Curious George Talks the Market
Soros says nothing about the crucial question of governance. Why should any citizen, here or elsewhere in the world, be expected to trust a remote and powerful governing institution that narrowly defends the values of finance and takes its cues from major financial players? In an interview for Rolling Stone, I asked Soros this question and he seemed mildly puzzled by it. His answer suggested a patrician's shallow grasp of democracy.
"I don't think the broad swath of Americans are sitting in a very good position to control the credit stores in the world," he replied. "I mean, it's a pretty specialized and technical thing."
His opacity sounds like elitist evasion, but I suspect Soros really hasn't thought much about questions of popular sovereignty in economic life. The example illustrates what Soros failed to accomplish in this book--a full and convincing integration of the social and economic spheres. One exists as an abstract realm of sincere good intentions, requiring a decent respect for humanity, while the other remains a place where big boys play hardball and make lots of money.
In short, he wants a stable financial system and an equable social order and believes they can emerge, but he is not a small-d democrat and doesn't think like one. Given his personal history and enormous power, it's perhaps unrealistic to expect otherwise.
Still, what one also senses in this man is a tortured yearning to reconcile his wealth and power--his own brutal conquests in the marketplace--with the humane social values he also genuinely embraces. That's an admirable struggle, not yet as resolved as he seems to think.
Embedded in this book is another intriguing story--a very old human drama--that readers must tease out for themselves, because George Soros seems to be searching for his own soul. He brings up the personal sparingly, now and then, without fully examining the anxieties he is disclosing. One must infer the depth of his anguish despite his wealth and triumphs, despite his talent and egotism.
Managing a hedge fund is "extremely painful," he confesses, because it is driven by emotions--doubt and fear--as much as brainy analysis. "I had moments of hope or even euphoria, but they made me feel insecure," he writes. "By contrast, worrying made me feel safe. So the only genuine joy I experienced was when I discovered what I had to worry about."
Being George Soros does not sound like a total blessing, described in those terms. The self-revelations make him seem more sympathetic.
His civic values are confirmed by the hundreds of millions he has devoted to fostering democratic reform movements in Eastern Europe and the Open Society Institute here in the United States. Soros finances such unpopular causes as dismantling the insane "war on drugs." He provides seed money for campaign-finance reform advocates and many other progressive issues.
When I asked if he feels personal tension between his social values and his enormous wealth, Soros replied: "I have spent practically my whole life trying to reconcile these considerations.... As a competitor or as a participant [in financial markets], you look out for your individual interests. But as a citizen, or as a member of society, you really should put the interests of society ahead of your own personal interests. And you should do that--and this is crucial--even if other people don't do it."
His personal struggle, in his words, is to stare down the "wide gap between my public persona and what I consider my real self." He tells us he has succeeded, has actually "dismantled the mechanism of pain and anxiety that used to guide me."
I rather doubt the claim. But I do admire the confession and hope he pushes forward with the search.