What is the Primary Goal? Lessons from WOPR and the Race to Nowhere

An overheard conversation in a café turns into a reflection on the Race to Nowhere and lessons from the movie War Games.

This morning I walked to a café to get some work done. Next to me, a middle-aged Asian mom was telling a recently retired white man about the challenges she faced trying to convince her son to go into banking.

“You make so much, and you don’t have to do anything!”

The man concurred. “That’s what I did. I was a vice president at Wells Fargo. I couldn’t believe how much they paid me for how little I did. You get paid more to do less in banking than in any other discipline.”

I laughed out loud—banking, a discipline? Luckily, I had my phone in front of me so I could pretend that I was laughing at something on my screen.

They chortled about the ridiculous excesses of banking and wondered why anyone would do anything else. “I guess some people thrive on stress and high pressure,” the man offered.

“Nursing is the worst. It’s like teaching. No respect,” the mom added. Then she revealed something truly laughable. “My daughter told me there’s enough lawyers and bankers in the world. She wants to make a difference.”

They had a good hardy-har-har about that one.

The man just shook his head. “Bullshit. There’s a growing need for lawyering and banking. You know what there’re too many of? Math teachers.”

I started to feel like this conversation was so absurd it was being staged for my benefit. Should I jump in? No, better to listen.

I do know something about banking, though. I am, ahem, the coauthor of “the funniest economic primer ever written” and, while researching that book, I become a bit like WOPR in the movie War Games. Our banking system?

A strange game. The only winning move is
not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

Brilliant movie, War Games. It reflected our collective realization that the Cold War was an exercise in futility that threatened our existence. In one poignant scene, the character of Dr. Falken shows a movie about dinosaurs and talks about extinction—with obvious parallels to our situation, both then and now.

Now, children, come on over here. I’m going to tell you a bedtime story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time, there lived a magnificent race of animals that dominated the world through age after age. They ran, they swam, and they fought and they flew, until suddenly, quite recently, they disappeared. Nature just gave up and started again. We weren’t even apes then. We were just these smart little rodents hiding in the rocks. And when we go, nature will start over. With the bees, probably. Nature knows when to give up, David.

Everything will be okay. Nature can always start over.

The movie could be remade today, with climate change standing in for nuclear war. But it would be a lot more difficult to make. Despite the many follies of the arms race, at least we had a central command. Hell, we were prepared six ways from Sunday for every possible contingency. What powerless climate summit would today’s Matthew Broderick burst into? Yet the parallels are clear: We are escalating an ecological war on ourselves with all the haste of a banker — or microtrading supercomputer — at the NYSE.

Speaking of the Race to Nowhere, the retired banker and mom next began talking about how they were positioning their teenage children to be judged positively by colleges.

“They’d rather see that you volunteered for no pay in your discipline than worked for money at a restaurant or something.”

Ah, the incredibly valuable unpaid internship. If only every young person could afford to work for free while being supported by parents.

A young black man walked down the street and begged a white woman on her way to yoga for some change. She gave him a few coins and they walked in opposite directions.

Apparently the young man was a regular in the neighborhood, because the retired banker was outraged. “That guy is despicable. Just despicable.” He told his phone to call the Oakland police, but after the fourth voice command he gave up. They had better things to talk about.

“My boyfriend used to work at Silicon Valley Bank,” the mom explained. “He does commercial banking for startups. Their whole culture is ‘Party On.’ They make so much money and they don’t do anything—it’s all because of their relationship to Sand Hill Road.”

They took turns trading anecdotes about all the “incompetents” and “liars” who nevertheless have fabulous careers in banking by going “from one bank to the next” and “inflating their experience.”

Why didn’t her son get it? He could have such an easy time failing upward with fellow incompetent liars. Besides, as a banker he could play a central role in escalating the war on both our ecology and economy.

I thought back to War Games.

What is the primary goal?
You should know, Professor. You programmed me.
What is the primary goal?

Some of us are trying to answer that question.

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