Selling out to investment banks

Most of the students I know at Whitman want to go save the world. We’re a liberal arts college made up of idealists, future Peace Corps volunteers and academics. I’ve always sort of pictured Whitman as a place to train the next generation of college-educated small organic farmers, but there’s something to be said for health insurance and being able to pay off student loans. I’ve spent the last week in New York City talking to Whitman College alums working in tons of different careers—law, media, finance—and it’s been fascinating to see how people explain their career choices to us, and to see so many Whitties living and working in a city that’s about as different from Walla Walla as you could reasonably get.

One of our first appointments was with an alum who does private baking for Merrill Lynch. He deals exclusively with clients who have at least $25 million in assets. He came to the U.S. and to Whitman as an immigrant on a full scholarship, so he’s been incredibly happy to be so successful in his professional life.

We asked him what he thought about his job. He leaned back in his chair, arm angled against his side, and thought for a minute.

“We don’t really produce anything. We’re capital allocators,” he told us. “I struggled with it for a few years—what am I really accomplishing here? Making rich people richer?”

Ultimately, he goes back to the fact that he has a dynamic, rewarding career. He also said that the wealth earned by the rich often goes back to philanthropy efforts, so in a sense, he’s making the world a better place by allowing more charity to take place. Still, I got the sense that he struggles to reconcile his beliefs with his work.

“I do love my profession, but if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it,” he told us. He said he had to do it to pay the bills, which there are a lot of.

Our Goldman Sachs guy was much less apologetic. He’s a vice president in merchant banking—not the division that was responsible for the collapse of capitalism, as he told us several times. He said he loves the challenges he faces at work and the culture at Goldman. He downplayed our concerns about the long hours, acknowledging that sometimes he has to stay late (until 2 or 3 a.m.), but he’s usually out of the office by 8 or 9 at night. I thought about that for a while. I’ve always told myself that I would never get a job where 60 hour work weeks are the norm and 18-hour days are sometimes a necessity, but I don’t think that’s really true. I can’t imagine loving banking enough to do it for most of my waking hours, but I would spend that time on writing or reporting in a heartbeat.

I asked him if there are any social or environmental responsibility guidelines that Goldman uses to screen potential investments. He said that the firm takes those things very seriously, and that they wouldn’t invest in a company causing serious environmental damage. I asked him to what extent that’s really true.

“You’d invest in Exxon-Mobil or Apple or Nike, right?”

He paused for a second, then acknowledged that yes, they would. But he added that there had been investment deals which had been stopped because of environmental concerns. The cynic in me says that any efforts to avoid environmental damages stem purely from a profit motive. If your company is dumping toxic waste everywhere and is eventually forced to pay for clean-up, the value of your assets goes down. I don’t fault him for this, really. I was trying to get at something I struggle with a lot. I understand that investing allocates capital in a supposedly “efficient” way and allows for business creation, economic growth and jobs, but I think there’s a fundamental tension between profit-motivated investing and environmental/social responsibility. A conservative or moderate (and really, most liberals I know as well) would say that the problem is externalities, and that if we figure out a way to make environmental liabilities show up on a P&L, we’ll make that investment machine a vehicle for environmental good. But I’m not convinced it’s a reconcilable problem.

The point of the trip is to network with alums and get a sense of what careers are out there in the world. We’re able to ask them questions about their work, ostensibly to figure out if we might be interested in working in a similar position. Since most of us are bleeding heart liberals with no desire to be in investment banking, we asked them their thoughts on the Occupy movement instead.

Both of our guys said they absolutely supported the movement’s goal of reducing income inequality. I found this interesting, since the original Occupy contingent wasn’t really about that at all. The 99% rhetoric is so ingrained in our national consciousness now that it’s easy to forget Occupy’s birth was with the Adbusters folks—a contingent of anti-capitalist anarchists who wanted to criticize the most obvious and extreme example of soulless capitalism: investment banking. Income inequality is a symptom of what they see as a much larger problem, but they’re not really into reform, because the whole system is rotten.

Our Merrill Lynch guy was more strident in his support of the protests, talking about the importance of equal opportunity and how much he believes in the American Dream, even though he knows it’s gotten harder to move up since he did it. Still, he thinks Occupy hasn’t accomplished much.

“It has high hopes. I don’t think it accomplished anything,” he said. “I think it sort of failed to do what it was going to do, which was create a more urgent environment for our country to rally around. . .”

He also said that he thought the movement was too fragmented and disjointed to do much that was practical. Our Goldman guy echoed this sentiment, saying that he agreed with the goal of more equal income distribution, but thought the movement was too theatrical in ways that detracted from the point.

Most interestingly for me, Merrill Lynch guy said that he absolutely considers himself to be part of the 99%. I’ve thought about this a lot as well—can you affiliate with others across class lines effectively? Whether or not he’s technically part of the wealthiest 1% of Americans, I have no doubt that his life is much more closely aligned with that crowd than it is with the single mother working two minimum wage jobs to try to put food on the table for her kids. Still, I’d rather have a fabulously rich guy who cares about those below him than one who’s indifferent. He said most of his colleagues aren’t like this, and that politics isn’t something you discuss at the office. We asked him if he would ever consider bringing it up, but he said it wouldn’t be possible.

These meetings reminded me how easy it is to become complacent, how easy it is to convince yourself that the work you’re doing is enough. I’m not criticizing these guys’ individual career choices, though they’re not choices I would make. But talking to them reminded me that whatever I end up doing with my life—journalism, activism, food policy—I need to keep the end goal in mind. Another Whittie we met with—a lawyer at a global firm that represents banks, sovereign nations and a bunch of other important actors—said that he didn’t think the work he was doing was actively making the world worse, but that there’s a huge difference between that and actively improving things. There are a ton of things I want to do with my life, but while I navigate that, I need to make sure that I’m true to the values that got me there in the first place. I’m sure I’ll become less radical as I age and settle down (though I’m still hoping not), but I want to check in with myself about why I’m doing the work I’m doing regularly. Because if whatever it is isn’t working to fix something that’s wrong with the world, I’m in the wrong profession.

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