A scene from the 1987 movie Wall Street has haunted me. I have only watched it once, when I was 21 and new in my own career.
Blue-collar aircraft machinist Bud Fox (Martin Sheen) lies in the hospital, gravely ill. His son, dark-suited Wall Street broker Carl (Charlie Sheen) stands at his bedside clutching his fat
hers hand. Both shake with tears as the prodigal son returns to honor his father’s integrity and wisdom.
That moment stuck with me, but I wasn’t moved so much by the father-son sentimental moment. Rather, it was the hint of a darker conflict that had been resolved between the men that marked me. The nature of that conflict wouldn’t occur to me until much later, when, one day, I realized I was running out of time.
My midlife crisis began at age 39, crested at 41, and was pretty much resolved by the time I hit 43. The estimated damages include four motorcycles, one FJ Cruiser, a decade of my wife’s life (thanks to the motorcycles, mostly), and one career change.
Overall, I think it worked out well.
But mortality has a way of bringing honest scales to any discussion. My life was half over, at least. What did it add up to? It occurred to me that while I was making lots of money and was important, I couldn’t say much about the real worth of my job.
Now I normally don’t seek philosophical answers by watching the Discovery Channel. But I was surprised to realize that Dirty Jobs, one of my family’s favorite shows, was speaking on this very issue.
Mike Rowe, the host, travels the country and stands shoulder to shoulder with people doing the dirtiest, nastiest jobs imaginable. It makes great reality TV, but Mike has a deeper purpose for the show: he wants America to see that there is worth and a certain nobility in dirty, hard work. This worth is not based on social standing or big paychecks, but on the fact that the work needs to be done and it’s dirty and it’s hard and people just do it. It is the labor of those people he
introduces each week that “makes it possible for the rest of us to live the way we do.”
The eighteenth century economist Adam Smith, on the other hand, probably never did a dirty job beyond scraping the horse manure from his English boots (actually, I’m sure he had someone do that for him), but in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the
Wealth of Nations he explains how wealth and worth are created. For Smith, wealth is defined as the worth of goods and services produced by a population’s labor (what they make or improve by their work). The relative amount of wealth a country produces is most dependent on the level of “skill, dexterity, and judgment” the workers apply in their work. The smarter, more skilled workers generate more wealth. (See the Industrial Revolution.)
Now the key to understanding the importance of Smith’s message to me in my mid-life crisis is the distinction he makes between creating wealth and accumulating wealth. Accumulating wealth is simply the transfer of one person’s wealth to another (a redistribution, if you will). For wealth to be created, something has to be made or improved, and this requires labor (skilled or not). The labor of the farmer produces crops. The plumber makes the toilet work. The truck driver moves something from where it can’t be used to a place where it can. All this labor creates wealth by making something new or by making something better.
Any labor that fails to make or improve something creates no wealth. Stock traders who labor to buy low and sell high successfully transfer wealth, but they create none. Speculators in commodities (such as grain, oil, etc.) and real estate accumulate vast wealth, but they create none.
Now, looking back, I understand why Wall Street was on my mind. The relationship between Bud Fox, Carl Fox, and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is that dark conflict that had became mine.
In a pair of scenes the polar opposites Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko attempt to persua
de the young Carl Fox concerning the nature of wealth. In the first scene, Bud exhorts his son to “stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.”
Meanwhile, the evil Gordon Gekko whispers into Carl’s ear, “The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.”
The work of Gordon Gekko may be morally acceptable in our society, but it lacks nobility and worth. His kind don’t create wealth, they just redistribute it.
But what about the executive, the guy like me during my crisis, who directs the creative efforts of others toward an objective? Do we create wealth? Are we Gekkos or Buds? Adam Smith would say that to the extent that we enable laborers to use greater “skill, dexterity, and judgment” in their work, we are creators of wealth. But I’m skeptical that this can be measured, at least not in the same way I can measure the worth of the work of a motorcycle mechanic, or that it amounts to much. I wasn’t satisfied with not knowing. I had to make sure.
That’s what I needed to turn the corner into the second half of my life: certainty that my work had worth, that I was a creator of wealth, not merely an accumulator of it. So I stopped telling people how to make software. I stopped being merely an approver of the creative efforts of others and retooled myself. I create every day and judge the worth of my work. And I approach my creative labor with the eye of a craftsman, content with an iPhone application well-built, solid, with a little art thrown in there where, perhaps, only another craftsman might notice.