That Clinking Clanking Sound

Almost exactly to the day in 1979, I stood over the garbage can outside my family’s house and ripped a ten-dollar bill to shreds, declaring to my father that money is “irrelevant.” I was young. I was idealistic. I was unbearable.

I was also wrong. Just how wrong I have learned in the years since. Not only is money relevant, but it may be the only thing that counts. I mean that all the good intentions in the world won’t pay the rent or feed a hungry child. Talking and debating won’t buy medicine. Forming committees doesn’t do anything except allow the people on them to feel good about themselves. I know this from experience, believe me.

You need money to do things. Not only that, but money and the act of acquiring it can temper the ego in ways that those who do not struggle for it will never understand. John D. Rockefeller learned this in his patronage of the University of Chicago, which he wanted to be a bastion of Baptist theology. Good luck with that. His problems with the university’s first president, spendthrift William Rainey Harper, are well documented.

After taking my stand at the garbage can, fitting as that was, I had to follow up with something even grander. So I dove into the deeper life of literature and language, faith and religion. I turned my back on filthy lucre, determined to prove its irrelevance and giving free reign to my disdain. Never mind that St. Paul devoted his missionary work to preaching the word and collecting money for the churches. He even continued making tents to earn dough, which was his trade.

After traveling the world literally and figuratively, I returned home. I now teach in a business school and am in business for myself (let’s talk about cash flow and hiring). The thing I have come to appreciate is that, whereas before everybody was concerned about process–even going around the room to share our feelings about the meeting–business is entirely different. It deals with the product or bottom line, not the process. It tries to respect people’s time.

Of course, not everything comes up roses. There’s quite a bit of manure in business, too. At just about all levels, there is a tendency to force results, use jargon (e.g., synergies, thought leaders, deep dives, takeaways), idolize pragmatism, distrust the intellect, and turn everything into a commodity.

“Why not? Everything can be measured,” a retired technology CEO once told me.

But, as I continue to rant in these blogs, people are not human resources and naming an entire discipline as such is an insult. “Personnel” was much better, even if all thumbs. I worked once in the Personnel Office at Central Penn Bank in Philadelphia. Come to think of it, it was during the garbage can incident. I must have felt pretty sure of myself.

The only things more important than money are love and time, both of which are affected by money. They are not equal but stand in relation to one another. And, let’s face it, most people have a healthy sense of money–the ones who don’t have it, that is. You and I both know that after meeting basic needs and desires (e.g., a Broadway show every once in a while–not “Hamilton” at $5,000 a ticket), money can be a problem. Once you cross a certain threshold, you have to manage it, and then it manages you.

Think of the evil done in the name of money, from betrayal to murder and war. Love of it, which is love distorted, has made a wreck of things. The question is, can money be put at the service of love rather than the other way around? Sure, but not by denying its relevance, which is foolish.

Money makes the world go around, but love determines its spin, nicht wahr?

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Posted from Nairobi, Kenya via Munich, Germany. Jambo! 

2 thoughts on “That Clinking Clanking Sound

  1. Central Penn Bank. That does bring back a memory, Robert.

    When my wife and I moved to Paoli, PA in 1977 we opened up accounts at the local Central Penn Bank branch, and our safe deposit key is still in a plastic sleeve bearing the Central Penn name and logo.

    When I recently had occasion to open my box, I asked the young teller if she had ever heard of Central Penn, and of course she had not — that branch has been through at least five changes in ownership since then.

    Unlike many other great institutions (Pan Am? Union Carbide Corporation?), the bank building is still here, and our accounts are still here. I guess money does have staying power in the pantheon of our priorities.

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    1. On my way home yesterday at JFK, I passed the “TWA Flight Center,” which was constructed in 1962 with sweeping lines and sleek concrete and glass. It was intended to be the look of the future. It still looks that way. Why they have left it up, I do not know. Why it had such an ignoble ending, I don’t know, either. Somehow, TWA failed its own building. What happened? Greed, mismanagement, the inability to compete in a deregulated industry? I’m sure there’s a story there, but there is also a beautiful building that serves as a home to no one. It houses only memories, like Central Penn. I feel a blog coming on.

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