A Review of ‘Billions’

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I have been enthralled by the series Billions over the last week or so. For those who haven’t seen it on DSTV or Showmax, it’s a series in which a ruthlessly flawed hedge fund manager is pitched against an equally determined and unrelenting US States Attorney.

Now, far be it for me as a liberal arts major to fully understand the intricacies of the stock markets and the algorithms and economic sleights of hand that go with it. But I have certainly been learning about shorting stocks and going long on information both in the public domain and info obtained via devious means.

This series though, like all shows about people in professional positions like lawyers, doctors, the press and politicians, is about people.  It reveals the nuanced protagonists as both heroic and venal; yet their decisions and maneuvering are motivated by personal interest before all else.

What has struck me, with this production, is that it suggests that once you have suspended your faith and desire for honest justice, situational ethics, guilt and desire and the balancing of favours seem to operate in this society as a more powerful currency than the ‘mighty dollar.’

How true is that in the ‘real’ world, I wonder. Well, I have certainly seen what one of the Billions characters, Brian Connerty, calls ‘political fluidity’ in operation in life, sometimes in places you’d least expect it. That’s one of the reasons I like the group of schools I work in. I respect the person in charge as one of integrity. And that makes all the difference.

The characters in this series are in so many ways morally bankrupt, despite their billions. Their honour is as fake as John Malkovitch’s Russian accent. As much as everyone on the planet ultimately sees themselves as the hero in their own story, moral turpitude is all too often downplayed when people’s personal interests collide with doing the right thing.

And it’s so simple to choose expedience before integrity. Because it’s easier. How tempting it is to give a glowing reference to a person one wants to encourage to leave; how easy to overlook malfeasance in someone one feels sorry for, or bend the rules for someone you like. It’s jolly hard to be fair to everyone. I have sleepless nights sometimes trying to decide the fairest way to treat people. But, I have to live with the choices I make and face myself in the mirror.

Billions explores loyalty and betrayal and assumes everyone is guilty of something. And that is certainly true. All people are flawed in some way. The characters in the show leverage the peccadillos of the players, even those close to them, to wield power. And I guess that’s what it comes down to, far more than money: power.

I am glad I don’t live and work in that sort of wild west, but every institution has the potential to be run like that: using and trading on secrets and inside information and pitting people against each other and the worst of moral ambiguity: rationalizing it as being ‘for the best,’ the end justifying the means. It’s hard to be a straight arrow, but I think it’s important to be honest, especially to myself.

Like the traders and lawyers on Billions, the temptations remain in any institution, because when you have authority over people there is always the possibility for corruption and pursuing self-interest above what is right.

So, we must guard against it. Transparency and honesty are essential.  Knowing what is right is important. A moral compass and careful adherence to the core of an organisation’s ethos keeps you on the straight and narrow. In some faith-based schools, there is a position dedicated to such oversight. In many cases it doesn’t have enough teeth, but it is one way of keeping a school on course.

A leadership team that is allowed, and in fact encouraged, to challenge the leader on matters of moral direction is also important. Good advisors are invaluable. I am lucky. I have such a team. 

And I’ll keep rooting for those with a conscience, even on television shows, if I can find them.

Besides, no one can actually spend billions and there is no price on peace of mind.

Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect.”

– Stephen Covey

Morality word cloud

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