Wednesday, 21 January 2009

An important point in Obama's inaugural speech

President Obama made a distinction in his inaugural speech (brought to my attention via the BBC): "the makers of things" versus the makers of money. He said the US's spirit lies with the former.

He said: "a nation cannot prosper long, when it favours only the prosperous".

It may be that we have crossed a threshold. I came to England to study Artificial Intelligence, and subsequently Pattern Recognition, yet by the time I was finishing (around 2000), all I wanted was to join the legions of smart people who worked in the money markets in London's City (financial organisations). It was something that baffled my parents back in Cairo.

I had graduated in 1991 at the forefront of a new generation of computer scientists in Egypt. Looking back, my father describes the timing of my graduation as perfect. People in Egypt were just beginning to realise how important computing was going to be, and it was going mainstream, and here I was young, scholastically accomplished, and ready.

His analysis also applies internationally: it was people of my age and of my more-or-less same background who pioneered the Great Internet Expansion of 1994-1998. This was the proper internet boom. (1999-2001 saw a silly anything-goes craze that amounted to clearing of deadwood.)

But I was out of all this. I had gone and buried myself under books for almost ten years (1992-2000). You'd think I'd come out of the PhD tunnel all revved up for the second wave of internet expansion, or something. Nope, exposure to the scientific method and advanced computing algorithms drove me straight to the money men.

A lot of what I did in my early life was in imitation of others - particularly other Egyptians. But by 2000, aged 29, the circle of people I was imitating (modelling, if you like) had expanded to various London-based nationalities of accomplished, ambitious people. And they all seemed obsessed with the City.

Picking just one example: How about the Greek guy who, upon completing his PhD, had transitioned right into an investment banking job at Lehman Brothers (now defunct), and three years later had bought two brand-new flats (which he was renting out)? He was two years younger than me.

The people who were coming to our campus (to sell their companies to us) were all top people. They might have studied Geography, or Literature, but they all were academically distinguished, one way or another. It showed; you could tell. They spoke of how hard they worked and how you have to be ready to roll with the punches, but that they were working with the best people in the world. The kinds of things they did in their spare time were: sky-diving, mountain-climbing, or wind-surfing. They never talked about their salaries, of course.

I heard through a friend that he had wanted to buy one of the new flats that arose like mushrooms throughout London ('new developments') only to find that all the flats had already gone. He'd arrived at 9am. Others were there at 8am. Everyone was paying in cash.

Close friends referred me to and other career-building sites, packed with insider tips, interview preps, etc. I started studying John Hull's "Futures, Options and Derivatives" - considered 101 City. Black-Scholes model and all that.

Fundamentally, a lot of what goes on in the City, and the recent Hedge Fund fad, is speculation. It is dressed-up, mathematically-cool betting. You are trading on other people's trading. Some fools, some schmucks, really were buying and selling goods (currency, oil, metal, financial assets, etc); but you, you betted on them. I bet that schmuck makes a 5 mil loss on that gold transaction; I am putting 2 grand on it.

Despite my academic abilities, and the smarts I supposedly possessed, much to the chagrin of my parents, I craved and desired to be part of that world. My father pronounced me morally bankrupt.

Being Muslim, I felt torn about the desires I had. Muslim teachings are against interest-based loans. They are against betting and gambling. The spirit of Muslim teachings is "do not exploit your fellow man", and "trade things, not money". Still, I remember justifying my interest to work in the City to an old friend thus: "You need to get inside the system to beat the system."

Well, the system beat me. All my interviews went nowhere. For some reason, God did not want me to be part of this "system". It has left an indelible mark of defeat on me. Yet I have to trust in God and believe that He wanted better things for me.

But this struggle, this conflict is not over. Right now, still, there are thousands of people carrying on with speculation. It is called the money markets. It is called trading. Go F yourself.

Update on 9 Feb 2009

George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, called for a fundamental change to bankers’ pay. “The party is over for the banks. You can’t go on paying yourselves 20 times what a heart surgeon earns. That whole culture has to come to an end. I think the bankers, and indeed the Government, have to understand you can’t just reflate the balloon that burst,” he said.

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