In the last week or so, I saw two films that inspired and evoked the crystallization of some concepts that had previously been very loosely percolating in my head about this economic and financial crisis in which our beautiful nation still finds itself embroiled.
First, I watched Demi Moore, David Duchovny and their faux family be implanted in a town by an ad agency that had elevated the stimulation of luxury goods lust to a science in "The Joneses." The tagline? "They’re not just living the American Dream, they’re selling it."
Then, last night I went to see the sequel to "Wall Street," at long last. The tagline? "Money never sleeps." In addition to the fact that I was fascinated by the first one, a little birdie who had screened the second one had told me it was heavy on the real estate intersections, and it didn’t disappoint.
From micro to macro — the mortgage troubles of individual homeowners, greedy house flips that fizzled, the plight of an individual real estate agent when the bubble burst, and the Wall Street-level causes and implications of the subprime mortgage market meltdown — real estate is a recurring theme in Oliver Stone’s retelling of the Great Recession in the context of the lives of two men and one family.
We all know that there are some significant things broken in our economy. Hence, the bailouts (for better or for worse), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the stimulus packages, and so forth: all efforts to cure what ails our nation’s economy.
However, as I watched these films, and their content marinated alongside all my conversations and observations with real estate consumers over the last decade, it seems to me that even as we collectively struggle to regain our financial footing and heal our wounded wallets, the true depths of this crisis might actually originate in our minds.
While the government iterates on solutions to the industry side of the economic crisis, maybe we can take on the consumer side by addressing and revolutionizing what’s broken about how we Americans think about money.
And it is broken. You can tell by the sheer numbers of purported fixes that are out there. It’s the same way you can tell the common cold is still the bane of the human existence: the sheer number of remedies that are on the market, the drugstore shelf space these remedies occupy and the billions in revenues they generate.
Similarly, personal finance books, money advice, and the industry of gurus who spin it occupy a vast amount of square footage in the mindshare and bookstores of America. Americans are always looking for information about what to do with their money, which is somewhat amazing given the sheer numbers of people and media outlets that are constantly giving it to them.
You can also tell that the way we think about money is broken by the burgeoning new movements that are taking a stab at revolutionizing our money matters, rather than just managing them. There’s the New Frugality, the "Cheapskate" movement, and even the "frugalista" contingent, for those who identify as both posh and cheap.
There are the urban homesteading and farming movements, with their focus on barter and self-sufficiency. There’s even the movement among billionaires to give massive chunks of their wealth away.
But all these gurus, books, shows and even movements have one common glitch that prevents them from serving as a cure to the root cause of America’s money problems: They are tactical. They are too much about what to do with your money, and not enough about how to think about money.
As long as the thought process is broken, all the tactics in the world are just Band-Aid after Band-Aid on the oozing economic cancer we’re just barely surviving.
We’ve got a herd-mentality problem — this was the central issue of "The Joneses." We’ve also got a crisis of excessive consumption — as individuals, families and a nation — disproportionate to what we produce and innovate.
Many, many of us have a deep degree of financial immaturity — this is why the unsustainable "it’ll always go up" real estate fallacies were so popular over the last decade. And this is not me just pointing a finger — I’ve certainly observed and addressed many of these issues in my own world.
It seems to me that the largest shared financial value Americans have is an unspoken one, which Oliver Stone had one character in the "Wall Street" sequel articulate quite clearly. When asked what "his number" was — defined as the amount of cash that would make him comfortable retiring — one alpha trader in the film wryly smiled and growled: "More."
And that value of nothing more than "more" clearly isn’t working for us. So, for the next seven weeks, we’ll explore some of the mental shifts I believe Americans must make to deeply, fully resolve and avoid repeating our current national financial drama. These are not tactics, though tactics can flow from them — we’ll be talking about philosophies, values and morals around money.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll read something or share it with someone that will spark you, or them, to shift your consciousness about money.