4.21.2009

Painful to read

I came across this article from New York Magazine about how hard the Wall Street wealthy now have it via Washington Monthly (where hilzoy makes some similar points to the ones I have to share). I don't think anything is served by vilifying the wealthy en masse, but they sure aren't helping their case at all with the griping.
“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

“I’m not giving to charity this year!” one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama’s planned tax increases. “When people ask me for money, I tell them, ‘If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.’ I feel so much less generous right now. If I have to adopt twenty poor families, I want a thank-you note and an update on their lives. At least Sally Struthers gives you an update.”

Well, Mr. Irate Citigroup Executive, part of the problem may be that the restaurant delivery guy is probably totally free of responsibility for our current financial woes, while schmucks like yourself bear a huge, whopping percent of the blame. When most people are involved in something "fumbling" and "mismanaged" they can canned, and nobody much cares about how damn unappreciated they feel. The second guy sounds like such a total [point of digestive egress] that I'm at a loss to comment.
A few weeks ago, I had drinks with a friend who used to work at Lehman Brothers. She had come to Wall Street in the mid-eighties, when the junk-bond boom spawned a new class of globe-trotting financiers. Over two decades, she had done stints at all the major banks—Chase, Goldman, Lehman—and had a thriving career directing giant streams of capital around the world and extracting a substantial percentage for herself. To her mind, extreme compensation is a fair trade for the compromises of such a career. “People just don’t get it,” she says. “I’m attached to my BlackBerry. I was at my doctor the other day, and my doctor said to me, ‘You know, I like that when I leave the office, I leave.’ I get calls at two in the morning, when the market moves. That costs money. If they keep compensation capped, I don’t know how the deals get done. They’re taking Wall Street and throwing it in the East River.”
Huh. Must be nice for her doctor. I also enjoy leaving my office when I leave... except for when I get calls at two in the morning and I have to drag my sorry carcass back in so I can take care of some sick kid. The difference between Madame High Roller and me is that if I screw up that two AM call, some kid ends up sicker (or worse) and I might get sued for everything I'm worth, as opposed to losing a bunch of money and then bitching about how people are suddenly holding me accountable for it. Oh, and also I don't make millions of dollars.
“We’re in a hypercapitalistic society. No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee. We have ex-presidents who cash in on their presidencies. Our whole moral compass has shifted about what’s acceptable or not acceptable. Honestly, you can pick on Wall Street all you want, I don’t think it’s fair. It’s fair to say you ran your companies into the ground, your risk management is flawed—that is perfectly legitimate. You can lay criticism on GM or others. But I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much.”
Well, first of all I think it's obscene that Julia Roberts and A-Rod make that much money. However, it is arguable they are worth it because they bring in their fans, and they would probably be paid a whole lot less if they stopped doing so (see also: the careers of countless entertainment and sports has-beens)... just like Wall Street types are faced with being paid a lot less because they crapped out on their jobs. Also, the country didn't slide into recession because of Mona Lisa Smile's disappointing box office take. This is a hard concept to grasp? (I'm beginning to think those Columbia and Wharton degrees are kind of worthless, since the people who have them seem kind of stupid.)
“You can’t live in New York and have kids and send them to school on $75,000,” he continues. “And you have the Obama administration suggesting that. That was a very populist thing that Obama said. He’s being disingenuous. He knows that you can’t live in New York on $75,000.”
I would like to thank the elves and leprechauns (also, in the real world, my parents) that helped me survive for six years in Manhattan on a resident's salary, which is substantially less (even with parental generosity) than $75,000. Doubtless the other residents (many of whom with kids) that I worked with had similar sources of magical largesse that allowed them to survive. It also probably helped that they sent their kids to shadowy, mysterious places called "public schools," apparently unknown to the ultra-wealthy.
“These guys will not work on Wall Street,” he says flatly. “People go to Wall Street out of greed. When I was interviewing for jobs, frequently some form of the question came up: How much do you want to make money? If my answer was something like—and it wasn’t—but if my answer was, ‘I’m here for intellectual betterment,’ their response might have been, ‘University is a great place for you.’ They want people who think ‘I’m greedy, I want to be a billionaire.’ That was viewed as a really good thing.”
Wait, what? They won't go to Wall Street? They'll take their big, juicy brains somewhere else? Really? Um... where? If they insist on taking their ball and going home, I am curious where their pique will lead them. If they think they can get to be billionaires some other way, then they're welcome to try. Because I kind of think they're full of crap. Full of crap, and horrible people.

Look, I know that the rejuvenation of New York City was funded in large part because of the success of the financial sector. I know that their contributions supported a lot of charities and public works. I know that they worked in high-stress fields with a lot of burn out. I get it. But they also, in a very costly, public and far-reaching way, failed at their jobs. That they still seem to feel entitled to live in the same manner as they were living before they failed is baffling to me.

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