Greed as epidemic, from Wall Street to Main Street

batch of dollarsLast month the New York Times published a fascinating and much talked about op-ed by Sam Polk, a former derivatives trader turned socially-conscious entrepreneur. If there’s such a thing as a must read, this would be it.

In Polk’s piece, he talks about his time on Wall Street and what he believes was his out of control addiction to money. There are countless passages that are worthy of pasting here, but here’s just a sample:

At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan — Per Se, Le Bernardin — just by picking up the phone and calling one of my brokers, who ingratiate themselves to traders by entertaining with unlimited expense accounts. I could be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game just by hinting to a broker I might be interested in going. The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.

Still, I was nagged by envy… I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million…

Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class.

Polk’s depiction of Wall Street’s culture of voracious greed sounds like a Scorcese-like fantasy. But it’s hardly an exaggeration.

Like I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I work in the investment banking industry, but in research. All that means is that I’m a kind of glorified front-office nerd who works in tandem with bankers, traders, and salespeople, and who’s often called upon to discuss the markets with hotshot portfolio managers. Research isn’t compensated like those other job functions (I’ll get to that in a minute), but we’re close enough to the action to understand the cultural current that runs through a trading floor or a dazzlingly decorated hedge fund meeting room.

The money may not be flowing like it was pre-crisis (I came in after those days had passed), but the sheer order of magnitude of it being transacted, earned, and paid out within much of the financial sector can be truly mind boggling. For anyone who’s worked on a trading floor, the casual vernacular used to talk about millions and billions when shouting out orders — the former is called a “buck”, the latter a “yard” — serves as a reminder that the industry resembles a game of Monopoly more so than it does real life.

One of the comical illustrations of this is the $250 per person regulatory limit on client meals and entertainment. When I first mentioned this factoid to my wife one evening after learning it in compliance training module earlier in the day, she was almost horrified. “Who on earth spends more than $250 on dinner?”, she asked. But anyone who’s seen the industry from the inside knows that that sum of money is basically the equivalent of loose change. In many cases, it’s no where near enough; the demands of clients or the officiousness of salespeople (hint: alcohol plays a key role) necessitate adding phantom diners to the bill before being expensed.

I won’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be offered a $1.5 million bonus. But in just a few years in the banking world, I think I’ve seen enough to understand to some degree the cripplingly addictive power of that type of money. It’s extremely rare to hold a conversation with a work colleague during which that individual expresses complete satisfaction with his or her compensation. It’s just not something that seems to happen. Part of that may be the unsustainable precedent of the pre-2008 years and the unrealistic expectations that they built up. But increasingly, I’m beginning to think that many of us in the banking world are desperately chasing a narcotic “hit” of a bonus big enough to tide us over until the following year.

This type of addiction can ruin individual lives, as it apparently did in Polk’s case. It can also ruin economies — that is, lots and lots of people’s lives all at the same time. A pathological degree of greed is what drives a trader, already making good money for himself and his firm in a given year, to double down on risk in pursuit of an astronomical payoff, no matter the potential catastrophe looming for his bank and, in the biggest cases, the entire financial system. And the disease sometimes seems to warp the afflicted’s perception of reality, often to devastating ends. In the worst cases, the patient builds an illusion of entitlement, railing against the various Volckers, Obamas, and Warrens standing in the way of his next score. In small doses this is nothing more than hot air, however funny or offensive. In large enough doses, that addiction and illusion of entitlement infect the political system and sway us towards indefensible tax giveaways to the super wealthy, or the dilution of badly-needed financial reform.

I often wonder if I myself am getting addicted to money. That may sound stupid, for the reasons I mentioned above. Research is very nearly at the bottom of the banking food chain, and “Michael Jordan money”, as I once heard a coworker call it, is out of reach. But I find myself thinking about it more and more, and wonder if my constant anxiety over having enough money to pay for basic things — I shudder to think what it will cost my wife and me to put our two kids through college, for instance — is really just my brain trying to morally excuse itself for its desire to get rich.

It’s all relative, as Polk’s piece reminds us. When you’re sitting in an office with a billionaire, being a millionaire all of a sudden seems pretty unspectacular.

I honestly don’t think people inside of the banking industry are, by nature, significantly greedier than the rest of us. Sure, it takes a certain type of person to get excited about trading mortgage derivatives for ten hours a day. There is some self selection going on here. But it also seems likely that anyone who’s surrounded by a particular intoxicant would be much more likely to get addicted. In other words, bankers tend to get hooked on money just as doctors tend to get hooked on pharmaceuticals.

So how do we deal with this temptation? I’ve got a friend in the industry who goes to Burning Man every year, an escape to a communal festival of art and money-free bartering in the middle of the Nevada desert. The point, he says, is to “burn” away all of one’s attachments, both material and mental. When I asked him if working on Wall Street made him an unpopular target in what I assume is a pretty hippyish atmosphere, he replied that it was quite the opposite. Burning Man nowadays is filled with bankers, CEOs, and entrepreneurs, all presumably eager to shed their glamorous burdens for at least one week per year. And everyone else there gets it.

Baha’u’llah doesn’t ask us to give up our earthly possessions. For Baha’is, money in and of itself is not evil, and unlike in some other religious, Baha’is can borrow and loan with interest. But Baha’u’llah does ask us to make constant effort to ensure we avoid becoming a slave to material things. He writes:

Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him. Eat ye, O people, of the good things which God hath allowed you, and deprive not yourselves from His wondrous bounties. Render thanks and praise unto Him, and be of them that are truly thankful.

For most of us, particularly in banking and finance, it’s an endless battle that is never entirely won or lost. But this is the point of life, I suppose: To try, to persevere, to both fail and succeed, all the while humbly begging a Higher Power for the strength to keep going. Money is everywhere, after all, and to one degree or another, we are all addicts. To acknowledge our collective disease together as human beings seems an appropriate first step on the road to recovery.

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