The Fallibility of Men

“Since we are dealing with Men, it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good.”

This is a comment J.R.R. Tolkien made about his new but quickly abandoned book “The New Shadow.” He wrote only 13 pages of it and decided it wasn’t worth writing further. Why? He thought that the story could progress only in one way: the men who are restless and discontented with peace and prosperity will seek new battles and adventures and will destroy the peace in the process. That triumphant moment when the good defeated evil at the end of The Return of The King would only last a brief second before men would bring turmoil to their own kingdom. There’s no need for Orcs or Dark Overlord – men will do it all themselves.

I’ll get back to the fantasy world later.

Last week a former RBS trader pleaded guilty to defrauding investors. It’s not big news in and of itself. But it’s a great illustration to the point I’m trying to make.

Adam Siegel was a young star at Bear Stearns back in the day. He became an MD while still in his 20s. When Bear collapsed in 2008 he jumped to RBS with a bunch of his colleagues. After the crisis RMBS/CMBS trading was on the decline so to make any kind of money in that business one had to become resourceful. And he did. His new business model involved shaving a few beeps off his counterparties. Nothing fancy really. In 2014 one of his colleagues pleaded guilty in the expanding probe and Siegel himself was placed on leave. What does he do? Goes home and rethinks his life? Ha, no. He jumps yet to another shop – Fortress – to join yet another Bear alumni Michael Nierenberg.

This story is a great example of the kind of restlessness of men that Tolkien was talking about. Life gave Siegel plenty of opportunities to retire, to abandon the game – his first employer collapsed, the other suspended him – and yet he’s incapable of walking away. Instead he jumps from one sinking ship to another, probably self-congratulating himself for his agility and perseverance.

For guys like him the worst punishment is not jail time or a large fine. For guys like him the worst punishment is being excluded from the game. Now that he’s pled guilty and is on bail, I assume that, at the very least, he’s banned from using his Bloomberg. Oh, man, denying a Bloomberg access to a trader is like denying crack to an addict. He wishes nothing more than to be able to check some quotes. If you told him that for the rest of his life he will never trade again, never hustle a client again, you would put him into a severe, suicidal-level depression. It would be an equivalent of a concert pianist breaking his fingers. Life is over.

Back to Tolkien and to a Man’s ‘satiety with good.’ Good, the way Tolkien understands it, is a boring concept to a modern-day American. To Tolkien good is content and idleness. To Siegel and to any ambitious American (and what American is not ambitious these days?) good is dissatisfaction and action. We are like Nicky Santoro who, after getting himself banned from every casino in town, keeps devising new schemes to stay in the game. “I gotta do something, I gotta do something,” Nicky tells Ace. “They ain’t getting rid of me. I’m staying here. Fuck’em.” In our current zeitgeist such tenacity and perseverance is considered virtuous.

But what if we can’t abandon the game because the game itself gives us comfort? What if it is the unfamiliarity of a new route, the lack of familiar structure that we fear? What if it is the quiet that we’re scared of? Life offers us many exits from our routine, but we can’t take it. If we truly loved the game the way we claim to – the kind of game we imagine we play: competitive, ruthless, favorable to the best player – then we should welcome any chance to “step out of the comfort zone”, as numerous self-help books advise us. But we don’t. For our trader Siegel to step out of his comfort zone would be to abandon the industry and, I dunno, coach Little League. He won’t do that voluntarily.

The funny thing is, while at the game, we often dream of freedom from “all this shit.” Numerous movies and TV shows have explored this human need. But, alas, as soon as such freedom is within our reach, we pull back, horrified. We are all masters at what we do, all right. But it’s better to practice our mastery in familiar waters.

But God speed to Adam Siegel. I wish that, if he avoids jail, he reunites with his P&L soon. Things can always get worse when ambition is denied an outlet. It’s not like he’s stiffing public workers or municipalities, right? And what’s a few basis points between friends?

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