Deep Read | 2 May 2024

Week 2: Finance is a Liberal Art

Share

Welcome to Week 2 of the 2024 Deep Read! Catch up on Week 1 here. We’re inspired by the great community comments Deep Readers have been posting, and we hope you’ll join the conversation online this week, too.

Our Craft Salon on Tuesday was fantastic. Thank you to our great panel of UC Santa Cruz-affiliated writers and to the hundreds of Deep Readers who joined and asked great questions. The video for that event can be found here.

Next week, we host our Faculty Salon on Monday, May 6. RSVP to join in person or online.

Today, we’re going to look at the second section of Trust, an unfinished autobiography titled My Life, by Andrew Bevel. My Life is a more confounding document than Bonds, the novel-within-a-novel which opens Trust. The transition between the two sections is abrupt: Bonds concludes, and suddenly you find yourself reading something different, with the self-aggrandizing title, My Life. 

The narrator is suspiciously similar to Benjamin Rask, the protagonist of Bonds, and the story is familiar, very much like the one we have just read. The difference is that our new protagonist, Andrew Bevel, is presenting himself as an historical figure who is narrating his own life story. Yet, the writing is generic and, as we read on, the narrative becomes progressively more fragmented, almost to the point of being shorthand. While it’s hard to fully understand what Diaz is doing and why, we do get a more benevolent and conventional hero in this section. Instead of the loveless, celibate financier Rask with “no appetites to suppress” and who had “no friends” and “no distractions,” we get the loving husband and tycoon Bevel who is making a case for the civic role of the capitalist financier and claiming, seemingly at every turn, that self-interest and profit can be “one with the common good.” While we’re meant to compare Rask and Bevel as we read My Life, Diaz is also depicting the euphemistic manner in which financial capitalism is naturalized and rationalized, the way women are at once marginalized and scapegoated in these narratives about capitalism, and how money and capital form our perspective on the world and shape our realities.

This week, Lori Kletzer, UC Santa Cruz’s Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, helps us understand some of the economic ideas and elements at play in this section, and UC Santa Cruz Philosophy professor, Carolina Flores, helps us understand the social form that capitalism takes. Let’s see what they have to say.

An Economist on Trust

In addition to being our Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, Lori Kletzer is an economist. Her academic expertise is helpful in considering Andrew Bevel’s economic position and historically grounding the financial concepts at play in Trust.

Tell us about your academic work.
I’m a labor economist. I take a part of the economy and go in and look at individual outcomes. I’ve had some people think that because I’m an economist, I live and breathe the short selling of stock. Well, I don’t think like that. But I’m curious about those aspects of the economy as they occur in Trust because the novel is so much about finance and early financialization.

There’s this idea that is being pushed in My Life that finance and capital are both universal and virtuous. Andrew Bevel writes, “Every financier ought to be a polymath, because finance is the thread that runs through every aspect of life. It is … the knot where all the disparate strands of human existence come together” (149). Is that true? What are your thoughts on this sentiment that permeates this section?
That sounds like somebody who is so taken with himself, right? He’s saying, “the thing I do is the thread that holds it all together,” which I suspect is not an uncommon thought among the most highly successful financiers. This passage also invokes a certain investment literature that speaks about investing as a liberal art. Now, this is a claim that makes many of us roll our eyes, but there is a pretty well-known book called Investing: The Last Liberal Art by Robert Hagstrom that argues just that. His thesis is that in order to be successful in investing, you’ve got to take a liberal, broad view–what you’re doing is investing in the larger world and, in order to understand the larger world, you need to believe in ideas like Bevel does. We’ve all heard of Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett’s partner in investing was Charlie Munger, who recently died. Charlie Munger believed in investing as a liberal art and that investment really is the thread that runs through every aspect of life. So this approach, beyond having hubris all over it, is the view of very successful people in the financial world right now.

Why do you think Bevel is pushing this point of view in his autobiography?
Given that Bevel was accused of having caused the Great Depression, he needed to be able to say that everything he did leading up to that crisis had been for the good of the country. I don’t think you have to be an economist to say, “Oh, come on.” His drive is for personal gain. Well, it might be true that the actions undertaken by individuals or financial firms might be correlated with the good of the country in some instances. But the motivation to act is not for the good of the country. The motivation is to make a profit. Personal gain. You know, well-functioning financial markets can be good for people well outside of finance. But Bevel and folks like him were very adept at seeing where new gainful opportunities arose. And I think one of the things that Diaz captures so well is that the people who can see these opportunities amassed enormous amounts of wealth, like stunning amounts of wealth. They were incredibly good at seeing where opportunities arose, and they had the resources to get into those opportunities before others.

What do you think My Life is saying about the role of women in finance?
On page 182, there’s the passage that starts, “Everyone was playing finance with toy money. Even women got in on the market.” And he’s talking about tabloids and women’s magazines giving investing tips and hints mixed in with sewing patterns, recipes, and gossip. It’s a denigration of women, because women are just “playing” at finance. This was where I started to think something was about to drop in the story. And then he concludes that paragraph by saying that we let these dilettantes, mostly women, in and there was a disaster. They destroyed it. They crashed the market, not me. The dilettantes were the ones who brought the whole thing down. And I don’t think there’s any history that shows that any financial crisis was caused by little tiny day traders. We’re calling you on that one, Andrew Bevel.

Do you think the depictions of stock market technologies, especially the ticker tape, were accurately portrayed, and do you see any similarities to today’s financial technologies? 
If you go to Manhattan, there are electronic displays that show the status of stocks—Ford is up, Apple is down, Alphabet is flat. Back in the day, that was the ticker tape. It was the reporting of the ups and downs of the stock market but you did it on a physical device. And it took decades until technology made that digital. And, as I read the book, I noticed how all of these successful financial characters are very mathematically talented. Today, we would call them “quants.” They’re quantitatively skilled. And we live in an era in which the quants are the ones who cook up the models that predict market movement. And it’s also the quants who have cooked up all these securities that you can use to basically monetize or securitize anything, like bundling mortgages together into a new financial instrument. In Trust, these things are just on the verge of happening. Diaz was describing the beginnings of a world that we now live in where computers and higher-level math have changed everything.

 

Financialized Ways of Knowing

As CP/EVC Kletzer helps us see how My Life anticipates our contemporary financial technologies, Philosophy professor Carolina Flores shows how this section of the novel depicts how financialization has become a contemporary shared experience, or a way of knowing our world. She looks at My Life through an epistemological lens, a perspective focused on discovering how knowledge is experienced and understood as knowledge. How do we know what we know? And how do we experience what we know or what we think we know? She has this to say about Bevel’s autobiographical perspective in Trust:

There is a sense of intimacy here, as if you had just opened a drawer and found a private work-in-progress manuscript. At the same time, it is hard to believe that this is a real person writing. What real person writes, without a drop of irony or self-awareness, commonplaces as uncritical and impersonal as the repeated refrain that “self-interest, if properly directed, need not be divorced from the common good,” or describes his father’s childhood antics as showing that “from the tenderest age he had the ability to shape the world to his will,” or attempts to show his love for his wife by writing that “she relished in the smallest tasks and found the highest satisfaction in the simplest pleasures of life” and comparing her to a child?

Professor Flores thinks that this point of view is more than just Andrew Bevel’s egotistical pontifications; rather, she suggests that we can think about his voice as the “impersonal, distressingly familiar, and frustratingly hollow” language of “American capital itself.” Flores considers Bevel’s narrative position to be the mouthpiece of the American ideology of capital, or the ruling ideas that help keep capitalism stabilized as the ruling system and make it seem normal, common, and “natural.” On the ways ideology is being deployed in My Life, Professor Flores adds:

Bevel is no more than a mechanical mouthpiece for an ideology with which we are all drearily familiar. This is an ideology which considers the unregulated, greedy pursuit of profit to be “one with the common good,” that “our prosperity is proof of our good deeds,” that individuals are responsible for their destiny, that all forms of government interaction are bad, and that “the future belongs to America.” It is one that, with creepy eugenics overtones, values “innate aptitude” and “inherited brilliance” along a paternal line above all else; which sees women as good insofar as they use their childlike intuition to care for and nurture the boys and men in their lives, this intuition transforming to “hysteria” if they attempt to meddle with the male pursuit of profit. And it is one which masks its ideological character by gesturing to “science” and “objective interpretations of data” as supposedly supporting the morality and inevitability of the predatory pursuit of profit.

Both Professor Flores and CP/EVC Kletzer have found grounds to criticize Bevel’s perspective in this section of Trust, and they both make different, but equally convincing, cases for bringing skepticism to his version of his life. While Kletzer helps us to see Bevel’s depictions of women and his general elitism as the machinations of an extremely wealthy man trying to exonerate himself from public blame, Flores is suggesting that his worldview is something we all exist within and an ideology that informs how we experience and come to understand the world. Not only this, Flores also speaks to the way that Bevel’s voice of capitalism has been incorporated into our worldview and lives. As she adds, “we have internalized its voice and can’t help but take it as a guide to reality. Our very own familiarity with the commonplace expressions and generic mottos shows us that this is our culture, too. Even if we reject it, it shapes our intuitive grasp of reality.”

Are we all, in some way, Andrew Bevel? And, if so, what do we do now? Luckily, as with Bevel’s autobiography, the story is unfinished, partial, and in fragments. Perhaps Diaz is suggesting that there is yet another story to be written, another history to unfold, another way of knowing.

Community Conversations

We’ve presented different ways to read My Life, both in economic and in philosophical terms. What did you think of Bevel’s position in this section? Did you find yourself comparing and contrasting him to Benjamin Rask in Bonds as you read? Did you find yourself relating the two books? What did you think about his claims about his life, his wife, Mildred, and his role in the history of financial capitalism, both its booms and its busts? What did you think about his representation of women? CP/EVC Kletzer suggests that Trust is marking the beginning of the modern financial era and incorporates a contemporary view of investment as a “liberal art.” Did you notice this contemporary resonance as you read? What do you think about the suggestion made by Professor Flores that Diaz is demonstrating that we’re all existing within the ideology of capital? Why would Diaz be attempting to make this point? Thinking back to last week’s email about Diaz’s use of framing devices, what does it mean that he gives us an autobiography after a novel about a similar character? What is he suggesting by shifting the perspective and genre in this section of the book? Is he giving us competing or complementary narratives? And who the heck is Harold Vanner?

Feel free to pose other questions, respond to others, and offer your ideas in the comments section below.