Greed and Money

It is no news that focusing too much on maximizing wealth can be problematic. A famous person is reported to have said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The recent FrontLine documentary Secrets of the Vatican (after 1:15:22) shows Pope Francis saying that “the world has idolized the god, money… Men and women must be at the center, as God wants, not money.”

Sam Polk, a former wealth-aholic, provides an excellent account of obsessive greed for wealth overcoming America in his recent essay For the Love of Money (New York Times, 01/18/2014). Here’s a sample:

“In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. … Now, working elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. … I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million.

But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.

From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. 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.

I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. … But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. …

Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. … Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *