BERNARD: But sometimes, Willy, it’s better for a man just to walk away.
WILLY: Walk away?
BERNARD: That’s right.
WILLY: But if you can’t walk away?
BERNARD: I guess that’s when it’s tough.
– Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
Wealthy Manhattanites reel from dull predictability of highly structured lives.
There’s this magazine, Departures – a great read if you care about what’s on the 1% wish list. The magazine comes free if you have an American Express platinum card. If you don’t have an American Express platinum card, there’s a good chance you’ll find this magazine in a bathroom of your rich friend, right by the toilet seat. Open any random page and the amount of bullshit will blow your mind. “Are you still waking up to a traditional alarm clock and showering with ordinary municipal water? That’s so old school,” begins one article. You are in luck: The showers infused with vitamin C, lighting that optimizes your circadian rhythms and task-specific aromatherapy will soon be available to some lucky health-obsessed and, well, solvent Manhattan dwellers.
The burden of the 1% is lack of alpha and lack of adventure. If you represent a market niche for that vitamin shower but have read Hemingway in your youth, you sense that something is not quite right. You sense some hard-to-nail-down dissonance. As a former member of the 1% I know the feeling. I was there myself. Back in the day, when I was a mid-level Wall Street employee I wasn’t exactly lacking the thrills at work. Back then the volatility resembled a wild bronco. I had to clear 3-4 points bid-offer just to break even. That’ll keep you awake at night. I’m not complaining, after all I was well-paid. I’m just showing off my battle scars. To a Wall Streeter everything is a battle or a game, you know. Then, when you’re off work, your life is a sterilized and predictable routine: gym, healthy eating habits, domestic help. Eventually, this dichotomy – dirty combat at work/decontaminated existence outside – becomes mentally draining. If you’re able to block those creeping thoughts about the nature of your existence, you’re lucky. I wasn’t that lucky. Like many others, I’m sure, I looked for rationalizations: there must be some purpose in all of this, some meaning. But there was none. It’s just one of those bullshit jobs with a good payoff. We were not really funding any businesses or providing liquidity. I refuse to believe that those still employed in those areas don’t realize that – they are way too well-read and overeducated to not appreciate the predicament. So many are looking for some mental release, for a justification. Because we are good, dammit! We are all good people just doing our jobs.
When you’re used to your career trajectory moving up at a 45 degree (or steeper) angle, you are at a loss when it inevitably begins to flatten; you’ve groomed yourself for battle after all. Your built-up ambition doesn’t slow down in correlation with the diminishing opportunities. It doesn’t just disappear. And then what? At some point acquiring luxury items stops bringing satisfaction. At some point your life becomes about seeking the next thrill. Mine did. Like in some vile videogame you must move to the new level, new quest – this time searching for meaning, validation, benevolence or adventure. Adventure is hard to come by in Manhattan, unless you are a homeless drug addict or a street hooker or, well, poor. One can search for meaning on various charity boards, the other may find refuge in drugs or alcohol. I’m indifferent to most drugs; I’m partial to coke, but it makes my nose bleed. Marathons are pointless in my view. I consider charity – a common mental refuge of the successful – to be just a contrived display of benevolence, a self-promotion tool. I like gambling though. But my point is this: outlets for a real adventure are limited for the top 1%. But that pent-up demand – to be someone beyond the P&L, beyond the “number” – is palpable among the Wall Street/hedge fund crowd. They can’t sit quietly in the room and enjoy the spoils. They must do something. That desire is not necessarily bad, it just has nowhere to go. To exacerbate the problem, there’s no alpha today, no volatility. Hedge fund managers feel emasculated. They are basically reduced to extracting value from others, relying on insider tips, bullying everyone down the food chain and engaging in insurance scams. I guess that explains Bernanke hatred: he took away the hedge funds’ thrill rides. There are very few opportunities today to show the world what a top dog you are. And it sucks having to think of yourself as a swindler or a bully. Ask any credit trader to describe what he does for a living and more often than not you’ll hear self-deprecating: “Oh, I’m just a monkey pulling a lever,” followed by a sheepish giggle. The reason for this faux humility is that he himself knows that what he does is bullshit, a high-paying bullshit. You would never hear something like this from a doctor or a teacher.
That’s where pretentious bullshit comes in. It takes many forms. Sometimes it comes in the form of a fake adversity. The popularity of various races “for the cure”, marathons, charitable trips to Haiti, underground Wall Street fight clubs speak of that furtive need. All of a sudden, the 1% want to be regular folk, or at least find what they think is regular folks’ experience: physical challenges, dangerous situations, scarcity of resources. That credit trader fake display of modesty is often followed by a story about how they flew to Vegas with the guys for a weekend and got into a drunken fight in a nightclub. They seek adversity so that they can “overcome” it and then tell stories. But in our sterile Manhattan/Greenwich cocoon we are just grasping at straws. Local businesses got smart about those repressed desires: they structure their businesses to look like they serve a bunch of destitute laborers. Ralph Lauren store in West Village sells those Boardwalk Empire themed clothes that will make you look like you just came from a Depression era stock footage. Naturally those clothes cost a small fortune. Trendy restaurants must contain words like “farm”, “kitchen”, “shack” or “mission”. Or how about those cronut lines in Soho? People stand in line for 3 hours to get a freaking pastry! Those are not exactly working folk standing in line for a piece of bread. Why do they do that if not for that rare sense of accomplishment? Or have you tried to get into Momofuku Ko? You have to know a guy who knows a guy who can get you a reservation, but even then you won’t be able to find the freaking place. You’ll be going up and down the 1st avenue block trying to find the goddamn door. It makes for a good adversity story though. Going to Per Se or Daniel does not sound like much of an adventure. I guess in the end it’s not so much about the product as it is about the process.
That’s the cruel predicament that the 1% got themselves into. The well-off work hard to eliminate the chance, the spontaneity in their private lives and then spend enormous amounts of money trying to recreate it in a controlled environment. Nassim Taleb, the author of Black Swan and Antifragile, calls this kind of phenomenon “touristification”. Even their thrill seeking time will be planned and scheduled and will have a private guide. Even when you travel to, say, Cambodia, all you gonna end up doing is riding in an air-conditioned car, occasionally stopping in some indigent villages to take pseudo-National Geographic pictures of dirty barefoot kids. While tracking gorillas in Rwanda you’ll have an option to stay in the slums for a night and lend a helping hand to orphaned children. Or if you really want to immerse in the lives of destitute there is a new trend in luxury “shanty town” vacations. Options include a $26 tour of Cape Town where you can experience feces in plastic bags being thrown at you (without plastic bag is extra?). Think about stories you’ll be able to tell back at your desk and at cocktail parties! And yet, you’ll still feel restless.
There’s a cure for that restlessness. I hate to sound pious but you can become a better person for real. The only way to help the poor and the destitute is to stop doing what you’re doing. It’s not like you have to do it. Stop trying to devise new ways to extract value from the rubes. Stop charging public pension funds million dollar fees for some questionable services. Fuck HFT, fuck CDX IG! You are looking for excitements in all the wrong places: it’s a world of diminishing returns for as far as I can see. Take the money you already have and retire or find another line of work. Some are doing it already. Seriously. It’s unorthodox, I know. What’s that? Leaving the industry will prevent you from funding your philanthropic foundation that helps poor people? Perhaps when you stop fleecing people in the first place they won’t need your mercy after all. Stopping this bullshit is what really matters. Walking away from your line of work is the real adversity, the real-life adventure that you so desperately seek. Think of it as if you’re throwing the ring of power into the fires of Mordor.
I understand that for many it may be all too real. People have families, bills, lifestyles to maintain. One can’t just walk away from all of this unscathed. Oh, well. I guess that’s when it’s tough.