Money is a proven historical motivator. We explore the role of money in history, and today.
Show Me the Money
“I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline-powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.”
“When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old, I know that it is.”
“I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. And, believe me, rich is better.”
Rod Tidwell from the Movie Jerry McGuire: “Show me the money!”
In Cameron Crowe’s Jerry McGuire, Tom Cruise’s titular sports agent begins as a grasping, vacuous mercenary willing to send one of his hockey-playing clients back out on the ice despite suffering repeated head injuries. In the middle of the movie, he has an epiphany in which he regrets the worldly foible of money and instead embraces a higher plane of supposed morality. But this being a more interesting movie than the usual liberal tripe about the evils of money, such as Regarding Henry, Jerry realizes that rejecting the cash factor was a mistake.
Later, Cuba Gooding Jr’s Rod Tidwell, a business major, provides a new manifesto: show me the money. The film’s arc shows Jerry’s growth as a human being. He learns that love involves sacrifice and realizes the value of true friendship with Tidwell, which other characters also learn. But the movie does not end with the iconic “You had me at hello,” in which Jerry gets the girl. It ends only after Tidwell receives an $11 million, four-year contract to play wide receiver in the NFL, of which Jerry, as his agent, gets a sweet percentage. Only then do Jerry, his wife, and his adopted son walk into the sunset.
Simple rule, dear listener. Whenever a politician, or anyone really, explains something in purely altruistic terms, something that is “for the people,” it is almost always about the money.
There are many historical motivations. Power is probably the chief among them, though the money comes from that as well. Religious zeal is up there, of course. Had Jesus lived, one would think, or hope, he would have been circumspect about selling his memoir to Myceneus, patron of Virgil. Perhaps love or passion would be up there among the prominent things that make us do what we do. I am currently reading the great classicist Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra, one of the few historical tales involving a nearly equal pairing of a powerful man and woman. But one of the reasons this affair is celebrated is its rarity. Much suggests that sexual desire, maybe even love, was involved. Antony was a handsome, muscular man in his prime and the most powerful man in Rome. Cleopatra was a clever, royal 28-year-old who also had an affair with Antony’s former boss, Julius Caesar. But looking beyond the concept of emotion, Egypt was the wealthiest nation in the Eastern Mediterranean at that time and an essential part of the Empire’s Grain Supply. Rome had made and unmade Egyptian kings for nearly 100 years before the affair. Antony and Cleopatra both had immeasurable gains from the other way beyond physical or emotional attraction. It probably added spice to things.
One of the more nasty occurrences during this period of late Republican Roman history was the proscription; in its current usage, a ‘decree of condemnation to death or banishment’) and can be used in a political context to refer to state-approved murder or banishment. An early instance of mass proscription occurred in 82 BCE when Lucius Cornelius Sulla took power. As Dictator for the Reconstitution of the Republic, Sulla proceeded to have the Senate draw up a list of those he considered enemies of the state and published the list in the Roman Forum. Any man whose name appeared on the list was ipso facto stripped of his citizenship and excluded from all protection under the law; reward money was given to any informer who provided information leading to the death of a proscribed man, and any person who killed a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate. And here is the clever part, the remainder of a proscribed man’s wealth went to the state. No person could inherit money or property from proscribed men, nor could any woman married to a proscribed man remarry after his death. Many victims of proscription were decapitated, and their heads were displayed on spears in the Forum.
Sulla used proscription to restore the depleted Roman Treasury, which had been drained by costly civil and foreign wars in the preceding decade, and to eliminate enemies (both real and potential) of his reformed state and constitutions; the plutocratic, wealthy knights of the Ordo Equester were particularly hard-hit. Giving the procedure a particularly sinister character in the public eye was the fact that many of the proscribed men, escorted from their homes at night by groups of men all named “Lucius Cornelius,” never appeared again. (These men were all Sulla’s freedmen.) This gave rise to a general fear of being taken from one’s home at night due to outwardly seditious behavior. Antony, and his fellow triumvir, Octavian, also used proscription for many of the same reasons as Sulla. Yes, politics, but really, the cash.
Going back to Antony and Cleopatra, Are people motivated or inspired by their significant others? Probably to some degree, but this is not chicken and egg. Margaret Thatcher was one of the three towering figures of 1980s politics but quick-name her husband. What is, Dudley Earl of Leister against that of Elizabeth the first? Would Franklin have been different without Eleanor, maybe? She was undoubtedly an essential part of his life, and no doubt shaped some of his views. But the concept of the New Deal was borne out of the progressive movement.
And Franklin’s aristocratic belief in his ability to decide what was best for other people was innate to his character. The New Deal may have looked different, but there would have been a New Deal - unfortunately. This is not to say that significant others do not influence events but rather that they pale against the motivations produced by money.
And in this, let me be clear. This is not necessarily about the pure acquisition of money, though that is a crucial factor, but rather the allocation thereof. With his three homes (“one is a farm, everyone in Vermont has a farm,” says Bernie Sanders, our budding socialist. Sanders certainly enjoys the use of money on a personal level. But what really gets him up in the morning is the allocation. When Sanders rails against billionaires, there is a conscience belief about the inequities. Someone has $100 billion like Musk or Bezos, and someone has nothing but debts.
Unfair. But most Billionaires, from Bloomberg to Gates to Zuckerberg to George Soros, spend vast amounts of their fortunes doing what they think will cure these inequities and not just in the United States but globally. Yet, you rarely see Sanders praising these activities. That is because, just below the surface, he does not want THEM to allocate; instead, HE wishes to make the calls. In this case, it is about power, but the power that comes from controlling the purse strings.
What is consistent throughout historical narratives is money. Even those contending for power need money to undergird their ambitions. In many cases, the two are the same thing. For example, in a previous podcast, I noted how Urban II, a medieval Pope, exhorted Christians to conquer the holy land after Jerusalem had fallen to the Seljuk Turks. But clever Urban also noted the land was that of “milk and honey.” It was not a coincidence that the first and most successful of the Crusades was that of second sons and lowly Counts. Only in the second and third would established Kings and Emperors try to play a part. There was money to be had in the Holy Land, or so these men thought. Oh, and yeah, let’s get back the holy places from the Infidels. That religious thing. Religion counts, but often, just on the side of the historical frame, just off center, is money that can be had through the auspices of religion.
One of the biggest lessons that prudent leaders have learned, and dumb ones never do, is that one particular state-run activity, war, costs money, gobs of it. That would be the lesson now being learned by one V. Putin. I have read about wars for over 35 years, but the money factor was not the point when I started in my youth. The exploits of conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, and George S. Patton were sort of thrilling. Fortunately, maturity and too many World War I books have brought the reality of war, pain and slaughter, home. Wars may be glorious for a few rulers or generals, rarely for the troops, never for those on the receiving end.
One example is the Genghis conquest of Bukhara; “the Mongols set fires in an attempt to flush out the holdouts, but since most structures in the city were wooden, the soon-uncontrollable fire reduced most of the city, including the famed library, to cinders. So the Mongols razed most of the stone structures which were left standing.” And later still, I learned about money. Here is an excerpt from the Good Word News on the cost of the Russian warship, the Moskva, sunk a few weeks ago by Ukraine, “The sinking of Moskva the Russian warship that Ukraine claims hit with a missile attack on Thursday has cost the Russian military $750 million, analysis from Forbes Ukraine.
The media reported that Ukraine had destroyed more than 5,000 pieces of Russian equipment since the war began in late February but that the loss of Moskva was the most expensive. Forbes Ukraine calculated the approximate cost of the ship by comparing it to similar cruisers, which cost $720 million in 1995. “It could easily cost $700 million to replace this ship, but given the state of disrepair we’ve seen in the Russian military, we doubt they’ll have the money even to replace it,” Sean said. Sports, editor of Special Operations. Force Report (SOFREP) tells Newsweek.”
Compare this cost to a pride of the US fleet, the USS Ronald Reagan comes at a price of $4.5 billion, and I wonder what that ship would look like if a Chinese smart missile got through her defenses.
According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report published in October 2007, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost taxpayers a total of $2.4 trillion by 2017, including interest. And keep in mind, we beat the enemy forces in both places in the initial phases.
And finally, there is the reality of all those excellent Unesco sites. Do not get me wrong; I love them. I have been to Alhambra in Spain and Versailles in France.
I would love to see the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal. But let’s also be clear, these were about the stupidest things ever done in terms of fiscal prudence and what was best for the subjects of the rulers who built them.
Here is a laundry list:
Now, this could be an oversimplification. For example, the construction of Angor Wat did not directly lead to the fall of the Khmer in modern-day Cambodia. And I have always loved the line about the Bourbons; they learn nothing and forget nothing. And part of the Bourbon dynasty’s bankruptcy was the war that very much helped 13 fledging colonies throw off the British yoke, so I should not complain. But at best, the great Unesco sites were overwrought community centers and, at worst, vanity projects. I mean the Taj itself is a kind of tomb to a dead wife.
And in today’s politics, it is definitely about the money. When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison died, both were deeply in debt. Harry S. Truman wrote his memoirs for $600,000 spread out over five years so that he would have retirement income. Contrast that with today, where Obama buys a $15 million mansion on Martha’s Vineyard (an island, but what about the rising seas, never mind). And the Clintons? Estimates say that between 2000 and 2020, they earned a cool $100 million, some of that bilked from their “charity.” Yet today, we are seeing this same phenomenon with members of Congress.
Not confident that AOC has actually passed legislation, but she looked great in that Met Gala ball room gown. Between his stints in the Clinton Administration and Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel made sweet coin as a bank lobbyist for investment firm Wasserstein Perella. The GOP is in on it too. I watched George W Bush for a 90 minute speech at a chemical association conference and later learned he earned $50,000, plus all-expenses paid, including security. That is about $555 per minute—tick tock. And intellectual luminaries like Marjorie Taylor Green and Madison Cawthorne are already trying to cash in. They do not even have the decency to wait until they leave office before affixing their lips to the bloated body politic and sucking for all they are worth.
I am not a fan of activists, left or even right. I feel that whatever their purported cause, they and their organizations evolve into something grotesque. Part of this is the nature of their work. A for-profit company exists to create profit and, in doing so, creates a common good.
Activists start out working for the common good but there is a simple difference. The work of a for-profit company has no end except to continue to make a profit to the benefit of stakeholders such as shareowners, employees, and customers.
An Activist exists for a cause, but when the cause is met, they cannot simply close up shop and return to productivity. Instead, they find a new cause. The activist who wanted women in the workforce did not resign. They became activists for, let’s say, gay marriage. When that came to pass, then trans-rights. They redefine their goals, mostly more and more narrowly. This example above went from 50%, to 7% to less than 1% of the population.
In 2022 we have a black VP, and 22% of the Supreme Court is now black. African Americans have access to wealth and power undreamed of by their forebears 70 years ago. Do all of those civil rights organizations dissolve? Nope, they find something else. Somehow the civil rights movement has evolved from Medgar Evers and MLK Jr to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, all the way to BLM founder Patrice Cullors. Evers and Martin Luther King Jr, obviously, were murdered at a time when they were not wealthy men. Jesse Jackson is worth over $15 million. Al Sharpton flies on private jets and wears $5,000 suits. Cullors lives in a $5 million mansion. Ibram X Kendi got $10 million from the founder of Twitter. Part of me wants to say bravo; we are all capitalists now. But this crowd does not make iPhones or oil, they make acrimony, angst, and hatred, and without these emotions, they would not cash the million-dollar checks. Today's politics is too much show me the anger, then show me the money.