In a much read column, WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ claims that Wall Street bankers are ten times more likely than the average citizen to be “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” Capitalism in his world is predicated on bad behavior. “You get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught,” he says of business people.
But he leaves his harshest criticism for business school:
“I always found the notion of a business school amusing. What kinds of courses do they offer? Robbing Widows and Orphans? Grinding the Faces of the Poor? Having It Both Ways? Feeding at the Public Trough? There was a documentary several years ago called “The Corporation” that accepted the premise that corporations are persons and then asked what kind of people they are. The answer was, precisely, psychopaths: indifferent to others, incapable of guilt, exclusively devoted to their own interests.”
Funny, I went to business school at Yale, I worked for a time at Goldman Sachs, I was CFO of a large media company, and then for a decade ran my own venture firm. And in all that time I met a ton of good people. People who cared a lot more about doing right than getting filthy rich. There was this one tax guru at Goldman who spoke with a lisp, went to Princeton, and always seemed like he might be hiding something. But I digress. At Yale, a lot of the courses I took involved complex math and public policy (many of my classmates from Yale went onto careers in non-profit organizations). I believe the idea was to help widows and orphans not rob them.
I’ve had enough exposure to tenured faculty members, surgeons, high level musicians, psychologists, CIA agents, and librarians to know that each of these groups has a far higher propensity towards acute mental illness–even psychopathology–than successful capitalists. Hell, my college economics professor–a guy named Mr. Kilby–used to climb out the window mid-lecture to go feed his dog Bert. Thank goodness it was a first floor window.
But I do agree to a point that our current economic situation leaves the door open to question the goodness of capitalism and the practitioners of that faith.
I’m a capitalist. I’d like to think I am the Tom & Jerry’s variety, with a roving ice cream truck, a jolly attitude and jeans sagging half-way down my ass crack. That may be a hopelessly idealistic view of what I do. But being a capitalist doesn’t make me, by definition, mean or stupid.
My world view goes like this. The concentration of wealth in this country and this world is extremely dangerous to all, including the wealthy. The amount of national debt across the developed world is equally destabilizing. In the United States, we are more focused on locking people up than educating them. And our massive national debt at least in part can be traced to an obsession with national security. If none of those things kill us, our continued total dependence on fossil fuel and the accelerating use of our environment will.
I don’t think unbridled capitalism, or a handful of rich guys, should be saddled with that long list of terribles. The reality is that we are all equally responsible. This is our country and our planet.
I don’t think the problem is capitalism, Wall Street psychopaths (really?), but rather what I call the disease of more. We have all allowed ourselves to get trapped into this rampant level of consumerism which rots our souls and makes us miserable. Capitalism by itself is just a tool to make stuff: cars, ice cream, iPads. What we do with that stuff is really up to us. And we’ve become Pavlovian dogs who chase and chase and chase the stuff of life like some kind of narcotic that will fix what ails us. But it never does because inside the trap of the disease of more no matter how much you have–even if you are a billionaire–you don’t have enough to be happy.
The greatest gift of my life was to achieve a certain amount of success as a business titan by the age of 30, and to realize that it didn’t mean shit. I lost my house, my marriage, and was in danger of losing my baby children. No amount of money could cure what ailed me. And my disease had nothing to do with my being a capitalist.
One thing I do agree with DERESIEWICZ on is the way in which the disease of more has deluded us all into believe that wealth is somehow related in any way to morality. He sees the rich as evil to fight the common perception that the poor are not poor but somehow morally lacking.
“Poor Americans are urged to hate themselves,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” And so, “they mock themselves and glorify their betters.” Our most destructive lie, he added, “is that it is very easy for any American to make money.” The lie goes on. The poor are lazy, stupid and evil. The rich are brilliant, courageous and good. They shower their beneficence upon the rest of us.
A single mother holding down a job and putting herself through community college works just as hard as any hedge fund manager. A person who takes out a mortgage — or a student loan, or who conceives a child — on the strength of a job she knows she could lose at any moment (thanks, perhaps, to one of those job creators) assumes as much risk as someone who starts a business.
My primary motivation in starting The Good Men Project was to celebration men doing good in all forms, most particularly under challenging circumstances and outside the bright lights of celebrity and wealth. The guy in Sing Sing is my hero. So is the guy taking pictures in Iraq. And the father of an autistic child. Obviously it’s not because of money. Money, and more, are irrelevant in the face of a much deeper morality.
One way to think about our problems is to examine more closely how we deal with poverty here in the United States and around the world. Do we hate the needy? Do we treat them with resentment? Or do we show them compassion?
Again, my argument is that capitalism is just an economic engine. It has no inherent morality. In fact it can be used specifically to help the poor. In the last year I have become heavy involved financially in the micro finance industry in Mexico. This is where collectives of incredibly poor women band together to take out tiny loans to expand home spun businesses like cooking food or selling roadside items or providing childcare. The group underwrites the loans. Amazingly, despite their individual poverty the default rate as a group is very close to zero. The women slowly work their way to a better life for themselves and their families directly as the result of loans provided in a capitalist system.
Personally I have found that the best way to cure the disease of more is to go into a prison. Talk to the inmates. Try to understand what landed them there and what it’s like to be locked up like some kind of animal. The supposed morality of wealth quickly evaporates. Even in the presence of the most hardened criminals, my heart has softened and I have come to see that the world is profoundly unfair and my judgements about right and wrong, good and bad need to be re-examined on a much deeper level.
Recently my 16 year-old son went on a service trip to the Dominican Republic. This was no luxury service trip. They lived in the mountains and planted coffee. They went to the Haitian border to witness the treatment of Haitians attempting to get across and get food for their starving families. They went to the biggest dumpyard in the country where children lived amidst burning trash, scavenging for metal. And they went to an orphanage where normal children had been confined to cribs for so long without being attended to that their bodies had become deformed.
When this group of a dozen teenage boys came home they talked about faith and service in a way that truly inspired me. The idea that service is not something that you do to or for another person. “Service is the act of witness, of walking with another in their journey, of receiving Grace by honoring those less fortunate,” their charismatic leader said.
Our problem isn’t capitalism or the supposed psychopaths on Wall Street, it’s our collective disease of more. It’s our unwillingness to see poverty and education and imprisonment as a collective problem. It’s our focus on the next thing we want to buy rather than the person we want to help.
Sure tax and regulatory policy are important. But none of it will mean shit unless we all wake up from this belief that more is better.