Tis’ the season to be jolly. Er.. if you’re a Wall Street banker, that is, where billions in end-of-year bonuses are about to rain down like manna from heaven. Wall Street is the one place in America where the economic downturn has not reached. Over the holiday period flashy Ferraris will be fired up and driven off showroom floors. The Hamptons will emerge from a deep winter thaw, warmed by the fires of credit cards working at such a feverish pace that plastic will be hard-pressed not to melt. Oh yes, happy days are here again.
If only the prophet Amos were alive to see it, he might have proclaimed, “Let champagne flow like a river; Don Perignon like a mighty spring.” King David would likewise have cheered, “Yay, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of unemployment, I shall fear no recession, for my government bailouts are with me… My cash runneth over.”
OK, ok. So I sound a little bit envious. I confess. But only a little. I do not begrudge the success of my Wall Street brothers. Not because I have mastered jealousy but because I make a living counseling people whose lives are in crisis. And I’ve discovered that the only thing that buys happiness on this earth is a life lived as a blessing to others. Excessive consumption is naught by a manifestation of the black hole at our center and the human need to fill it with an endless supply of adult toys (OK, calm down. I mean, of course, the more respectable, if somewhat infantile, adult toys of the car, yacht, and plane variety).
Not that there aren’t many Wall Street bankers who fill their lives with virtue rather than Hermes. Many of my former Oxford students run hedge funds and work on the street. The majority of them make money to give it away to the needy around the world and support their families in dignity. They reject conspicuous consumption, live faith-based lives, and are communally engaged.
But they might just be the exception that proves the rule.
There can be little doubt that the success of the banking industry is critical to the success of the overall American economy. But that success dare not be made off the backs of hard-working Americans. Let them Wall Street traders be paid a king’s ransom. Let them eat cake. But when government bailouts are chiefly responsible for their astronomical profits, then they better make darn sure that the spigot is not suddenly turned off for desperate homeowners who need modifications to stay in their homes.
I used to have a much higher opinion of Wall Street and indeed, as I wrote above, many of my closest friends are bankers. But a series of unfortunate incidents soured me, nearly all of them with JP Morgan Chase and its subdivision Bear Stearns. I have earlier written of Bear Stearns’ losing about forty percent of my retirement savings and then trying to triple charge me with fees when another trader moved the money into mutual funds. Wow. You’d think that after everything my wife and I had been through they would at least not try and gouge me. I shared how an old and influential friend at the bank then told me that any attempt to recover the paltry $3900 I had requested, amid losses of tens of thousands, due to consequences of the triple-charging on the part of the young trader, would be labeled extortion. Bigger wow! If you complain they threaten you? Nobody likes to be threatened or bullied so I had no choice but to sue Bear Stearns.
I have tried to settle the suit. Bear is offering a pittance. Still I indicated a willingness to accept the small sum to simply put the matter behind me. This was never about money but about a regular person showing Wall Street that they can’t simply push us around. But the draconian confidentiality terms Bear is demanding is making even a small settlement difficult. As a writer, broadcaster, and columnist, I talk about the state of the economy and the state of our banks as an important barometer of the overall health of our nation’s values. And it seems to me that rather than large institutions like Bear Stearns try to gag people from being critical, especially when it is the only remedy available to us given our weakness in taking on multi-billion dollar institutions, it is better to correct their inner culture to act fairly and ethically in the first place.
The New York Times Magazine recently ran a cover story that seemed like a puff piece on JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon entitled, “America’s Least-Hated Banker.” (That’s what passes for a compliment for bankers today.) I would like to believe that he’s a good guy. Perhaps he is the genius they say he is (though I was startled to see writer Roger Lowenstein disclose halfway through the piece that “my mother is friendly with Dimon’s parents.” I kind of wondered why he was selected him to write the profile.) But to prove it, Dimon must demonstrate that he is changing the culture at Bear Stearns and JP Morgan Chase and that he gets that while it’s nice to make bucket loads of money and afford the luxuries of life, it’s even more important to uphold the highest ethical standards while doing so.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network, an organization dedicated to promoting universal Jewish values in the culture. The international best-selling author of 24 books, his most recent work is “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.