The privileged are pissed

This week’s issue of New York Magazine has a cover story on the anger going on amongst the privileged few on Wall Street. They’re feeling picked on by the majority in America. With the economy in the tank right now Main Street is outraged by the greed on Wall Street. The Wall Street folks are expressing how they feel about being the target of the anger coming from Main Street USA.

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But as Andrew Cuomo stoked public outrage by threatening to release the names of the bonus recipients, it became clear that the game was changing. When AIG employees had arrived at their desks that morning, they found a memo from Liddy asking them to return 50 percent of the money. The number infuriated many of the traders. Why 50 percent? It seemed to be picked out of a hat. The money had been promised, was the feeling. A sacred principle was at stake, along with, not incidentally, their millions.

Everyone on Wall Street is prepared to lose money. Bankers have expressions for disastrous losses: clusterfuck, Chernobyl, blowing up … But no one was prepared to lose money this way. This felt like getting mugged.

Jake DeSantis, a 40-year-old commodities trader at AIG, was an unlikely face of Wall Street greed. Stocky and clean cut, with an abiding moral streak, he’d worked summers for a bricklayer in the shadow of shuttered steel mills outside Pittsburgh; he was valedictorian of his high-school class and attended college at MIT. Compared with the way many of his Wall Street brethren lived, with their Gulfstreams, Hamptons mansions, and fleets of luxury cars, his life wasn’t one to invite scorn. He had canvassed for Obama in Scranton on Election Day and drove a Prius. His division at AIG was profitable. And since joining the company in 1998, he had never traded a single credit-default swap.

Now his boss was selling him out. DeSantis left work that day feeling that his world was falling apart. The next day, the House passed—by a wide margin—a bill that would levy a 90 percent tax on bonuses at firms that were bailed out. The Connecticut Working Families Party planned to bus protesters to the homes of AIG executives in Fairfield County. There were death threats. “It’s been terrifying,” says his wife’s mother, Lynnette Baughman. “It’s like a witch hunt.”

It was in this environment that DeSantis sent his remarkable resignation letter to the New York Times. In the letter, which ran as an op-ed on March 25, he compared himself to a plumber (“None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house”) and announced that he would quit AIG and donate his bonus to charity. The letter, passionate and wounded and oddly out of touch with ordinary Americans, put a human face on Wall Street’s anger. When DeSantis arrived at the office the morning his letter appeared in the paper, the AIG traders gave him a standing ovation. In some quarters of the press, he was vilified. (As Frank Rich put it in the Times, “He didn’t seem to understand that his … $742,006.40 (net) would have amounted to $0 had American taxpayers not ponied up more than $170 billion to keep AIG from dying.”) But the fracas was useful: DeSantis had succeeded in opening up an honest conversation—as typically emotional and awkward and neurotically charged as is any conversation on the subject—about money, the first this town has had in years.

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The rage continues:

“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

“I’m not giving to charity this year!” one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama’s planned tax increases. “When people ask me for money, I tell them, ‘If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.’ I feel so much less generous right now. If I have to adopt twenty poor families, I want a thank-you note and an update on their lives. At least Sally Struthers gives you an update.”

“All the rich people I know took George Bush for granted,” says an analyst at a midtown hedge fund. “I’m a Democrat, but I agree with Rush Limbaugh on a lot of this stuff,” rails the wife of a former AIG executive.

The article goes on to talk about the different types of rage coming from Wall Street and who they’re angry with:

Their anger takes many forms: There is rage at Obama for pushing to raise taxes (“The government wants me to be a slave!” says one hedge-fund analyst); rage at the masses who don’t understand that Wall Street’s high salaries fund New York’s budget (“We’re fucked,” says a former Lehman equities analyst, referring to the city); rage at the people who don’t “get” that Wall Street enables much of the rest of the economy to function (“JPMorgan and all these guys should go on strike—see what happens to the country without Wall Street,” says another hedge-funder).

And check this out:

To Wall Street people who have grown up in the bubble, the meaning of the crisis is only slowly sinking in. They can’t yet grasp the idea of a life lived on less. “Without exception, Wall Street guys have gotten accustomed to not being stuck in the city in August. So it becomes a right to have a summer home within an hour or two commute from Manhattan,” says the Goldman vet. “There’s a cost structure of going with your family on summer vacation that’s not optional. There’s a cost structure of spending $40,000 to send your kids to private school that is not optional. There’s a sense of entitlement, that you need that amount of money just to live, that’s not optional.”

“You can’t live in New York and have kids and send them to school on $75,000,” he continues. “And you have the Obama administration suggesting that. That was a very populist thing that Obama said. He’s being disingenuous. He knows that you can’t live in New York on $75,000.”

That was an argument I heard over and over: that the high cost of living like a wealthy person in New York necessitates high salaries. It was loopy logic, but expressed sincerely. “You could make the argument that $250,000 is a fair amount to make,” says the laid-off JPMorgan vice-president. “Well, what about the $125,000 that staffers on Capitol Hill make? They’re making high salaries for where they live, maybe we should cut their salary, too.”

You can read the entire article in all it’s glory here.

Hat tip to Post Bourgie.

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