Thanks (?) CBS
Thanks (?) CBS

CBS has a new reality TV show called “The Briefcase”.

The basic plotline:

  1. Each week, they find a family of poor people middle-class Americans that are struggling to make their bills.
  2. The family is give a briefcase filled with $101,000.
  3. They’re allowed to spend their first $1,000 to, I guess, whet their appetites.
  4. Then: plot twist!
  5. They’re presented with a second family of poor people middle-class Americans that are struggling to make their bills, whose needs are possibly greater than theirs.
  6. And the whole story becomes a moral dilemma around whether they should keep the money, give it all to the other family, or keep some and give the rest away.
  7. They get to rifle through the second family’s belongings in order to make their decision.
  8. Then: new other plot twist!
  9. The second family has been doing the exact same thing from the other side.
  10. End on gripping sit-down scene with the two briefcases and both families coming clean about how much they’re going to give. Like that’s not awkward.

And all the tension comes from this “will basic honest-to-goodness humanity trump economic game theory?” moralising punchline.

It’s so twee I can barely breathe.

When did it become entertaining to give money to the desperate and then insist that giving-some-of-it-away is a moral imperative?

The Morality Of Money

I think that the reason that this show is both:

  1. Appalling; and
  2. Extremely difficult to watch

…is because it’s so deeply stupid.

At its core, I suspect the problem is that it imposes a moral decision where there is no moral decision to be made.

Every paycheck, I receive money in my bank account. Every paycheck, I spend most of it on me and my needs. And by needs, I mean “fun holidays”, “expensive dinners”, “new car repayments” and hundreds (if not thousands) of other expenses that are really a prioritisation of my wants over the needs of the much-more desperate.

That’s not a moral decision. That’s just circumstance, and to treat it otherwise is perverse.

We don’t stop watching TV because there are people that are blind. We don’t stop reading books because 800 million people are functionally illiterate. We don’t stop breaking bread because of all the gluten intolerance.

That is: there is no guilt or morality attached to being able to see, being able to read, and being able to eat foods with gluten in them. Being able to earn more money is exactly the same thing. It is an environmental gift, bestowed by one’s parents, genetics, and providence. Possibly with a small bit of personal choice along the way (although I’d argue that even those choices were mostly a function of parenting, genetics and providence).

And it’s true – once you have the money, then you can choose to do things with it. You can choose to spend it on yourself, or on friends and family, or possibly on other people that might need it more than you need another fancy holiday right now.

But there is nothing especially moral about any of those choices – choosing to spend money on me does not make me a bad person, in just the same way that choosing to spend money on the needy does not make me a good person. I mean, if Adolf Hitler gave money to charity and the needy (and he ran huge programs to do so), would that have made him a good and “moral” person?

In this setting, the clear suggestion is that if a couple neglects the responsibility that they have to their own family in favour of some random strangers that they’ve not met before, then they are good people.

My question: what if that couple sold off their house and sent their children into foster care because they decided that this other family needed the money more? Would that be moral?

No – it’s perverse.

The Golden Rule is NOT “Treat your neighbour much better than you treat yourself and your children and how dare you have any nice things, actually.”

Speaking of perversion, you know what else is perverse?

Taking a poor person’s desperation and twisting it into a play of moral conscience.


Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at