Join 3,423 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


What're the profit margins on a Trojan Horse?
January 24, 2012 10:04 PM   Subscribe

A Swarthmore College student-reporter's questioning of whether it is moral to go into banking sparks NYT columnist Nick Kristof to not only assert the affirmative, but to argue (in part) that in fact more well-educated, liberally-mined people should go into "conservative" industries like banking in order to reform it from the inside. In effect, Kristof suggests, socialist-leaning, educationally-empowered students should hunker down, swallow their disdain, and apply their ideals to change finance. Said student responds (in Slate): elite, ostensibly liberal-leaning students don't seem to be particularly discouraged from capitalism or going into banking in this climate, and probably never have been.
posted by Keter (49 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
or we could just re-enact Glass–Steagall, how about that? i've no beef with kristof, but that's a really unrealistic and dumb idea that can only suck energy from proposals that make sense.
posted by facetious at 10:07 PM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


A great many attempts to change something from the inside have turned into the people wanting change being converted to supporting the way things are.
posted by dethb0y at 10:16 PM on January 24, 2012 [14 favorites]


There is also becoming bitter at a machine gamed and designed to abuse people out of the notion they can change things!
posted by The Whelk at 10:18 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


And naturally it is suggested that the risks in undertaking a paradigm shift are to be borne by scrubs, not by the CEOs and other powerfuls best positioned to effect such changes. How fucking self-serving is that.
posted by polymodus at 10:25 PM on January 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


His perpetual really unrealistic and dumb idea[s] that can only suck energy from proposals that make sense are my beef with Kristof.
posted by Diablevert at 10:28 PM on January 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


Swatties gonna swat
posted by The Ted at 10:28 PM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I work for a bank, but being a contractor, I'm only in it for the money.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 10:30 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Progressive students of finance, why not form your own credit union?
posted by chapps at 10:34 PM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


10 shells say Keter is a recent Swarthmore grad.

Also, this NYT article isn't particularily inflammatory. All he really says is that banking isn't evil and maybe if there were more liberals doing financial stuff we would be better off. He doesn't even really say anyone should go into it, just that they shouldn't not do it for ideological reasons. I don't think legislative agendas are exactly going to grind to a halt as a result of particular observation.
posted by Winnemac at 10:39 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


It doesn't matter how liberal, well meaning and desiring to change banking for the good you are: the moment your paycheck depends on being evil, you will be evil. And you will rationalise it for yourself.

Just like you don't get to be a NYT columnist without being willfully blind to certain political realities, as is amply on display here. It is in Kristof's interest to both pretend bankers are conservative and liberals are well meaning do-gooders not understanding the realities of modern banking and that banking can be reformed from the inside out by those same goody goody liberals, that there is no need for regulation or reform through outside pressure.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:48 PM on January 24, 2012 [20 favorites]


Interesting article, but the student's Salon response says nothing about "liberal students", actually, just students in general. If more liberal, socially responsible-minded students did go into finance, things would be better. But as a former student of a Ivy League college where acquaintances routinely shuffled into investment banking, consulting, and other finance and financial services jobs, I can tell you that the majority of said students were ambivalent (at best) and disdainful (at worst) about the social repercussions of their work, or about any other kind of "liberal-minded" concern.

I'd say, absolutely anecdotally, that there's a confluence between the type of student likely to enter a top college (focused on ideals of capital-S Success, achievement, ranking, recognition, ability) and the kind of financial and social prestige that a job in finance and/or economics offers. Is it any coincidence that many students who, just four years earlier as high school seniors belabored away at admissions essays in order to apply to a name brand school, are now upon graduation would decide to participate in large corporations, Wall Street finance, consulting firms as another stable marker of success and stability?

This, in my opinion, is one of the most sinister issues about "high-level" secondary education. Most of those students aren't really taught to be self-seeking individuals willing to postpone the social criterions of ability and success for the sake of their own motivations, because, well, these "high-level" colleges themselves attract exactly those people who desire these social approvals. As such, each year we're pumping out a nationful of students, who, having benefited from sticking to the status quo and their large institutions, decide to fly right back into the same old fray, creating a horrible feedback loop of stagnation and non-innovation.
posted by suedehead at 10:49 PM on January 24, 2012 [20 favorites]


There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

– Niccolo Machiavelli
posted by armoir from antproof case at 10:53 PM on January 24, 2012 [20 favorites]


A ha ha. Man, lots of my philosophy major hippy liberal weed smoking peace loving phish listening friends from college went into banking. Yeah, they're totally all changing it from the inside now. That's why they took those jobs at Goldman. It had nothing to do with the paychecks.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:55 PM on January 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

– Niccolo Machiavelli


This explains why real campaign finance that extracts the influence of deep pockets from politics reform will never be enacted.
posted by hippybear at 10:56 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


*real campaign finance reform
posted by hippybear at 10:57 PM on January 24, 2012


It's easier to rob 'em as an inside job, isn't it? Or is that the first thing the cops think of?
posted by Abiezer at 11:02 PM on January 24, 2012


All he really says is that banking isn't evil

Well, in and of itself, no. Duh. But joining an existing large, multinational bank of the nature of BoA or the others most culpable for the GFC and hoping to change it from within would be like me joining the Catholic Church in order to make it more friendly to women and gays.
posted by rodgerd at 11:08 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


This starts out with a bullshit premise: that it's immoral to go into banking, and that those fresh young graduates should "give back to the world", as defined by Emont. What he's advocating here is quasi-religious vocations.

This explains why real campaign finance reform that extracts the influence of deep pockets from politics reform will never be enacted.

Momentum favors the status quo. Regardless, the simpler reason is that money will always find a way.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:10 PM on January 24, 2012


A great many attempts to change something from the inside have turned into the people wanting change being converted to supporting the way things are.
Yeah, this is exactly what would happen if an individual went to GS or wherever, but I think if you started another firm sourrounded by people with the same ideals, it might work. A credit union is a good example.
This [Machiavelli quote] explains why real campaign finance that extracts the influence of deep pockets from politics reform will never be enacted.
Right, it also explains why Italy is still a city state system controlled by powerful families, and why no other political reforms have ever succeed.
posted by delmoi at 11:16 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


But joining an existing large, multinational bank of the nature of BoA or the others most culpable for the GFC and hoping to change it from within would be like me joining the Catholic Church in order to make it more friendly to women and gays.

This is something you could probably do. But you'd kinda have to become a Catholic first.

I'm kind of amused with the belief that Kristof's suggestions are completely futile. If so, then even complaining about the system is futile. But complaining en masse is in no short supply. Perhaps there is hope, and/or misery truly loves company.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:20 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I got a cold "call" (email) from someone trying to recruit me for Wall Street the other day - some quant thing, "Name your salary." He clearly had my resumé, the job had all my buzzwords on it.

I told him, "How would I face my friends?" He thought I was joking...

He was willing even to kick back 20% of his commission. After a few go-arounds, I finally gave him some advice on where to look (StackOverflow) and told him that if he were successful, he should give $50 to the Bradley Manning defense fund. I did not hear back from him after that...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:30 PM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone who went to work on Wall Street, in a misguided 30-year attempt to make the world a better place, who now has no heart left.

- Winston Churchill, according to the Internet.
posted by rokusan at 12:31 AM on January 25, 2012


I've been getting inundated with interest from HFT firms lately and even went along to an interview at one. They offered me the job, which is more lucrative than my current, but I don't really want to take it. They are a proprietary trading firm, which means the company exists solely to grow a pile of money. They employ a lot of PhDs and engineers to produce absolutely nothing except to make some rich person richer.

I don't see how I or anyone else would 'change the system from within' at a place like that, aside from possibly monkeywrenching.
posted by Joe Chip at 12:56 AM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Banking, as presently constituted, is a field where nice people go to get eaten.

If you're in a deal with a investment banker, and you don't know who the sucker is, it's you. Because of the bailout mentality, the system rewards nasty, aggressive liars first and foremost. The crashes we keep trying to have would kill these roaches dead, but the bailouts mean that we never find out which of them were lying -- so the biggest and boldest liars get to keep the most money, and then tell even BIGGER lies as a consequence.

When banks are Too Big to Fail, there is absolutely no place in them for ethical people. It's all about short-term profit, because long-term risk is covered by the taxpayer. This rewards naked greed and deception far, far more than prudence or caution.

If you're ethical, and go into this field, you might get lucky and avoid being outright bankrupted by the liars, but you'll be hard-pressed indeed to keep your job. Being ethical, you'll be trying to avoid running too much risk. This means you won't make much short-term profit, which means you'll be shown the door in favor of people who can perform.

When Uncle Sam's got your back, safety is for schmucks.
posted by Malor at 1:40 AM on January 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


Lutoslawski: "Man, lots of my philosophy major hippy liberal weed smoking peace loving phish listening friends from college went into banking."

A friend joined Shell with the ideal of changing it from the inside. A lot of us were surprised, since he was the most liberal-minded, green-conscious guy in our circle of college buddies. It took about two years of sharp suits and business lunches for him to throw it all away and become a primary school teacher.
posted by vanar sena at 1:51 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Right, it also explains why Italy is still a city state system controlled by powerful families, and why no other political reforms have ever succeed.

I am not quite sure of whether you meant to be sarcastic. Because a lot of Italians would argue that, in fact, Italian politics haven't changed much since the days of the Medicis, Borgias and Sforzas (and where it has changed, then to the worse: Berlusconi's patronage hasn't benefitted the likes of da Vinci or Michelangelo...).
posted by Skeptic at 2:24 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


holy crap, the slate website for iPad is so badly designed that I actually couldn't figure out how to read the remaining 2 pages of their article
posted by jacalata at 3:15 AM on January 25, 2012


It doesn't matter how liberal, well meaning and desiring to change banking for the good you are: the moment your paycheck depends on being evil, you will be evil. And you will rationalise it for yourself.

Plenty of people have helped expose corruption through whistleblower laws in the financial industry, at great risk to their own careers. Harry Markopolos led us to Bernie Madoff; Cynthia Cooper at Worldcom; Sherron Watkins at Enron; Brad Birkenfield at UBS; Gary Aguirre at the SEC; the list goes on.

Point is, some people see evil and expose it; others conform to it; others change it from the inside. Me, I see a government that's unproductive and technologically unsound and am already arming myself with knowledge, contacts and experience to make it rain once I'm in a position to do so.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 4:03 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


George Bailey lives! (down at the credit union).
posted by tommyD at 4:16 AM on January 25, 2012


But Potter owns the rest of the world.
posted by tommyD at 4:56 AM on January 25, 2012


Banking, as presently constituted, is a field where nice people go to get eaten.

Last June my mortgage was up for renewal, and I met with a mortgage officer to discuss the new terms. She kept calling my mortgage "a small mortgage", and after she'd done so four times, I said, "It doesn't seem small to me, but I suppose it does compared to those you see every day."

She basically erupted and said, "It's crazy! Crazy!!! And people refinance to pay off their credit cards and make them bigger, and then they come in a year later and want to refinance again! And they say, 'Oh, this is the last time', and then they say it again the next year!"

She struck me as someone with a conscience who really wanted to help people get their mortgages paid down. She was all for it when I told her I aimed to be mortgage-free by the time I'm 45 and promptly did the math for me on how much I need to pre-pay each year to make that happen. But she has no control over how people manage their money day-to-day and hers must be a frustrating and even heart-breaking job sometimes. I have run into a few bank employees whom I thought were manipulative or clueless (one urged me to use all the "room" I had between my mortgage principal and the maximum allowed amount and received a prompt smackdown from me), but generally they've struck me as well-meaning people who will give reasonable, if somewhat self-interested, advice. This may be because banks are better regulated in Canada, and it keeps them in bounds.
posted by orange swan at 5:18 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Morality aside, do you really want a liberal managing your money? They tend to be flaky, think too much and have terrible taste. When it comes to money, a greedy bastard is your best bet.
posted by jonmc at 5:23 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, I want some who is greedy dealing with MY money. No fear they might try to manipulate the situation for their own benefit there, nope.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:30 AM on January 25, 2012


80000hours makes a related argument. Rather than emphasizing changing the system from within, they make a utilitarian argument for the amount of good a wealthy person can do, essentially suggesting people become professional philanphropists.
What career would you say does the most good for the world? Being a doctor, or an aid worker? If you’re optimistic, you might even say being a politician. You probably wouldn’t say working in the City. But it turns out that there’s a strong case for becoming a professional philanthropist – someone who deliberately takes a high-earning job to donate large amounts of money to the most important causes.

Everyone knows that when you go into a high-earning career you can earn absurdly large amounts of money. An average banker might earn about £6 million over a 30 year career.

When we see that number we get just as angry about bankers’ bonuses as anyone else, but we also see an opportunity. Say you decided to donate about half of that. You’d still be immensely well-off. But you would also be giving a lot: enough to employ several doctors in the developing world, or even to set up a charity to do almost anything you like!

By funding several people to be aid workers a banker could help people more than an aid worker could.

Of course, most aid workers help people more than most bankers – but that’s exactly why you should become a banker! If you become a banker then the aid worker who fills your spot will still do quite a lot of good. But if you become an aid worker then the banker who fills your spot will probably do absolutely no good at all.
posted by caek at 5:42 AM on January 25, 2012


I'm impressed: there are not many undergraduates around who can turn in a piece as good as Emont's. And Slate, for all that people like to bash it, is one of the only places that's really enthusiastic about running this kind of piece: "somebody wrote something that "felt right" to them in the New York Times but didn't look up any of the relevant data -- so we did."
posted by escabeche at 6:08 AM on January 25, 2012


80000hours makes a related argument. Rather than emphasizing changing the system from within, they make a utilitarian argument for the amount of good a wealthy person can do, essentially suggesting people become professional philanphropists.

Not to knock some wealthy people I know who've supported good local causes, but:

1. The process of becoming wealthy (or being integrated into any strongly ideological system) changes people. A lot. Things that seem ridiculous to ordinary working people (the "moral hazard" of health insurance, for example) make a lot of sense when you start spending all your time among people who believe those things. The system is strong; it will change you. That's one reason that I decided not to go into teaching - I observed peer in my program picking up values that I found repugnant and assumed that I was not a special snowflake who would stay true to my values once I was immersed in another environment.

2. Being wealthy does not make you an expert, but it often makes you think you're an expert. Look at all the really stupid policies - from the Green Revolution habit of giving men the agricultural tools when women were the ones doing agriculture to the fucking stupid motivational poster bus ads that appear in poor neighborhoods in my city extolling the free market and individual effort - that wealthy people have inflicted on those they want to help. (And yes, the World Bank and so on are directed by very posh people - I used to know the extremely unhappy daughter of one of them and her fancy schooling and upbringing were legend in our circles.)

3. Social programs should not be dependent on the goodwill of the rich. Right now, a local hippie school (and a pretty good one) is probably going to close because the wealthy family who footed a solid percentage of the bills withdrew from giving funding. Was it ideological conflict? Personal stuff? Did they have a financial setback due to the economy? No idea. But that school, which was generous with scholarships and took in many children who were struggling in the mainstream system, was dependent on the ability of a wealthy local family to help out.

And then there's the ideological piece, like how some folks associated with the Incite! collective famously got an art tour grant (for something totally unrelated to the Middle East) which the foundation then yanked right before they were due to start because the foundation did not like their group's support for a Palestinian state.

4. And then there's the market. 'Round here, I've been through two market contractions which have had disastrous effects on the portfolios of the big "liberal" foundations - and as a result, funding for everything sharply, sharply contracted, often in stupid ways, as per point 2 - a group had to switch all their work over to supporting No Child Left Behind and away from their other family support stuff because their funder had less money and wanted them to work on NCLB even though it's dumb and terrible.

I honestly don't understand this gilded age mentality that some people have - the idea that we should actively encourage inequality because if we beg nicely enough the rich folks might be persuaded to dole out some charity. Frick and Carnegie and those folks were the ones who busted unions and employed the Pinkertons and secretly supported the murder of union organizers and did all kinds of shit to working class people...no matter how nice the libraries and the art collections look now.
posted by Frowner at 6:11 AM on January 25, 2012 [19 favorites]


I'm having a hard time putting these things on a nice Cartesian grid.

If you are making money producing nothing, then you may be part of the problem...*

I got my career started in the late 90's, and worked closely with Wall Street clients and cyber startups when Silicon Alley was hot.

Is there any difference between the quant who rakes it in because his bets on other people bets magically puts money in his account, and the guy who runs a mighty expensive operation to 'capture eyeballs' with zero revenue? Nope. Regardless of political bent.

In my oversimplified way, I look at the source of the money. Playing with VC money? Fine, they are grownups who directly oversee your progress. Playing with retirement money on a risky or valueless venture? Then you are awful and you should feel awful.

* I am indeed part of the problem, some of the time.
posted by drowsy at 7:00 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lisa: Dad, for the last time, please don't lower yourself to the level of the mob.
Homer: Lisa, maybe if I'm part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions. Now where's my giant foam cowboy hat and airhorn?
posted by condour75 at 7:19 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I went into a conservative industry, originally. Maybe not at that kind of upper level, but still, accounting, not known for having a lot of radicals. What I found was that there was actually not a particular shortage of people who thought of themselves as liberals--and then underpaid the staff, didn't provide health insurance, bragged about their luxury vacations and ignored their wives and kids. About the only real difference was that those people were more likely to make a point of how they used recycled paper.
posted by gracedissolved at 8:33 AM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


Wow, the quality of Daily Gazette reporting has improved by leaps and bounds since my Swattie days. Kudos, Jon!
posted by bettafish at 8:46 AM on January 25, 2012


It would be far more interesting to see more poor people working in banking, than more Ivy Leaguers.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:52 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Change the system from within" reads as "never change the system." If the airline industry was out of control, with pilots flying drunk, planes missing airports, crashing flights everywhere, and yet filled to the brim with subsidies, tax breaks, and interest-free loans, we wouldn't tell people to work for airlines and to change the industry from within. You'd whip the airlines into shape with laws and regulations.

I don't have anything against bankers as a class, but there's nothing magical about the profession which suggests that it cannot or ought not to be controlled, to prevent reckless acts of malice, hubris, and stupidity. The idea that bankers are the priests in the temple of finance, not to be sullied with the interference of the common people or their leaders, not to be criticized by those without the robes, is an idea of either a fanatic or an idiot.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:59 AM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


There really is a way to change the system from within. It's the double agent method. You go in, pretend to be one of them, learn their methods, learn their weaknesses, and when the opportunity presents itself, you blow the whole damn thing sky high. The side effect is that they no longer trust each other, because there is no way to tell that any of the others aren't another one of you. When conspiracy is unavailable, transparency is the only option.

Want to be a double agent against the banks? Congratulations, recruit; you now are one. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to go in, and get yourself into a position where you get to see what might be called "PR-sensitive data". Eventually you'll find some that's worth it - as a rule of thumb, halve the stock price and/or get executives indicted. At that point you short the stock price and release the info as an anonymous bit torrent.

Why short the stock price? Firstly, for self-protection where possible. Secondly, to plant the idea in their heads.

This is something that any medium-high level executive of a bank or similar institution can now do, provided that there is embarrassing information to be released: short the stock by proxy, release the info, cash out. You need to avoid insider trading charges, however those are rather hard to prove and all you need is one trustworthy accomplice.

Given how pervasive fraudulent data has become among exchange-listed entities, this may be why the Obama administration is so keen on prosecuting whistleblowers; it's part of the plan for keeping the system propped up and lurching on.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:25 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Morality aside, do you really want a liberal managing your money? They tend to be flaky, think too much and have terrible taste. When it comes to money, a greedy bastard is your best bet.

seconded. i gave a liberal friend some money to invest a couple of years back, and it turned out he spent it all on poi dog tickets and weed. never again!!
posted by facetious at 10:40 AM on January 25, 2012


Morality aside, do you really want a liberal managing your money? They tend to be flaky, think too much and have terrible taste. When it comes to money, a greedy bastard is your best bet.

The history of U.S. federal deficits under Democratic versus Republican presidents indicates that yes, yes, I really would prefer having a liberal manage my money.
posted by eviemath at 2:13 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Progressive students of finance, why not form your own credit union?

Outside of the fact that people who want to go into "finance" are not interested in becoming loan officers at a retail bank, I'm sure that there are a bunch of liberals in finance telling themselves that they are just waiting for one more bonus until they chuck it all and go into community finance and development. They just need enough money for one more thing, that's just around the corner. As Frowner said, the process of becoming wealthy changes you and makes you dependent on the system that made you wealthy.
posted by deanc at 2:30 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


You mention in “Crony Capitalism Comes Home” that bankers are not “evil at all.” And this year, like most other years, many Swarthmore graduates will take their first class education and go directly into finance, as analysts at JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and many other banks that pay their workers handsomely without contributing much to the public good (and that, arguably, actively undermine it). In part they do so because, as a society, we avoid taking people to task for dedicating their lives to the pursuit of wealth. Would you be willing to say to Swarthmore students, “If you go directly into finance,when there are so many opportunities for smart kids to give back to the world, you are behaving immorally?” If not, why not?

And while you're at that, have you stopped vilifying, beating and sodomizing your wife? Would you be willing to sign this document stating you haven't assaulted and/or raped your wife in the past 30 days? If not, why not?
posted by falameufilho at 3:25 PM on January 25, 2012


George Monbiot pretty much knocks this argument out of the park
posted by mhjb at 10:51 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've been working in the accounting industry for a total of about 10 months, now, and most people on my G+ know exactly how I feel about the old boy culture. (Hint: not favourably.) What this strategy fails to take into account is that you can't enact social change if you're spending 10 hours a day, five days a week doing stuff you hate.

There's this great quote I found a few years ago: "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." It's a little cheesy, but I'm finding more and more truth in it. If what makes me come alive is fighting for social change, and to do that, I need to not hate my life. And I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

(But, yeah, even though entry-level financial auditing doesn't pay that well, it still pays more than anything else I could get right now, and while I'm going to work on my book in my spare time, really, I still need the paycheck to deal with Toronto living expenses...)
posted by Phire at 6:59 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older Often cited as a direct inspiration for Indiana Jo...  |  "I believe the time has come t... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments