I have a confession to make: I've been cavorting with Wall Street Bankers.
I’m in a fantasy baseball league, in fact, that’s chock full of Wall Street Bankers. And once, several years ago, I was interviewed by some Wall Street Bankers for a Wall Street hedge fund job. They didn’t end up offering me this position (and actually, the job was in Connecticut), but they did take me to a Yankees game and a nice Italian meal.
More alarmingly, my best friend from college is a former Wall Street Banker. This friend, whom I’ll identify only by the pseudonym Vijay, worked as an analyst for Salomon Smith Barney for several years in New York City, although he’s since moved on to private equity and then gone back to business school.
From looking at him, you wouldn’t know that Vijay was a Wall Street Banker. He’s an unassuming guy, into indie rock and cheap beer. He doesn’t eat meat and his politics are fairly liberal, although slightly to the right of mine.
While employed on Wall Street, Vijay routinely worked in excess of 100 hours a week. His apartment in the Financial District, a few blocks away from Ground Zero, consisted of three video gaming consoles, four alarm clocks, and a mattress; he was virtually never home, and so he had little need for anything else. I remember one occasion, when I was visiting my sister in New York City and we were attempting to drink cheap beer with Vijay, when he received a message on his Blackberry and abruptly had to dart off to Kinko’s at 11:30 on Sunday evening to fax a document to a client. I thought this was Extremely Uncool –- my sister and I still talk about the “Kinko’s Incident” -- but Vijay is nothing if not hard-working.
Vijay is a rather inconspicuous consumer, however, still driving the same beat-up Honda Civic that we used to take on midnight runs to Taco & Burrito Palace while in college. Although he was once something of a cheapskate, he has since become generous to a fault: the cheap beer is usually on him. While working in private equity, Vijay took time out of his day to teach inner-city high schoolers about finance and economics, and took a year off in between jobs to see his family and volunteer for the Red Cross in India.
Vijay has his vices -- if he didn't, he wouldn't be my friend -- and his prejudices -- an irrational disdain for the borough of Brooklyn, for instance. But it is hard for me, when I read blanket assertions that Wall Street businesspeople are “greedy, selfish and utterly immoral”, not to think of Vijay, who is not really any of those things. True, Vijay is perhaps slightly more motivated by financial considerations than I am (but only slightly so). He attributes this to his Indian-American upbringing, which emphasizes the idea that money is hard to make, and so you do so when you can, and then use it to provide generously for your family and friends. This is his version of the American Dream, which is slightly different from mine, and is probably slightly different from yours, but not something I can find great fault with.
It is quite possible to believe each of the following things -- that the tax code is not as progressive as it ought to be; that high-level executives at major companies make, on average, more than they ultimately generate in profits for their shareholders; that the working class have too little influence over American politics and the upper class too much, and that banks and other financial institutions are inadequately regulated -– without having to demonize the people who work on Wall Street, the vast majority of whom are like Vijay: hard-working and ethical folks, maybe a little money-obsessed, but most of whom voted in November for a President who vowed to raise their taxes.
In our private lives, we all have the right to determine whom we do and do not choose to associate with; personally, I’ve found that there’s relatively little correlation between someone’s occupation and their character. But these sorts of judgments do not, in my view, have a place in infringing upon public policy, any more than judgments about race, religion, gender or sexual orientation do. The Supreme Court has sometimes interpreted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence to refer to the right to pursue the vocation of one’s choosing without undue interference. If we want to tax the rich more, let’s tax the rich more, but let’s not single out individuals in particular occupations or who work for particular companies: let’s tax millionaire bankers and millionaire baseball players, millionaire hedge fund managers and millionaire dentists. If we want to be more vigilant about white-collar crime, let’s be so –- in fact, let’s throw away the lock and key, and treat white-collar criminals every bit as harshly as do blue-collar criminals. But let’s not presume that anyone who works in a particular occupation is engaged in criminal conduct.
And as for the notion that Wall Street Bankers are greedy -- your damned right they're greedy, if by greed you mean wanting to maximize profits for themselves and/or their firms. Most of us are greedy, within reasonable limits, when it comes to our professional lives; less so, hopefully, in our personal ones. I'm borrowing someone else's punchline, but we should be no more surprised by the presence of greed than we are by the presence of gravity. Where that greed has pernicious effects, we should regulate around it, building stronger structures to withstand its impact. But the financial crisis reflects, as I have written, a market failure rather than a moral one.