This article in today’s NYT stirred old memories and current sentiments. And you know how much I like to write about Wall Street, so here it is.
First a disclaimer: I love Wall Street the same way I love a casino. It’s Disneyland for adults, it’s a fun place to be. It’s like a sandbox with geeks, bullies, jerks, alphas and omegas making toy trades.
I decided to explore why it is so hard for guys on Wall Street to see themselves as villains or at least to be honest about their role in the crisis. They still insist they are the good guys who are being unfairly treated by Obama. Beaten like a piñata for no reason.
I remember how at the very beginning of my Wall Street career I tried to justify my work to myself, give it some meaning, although I was unable to explain what it is that I do to folks back home. Then after some time I gave up the idea that I’m doing socially useful work, even marginally. But I knew what I was doing and I didn’t pretend to be someone that I’m not. I was there for the money, I was no longer under the illusion that my occupation will somehow make the world a better place. Money is what makes young ambitious kids endure long hours jerking off stupid spreadsheets, when their peers are actually feeding the hungry in Africa or teaching kids in Harlem. But then, after a few years something starts to bug them. They start thinking: it would be nice to make all that money and actually see the results of your labor that have made a difference in society, a change for the better. (Notice that here I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. I award them human qualities. I truly believe that people genuinely feel the need to voluntarily share the reasonable part of the windfall with less fortunate at some point in their lives. But someone who proofread this story for me felt that charitable impulses are to be displayed strictly in public, checks to be written when cameras are clicking, otherwise what’s the point? But that person is a hopeless cynic.) Wall Street loves to participate in all kinds of charities, fund raisers, etc. It is hard for any individual, even a Wall Street type, to see himself doing something that lacks meaning. It is important for a sane person, especially after he made tons of money, to feel like he’s making the world a better place. And since he could not get other than only monetary fulfillment at work he either a) gets active in charity or, if he’s a sociopath, b) keeps clinging to the belief that he’s a nice guy who helps small businesses get funding and keeps the economy going. You know, it’s nice to make all that dough and be seen as a nice, caring, charitable person who helps little neighborhood cupcake bakeries get capital by day and donates money to special needs children by night via industry social. All right, I won’t question the motives of bankers who do charity in this post, I will assume they are doing it from big heart and generosity. I’m simply questioning their approach to their primary profession. And I think the answer is that for some it’s hard to admit that creating and trading mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps did not really fund that cupcake store down the street.
Now, if you think that I’m writing this to pile up on greedy bankers you’re wrong. I have no problem with bankers being greedy and conniving and shrewd. If they weren’t then there would be no money to be made. That’s their business, that’s what they do. If they want to feel good about themselves they should donate to charity and that’s that. But I don’t want them to pretend that what they are doing during the day is noble. My problem with Wall Street is that they still see themselves and insist on everyone seeing them as innocent sheep. Does that guy in the article, Anthony Scaramucci, honestly believe that what he’s doing is simply helping small businesses get financing? He’s either naïve, which I doubt, or he finds himself in the position where admitting to himself that all these years he participated in the biggest fleecing of America would make his head explode. I think guys like him have no avenue, other than charity, to make them feel good about themselves. I find it disingenuous when they pretend to be nice and fluffy vegetarians who get pushed around by big and nasty Obama. All I want them is to acknowledge that this is what they do, they eat what they kill, and not hide under the ‘nice guy’ guise. As you probably inferred from my writing is that I’m in the “no illusions about what we did” camp. What we did, what I did wasn’t nice. It was fun, though, it was breathtaking at times, frustrating at other times, but it was never boring. I too gave money to charities, partially because I genuinely felt the need to share and partially because I got to dress up and socialize and have drinks and nice dinner. I know. (You see, I come from a humble, plebeian background – free food, or at least that’s the way I looked at it after I wrote a check, can still be a factor for me to attend any event). At least I’m honest about it, and a guy like Scaramucci isn’t. Before you protest and call me names answer this one question to yourself: Would you do your job for $50,000 with no bonus? Would you be a quant, a structurer, a trader, a salesperson or a spreadsheet whacker if that was the pay? Or would you rather go work for the UN or be a teacher for $50K?
So go and make your money the shrewd way, give to charity to make yourself feel better but please don’t pretend to be a Ghandi. And if you feel like you’re being beaten like a piñata, take it as a man. Many millions of unemployed and those who lost everything would love to be beaten with that kind of stick.