Greg Smith’s screw you, I quit op-ed this morning in the Times might be the latest such missive to emerge from the finance world, but it’s hardly the first. In fact, it’s part of a whole emerging literary genre.
In 2008, there was Andrew Lahde’s tune-in, drop out, just-gonna-manage-my own-wealth missive in the Financial Times. Lahde, the man behind Lahde Capital Management, was telling the world about why, exactly, he was done with finance. Just a month or so after Lehman, he’d calculated that the “low-hanging fruit” wasn’t there, and none of the miserable lifestyle that went along with amassing such wealth was worth it. He also threw in some random screeds about pot and the government. The letter went viral.
The next year, Jake DeSantis quit a sinking AIG via an open letter to the firm’s CEO in the Times opinion pages. He was among the executives who’d been forced into taking a $1 salary after the government bailouts. Unlike Lahde, he wanted to make a targeted criticism of his employer, and to defend the average Joe banker as a victim of sorts: “You also are aware that most of the employees of your financial products unit had nothing to do with the large losses. And I am disappointed and frustrated over your lack of support for us. ” He positioned himself as a bit of an angel in exiting, with a pledge to give his so-called “retention payment” to those affected by the financial crisis.
Smith’s letter, meanwhile, isn’t exactly pegged to one incident, or even, really, one company— it’s a critique of the whole banking culture more broadly, disguised as one of Goldman for effect. The three letters are different, sure, but they each share a few common threads, in addition to having a shared form. Smith’s shares its moralism with DeSantis’s letter and its sense of scope with Lahde’s. And all three, of course, are driven by a need for attention. So which came closes to perfecting the form? Below, a ranked literary analysis.
Venue: Tie, Smith and DeSantis. The Financial Times doesn’t have the same general-interest audience as the Times.
Readability/Prose Style: Lahde, by a country mile. DeSantis offers up turgid, formal corporate-speak like “Mr. Liddy, I wish you success in your commitment to return the money extended by the American government, and luck with the continued unwinding of the company’s diverse businesses — especially those remaining credit default swaps,” and his measured politesse takes some of the sting out of the enterprise. Smith relies on cliche (“When I was a first-year analyst I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to tie my shoelace.”) Lahde, meanwhile, begins with a hilariously pompous opening “Today I write not to gloat”) and continues to work that sly style throughout.
Timing: Lahde. Both DeSantis and Smith smartly quit in March, just after bonus time, a fact that DeSantis cops to (while pledging to donate to charity) and Smith conveniently ignores. Good for their bottom line, but bad for PR. Lahde, meanwhile, quit about a month after the Lehman collapse, right as the eyes of the world were trained on the finance world.
Originality: Lahde. As they say on the Internet, First!!
Honesty: Lahde: “I was in this game for the money, ” he writes. Also, of other executives, he says “their lives suck.”
Target: Smith. Sure, A.I.G was an easy scapegoat in 2009, but fear of the Vampire Squid is forever.
Humblebragging/Regular Bragging: Smith. Sure, DeSantis’s disclosure of the exact amount of money he received as a bonus and intended to give to charity was pretty good, but you simply cannot beat the mention of “winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics.”
Best Use of Bully Pulpit: Lahde. We’re just going to excerpt this one, because it was really hard to pick which line was funniest.
Lastly, while I still have an audience, I would like to bring attention to an alternative food and energy source. You won’t see it included in BP’s, “Feel good. We are working on sustainable solutions,” television commercials, nor is it mentioned in ADM’s similar commercials. But hemp has been used for at least 5,000 years for cloth and food, as well as just about everything that is produced from petroleum products.
It goes on to endorse pot, at length. That was in addition to the bit where he called for George Soros to utterly rethink the American system of government.
Overall: DeSantis 1, Smith 3, Lahde 5.
Lahde’s was the most batshit, but it was also the most fun to read, as if Hunter S. Thompson and Matt Taibbi had teamed up to write the note. And a silver for the earnest Smith! Not too shabby — even better than his performance at the Maccabiah Games, and equal to his runner-up Rhodes Scholar status.