Friday, August 10, 2012

Business is Boring

"Natalie, uh, she's my youngest. She's a junior in college. Whenever I visit, or visited, she's overseas now. Whenever I visit her college town, there's this coffee place. Bagels, muffins, kids behind the counter with pierced everything...and I noticed that all the students and professors, they all read the arts sections, the sports, politics, but never the business section. Find pristine copies on every table. The only news that really matters, and they think they're above it."

The above excerpt was taken from HBO's In Treatment from the character of Walter, played by John Mahoney (aka the dad from Frasier), who is the CEO of a multinational corporation. And that part of the conversation really stuck with me. I watched that episode 3 years ago and I was reminded of it again not too long ago when I was talking with a friend. The conversation went something like this:

"You're 24? I thought you were older."

"That has to be the first time I've ever heard somebody say that to me (note: I am of Chinese descent and I look really young)."

"I didn't mean - you look young. But you like talking about stocks and politics and I just thought..."

I was never under the impression that business and politics were subjects that most young people were particularly interested in. But it surprised me that the person I was talking to associated stocks and politics as interests for older people. And then it reminded me of that bit from In Treatment.

It's not that Walter was 100% correct with his sentiment. I don't think that people who follow the non-business news think they're above the finance/business section. They just aren't interested in it. And it's funny. People can be passionate about the products and services that companies offer, just look at an internet forum arguing about things like iOS vs Android or which car is the coolest/fastest/most prestigious.

But they're not passionate about the business itself. At least not in the way where they're concerned about margins, shareholder value, or the bottom line. To most people, businesses are just these abstract things that make things that they want to own or use. The actual goings on at those businesses don't matter to them unless it touches on something they are interested in, like as a scandal or controversy that affirms their political or personal beliefs.

I've never understood why talking about money was dirty. We like to pride ourselves as part of a classless society, where the poor man had the same rights as the rich one, but nobody ever likes talking about the actual differences. Somehow it's this thing that everybody is aware of, but nobody wants to talk about it. As if ignoring it makes it go away.

It seems that kind of attitude extends to business and finance as well. When things are going good, people will look at their bank and brokerage accounts and smile. All is right with the world. But when things go south, people will take another look and wonder how it got so bad. They never really think beyond their own situation, about how external factors led them to where they currently are.

 When the financial crisis happened in 2008, initially there were many questions. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Who's responsible? And what are we going to do about it? But they stopped caring pretty quickly. Many people used it as a way to advance their own political agenda, which was only tangentially related to business. You had some people saying "it's all about corporate/bank greed and we need to punish them!". Others were saying "it's the government's fault for creating this mess in the first place, and for bailing out the reckless banks!"

I don't know why people don't like reading the business section. I think it has something to do with our culture. But I do know that it isn't a good thing.

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