In a Sunday New York Times op-ed, a guy named Sam Polk chronicles his journey from dissolute Columbia student to highly compensated hedge-fund trader to his current position as the head of a nonprofit organization. Here’s the gist: When Polk was working on Wall Street, he became a self-described “wealth addict,” though he eventually realized he had a problem and quit. However, he argues that finance is still full of money junkies just like him.
Polk describes his collegiate addiction to alcohol, pot, cocaine, Ritalin, and ecstasy and his decision to get sober with the help of a therapist around the time he doing an internship at Credit Suisse — a job he hoped would lead him to the fulfillment of his life goal of getting rich. Upon graduation, he landed a full time job as a trader at Bank of America, where he quickly “grew excited at how much money was available” to people in his field. As he rose through the ranks — and tax brackets — at BoA, his desire for wealth and power that comes with it increased. Eventually, Polk moved on to a hedge fund, where he found himself disappointed when he was earned “‘only’ $1.5 million” in his second year there.
Polk writes that his therapist told him that he “might be using money the same way I’d used drugs and alcohol — to make myself feel powerful — and that maybe it would benefit me to stop focusing on accumulating more and instead focus on healing my inner wound,” but he brushes off her suggestion until a meeting where one of his “absurdly wealthy bosses” expressed an aversion to increased hedge-fund regulation. After that, he began to “see Wall Street with new eyes”:
These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.
Despite realizing that he and his cohort are “wealth addicts” who “[imperil] everyone” just like “alcoholics driving drunk,” it took Polk a while to get clean. Polk finally left the hedge fund in 2010, after his boss refused his request to up his bonus from $3.6 million to $8 million. He went on to start a charity that helps poor families, though he says he spent a year going through “what I can only describe as withdrawal,” waking up in the middle of the night panicking about money even though he had more than enough.
Polk concludes with the hope that “we all confront our part in enabling wealth addicts to exert so much influence over our country,” the culture of which currently “supports and even lauds the addiction.” That plea sounds a little, uh, rich coming from a person who became incredibly wealthy who admits that he contributed to “vast and toxic” income disparity and “the annihilation of the middle class.” Unlike sufferers of pretty much every other documented form of addiction, “wealth addicts’” behavior threatens the rest of the world while benefiting those who engage in it. Assuming they don’t get caught doing anything illegal, the worst thing that can happen to wealth addicts is a crisis of conscience — a condition that can be put to good use in the form of a New York Times essay and, if former Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith taught us anything, a lucrative book deal.