What Does the Trader Dream?

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind….

  –Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Hollywood’s take on the financial scandals of the 1980s. When it was released, the Dow was at 2,000, the first cat video had yet to be posted on the internet, Amazon was a river in South America, Donald Trump was still married to his first wife and Bill Gates was the 29th wealthiest American.

The movie is actually a hoot. From its then state-of-the-art trading room filled with clunky monitors, to the primitive cell phones as big as a human head, to the slicked back hair, oily enough to run a Range Rover, to the power ties and suspenders, to the so serious it’s comical portrayal of masters of the universe, manipulating the markets from their country clubs or walking on the beach as the sun comes up on another day in the Hamptons, it is an hysterical snapshot in time; of a world that seems more than three decades removed. It’s a world that exists on the periphery of reality; that doesn’t begin to examine the consequences of irrational exuberance or bursting bubbles, that cannot contemplate how a seemingly ordinary September morning could erupt into a clash of civilizations or the ominous portents of further inevitable cataclysms just around the bend of history.

And the gestalt of the movie derives at least as much from its campy lines like, Lunch is for wimps, Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel and Bud Fox’s scathing indictment of his mentor Gekko’s insatiable greed, When is it enough? How many yachts can you water ski behind, Gordon? Such cringe-inducing dialogue is great but, for my money, the highlight of the film is the very first scene. The movie opens with a shot of the trading floor and we are told the year is 1985. As the camera focuses on a group of traders, John C. McGinley (Fun fact: years later, Dr. Cox on the TV show Scrubs), jokes that Gekko shorted NASA stock 30 seconds after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Leaving aside the obvious faux pas that NASA is a government agency, not a publicly traded company, Challenger went down in 1986, making Gekko not merely an inside trader, but precognitive. Oh well, Oliver Stone never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. It’s stuff like this that makes Wall Street a classic, in the genre of movies that are so bad, they’re actually good.

Still, as ridiculous as the movie is, the subject of greed is worth considering. Is it possible that Gekko is right; that greed is a virtue? As he says, greed captures the evolutionary spirit and marks the upward surge of mankind. Is it greed, then, that stimulates us to achieve? To create art, invent, cure diseases, search for the meaning of life, aspire to greatness?

It may seem like I’ve strayed far from the story line of Yosef, in which we witness his rise to, what we call in my business, the position of chief dealer. You see, I’m a futures trader and have spent my entire professional life trying to buy low and sell high (unfortunately, my dreams never yielded the kind of useful inside information that Yosef used, to corner the grain market on the cusp of a seven-year-famine).

But, in Parashat Miketz, last week’s Torah reading, we are told that Yosef, gathered grain like the sand of the sea, in great abundance, until [one] stopped counting, because there was no number.

Whatever one wants to say about Yosef’s personal journey and spiritual growth, this sounds to me, suspiciously, like greed. And, in the context of the entire book of B’reishit, which is filled with one lurid story after another of greedy behavior, as well as Yosef’s meteoric ascension from slave to prisoner to the second most powerful person in the kingdom, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Yosef was consumed with the desire for more, more, more.

And though the Torah tells us the story of Yosef’s reconciliation with his family, and though we are told by the commentators that Yosef experienced great personal growth, over the years (culminating in tears and hugs at the family reunion), the trader in me knows this isn’t the whole story. And, as all too often is the case, the Torah is silent about the questions I would most like answered.

Did it bother Yosef that his material success was built upon the misery of others? If it did, in what ways did his behavior reflect the sadness such self-awareness imposes? When his family came to him and begged for food, he made sure they were taken care of. But what about the hungry stranger? When he lay down each night on a soft bed, his belly full and no worries about whether there’d be food on the table in the morning, did Yosef sleep contentedly? We are told that dreams play a central role in Yosef’s life story. But, once his wealth and power were assured, what, then, did Yosef dream?

And, as I considered these unanswerable questions, I had a flashback to the first big winning trade of my career. It was on April 26, 1986, when the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl went kaboom. My first thought, my only thought, upon hearing the news was to buy wheat futures. I got my trade off just in time, ahead of other panicked traders, and in the ensuing market chaos I made a small fortune in a matter of minutes.

Though thirty years have passed, I remember the exhilaration I felt, seeing the market move in my direction. And, when the trading session ended, I waited impatiently for the morning to come; not only because I wanted to see the amount of my profit in print on the bottom line of my trading statement (formal proof of my market-beating genius), but because morning would bring the market’s opening bell and with that glorious clang, more panic, more chaos, more opportunities to make money.

It pains me to admit, but I felt no misgivings over the circumstances that had enabled me to profit. To the extent I considered the matter at all, I’m sure I felt sorry for the poor people of Chernobyl, but what did that have to do with me trading wheat futures in Chicago? In the euphoria of my first big accomplishment as a trader, it was almost as if I’d inhaled the fumes of some powerful drug that I was going to want again and again.

There’s a great short story by Tolstoy called How Much Land Does a Man Need? (The 19th century Russian equivalent, I suppose, of Bud Fox’s yacht question), in which the devil tempts Pahom, the protagonist of the story, with as much land as Pahom can walk around between sunrise and sunset. The single caveat is that Pahom must make it back to the starting line by sunset, or forfeit his life. As the sun rose, Pahom set off on his great journey, but though he had planned a manageable route, as he walked, his desire to acquire took over. Though he knew how far he could walk in a day, he tried to include in his prospective estate more land than he could possibly walk around in the allotted time. Racing against the setting sun, he put on a burst of speed and thrust his body towards the finish line, but fell dead just inches from his destination. And all that he needed, Tolstoy writes, was six feet by two feet.

Ultimately, this is all any of us need, I suppose. And it’s pretty clear that Tolstoy would be unimpressed with Gordon Gekko and his world view. But, if we say, for the sake of argument, that Yosef was a greedy guy, maybe it was his greed that propelled him to the greatness that he achieved. Maybe, his greed was a necessary component, even a necessary evil, in the ever-evolving story of the Jewish people. And, if we say, for the sake of argument, that in thinking first of wheat futures and only later of the radiated citizens of Chernobyl and their ruined lives, I’m a greedy guy, maybe it’s my greed that allows me to feed my own family. Maybe, my greed is a necessary component, even a necessary evil, in the ever-evolving story of my life.

Which leads me to this week’s parsha poem, entitled What Does the Trader Dream? The poem is in the form of a villanelle, which I used a few weeks ago for my poem about the rape of Dinah. I like the villanelle form–19 lines with a strict rhyme scheme–because it forces me to focus my thoughts and avoid the inevitable distractions that are associated with any complex subject. And, as much as it’s tempting to simply declare greed bad, in all its forms, it seems to me that it’s not that simple.

What Does the Trader Dream?

How much he makes defines his self-esteem,
And every day his wealth appreciates,
But when he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

A war, a drought, unseemly as they seem,
Are nothing more than unfortunate fates,
How much he makes defines his self-esteem.

Does he hear the frightened child’s scream,
See the thirsty fields desiccate?
When he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

It’s not as if his goal is to blaspheme,
He hopes this is enough to exculpate,
How much he makes defines his self-esteem.

What good is guilt? Guilt cannot redeem.
Although he fears a reckoning awaits,
When he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

His sadness is an ever-present theme,
A grief he cannot quite articulate,
How much he makes defines his self-esteem.
But when he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

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