My first real job, after graduating from college, was at the Wall Street Journal. I got fired pretty quickly, and for good reason; I didn’t belong there. For a start, I never did fully understand the complicated paper world of finance (even though it was a lot simpler than, in the early 1960s). What’s more, I could neither fathom nor fit in to the culture of Wall Street—an oblique, half-hidden world unlike any other, which not even writers and filmmakers have ever managed to depict with much authenticity.
Now, though, the financial meltdown is creating cracks in the facade, allowing bits of that culture culture pour out—the shallowness, greed, arrogance, and most of all superficiality of the money men. Why did we ever fall for these guys, either as guardians of our life savings, or as icons of American life? When I was growing up in the 1950s, scholars built careers on probing and analyzing the man in the gray flannel suit; a generation later, in the 1980s, the obsession began anew. Now we’re getting some insights into what lies beneath the gray flannel, and it is not a pretty sight….
Just when you thought they couldn’t behave any worse, the now-reviled financial industry executives have taken to depicting themselves as the true victims of the recession. As they come face to face with public rage, few seem to feel the least bit ashamed or contrite about their role in wrecking the world economy, or for their undeserved wealth. Instead, their responses are ranging from peevish to paranoid.
On Tuesday, at a conference on the “Future of Finance” hosted by my old employers, the Wall Street Journal, “Finance executives expressed anger and betrayal at Washington’s latest anti-Wall Street rhetoric,” the Journal reported. Glenn Hutchins of the private equity firm Silver Lake complained (in a triumph of mixed metaphors): “To point the finger at one group means, No. 1, you’re not understanding the problem, two, you’re stretching our social fabric thinly, and you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Former SEC chair Arthur Levitt decried the “‘us’ and ‘they'” mentality dividing Main Street from Wall Street. “We’re now shifting to the left pretty far in terms of business-bashing,” he said, “and it has reached extremes of incivility that are intolerable.”
“Extremes of incivility” may seem like a charitable response to the small segment of the corporate elite that brought on a global economic collapse, and the far larger segment that were enriched by their treachery. Yet the latter group, at least, is now expressing indignation at what they see as their unjust victimization.
In a now notorious op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Times, AIG executive VP Jack DeSantis offered his resignation, complaining bitterly about the outrage over bonuses. “I never received any pay resulting from the credit default swaps that are now losing so much money,” he insisted, while “The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my compensation.”
The same issue of the Times included a sympathetic story about the psychic pain of laid-off Wall Street execs.
Alden M. Cass, a psychologist who treats Wall Street traders and executives…and other psychologists and researchers who have worked with Wall Street employees say that these workers—often drawn to the intensity and volatility of their profession—are more prone to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental stresses than the general population. They drive themselves hard. Working 10, 12, 14 hours a day is not only expected; it is also a badge of honor.
In some ways, these experts say, Wall Street types are perhaps better prepared to handle the shock of sudden change than those in more stable professions. But because they are typically measured by the size of their paycheck-bonuses, in particular-their self-worth is deeply threatened when the money evaporates.
“We’re talking about individuals who base their identities and egos on what they do for a living and how much they make,” Dr. Cass said.
Another shrink interviewed for the article reported being “overwhelmed with new clients from Wall Street in recent months.” There’s no mention of the fact that most laid-off workers, lacking seven-figure severance packages and Cadillac COBRA coverage, cannot afford the comfort of psychotherapy, and are “threatened” with the loss of more than their “self-worth.”
Bailed-out companies are also complaining of the physical dangers an enraged public might pose to their executives and employees. After the bonus debacle surfaced, AIG reported receiving death threats, and posted armed guards outside the offices of its Financial Services division. More recently, the Guardian reports, a leaked company-wide memo “warned staff to take special precautions ‘due to a growing sense of public attention fuelled by increased media scrutiny.'”
The memo, posted on the New York website Gawker, urges staff to “avoid wearing any AIG apparel (bags, shirts, umbrellas etc) with the company insignia”. It advises workers to take off identity badges when they go outside, to report the presence of any strangers, and to call the emergency services if they think they are being followed. “At night, when possible, travel in pairs and always park in well-lit areas,” it reads.
Some Wall Street executives, as the New York Times reported recently, have come up with another approach: They simply lie about where they work. “I’d almost rather say I’m a pornographer,” one told the Times. “At least that’s a business that people understand.”