American Excess

A Wall Street trader tells all:

There’s a whole branch of economics devoted to proving that if you help someone, say, run in front of a speeding train to push another person out of the way, you are actually acting out of self-interest, not altruism; that what most of us would consider humankind’s cardinal virtues - love, honor, compassion - do not actually exist.

The idea that we’re nothing more than selfish animals is an attractive philosophy to a person pulling down a few million dollars a year. It is a philosophy that negates guilt. The guilty feeling a normal person gets while visiting a Third World country is the same feeling a senior investment banker gets when they see a working class neighborhood in Birmingham or Philadelphia. When your paycheck could cover the salaries of a few hundred nurses or teachers, you need some explanation for why that’s okay. The only one that really works is that life is a pure meritocracy. That whether rich or poor, we’re all getting what we deserve.

The fact is, I became pretty good at making this argument myself. Until a roommate of mine, a guy named Mark Brewin, asked me: “So is that really what you want to be? A selfish animal?” “It’s not like we have a choice,” I said. “No,” he said. “You always have a choice. It’s just easier to pretend that you don’t.”

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