Those poor Wall Street CEOs

One of the fascinating aspects of privilege is the way in which it totally skews your perception of what ‘average’ is. I would think, for example, that things like street harassment or sexual assault or other forms of misogynistic abuse are fantastically rare. After all, I’m a guy who spends a lot of time with and around women, and I almost never see street harassment or hear stories of people getting assaulted. It wasn’t until I actually asked the women in my life about their experiences that I saw just how widespread and pervasive these behaviours are – they just don’t happen when guys like me are around to see them. My male privilege makes the ‘norm’ of a safe and fair society seem plausible, when the lived experience of my friends and family is anything but.

So when one is confronted about their privilege, or when their privilege is even simply discussed openly, an interesting thing happens. From the perspective of the privileged, the critics are attacking what is right and normal! Why on Earth would someone criticize a just world? There’s certainly no rational reason to do that. Nobody without a particular axe to grind, or maybe even an outright hatred of a particular group would level such accusations against the norm, right? And when those criticisms continue unabated, there’s only one possible way to see it: as demonization:

With the elections behind us and with the President having won a clear victory, the divisive language is behind us and there will be a close working relationship going forward. The demonisation of Wall Street has been hard to take. The financial industry is proud of its contribution; it’s an industry that has really powered America’s success as leader of the global economy. But the contributions of the industry have been forgotten during this period. They obviously made some mistakes but they feel they’re taking outsized responsibility for problems that should be more broadly shared. I think the rhetoric and demonisation have been a very sore point. Hopefully, we’re going to get beyond that.

Now to be sure, a lot of this is just political posturing and an attempt to re-cast the landscape as though Wall Street didn’t actively campaign against the President’s re-election. Still though, this feeling that the President brought it upon himself by “demonizing” Wall Street executives has been a constant rallying cry (or maybe “rallying whine” is more accurate) for the past several months. You may have heard of it in its alternative form – liberals “hate success”*, and therefore demonize those people who make money out of jealousy because they (we) couldn’t do it ourselves.

And here’s where we see the manifestation of the privilege of being a high-ranking wealthy executive in a country that mistakenly confuses wealth with business acumen: Wall Street CEOs don’t see themselves as being part of the problem. As far as they’re concerned, everything they did was fair. They applied to get laws changed, then obeyed those laws (for the most part – some ‘bad apples’ didn’t, but you can’t blame all Wall Street CEOs for the mistakes of a few, right?). It’s not their fault that bad things happened – the regulators should have done a better job of curbing abuse. Or maybe the lawmakers should have just not written the new laws that the Wall Street CEOs asked for. And hey, there were people out there taking bad loans – how come we don’t blame them for the economy tanking? Shouldn’t they accept some of the blame for being stupid enough to take advantage of the clearly risky products that the Wall Street CEOs sold them?

And now Wall Street CEOs are being targeted with such awful and abusive language! People are calling them “fat-cats”! That hurts their feelings! This harsh language is the real problem. That’s the reason that there’s been no progress! How can you expect anyone to want to participate in fixing an economy (and who really cares who caused the damage, right?) when people are saying such awful things? It’s divisive! Oh sure, people bring up the “47%” comments and a general attitude of dismissiveness toward people who aren’t wealthy as lazy parasites (thanks to policies created by Wall Street CEOs that make it much more difficult to alleviate debt, or make a successful business that competes with giant corporate entities, or to rise out of poverty if you weren’t born with wealth), but can’t we just agree that there’s wrong on both sides? Maybe if both sides just stop bandying about this kind of harsh language, we can start working on solutions.

And so what if Wall Street CEOs have had a long history of reaping out-sized benefits like undue political clout and prestige – many of which are given to them for the simple fact that they are Wall Street CEOs? So what if CEOs of other sectors are not accorded the same deference; nor are people who work on Wall Street but aren’t in that particular echelon of income? That doesn’t justify the kind of mean-spirited witch hunts and widespread hatred leveled against Wall Street CEOs! Most Wall Street CEOs are good people who would never defraud anyone or ruin their economy!

So how dare anyone say anything about Wall Street CEOs as though they are part of the problem! Wall Street CEOs have built immense wealth for the economy; and while mistakes were made, shouldn’t the blame be placed on some Wall Street CEOs rather than blaming them all? After all, this demonization and cruel language is simply dividing Americans, when what we need is unity to fix the economic issues. If Wall Street CEOs are going to be subjected to this kind of harsh and unwelcoming environment, well maybe they’ll just take their trillions in totally legitimately-obtained wealth and sequester it in offshore accounts even more! Why should they help if people are just going to hate them because they’re successful?

And of course that’s crazy, right? Almost nobody hates successful people for the mere fact of being successful. The attacks on, for example, Mitt Romney for his moneybags ways weren’t about “well he’s rich, so therefore he’s a bad person” – they were almost entirely focused on how he made his money. Most people recognize the merit in a capitalist system in which hard work and ingenuity is rewarded with profit; what they object to is when rules are circumvented or changed or simply ignored so that people can reap huge cash windfalls at the expense of those people who cannot afford high-priced lobbyists. The exploitative practices and preferential treatment of financial executives on Wall Street are the reason why they’re “demonized”, not the mere fact that they’re rich.

It’s the fact that Wall Street CEOs won’t do the necessary work to see past their own blinkered view of reality and deal with the actual reasons that people are criticizing them – seemingly preferring to invent a parallel universe of excuses so they don’t have to actually confront the way their own behaviour makes them complicit to a grotesquely unfair system that is deeply harmful – that is the reason why I can’t really take the feverish and beleaguered complaints of white men Wall Street CEOs seriously.

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*Or that terrorists “hate our freedoms” – we must somehow learn to avoid the seductive temptation of substituting swaggering machismo for thoughtful responses. I’m not holding my breath though.


  1. Riptide says

    “As far as they’re concerned, everything they did was fair. They applied to get laws changed, then obeyed those laws (for the most part – some ‘bad apples’ didn’t, but you can’t blame all Wall Street CEOs for the mistakes of a few, right?). ”

    Matt Taibbi would disagree with this characterization. He shows pretty effectively that not only is almost everyone at the tippy-top a pound-me-in-the-ass-prison-worthy felon, but they’re not even ashamed of their criminal activity anymore. See here, ferexample:

    And, a bit closer to Canada, here:

    It really is breathtaking how little regard these motherfuckers have for the law and their fellow humans.

  2. says

    They could stop the criticism by simply paying more than their share of taxes and putting their wealth to good use for everyone. That’s why we have universities named after the great robber-barons of old – they were ASHAMED – and rightly so. What’s amazing to think is that the extremely wealthy could give away virtually all of their wealth and still never have to work a day in their lives, and probably wouldn’t even have much impact on their lifestyles. Once you have enough money that you don’t need to work or worry about your livelihood (say, $10mm) what’s the point of accumulating more?

    Epicurus said that the desire for wealth is a mistake that happens when a person mistakes the end (setting themselves up in comfort and security) for the means ($) and begins chasing the means to the exclusion of all else. The rich aren’t going to get a lot of pity for warping society to their ends in pursuit of their mistake.

  3. smrnda says

    I notice that they discuss their role in helping the US ‘succeed.’ The problem is a word like ‘success’ isn’t really an objective label for some commonly accepted socially beneficial outcome. The CEOs see the fact that they are doing better (and perhaps that some numbers look good on paper) as ‘success’ – their ‘success’ ignores the state of affairs for about everybody outside of their particular caste. They are arguing that their experience of the world should be a valid indicator of how things are going, which is about as self-serving as it gets.

    All said, their ‘contributions’ are basically gutting the standard of living for others so that they can increase their share of passive ownership, which is more heavily rewarded than actual work.

    The problem with the wealthy isn’t just their belief that they have a right to pursue their own interests regardless of the damage that does to others, they’re demanding that nobody even suggest or talk about the fact that the interest of the wealthy might be at odds with the interests of the rest of us.

  4. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says


    Could we not do this?

    On the main point of the post, though —

    I basically agree with both you and Crommunist. Yes, pretty much the entire financial system was (and is) blatantly criminal and corrupt. But “the rules” that the people at the top of the system have diligently been following aren’t the laws — they’re the vaguely Randroid, vaguely social-Darwinist old-boys’-club rules of “we all know what it takes to get filthy rich, so that’s just what people do.” They’re a social structure that sees both laws and ethics as alien, as concerns for other people — because the laws and rules that they follow are those of their own society, from which they could easily be ejected for transgressions like putting laws or ethics over the collective profits of the investor caste.

  5. John Horstman says

    Most people recognize the merit in a capitalist system in which hard work and ingenuity is rewarded with profit

    Um, that’s not capitalism, that’s a labor market. Capitalism is the ability to make capital directly from capital; nothing more, nothing less. It is the exact opposite of what you describe, as a capitalist system specifically does not require any hard work or ingenuity to make money; it requires only capital. Capitalism is universally a terrible system; its only qualities are to support economic privilege (only those who already possess the capital to leverage into more capital are able to do so; everyone else has to work to make much less money), and it is thus entirely devoid of merit. We can have a market system without capitalism; please please please do not conflate market economics with capitalism.

  6. says

    Specifically, they’re measuring success as a country purely in terms of GDP. They ignore that GDP is simply a measure of all the money that changed hands, regardless of where or in what form. So, for instance, the housing bubble increased the GDP dramatically, because there were huge numbers of resales of mortgage tranches. The thing is, those were not creating any actual value: nothing was made, no services were performed, and the economic multiplier of such transactions is actually negative. In any rational measure of a country’s economic health, all of that would be counted as a debit against the economy rather than something that added to it.
    Also, what John Horstman said.

  7. says

    please please please do not conflate market economics with capitalism.

    Thanks for the correction. I will be more careful in the future.

  8. Nathair says

    Most people recognize the merit in a capitalist system in which hard work and ingenuity is rewarded with profit

    But not without reservations, caveats and a strong desire for limits and regulation. Chris Hayes “Iron Law of Meritocracy” applies perfectly here.

  9. hoary puccoon says

    I’ve hesitated posting because this has got to start out sounding obnoxious. But here’s the thing– due to a lot of lucky breaks in my life I spend winters in the Caribbean and summers in the south of France or touring Europe. (And this is on an income that doesn’t come close to 250k, let alone 400.) The usual reaction people have is, like, “Lucky you. You must have a fun life,” and then we talk about where they’ve traveled, or would like to travel.

    But every once in a while I run into people who have a LOT of money. And their reactions are, well, weird. It’s like I’m doing something wrong by having a life that’s at least as interesting as theirs. It’s like I owe it to them, somehow to feel that my life is dull and inferior– that I’m obligated to envy them, because their money MAKES THEM SUPERIOR!!!

    And that’s how they see poverty. Poverty isn’t worrying about paying the doctor or putting food on the table. It’s not even driving an old car. Poverty, for the very rich, is not having everybody else envy you. So, no amount of money will ever be enough for them. If the rest of us have enough to live interesting, fulfilling lives, the ultrarich feel poor!

  10. says

    It’s funny, because while I don’t know many the few wealthy people I know are very down-to-Earth. They’re not ashamed of their wealth, but nor are they as miserly and vindictive as you describe. Maybe the people I know just aren’t wealthy wealthy.

  11. hoary puccoon says

    I don’t know. The people I met who acted that way had mostly inherited their money, or, if they had earned it, had earned it in the kind of job like hedge fund trader, where the job is mostly about making money, not about really creating something worthwhile. I knew one distinguished professor who had inherited a fairly large fortune, and he didn’t act like that. But he was respected for his own accomplishments, not his family bucks. I know there are people exactly like the ones I describe–I’ve met them–but maybe it has less to do with their wealth than with their poverty of any other source of self worth.

  12. says

    Yeah all of the wealthy people I know worked in fields like law or medicine (some in politics) and become wealthy from (usually) middle-class or upper-middle-class circumstances.

  13. Jubal DiGriz says

    “It’s funny, because while I don’t know many the few wealthy people I know are very down-to-Earth. They’re not ashamed of their wealth, but nor are they as miserly and vindictive as you describe. Maybe the people I know just aren’t wealthy wealthy.”

    “One of the fascinating aspects of privilege is the way in which it totally skews your perception of what ‘average’ is.”

    See, you’re doing it again! The “miserly and vindictive” parts are usually personally invisible. I bet the people you’re talking about give lovely parties and pay their 15%, or maybe a bit more, for charity. But how do the doctors treat the nurses? How do the politicians vote and what sort of policies do they support?

    In a way it’s not the fault of individual wealthy people for their callous and exploitative behavior- see See M. Supreme Anarch’s comment.

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