“What do you think about Occupy Wall Street?”
“Honestly? A bunch of spoiled, rich, white kids who were too lazy to get a job, who have parents supporting them financially, or they live out in Brooklyn and pretend to be homeless people,” said a VP of a mid-tier investment bank, who I’ll call “Ivan.” Unlike Greg Smith, whose critique of Goldman Sachs was published in a New York Times op-ed after his resignation, Ivan would like very much to keep his job, in which he gets “paid way too much to play with math.”
Ivan, who works in quantitative strategy development, is large and amiable. He manages his bearish frame awkwardly, and speaks as if it were a race to say the most the fastest—the only obstacle to his victory is the occasional stutter. His black vest is embroidered with the logo of Bear Stearns, a relic from his first internship: “The first bank to collapse,” he says with a smile. He is not shy about his motivations for working in finance: “The only reason that anyone goes into banking or finance, is for money. There is no other reason for it. People can lie and say it’s all about the challenge… it’s not. It’s about money.”
This comes as no surprise considering the bad press that the finance industry has been getting—most recently in the form of Smith’s public resignation. Imploring the higher-ups to “get the culture right,” Smith wrote, “People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm.” But the theory that informed the policies of the financial boom days was precisely that: people are driven by incentives, and if they act in their own interest, the market will do the rest. “It is precisely the ‘greed’ of the businessman or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer,” wrote Alan Greenspan in 1963. More than two decades later, he would become the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and champion deregulated markets.
If profit-seeking is the highest motivation, the culture of finance is understandably uninviting. “It creates a culture where people are always trying to one up each other,” said Ivan. “You have to be aggressive to win.” It is a world where betrayal is not “necessarily rare,” and people often “take more credit than what they’re due.”
According to Ivan, one of the best ways to increase one’s compensation is to take more credit for the work of others and flaunt it to those who determine bonuses.
As a managing director (MD) at JP Morgan, Kenneth Froewiss used to sit on the review committee that determined bonuses. Froewiss started working on Wall Street in the late 70s as a financial economist, and eventually moved into investment banking. He left in the mid-90s to teach finance at New York University, and though he spent less than two decades on the Street, it was enough to observe a large cultural shift. According to him, a bonus was once a nice addition—a Christmas present of sorts. Somewhere along the way, it became the most important part of someone’s compensation: “First, we started giving everybody pretty good bonuses as best we could. By the time I left, there was a very brutal tiering system…whereby you’d give eye-popping bonuses to a few top players and then just crush somebody who was perceived as less good.”
Why such a brutal tiering system? An Occupy protestor may be concerned about income inequality between Wall Street and Main Street, but sensitivity to income inequality is also high within the world of finance. Competition for incentives is the theory for attracting the “best talent,” and entry-level finance jobs in New York can range from $60,000-$80,000 a year. That is more than the median household income in the U.S., but far below the executive bonuses that go into the tens of millions. “Everyone’s standard of comparison for what’s fair is what the person sitting next to me gets,” said Froewiss. “And so, if I got a million dollar bonus, but the guy next to me gets two million, I feel I have just been horribly wronged… ‘How can I live on a million?’ sort of thing. The mindset gets very warped that way.”
With the growth of management studies of workplace culture, emotional contagion—the tendency for people to catch and feel attitudes of others—is well documented. A disagreeable boss can make for a disagreeable team. But the structures implemented by management can have even more insidious effects. “A few years before I left,” said Froewiss, “management became convinced that we needed to adopt what was then the GE model of Jack Welch. Every year you decide who’s in the top 20 percent… and you get rid of the lower 10 or 20 percent of the year. You weed them out, and so it was a very ruthless survival of the fittest. You wanted to make sure you weren’t in that lower 20 percent.”
“Survival of the fittest” was a phrase first used by British thinker Herbert Spencer in 1864. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” it is frequently used to describe the nature of finance—a competitive, Darwinian world.
In the early fifties, Greenspan was introduced to Ayn Rand, one of the most vocal proponents of self-interest. Her novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” were beloved to free-market idealists and her best-selling work of non-fiction is entitled “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Greenspan became part of Rand’s inner circle, attending weekly salons and reading drafts of “Atlas Shrugged” before its publication. When Greenspan was sworn in as the chairman of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, Rand attended the ceremony.
Perhaps no other thinker influenced Greenspan as much as Rand, and he even wrote several articles for her magazine, “The Objectivist Newsletter.” In one of them, he likens the basis of government regulation to “armed force,” and writes, “Regulation—which is based on force and fear—undermines the moral base of business dealings.” The moral base of business dealings was of course, self-interest—a force of self-regulation: “If civilization is to survive,” wrote Rand, “it is the altruist morality that men have to reject.”
It is with this philosophy that Greenspan went to head the Federal Reserve, a post he held for nearly two decades. During that time, Greenspan, along with the rest of the “committee to save the world,” got rid of the Depression-era banking reforms known as Glass-Steagall, and stymied attempts to regulate over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives. The market, which was dubbed a “black box” due to its lack of transparency, was worth $28 trillion when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission attempted to regulate it. The free-marketeers won the political battle, and by 2007, the unregulated market for OTC derivatives was worth $600 trillion. The nature of these derivatives put them beyond regulators because only brokers and dealers could negotiate sales. The market was the territory of finance professionals only. As profits increased, so did economic inequality.
Some in the industry were unsettled by the seemingly ubiquitous blind faith in the models that inflated the bubble. Vlad Teichberg, former derivatives trader turned Occupy protestor and media activist, said that while he was at Deutsche Bank, the models used to price risk were built on precarious assumptions. “How can you use such a simplistic crutch to deal with something so complex?” he wondered. When he was working in synthetic mortgages—securities that bet on mortgage defaults—he tried to develop a new model that would “immediately imply certain mathematical truths and would basically put the brakes on it,” but was told by his higher ups, “your job is to execute trades, not to question methodology.” The unsustainable boom worried him, but he did not expect it to turn into an economic meltdown: “I thought people would wake up,” he said, snapping his fingers, “and I thought the wake up would be right around the corner.”
Teichberg spent more than a decade trading derivatives on Wall Street before co-founding Global Revolution TV, subverter of traditional media and livestreamer of Occupy protests. He became a derivatives trader by accident. While he was a math major at Princeton, he needed a summer job, and heard that Wall Street firms were hiring the quantitatively inclined. After acing an interview at Bankers Trust, he got into the derivatives business. “I was fairly young at the time, I was 19, so I didn’t really understand the ramifications of what was going on.” Bankers Trust became embroiled in one of the first derivatives scandals in the mid-90s, costing their clients hundreds of millions.
The idea behind a derivative is simple. It was difficult to manage risk since it was highly concentrated in the hands of traditional lenders like banks, so the derivatives market was created in order to allow people to buy and sell risk, apart from the lending. As Blythe Masters, one of the inventors of financial derivatives said in an interview with PBS Frontline, “It would make it easier and safer for people to lend.”
“The theory made total sense,” said Teichberg. “It was completely logical—as long as people played nice, and did not do crazy things like bribe the rating agencies.” Two Bankers Trust clients, Proctor & Gamble and Gibson Greetings successfully sued the bank for being misled with derivatives. “All these company treasurers were basically gambling with the companies’ money, and if they won, they got paid well and they were superstars… and if they lost, well, you could always get another job.”
The “I could always get another job” mentality was pervasive in a booming industry where the monetary rewards for taking huge risks outweighed the consequences of being fired. Charles Murphy, finance professor at NYU and former senior advisor to Credit Suisse, attributed the change in culture to the nature of a public firm. In the mid ‘70s to ‘80s, banks that were partnerships were forced to have bigger balance sheets and many of them went public. “The culture of a partnership is much different from the culture of a public firm,” he said. “It’s more long-term.” Partnerships facilitate collaboration, since the partners are using each other’s money and putting their own wealth at risk. “When a firm goes public, you’re no longer using your money, you’re using other people’s money! And so, you start to take these big risks because, what’s the worst that could happen? You get fired! You still get to keep your money.”
This lack of liability is exactly what irks many Occupiers. Perhaps the pursuit of the bottom line can justify putting other people’s money at risk, but when values like fairness enter the decision-making process, such justifications seem inadequate. Occupier Anthony Yenafuck, who works with a variety of OWS working groups including Facilitation and Direct Action, said, “That’s an inherent flaw of capitalism. If capitalism is our system, the only thing that matters is money, so humanitarian needs, eco-based needs, anything that isn’t measured in dollars falls by the wayside.” Though he identifies as an anarchist, Yenafuck was willing to compromise on the role of government, presuming that it provides all the necessities. “What do you need?” he asks. “You need food, clothing, housing, medical, education, and transportation,” he answers. “If you don’t have any one of them, securing the others is almost impossible.”
Yenafuck had touched upon one of the main points of sociologist William Ryan’s book “Equality.” Published in 1982, Ryan coined the terms “Fair Play” and “Fair Shares,” to describe different sides of the economic ideology spectrum. The Fair Play ideology emphasizes the right for all to pursue happiness and obtain resources, while Fair Shares emphasizes the right for all to access resources to pursue happiness. As Yenafuck explains, “Think about trying to get a job if you don’t have transportation, or you can’t take a shower ‘cause you don’t have a house.”
In his book, Ryan argues that the U.S. is dominated by the Fair Play ideology. In interpreting the phrase “all men are created equal,” Fair Play stresses, “all are equally free to pursue , but have no guarantee of attaining , happiness.” Of course since people differ in terms of talent, skill, and discipline, inequality is not simply tolerable, but fair in a meritocracy. Fair Shares, on the other hand, stresses that all have an equal right “to a reasonable share of society’s resources, sufficient to sustain life at a decent standard of humanity and to preserve liberty and freedom from compulsion.” Ivan, who could be termed a Fair Player, sees Occupiers as lazy and spoiled because “most people who need a job are out there looking for jobs.” While the Fair Sharer is more inclined to see poverty as a condition of one’s environment, a Fair Player will see the shortcomings of an individual.
One of the most enduring gripes between Fair Players and Fair Sharers is the concept of hard work. A New York Times article on the 1 percent reported that they are three times more likely than the 99 percent to work more than 50 hours a week. Sure, many of them were born with socio-economic advantages making them more likely to be employed than the 99 percent. But of course, not everyone is. “I worked on a farm when I was young. I know what work is,” said Ivan. On the subject of OWS, he said, “It’s a way of sloughing off personal responsibility… ‘cause when they were in school studying, partying, I was working three jobs.”
The movement, having drawn an assorted mix of supporters, can hardly be cast as those who are out of work. For one protestor, the movement was an extension of his life’s work. David Severn could be found in Zuccotti observing and conversing, lured to the park from a career of social and environmental activism that started in the early ‘60s. Severn, who is 69 and has 8 children and 10 grandchildren, said, “[I’m] getting close to the end maybe, and I just feel like all the work I’ve done hasn’t really created that much change for the better, that things have actually gotten worse.” Although he thinks that the efforts aren’t going to make much of an impact on Wall Street any time soon, “to know that we can come together… and share commonness, common humanity, is wonderful,” he said. “It makes me feel better for my grandkids, you know. Maybe it’s not quite as scary as I think.” And that is the emphasis of Fair Shares—a focus on commonality rather than difference, on cooperation rather than competition.
Though people work hard in all sectors, perhaps no other industry exemplifies the emphasis on hard work and reward than finance. “Analysts have to work 80 to 100 hours a week,” said Murphy. “It’s a pressure cooker.” Froewiss, who described the place as “fairly gentle” when he first joined, said that the culture came to value “the killer instinct,” a penchant for aggression and an undiscriminating eye for efficiency and productivity.
“When I joined JP Morgan, ‘the killer instinct’ was not a phrase that anybody would’ve used,” said Froewiss. “And it was right around then in 1995 that credit default swaps were being invented at JP Morgan…this product that turned out to cause so much grief.” The short-term profitability of credit default swaps did not bode well for the longer run when the events that the insurers thought would never happen, did. Post-recession circumstances are forcing institutions to slim down, intensifying competition.
The struggle for productivity in competitive environments is helping doctors who specialize in testosterone treatment. One Manhattan doctor, the Financial Times reported, saw a huge jump in business after the financial crisis, and 90 percent of his patients work in finance. One executive quoted in the article said, “Wall Street is a play hard, work hard environment.” Finding it difficult to keep up with the 12-hour workdays, he turned to testosterone therapy, “I now have a bit more of an alpha male personality, and I’m able to get by on less sleep. It’s the positive side of aggression,” he said.
Very often, the incentives in finance reward people by virtue of their personalities. Ivan, who has seen many quit or burn out in the industry, said, “A lot of people don’t handle it well.” He attributes his success to his Type-A personality, which is characterized as competitive, impatient, impulsive, and sometimes, hostile and aggressive.
“We’ve grown up with this, that this is how to succeed in society,” said one Occupier, Scott, who requested that his last name not be used. “[At] the top levels of society, those are the qualities that are being celebrated.” Perhaps even more disconcerting is when those qualities become pathological. A study from the University of St. Gallen published last fall, to the surprise of the researchers, found that traders were more reckless and manipulative than psychopaths in a computer game. One of the researchers, Thomas Noll, told Der Spiegel, "Naturally one can't characterize the traders as deranged. But for example, they behaved more egotistically and were more willing to take risks than a group of psychopaths who took the same test." What was particularly surprising for the researchers was that the traders cared more about damaging their opponents than they cared about winning.
Stereotypically, trading is seen as the most unmerciful of finance activities, partially due to pop culture portrayals à la Gordon Gekko, and partially due to the zero-sum nature of the game. Perhaps that’s why the traders in the aforementioned study were so bent on damaging their opponents—in trading, someone else has to lose for you to win because the total return of all trades in a market equals the total market return. Trading has become a large source of revenue for institutions that were traditionally more focused on banking. But despite the long running cultural spat between traders and investment bankers, “everybody was feeding out of the same trough,” said Froewiss. “The really toxic products, the products that were being traded on the trading floor… were designed within the investment banking arm.”
“The industry was at liberty to create short-term products which are financial garbage,” said an investment banker at the leading Wall Street firm, who I’ll call “Sandra.” She attributes this to the deregulation of the past 20 years. “So the industry rewards an aggressive salesman mentality.”
Sandra does not look like an investment banker. Her cherubic face is framed by loose curls, and is often decorated with a wide smile. Plump and petite, it is difficult to imagine her motherly aura in the patriarchal world of finance—an incongruity she laughs about: “Being an Asian woman, we’re generally more reserved right?” Not Sandra, who has managed to climb high up in the hierarchy. “To survive, you need to throw away every piece of good manners your parents have taught you, men or women,” she says. Within the bank, she explains, divisions negotiate with each other to get a bigger slice of the pie. And with large initial public offerings (IPO), she often works with syndication banks. “If the deal is good, you try to keep everything to yourself, if it’s bad, give it to others. So it’s all fighting about money,” she says with a chuckle.
Unlike Ivan, Sandra thinks that Occupy Wall Street will help, and hopes that along with more regulation, it will prod the industry to become more like it used to be. “I am not that old to have seen the good old days,” she laments, as a middle-aged woman, “but I hope that one day, we would be able to be like family-doctors to corporations.” For those who witnessed the decline of the “good old days,” they serve as an idealized bygone era. Froewiss says at JP Morgan, the approach was: It doesn’t matter how much we make as long as we do the right thing. “We’d be known to tell a client ‘oh, you’re not satisfied with the work, don’t pay us anything.’”
In an industry where “the right thing” increasingly became the thing that made the most money, the focus shifted to salesmanship: “I think that explains why people are meaner, are being more aggressive, and everyone tries to be a movie star instead of being a team player,” said Sandra. And it seems that as the industry came to value profit more, so did its employees. “As a banker, your lifestyle is really really bad… you work almost 24/7, so people definitely want to be rewarded in some way. Money is the closest thing that you can think of because, if you don’t have time, nothing else matters. You can’t take vacations, you don’t go to movies, you can’t even sit down to have proper meals. So the only thing that’s worth the sacrifice would be money,” she said.
But for some bankers, money and even career are not the most important things. Though he says it is “hard to strike a balance,” one Goldman Sachs MD, who I’ll call “Tom,” seems to be immune to certain stresses that his colleagues face. “A lot of people at my age… in this industry cannot sleep well. Most of them have huge problems with sleeping. It’s just because of the toughness, the pressure, the stress.” Tom, who is 40, attempts to describe the pressure from the relentless competition: “I don’t want to overstate it, but some people will use words like ‘betrayal.’ You will feel that from time to time.”
Tom, unlike many of his colleagues, has no trouble sleeping, and values the benefits of sustaining an inner balance. He is, however, cautious about telling me of his balanced life as a banker—something his higher-ups might not appreciate. When conversation turns towards his dedication to parenting, his eyes divert to the recorder—“in private, don’t quote me in any article.”
But why? Isn’t being a good parent a good thing?
“Yeah, but the Goldman executives will kill me if they hear that,” he says, laughing. “They will say, ‘you’re not supposed to have a personal life.’” This attitude, however, is “not necessarily the philosophy of the firm,” he said. The firm has a “working parent forum,” which, according the website, tries to “create a support community for working parents, and to act as a forum for raising parents’ issues to senior management.”
“But in reality, many people, including some who became very senior at the end, just never had a balance,” said Tom. “They just tried so hard at any cost to become a successful banker, so when they become successful, by all means, they don’t want to see a different model.”
One wonders how he can be mindful of inner balance in an environment that Smith described as so “toxic and destructive.” His philosophy stands in contrast to that of the industry.
“I say if you have the capacity to carry 100 kilograms, you’d better carry 80 or 70. That way, you operate at the best efficiency and can enjoy all the scenery along the journey. If you carry 100, you’ll lose a lot of the nice stuff. And in my industry, most people, if they have a capacity of 100… they will strive to carry 20 or 50 extra. So then, their lives become miserable.”
“Think about their lives,” he entreats, “look at their track.” Campus recruiting only takes straight-A students from the top schools. And after securing a much-sought-after position at some top firm, they are plunged into the not-so-friendly race of hierarchy climbing and elbow-rubbing. One of his daughters, at age of eight, already wants to become a banker. “She doesn’t see any dark side or downside” of the profession, he said. But if she chooses to pursue her childhood dreams, Tom says he will make sure she does not “just go through the normal track and become a straight-A analyst. Then, it’s too late.”
“I do see the reward of being good, because… your client becomes your lifetime friend,” said Sandra. “They can tell the difference. They know you’re doing the right thing. You’re not being a jerk, you’re not being a bloodsucker, you are being who you are supposed to be; they know the difference. I think that’s rewarding.” And it is Sandra’s mindset that Smith advocated for in his op-ed: “Make the client the focal point of your business again,” he urged. “Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist.” Of his firm’s 143-year history, he wrote, “It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long.”
But now, the mindset of the industry is decidedly short-term: “You hire a group of people because they seem aggressive, eager, hungry, and they all want to make a lot of money,” said Froewiss. “Then, you tell them that the pay-off is going to be highly skewed… So you’re immediately looking to your right and left thinking, how can I elbow them out? And then, unless you’re really stupid, you realize, this is a sick looking industry. I could be out on my butt in three years when the cycle goes down and they fire all the people. So this is my time to make it… your goal is to make a lot of money real quick, be at the top, and be out of there! Of course that also means you’re… not too worried about the long-term consequences of the things you did.”
Too often, maximizing short-term productivity does not result in long-term well-being. Unlike those straight-A analysts Tom speaks of, he did not get straight A’s in business school. At the Darden School of Business, he decided that getting top marks would “take 110% of your energy. If I want to pursue a B+, I’ll have all the time in the world,” he said. He spent that time with his wife and first baby.
What would happen if everyone tried to maximize short-term productivity and individual gain? In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin sought to answer this question in his article, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma in which a group of rationally self-interested individuals use up a shared resource, even though the long-term outcome is not in the individual’s best interest. Hardin uses the example of a pasture where herders share common grazing land. A herdsman will keep as many cattle as he can on this open pasture. But as the number of cattle grows, overgrazing becomes a problem. Every herdsman, theoretically, will seek to maximize his gain, and therefore introduce new cattle to the commons. “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit,” he wrote, and while the benefits of an increase go to the individual herdsman, the costs are shared by all. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”
Luckily for us, we are not all homo economicus and are better at sharing than this thought experiment assumes us to be. But models like the GE model of Jack Welch that Froewiss described, assume that people’s fundamental motivations are greed and fear, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If finance is such a competitive, Darwinian place, perhaps it could learn a thing or two from evolutionary biologists David S. Wilson and Edward O. Wilson: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
OWS kitchen at Zuccotti Park
If Wall Street employs the logic of selfishness and assumes that individuals are fundamentally selfish, OWS employs the logic of altruism and assumes that we are fundamentally cooperative. Occupiers generally support sharing when it doesn’t immediately benefit the individual, and dislike the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of the whole. The occupation at Zuccotti Park was a small-scale commons—people sharing resources, and sharing in tasks like the cleaning operation that postponed eviction. In a competitive environment like Wall Street where people are assumed to be selfish, it is unsurprising that the imbalanced or aggressive can make it to the top. The theory of Occupy’s “leaderless” structure is that there is no “top” to make it to. Those who take on organizing responsibilities are leading, but are not necessarily leaders. “Good leaders, they build things, and leave them behind. Go do new things,” said Teichberg. This inclusive model began at the General Assembly (G.A.), a decision-making entity where everybody is welcome to speak. But in practice, the G.A. didn’t always work out this way.
In late-January, a few dozen people gathered on the steps of Zuccotti Park for the G.A. There were no drums, few signs, and an absence of righteous excitement. A feeble mic check failed to rouse, but it didn’t matter—everyone was within earshot anyways. A general feeling of discontent rose, as more people trickled in and fewer people joined the mic. One man, who resembled Santa Claus, reprimanded some of the youngsters for their tobacco habit (“some people have asthma!”).
Though the Occupiers could agree on the evilness of Monsanto, when time came to address a certain proposal, submitted by a certain Nan Terrie, everything was up for dispute. First, there was a disagreement over whether or not the proposal should be read out loud. One man, looking over the proposal under a flashlight, exclaimed “Nothing’s proposed in here!” and tried to employ the triangle hand signal—point of process—which is used when the “process” is not being followed. He expounded the proposal’s lack of merit, rousing ire from its supporters—“It ain’t fuckin’ work like that!”
“Don’t interrupt me!”
“Don’t interrupt me man!”
As the facilitators attempted to get a “temperature check” on the proposal, discussion turned to the guidelines of bureaucratic procedure. Another Occupier tried to make a point of process—explaining that such a proposal, in order to be considered, must be posted on NYCGA.net for a week.
“That’s not a point of process, that’s a point of information!”
“No, it’s a point of process!”
“Facilitator, this is not a process, kill it!”
The G.A. was becoming a circus, and it didn’t help that one of the facilitators was dressed in a Domo costume, the cartoon mascot of a Japanese television channel. “Another G.A. hijacked by Nan,” lamented one. Eventually, it was decided that the proposal would be “tabled,” and would be dealt with at a later date. The meeting moved on to other subjects; Terrie moved on to talking and laughing loudly on the fringes of the G.A.
Terrie had recently been banned from Spokes Council, another decision-making entity of OWS. The event inevitably has two accounts. One states that she had been disruptive, and after punching someone at Spokes, consensus was reached to ban her. The other states that Terrie is a victim of racism and sexism, ousted because of her efforts to expose corruption. Upon being asked how she was a victim of racism or sexism, she replied, “They’re always racist and sexist, those white males. Eighty-four to eighty-six percent of them…don’t wanna see a black woman or any woman…make any decision. Just supposed to be a fuckin’ pussy and have babies and stay home and shut up, I’m not that kind of woman that’s gonna allow bullshit. I’m gonna stand up and say ‘fuck you’ and I’m gonna fight for my right.”
“So, do you find it difficult to participate?”
“No. I participate, I just barge in. I don’t ask permission. I don’t ask permission; I barge in if I want to barge in. I don’t ask permission at all.”
Occupier Evan Wagner, who had gotten in a shouting match earlier with one of Terrie’s supporters, said, “In terms of her as a legitimate part of this whole thing, she’s a distraction… it has to do with the forces trying to disrupt the movement.
“If anybody came here and saw this, they’d be like, ‘this movement’s crazy.’ It’s not, there’s a lot of good people working very hard on real, fundamental social change.” But he also said that there are conflicts almost every night at the G.A.; that feeling of cozy solidarity from its early days had long given way to personal interests.
Since a lot of money was raised to get the occupation through the winter, people had begun to depend on it for their livelihoods. “Their views,” said Teichberg, “whether they like it or not, begin to reflect personal self-interest.” One of his colleagues said, “the G.A. is not a real G.A. that represents the people. The G.A. represents a pool of money, a bucket of money.”
But money was not the main problem for the Occupiers, it was selfishness, he said. Certain selfish individuals had been blocking proposals to send resources to Oakland, saying more resources were needed in New York. “We found that to be very, uhh, not pleasant.” Apparently, it can be hard even for Fair Sharers to share. Looking back on it, Teichberg said, “All that money put into the same place was a big mistake… I had nothing to do with how the finances were handled, which maybe I should have. I didn’t have the right answers either.” At the time, he was pouring his energy into media, which was then operating from under a tarp in Zuccotti. He says that though there were some “questionable expenditures,” they couldn’t really complain, considering 70-80 percent of donations were spent on the actual movement, while the other 30 percent were spent on sustaining the Occupiers. “As a percentage of how the money was spent, this is better than any non-profit anywhere in the world. If you look at any non-profit model, they’re spending almost half of their money on sustaining their operations.” Maybe, he wonders, the money should have been put into 20 different G.A.’s from the beginning. “But the beautiful thing about direct democracy processes is that we’re learning from them. Nothing is institutionalized… if something is not working, it eventually gets fixed.”
The G.A.’s use what is called “progressive stack”—at a meeting, facilitators keep a list of people who wish to speak, and people from traditionally marginalized groups, women and minorities, get bumped up the list. In theory, this is supposed to give those who usually do not get it, a chance to speak up. In practice, “the people that are dominating the conversation are the ones that are the rudest, the most selfish, and they have no consideration for anyone else. The people that are quiet and contemplative and considerate never get to speak,” said Scott. “We’re still judging people based on certain surface things, which I think personally is a very good way to go when we are taking steps towards creating a true horizontal system,” he said. “But still, we’re not judging people by their character. So it’s the aggressive, the domineering people who are taking action in the movement in the general assembly model. These models that are happening in finance are still affecting us, even though the Occupy movement is fighting against it.”
But the Occupy movement is only fighting against a narrow definition of finance—a stereotype of the greedy, morally deficient capitalist, and the system that gave rise to his success. For the most part, those who are part of the movement recognize the need for banks. There are two Alternative Banking working groups; one working on creating a bank that embodies OWS values, and another working on legislation and regulation for the current financial system. “I don’t think we’re ever going to stop having a system for storing our money or printing our money for a while,” said Teichberg. The movement needed its own place for resources too. When the donations came pouring in, Occupiers chose to put its half a million in Amalgamated Bank—a bank owned by the Workers United labor union.
Up until 2011, it was the only bank in the U.S. to be wholly owned by a labor union. But due to some risky investments in subprime mortgages and the post-subprime mortgage crisis rules, it was forced to find new capital from two private equity firms—each taking a 20 percent stake.
But some banks are staying close to their roots. The Bank of Cattaraugus, the smallest bank in New York, has never turned a profit of more than $50,000 in its entire existence. Last year, The New York Times reported, the bank made $5,000. And its owner, Patrick J. Cullen, said that he gets at least two offers a week from larger institutions that want to buy the community bank, which gives out loans without looking at credit scores. “Numbers don’t tell the story here,” Cullen told the Times, when recounting a story of an Amish man who wanted $85,000 for debt consolidation. The man earned only $2,300 a year, but in Amish cultures, everything a son earns goes to the father until he is 21 or married. The man had eight sons. “None of that shows up on a credit score,” he said. Small banks, defined as having less than $10 billion in assets, have decreased from 12,000 to 7,350 in the last two decades. But being community-oriented, rather than profit-oriented, means looking at customers as more than computable numbers, and granting forbearance when warranted.
The Bank of Cattaraugus, compared to Wall Street giants, is exceedingly kind to its customers. One woman, who cares for her disabled sister, fell on hard times and had to sell her home. The mortgage was owned by Cullen, who got his son to buy it, so the woman and her sister were able to stay there as renters. The idea of a bank that bails out its customers seems almost utopian in the current financial milieu. But the Bank of Cattaraugus has been around for 120 years.
Perhaps what sets small community banks apart from their giant counterparts is their obligation to customers. Obligation and debt may seem very similar, but as David Graeber, anthropologist and early OWS organizer, writes in his 500-plus-page tome on debt:
"A debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. This allows debts to become simple, cold, and impersonal… it doesn’t really matter who the creditor is; neither does either of the two parties have to think much about what the other party needs, wants, is capable of doing—as they certainly would if what was owed was a favor, or respect, or gratitude. One does not need to calculate the human effects; one need only calculate principal, balances, penalties, and rates of interest."
This is central to the Fair Play-Fair Shares divide. Fair Sharers like Yenafuck may think that the government has an obligation to make sure its citizens can access things like healthcare and education. Turning them into for-profit businesses—ones that can put you in debt—makes their acquisition a matter of business. One’s debt is a calculated number that one must pay back, even for the financially responsible who happen upon unfortunate luck. Sixty-two percent of all bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to medical expenses. Student loan debt, which is now over $1 trillion, is worth more than credit card debt. Obligations turn into profit generators.
In a Financial Times op-ed , Martin Sandbu wrote of OWS: “There is a strange absence in the cacophony of demands. Almost no echo can be heard from a long tradition of economic protest movements, which, since the dawn of recorded history, have put one unambiguous demand at the top of their agenda: cancel the debts, redeem the debtors.” But if Occupiers did not explicitly demand this, they perhaps did embody the sentiment. Maybe OWS is not so much a movement against greed, but for kindness. And what is forbearance, but kindness? Historically, there has always been a release valve for unsustainable debt, and historically, those mechanisms protected the debtors. Today, they protect the creditors.
Perhaps the reason why Rand’s books are so popular, having sold over 25 million copies, is that they spoke to so human an inclination as greed, legitimizing the impulse because it was “rational.” Abhorring the concept of “faith,” Rand put all of hers into the free-market. But free-marketeers these days are decidedly less faithful. “I’m not a pure capitalist,” said Ivan. “There are areas that capitalism doesn’t work.” And although he may agree with Occupiers on some things—he supports more regulation and is critical of the repeal of Glass-Steagall—he still thinks Occupiers are hypocritical.
Protestors and their gadgets
Ivan says he went to Zuccotti Park once, and asked me, “Do you know how many iPhones and MacBook Pros I saw? Thousands.” I suggested it wasn’t necessarily hypocritical to like iPhones but dislike complex financial instruments, to which he said, “[It’s hypocritical] because you’re spending exorbitant amounts of wealth to protest that you have no wealth. You wanna talk about the 99 percent? The 99 percent are the starving children in Africa who are dying of AIDS. You’re an American. You are the 1 percent… Apple is one of the biggest monopolies. Apple is one of the most ruthless corporations that exists.”
“They do make some good points,” he conceded. “They have brought up the issue of executive compensation, which is probably excessive… I do appreciate them for incorporating new ideas into the dialogue.”
And perhaps that is what they were hoping for all along. “This is a movement for introducing certain ideas into the mass culture,” said Teichberg. “From that perspective, it has worked beautifully.”
After years of ardently promoting free markets, deregulation, and the virtues of rational self-interest, Greenspan appeared before the House Oversight Committee for his role in the financial crisis in October of 2008. When pressed about his free market ideology, he said, “Yes, I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I’ve been very distressed by that fact. A flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.”
“In other words,” said committee chairman Henry Waxman, “you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?”
“Precisely,” answered Greenspan. “That’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”
In the end, Greenspan is probably more irrational than he’d care to admit, and Occupiers are probably greedier than they’d care to admit. “When you’re fighting something, you’ve got an external enemy, you’re not looking within,” said Scott. “You’re not seeing that what’s going on inside the enemy is also going on inside yourselves, ‘cause you’re always looking outwards instead of inwards.” This, he sees as the biggest challenge for Occupy Wall Street yet.
“We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality,” Aldous Huxley once wrote. “All we can do is to learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.”
Some names have been changed in the interest of confidentiality.