It’s not exactly news that a lot of people who work in the finance industry are horrible, terrible, no-good people. In fact, at this point it’s practically an article of faith. In that context, it’s hard to say why a piece by Kevin Roose at New York magazine feels so shocking. He reports on the goings-on at Kappa Beta Phi, a sort of financial fraternity for people too damn old to be in a fraternity. Roose crashed their party, a sort of “roast” whose object seemed to be “politicians, the poor, and basically anyone who’s not actually in the room,” which makes it not at all a roast actually, but no matter. Hijinks ensue! And though Roose had written about the incident before, in 2012, there were some details he only included in this new version of the story:
Paul Queally, a private-equity executive with Welsh, Carson, Anderson, & Stowe, told off-color jokes to Ted Virtue, another private-equity bigwig with MidOcean Partners. The jokes ranged from unfunny and sexist (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and a catfish?” A: “One has whiskers and stinks, and the other is a fish”) to unfunny and homophobic (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Barney Frank and a Fenway Frank?” A: “Barney Frank comes in different-size buns”).
In case you think there’s some chance these jokes might be embellished by the author, there’s handy audio available at the link. And then the fun comes when the bankers figure out Roose is not One of Them, and, uh, ask him to leave:
“Give me that or I’ll fucking break it!” Novogratz yelled, grabbing for my phone, which was filled with damning evidence. His eyes were bloodshot, and his neck veins were bulging. The song onstage was now over, and a number of prominent Kappas had rushed over to our table. Before the situation could escalate dangerously, a bond investor and former Grand Swipe named Alexandra Lebenthal stepped in between us. Wilbur Ross quickly followed, and the two of them led me out into the lobby, past a throng of Wall Street tycoons, some of whom seemed to be hyperventilating.
It’s all very Wolf of Wall Street, for Socially-Maladjusted Quasi-Sociopathic Dorks.
It would, of course, be possible for me to write an entire post here hand-waving about how horrifying it is that the financial fate of the nation is in the hands of people like this. It would be possible to expand upon Roose’s observation that “the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality.”
Instead, what I’m going to tell you to do is go out and buy Kevin Roose’s book, Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits. That’s what I did after reading the New York piece yesterday, anyway. I found a pretty good, if somewhat condensed, read on the culture of financial institutions and the people who work there. It’s not quite the iconic take on the financial industry that Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker was, and in some ways still is, but it is definitely a serviceable update.
Roose’s frame sets him up to record disappointment from the start. He chose to follow about eight pseudonymous young bankers as they started their careers on Wall Street in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse. And already that’s an exaggeration, because in fact few of the people in the book are still engaged in a “career on Wall Street” by its end. What they instead have in common is a short, and ultimately shaky, experience of financial stability, coupled with some pretty extreme existential misery. More than one of Roose’s subjects find themselves falling into depression. At least one is laid off, and the others all eventually quit their first jobs with varying levels of disillusionment. A couple flee for the relatively solid and promising environs of Silicon Valley startups. There is one vacation in the Bahamas and one tryst with a model, but the events recorded here aren’t exactly Martin-Scorsese-filmable stuff, if you catch my drift.
In fact, the only conclusion you draw from Roose’s book is that the Kappa Beta Phi event was an anomaly. The day-to-day of the financial life, at the low end, is actually pretty far from its pathetic debauchery. There is very little, it turns out, to the financial industry beyond a vast misery machine, except for the precious few who end up wealthy at the top. And though Roose doesn’t much get into it, even those richest of the rich, as anyone who’s ever been close to the financial industry (which I have been) can testify, aren’t often all that happy either. Banking is nothing but a pit of greed and despair, I’m saying.
And all along you’ll wonder about a question Roose doesn’t seem all that interested in answering: why have these banking institutions survived in this form, when we all know what miserable, destructive hellholes they are?
Roose tends to emphasize that the financial industry’s problem really is those Kappa Beta Phi “true believers,” but I’m not sure that covers all of it. His reporting suggests another conclusion: that banking stays as it is because there’s a sort of inertia to this economic super-structure. Young people drift into the financial industry because the magnetic pull of even a couple years’ good salary in a bad economy is so strong; once there, they’re trapped by the money; and the institutions themselves are so tightly hierarchical. As such, these institutions, structured by the greed of people at the top, are also filled with young people who lack the inclination, the energy, and the power to challenge their superiors to do better. If they really are rebels, they just leave. And that means you get, as in Roose’s book, an industry in which even the dissenters feel pretty anemic about trying to reform things. Why care when there’s somebody’s “ticketing app” you could jump ship and hook your dreams to?