and with a wholehearted trust in Jesus, we will be safe and secure, certainly as far as eternity goes and probably also in the present. However, if we trust in human systems, governments and our own wisdom – well your bet is as good as mine as to who will win and who will lose.