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The Wail of the 1%

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Illustration by Gluekit  

“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.”

It is difficult to sympathize with these people, their comments laced with snobbery and petulance. But you can understand their shock: Their world has been turned on its head. After years of enjoying favorable tax rates, they are facing an administration that wants to redistribute their wealth. Their industry is being reordered—no one knows what Wall Street will look like in a few years. They are anxious, and their anxiety is making them mad.

Their anger takes many forms: There is rage at Obama for pushing to raise taxes (“The government wants me to be a slave!” says one hedge-fund analyst); rage at the masses who don’t understand that Wall Street’s high salaries fund New York’s budget (“We’re fucked,” says a former Lehman equities analyst, referring to the city); rage at the people who don’t “get” that Wall Street enables much of the rest of the economy to function (“JPMorgan and all these guys should go on strike—see what happens to the country without Wall Street,” says another hedge-funder).

“The market determines what people are worth. Did I think I was overpaid? You betcha. But a lot of people are overpaid.”

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.”

Now, a lot of people in New York have BlackBerrys, and few of them expect to be paid $2 million to check their e-mail in the middle of the night. But embedded in her comment is the belief shared on Wall Street but which few have dared to articulate until now: Those who select careers in finance play an exceptional role in our society. They distribute capital to where it’s most effective, and by some Ayn Rand–ian logic, the virtue of efficient markets distributing capital to where it is most needed justifies extreme salaries—these are the wages of the meritocracy. They see themselves as the fighter pilots of capitalism.

Wall Street people are not moral idiots (most of them, anyway)—it’s not as if they’ve never pondered the fairness of their enormous salaries. “One of my relatives is a doctor, we’re both well-educated, hardworking people. And he certainly didn’t make the amount of money I made,” a former Bear Stearns senior managing director tells me. “I would be the first person to tell you his value to society, to humanity, is far greater than anything that went on in the Bear Stearns building.”

That said, he continues, “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.”


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