Posted October 5th 2011 at 8:09 am by
in Perspectives on Current Events

The View from Wall Street

The View from Wall StreetPost by an anonymous financial sector employee.

In college I majored in Anthropology and Economics. I took a job at an investment bank out of school. I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but figured it would be easier to work and then serve, rather than vice versa. I live in Brooklyn (although I am one of the few Wall Streeters who do), and commute daily over the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve seen the protestors, both in person on Wall Street (the actual, physical street) and on the news. Most of them look to be college-aged men and women, or middle-aged unionized laborers. In spite of the fact that I seem to represent public enemy #1 to these people, I do not object to the motivation behind their act. I do take issue with how uninformed their message is, and how little responsibility they seem to be taking for their own circumstances.

If I was halfway, or worse, all the way through college, facing a youth unemployment rate of nearly 20%, and already in debt, I’d feel helpless and frustrated too. When I was in college, I certainly never contemplated the possibility of being unemployed and underutilized after graduating. After all, the whole reason you go to college is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Similarly, if everyone else in my union had been able to retire with a benefits package that gave them full healthcare, and a pay package that was benchmarked off their regular hours plus as much overtime as they could pack in during their last years at work, I’d be very disappointed to see much less coming to me, especially if I had built a life around the expectation of having those benefits and that income.

I’ve read a few articles, watched a few videos, and even marched with the protesters during their first demonstration on Wall St. a few weeks ago while trying to cross the street to get to my girlfriend’s apartment. I’ve yet to hear a cohesive message on what it is they are protesting.

I’ve heard articulate young people, at times eloquently — but more often angrily — voicing empty messages protesting the general state of affairs.  Highlights have included:

– “How to fix the deficit: End the war, tax the rich!”

– “a symbolic gesture of our discontent with the current economic and political climate and as an example of a better world to come.”

– “STOP Capitalism”

– “F@CK WALL STREET”

– “We’re down with these protesters. We support the notion that rich folk are not paying their fair share”

According to the cursory research I’ve done, the top 5% of earners pay more than 50% of the tax burden. Watching the protestors, I’ve wondered what percentage of them have ever cut a check to the IRS in their lives, no less one for 36% of their annual income. I’ve wondered how they’ve paid for the retro nike high-tops they’re wearing, or the horn-rimmed Prada frames that hold the lenses of their glasses in place. I’d be interested in knowing if the various union members who were participating later in the week knew how pension accounting worked. If they did, counting on that pension package to be there might not have seemed as safe a bet.

You want money? No one I know has ever been paid for protesting or received any health insurance for it. The financial sector lost more jobs than any other during the financial crisis of the late 2000’s. Many, many of my colleagues lost their jobs. Not one protested about it.

If I were them, and some “Wall Street Fat Cat” levied the charge of ignorance and lack of self awareness at me, I’d fire the same question back at them: Do you know why you do what you do? Do you take responsibility for your actions?

Not only do I concede the fact that Wall Street is rife with unbalanced compensation practices, I confess that that’s the exact reason I decided to work here. I wanted to make money. My parents both underwent years of graduate schooling, and toiled a eighty hours a week between the two of them to make sure they could afford to send me and my brother to school. You bet your ass I planned on making money when I got out! Both to repay the favor to them in their old age, to make sure my unborn children were afforded the same opportunities, and yes, to drive a Lexus while I was doing it.

So, while I do not take issue with their frustration, I do take issue with who it is directed towards. I take issue with expecting other people to better your circumstance for you, and blaming them for your state of affairs. When an economy contracts, which economies will do, choosing to major in neo-classical art history may not be the best way to assure yourself gainful employment after graduation. Similarly, the average “lifespan” of a fortune 500 company is 40 to 50 years. Is betting your company is going to be around to pay for your retirement the best idea when you’ll likely outlive it?

On my way to the gym in the afternoon, I pass by a TIME Magazine Billboard north of Times Square (image at the top of this post). It seems these protests are a manifested from reconciling the observations  that this billboard astutely makes, and the state of affairs this country currently finds itself in. The millennial generation: overeducated (but unexperienced), underemployed (but overestimating), wildly optimistic (but coming to terms with reality).

12 responses to “The View from Wall Street”

  1. Karen says:

    Who it’s directed toward? Newsflash. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about Wall Street compensation, and it’s not about individual people who work there, even if they make a lot of money. It’s about the institutions as a whole, who, take bailouts and absurd tax breaks but shirk responsibility to create jobs or decent wages in the name of free market economy. Take away the subsidies and lets rock and roll in a real free market!

    Your attitude toward your contemporaries is quite smug: who are you to tell someone not to major in neo classical art history? Just because YOUR brain was wired to work in economics doesn’t mean other people are, and nor should they have to in order to have a decent life and make a living. Post back in 15 years when you have kids of your own and start to have to make REAL ends meet, when you realize the schools in your Brooklyn neighborhood stink and you’re facing down 28k in tuition for Pre-K, and you and your wife are working 12 hour days just to pay for it, and your kid knows the nanny better than it knows either of you. I don’t hate you for wanting a Lexus, but really, you don’t need to carry the banner for Wall St. It’s a long life son, and the system you’re trumpeting just might spit you out as well. Being condescending and judgmental might not be the best way to make your case.

  2. George says:

    Karen: Respectfully, the protests do seem to be about Wall Street and the individuals who make a lot of money there. The protests may be about many other things, too, but to say that they’re NOT about Wall Street compensation and the individuals who work there is wrong.

  3. James says:

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate seeing your viewpoint, especially as I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts on the protest movements on Wall St and here in Dewey Square in Boston.

    I’d like to add a second angle though. The focus in this post is entirely on the economic elite. Your parents had graduate degrees. Your colleagues work on Wall St. I would guess the protesters you cite wearing Nike and Prada were born into similar situations. I do agree with you that they probably have overly high expectations and are upset as reality upends those expectations. However, the reason I am angry – and the reason many others are angry – is what has happened to my class of people.

    For the lower half, it’s not a matter of mismatched expectations. Our options have truly become more limited. The reward for working 40, 60, 80 hours a week is less and less. Forget homeownership. Forget a nice car or a little boat or a vacation. Forget retirement. Thank God for Massachusetts where at least we get decent health coverage. I worked hard and got lucky and was the first in my family to get a bachelors, and then went on to get a masters. I have a decent job. All the same, family responsibilities and the state of the economy make me skeptical whether I’ll ever comfortably enjoy a middle class standard of living.

    Further, the problem does not exist on a linear scale. It’s not just that some few make far, far more money than the many. We have severe economic imbalance among sectors of the economy. Are financiers really 100 times more productive than teachers, journalists, electricians, and the many other sectors that compensate far less generously? What does it say about our economy that homebuilders are turning to golf courses as a more profitable line of business? The need for housing remains strong, but those in need of housing cannot express their demand in the market as effectively as golfers can express their demand for 18 holes.

    Our economy is restricting social mobility. It is heavily incentivizing work in one sector over others without much regard to relative contributions to society and economic health. It’s worth being angry about. I guess I’m just glad the kid in Prada glasses has the time to get out there and yell for all of us.

  4. rainbow says:

    Ha! The old “rich people pay all the taxes routine”!

    First, no they don’t.

    Your data covers Federal income taxes. There are many other kinds of taxes, and most of them–such as sales taxes–are regressive.

    Second, your argument implies that rights depend on share of taxes paid. Or, at least, that thelegitimacy of an argument depends on share of taxes paid. Neither of these implications is true.

    Everyone has the right to protest, regardless of income. An argument is either valid or invalid, regardless of income.

    Third, the rich should pay all taxes. When the Federal Income tax was instituted, only the top 1% of income earners even had to file a tax return. The wealthy paid the entirety of the tax burden, which is exactly how it should be now.

    Now, aside from the factual inaccuracies of your post and your reprehensible appeal to aristocratic values, there is the matter of your total misunderstanding of how capitalism works or what the point of society is.

    The point of capitalism is to accumulate capital. Capitalism exists and can only exist by turning surplus wealth into capital. Instead of returning surplus wealth to the people who produced or blowing surplus wealth on a festival, capitalists suck up the surplus and turn it into capital. Today, this means that profits are turned into financial instruments which are, ultimately, destroyed by financial markets.

    In short, people make money, send it to Wall Street, and parasites like you bundle up the cash and set fire to it.

    What the protests are all about is an argument that American society has the wrong point to it. As of right now, Americans produce wealth in order to make a very few people extremely wealthy and to allow these wealthy people to destroy any excess wealth. In other words, the destruction of wealth in the meltdown of financial markets is the purpose of America.

    This may not be the best way to live.

    That is the message of Occupy Wall Street. We can live differently.

    Protests are one of the ways in which societies decide their purpose. You disapprove of both the argument of the protestors and the very idea that they are allowed to make their argument.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts; the ‘view from Wall St” specifically those who choose to work in the financial sector, is incredibly important as they understand the issues in a way few outside can. That said, for all your understanding of economics, I think you speak rather glibly about protest movements and I wonder if you have considered the reasons why people protest and the role it has played in our history and the history of other places. It’s not just you, everyone seems to be speaking ‘fatherly’ about the protestors, even liberal NYT columnists like Nick Kristof.

    Throughout history protesters, especially student protesters, have been met with infantilization and scorn. Going back to the Vietnam era you can find the same kind of op-eds that are beginning to come out now, with the underlying message “you kids mean well I understand you’re frustrated, but I’ve been around a lot longer than you and you don’t really know what you are talking about…”.

    The most common thing that you hear are charges that protesters don’t “understand” the issues, and that their slogans aren’t rational or based on a clear understanding of how the world works. The thing people often don’t ‘understand’ about public protest, is that it does not exist in the same dimension as academic debate. A group of protesters cannot be compared to a university debate team. Shouting, repetition, and physical domination are clearly not acceptable rhetorical tools in that setting. However public protest is a different sort of practice. When you choose to become part of a protest, you are allowing social issues to be expressed physically through you. People often underestimate the emotional strain that comes with participating in a protest; it’s not just overwhelming feelings of zealous belief in the cause that protesters experience but also torrents of doubt and constant anxiety about how they are appearing. I learned about this from doing ethnographic research on the new SDS movement while I was an undergraduate, and I never looked at protesters the same way again.

    It is easy to sit back in an armchair and find contradictions and irrationality, but people who criticize the protesters for being naive or illogical don’t understand that direct activism works on an emotional dimension and not a rational one. It is just as complex and sophisticated a practice as classical Debate, only the playing field is emotional rather than logical.

    Direct actions exist precisely BECAUSE they go outside the box of rationality and logical debate, and it is no coincidence that protests spring up when ‘rationality’ seems to be at a deadend (i.e. the ‘rationale’ behind staying in Vietnam: “we had to burn the city in order to save it” or “we need to stay ‘just a little longer”. The rational dimension, which is indeed the foundation of our civilization and all our achievements, nevertheless finds itself in contradiction or paralysis at certain moments in history. Our rational systems of laws and governance and finance and technology are all prone to errors that create human suffering. The corrective response to those errors therefore begins in suffering, a decidedly irrational, base and instinctual emotion. Therefore is it any surprise that when protests spring up they seem incoherent and ‘juvenile’ even if they include participants of all ages (as these ones do, although everyone is trying to make it sound as if it is just teenagers). Ultimately of course you need the rational dimension to actually decide which corrective changes to make and enact them.. civil rights laws are made, new people are put in authority etc.. but the protests always came first, just look back through history. Without these emotional sparks in all their irrationality, immaturity, and initial disorganization, so many big social/political changes would never have happened.

    So instead of scorning these protesters and glibly stereotyping them, I wish more people would offer constructive criticism. Consider the analogy where a colleague in your workplace has a “breakdown”. It often indicates that there is something unsustainable in their work habits or the work environment. Although the breakdown may be inappropriate (they may blow up and insult someone, or break a piece of physical property), it is also useful because it suggests that something has gone wrong that needs to be addressed. If nothing else, all the ‘immature yelling’ from these protesters has brought the issue of financial regulation and systemic problems capable of causing future economic collapse into the spotlight again. Assuming the “Tiananmen Sq.” solution of killing them is out of the question, the fastest way to deal with the out of control peer, or in this case the so-called 99% of our peers who are having a breakdown, is not to scorn and dismiss them but to A) attempt to engage them in discussion to B) figure out what put them over the edge, and C) *help* them make the necessary adjustments to return to a normal, productive work environment. When our society or part of it is having a breakdown, we can be embarrassed and try to hide or dismiss it, or we can try to turn it into something positive. My political sympathy lies more with these protesters than say the Tea Party, but I actually think this ‘compassion’ method can be used for protests and rebellions all over the political spectrum. The most important thing is to try and minimize violence and suffering during social change, and succeeding in emphasizing nonviolence is one area where these protesters deserve credit so far anyway. We will all have to wait and see how this develops of course, but I believe there are many positive courses of action to be found here no matter what your opinion is. We have found ourselves at a “useful moment” in history, and should try to make the most of it.

  6. Alexa says:

    Nick, I’m glad you brought up the tea party and other protest movements. The Occupy Wall Street movement reminds me a lot of the early Tea Party. “We’re angry. At everything.” Yes, people should pay attention in both cases and figure out what’s going wrong in America. Folks don’t protest every day, so even though I wasn’t inclined to join either movement, I take both seriously. I don’t think this blogger was dismissing their movement. I agree that it’s a ‘useful moment’ in history. Maybe a ‘useful period’.

    In addition, when I read the above post I see a genuine, thoughtful, reflective perspective — one that millions of Americans would likely agree with. It’s worth it to engage rather than combat, and to match the personal approach as James did above.

    For me, sitting in a university as I do, it’s easy to not take sides. I like the challenges in this post. What IS it like to hand over a check for 36% of my income? I don’t know. I’m sure if I’d ever experienced that, I’d have a different perspective on this stuff. What IS it like to not have enough food on the table, or miss a rent payment, despite working two jobs? I don’t have personal experience with that one either.

    One thing I like about the protests is the people holding signs that simply state the facts of their lives. That’s honest. This post is honest, too.

  7. Thanks Alexa,

    And to the author, I’m sorry if I seemed overly dismissive. CoLab Radio I think has hit on a very powerful formula for understanding how we live in the world and how to do it better, which rests on the belief that everything can be boiled down to human decisions on the human scale, and that no one of these is more or less valuable than another.

    Experiencing hometown politics here on my Main St (Wall St.’s rhetorical/semiotic opposite), I am constantly struck by how easily macro level political differences are overcome due to the fact that the parties in conflict see each other everyday at the super market, pub, or football game. Make no mistake the squabbles can get very ugly, but the fact that everyone is trapped on the same small scale and literally can’t avoid each other means that no matter what people have to find a way to carry on with each other. There is no reason besides the fact that it has become the opposite metaphor, that Wall St. can’t be humanized in the same way. The physical occupation of the park has already emphasized the reality of the place, as somewhere people go to work and eat lunch everyday (and lately sleep outside as well…). When Wall St. natives reach out to try and share their human perspective, even if it includes some namecalling and mischaracterization, those in the movement should embrace and not scorn it because the whole transition to humanization from abstract conflict is in its own interest if it ever hopes to be able to enact changes.

    Posts like this that attempt to share the human side of Wall St. and the finance sector, particularly the workers in this sector who would be the ones amending their practices if various demands for regulation were conceded to (indeed some of them are speaking out now with detailed proposals for ways to reduce market volatility). I actually hope more protesters come to see the potential in this approach. Right now I see two sides (although in fact there are a multitude), who are still both reducing each other to stereotypes or ‘the devil outside’; this is very powerful, even useful, both when it comes to being able to A) dismiss and quell the protests or B) create more solidarity among protesters in opposition to an outside entity that is universally ‘bad’. The Rainforest Action Network refers to this as the ‘foot outside’, it’s the sort of oppositional pressure (banner hanging, occupation and other forms of direct protest) that gets attention and rallies people to a cause. But it is only half of their methodology.

    The other half involves having a ‘foot inside’ the system, which often takes the form of skilled consultants and other professionals who are the ‘good cops’ as it were, and reach out to the target corporation or legislative body to negotiate and actually help them employ the changes they would like to see. In the later stages of some of these protests, you actually see a sort of compassionate voice raised against the target (a stark change from the demonization of the early stage), even from the outside foot ‘direct action’ types, there is a collective voice of gentle encouragement, saying: “we know you mean well, and you’re so much better than this.. don’t you want to change?”. This is the kind of protest movement I hope that Occupy Wall st. can mature into, and as observers or semi-involved people we could use the same tone when addressing the occupation. Now that the yelling and making a fuss appears to have opened a space for national dialogue, it is going to be even more important to embrace all the individual narratives coming out and resist the urge to stereotype (not to deny that it might have been useful at first), because it is from these individual narratives and all of their contradictions and places that don’t fit the stereotypes that new solutions to our economic problems can be found.

    My wet dream would be to see some intermediate projects emerge where some bankers and finance workers get together with some really radical types who they would never usually interact with and work on some sort of project that is a step towards a bigger reconsideration of how and for whom the system is working. I hope others feel the same way about the prospect of collaboration… and thanks again to the author and other commenters for sharing their honest feelings.. hopefully that is something that won’t have to be done anonymously in the end…

  8. Karen says:

    Sorry George, you’re right, a portion of it IS directed at individuals, but I think that overall, the scope and intent of them is much wider. I take issue with the author’s reductionist approach. Just because he doesn’t agree with the protestors doesn’t mean he has to belittle them. I’m happy to see people, especially young people, take place in our democracy. What bothers me most about the mainstream reaction to the protests is that they think protesters don’t have a coherent message or solution. There are indeed multiple messages and they mean many things, but in the end, the fact remains that people have the right to challenge what they see as inequality and opportunity hording. There will always, with any social movement, be fringe ideas and personal attacks, but by and large, the actions of the protesters are important, significant, and long overdue.

  9. on the subject of breaking stereotypes, this image is circulating on Twitter: “Some spoiled young unamerican hippies at #occupywallstreet. http://i.imgur.com/GmSFY.jpg“. The challenge is on: pair that with a similar “greedy fat cat traders brokers & analysts” one and we have the start of a dialogue!

  10. Juntas says:

    I love that the author “[takes] issue with expecting other people to better your circumstance for you” three sentences after describing all the ways the his parents gave him a leg up on life.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with someone making ungodly amounts of money, but I cannot stand the lack of accountability that occurs once you reach a sort of economic elite. The disconnect between compensation and results is almost unfathomable; I don’t think you have to be ‘overeducated’ to think that if you run your company into the ground, or do such a terrible job that the government has to step in, or lie about bond ratings, or hide Greece’s debt, or fraudulently offer loans to people who can’t pay them, you shouldn’t be allowed to walk away with millions of dollars.

    People everywhere just want the system to have the same rules for everyone. I applaud the people down on Wall St. for believing in something beyond themselves; that attitude will move us as a society forward.

  11. Sabrina says:

    What a great conversation, it’s nice to hear from both sides of an issue. Helps me understand things better to get multiple perspectives talking to each other in a civil way.

    I can identify with the protesters, but I don’t think that I could ever protest like that. I was born into a what I thought was a middle class family, but I think that we’re actually more blue collar. My mom was a secretary for 30 years, my dad split, my brother worked at a car dealership for 15 years before he was recently laid off, my other brother owns a landscaping company. I’m the only one in my family with a college education, which was pieced together with several local universities, community colleges, and night schools. I’m not an intellectual (although I work with a lot of them), but I know that something is amiss today when a small bottle of soda has increased in price 20-fold over the past 50 years but salaries have not. But my mindset is to just deal with things and not fight them, to adapt (drink less soda…). I applaud the protestors for doing more than that.

  12. Anonymous2 says:

    Although I watch with interest as the protests grow every day, I still have trouble identifying with them. A lot of what Anonymous says in this post resonates with me. I put in my 40-60, sometimes more, hours of work each week. Sometimes my own dreams (not neoclassical art history, as this author says, but my own version of that) take a back seat to the activities that bring in cash. I’ve had to accept that my career probably won’t bring in enough money to support my parents in their old age, and it’s been a painful thing to accept my own choice. That this blogger has chosen a path that will allow him (if it is a him, maybe it’s a her) to support his parents and future kids is respectable.

    Watching these protests, I still wonder: What was the tipping point for this anger? Was it the unjust execution of Troy Davis? Was that the final sign that our country was becoming a place where people who play by the rules can still get screwed over and it’s out of their hands?

    It seems that, in recent years, there have been countless moments of injustice that have warranted greater action than we’ve seen. Where were all these people during the Verizon strikes, when Communication Workers of America and IBEW were out there fighting for something very concrete: A fair standard of living in exchange for had, honest work. Where were OWS protestors when the passionate, often brilliant young immigrants fighting for the DREAM Act were seeking a very noble right: The right to learn and work hard in the US. I was out doing concrete things to support those folks in those moments.

    Today the American Jobs Act is on the table. I’d rather see people reading that bill, phonebanking their legislators for support, or offering serious suggestions to that bill to make it better.

    When I read this post, I see some cornerstones American ideology — rugged individualism, hard work, sacrifice for family. Maybe the protestors are out saying that their society has morphed into a place where those values don’t function properly, where you can work hard and get nothing in return.