Boo to the Business World?

I usually agree with Matt Yglesias on the evils of investment banking culture at elite universities, but his latest post on the matter seems a bit off:

Out of deference to feminist considerations I’ll avoid trying to put a label on it, but there’s a certain kind of person who walks into a room filled with people interested in working on Wall Street and people who do work on Wall Street and says to himself (and it’s no coincidence that it’s almost always himself) “these are the kind of people I want to align myself with.” TFA is, in this regard, totally different and appeals to a different sort of mentality. It’s true that there’s a bit more to the recruiting process than jerks of a feather flocking together, but firms like DE Shaw that break from the mold are really exceptions that prove the rule—they have an approach that’s based specifically on trying to snare talent that would normally be repulsed by the repulsive nature of the people working in the field.

As best I can tell, which admittedly is not that well, the tendency of unpleasant people to congregate in this particular line of work is cross-cultural. By far the most annoying people I met in Germany, for example, were finance guys in Frankfurt. Compared to politicians, non-financial businessmen, random bartenders, bus drivers, etc. they were horrible. Obviously this sort of thing is relative and probably if you ask a bunch of bankers they’ll say all the worst people from college went on to become glib political journalists or to teach in inner-city schools.

Like Matt, I generally don’t find the kind of college students who eagerly pursue careers on Wall Street pleasant to be around. There are exceptions, of course, but as with most careers there’s a personality cluster, and it’s not one of which I’m particularly fond. But that’s not a moral defect. Indeed, it’s a major tenet of liberalism that people be free to comport themselves in ways I find obnoxious. Attempts at doing plays in middle and high school convinced me I’m not socially comfortable in theater environments, but that doesn’t make the practice of acting morally repugnant. The good produced from acting, in fact, suggests that a system in which people who find each other unsavory are free to form their own groupings (or no groupings at all, if they like) for mutual advantage is preferable to one in which everyone acts in ways Matt or I find appealing.

Moral judgments of bankers, then, can’t rest on the question of whether or not they’re douchebags. They can, however, rest on whether their collective douchiness is channeled toward a socially useful end. It clearly is not currently, due to prevailing bank practices, charitable giving rates and recipients among bankers, and the top income tax bracket. But it is entirely possible that the abolition of proprietary trading, massive increases in Oxfam support from Wall Street, and a more steeply progressive income tax could make bankers’ douchiness a net good. The douchiness itself, then, is not a problem so long as it’s used instrumentally for good ends.

3 thoughts on “Boo to the Business World?

  1. I don’t think that stereotypes shed much light on the matter. According to Harvard Magazine, an outright majority of Harvard alumni these days take careers in finance, among those who do not go to graduate school. There hadn’t been time to survey the others, but I bet that in the long term it is also a majority of the total.
    So what gives? Do you dislike the company of most of your classmates at Harvard for that reason alone? Are some of them perhaps reluctant to go to into finance, but will do so anyway? My experience is that I didn’t realize just how many of my classmates would do finance after they graduated, reluctant or not. Most of them who I knew were just ordinary Harvard folks, not “douchebags”.
    The truth is that even completely honest and fair people who work in finance typically profit from unfortunate economic trends. In fact, they don’t even have to work in finance. I met a future very rich person when I was at Harvard, someone who first inherited great wealth and then watched it multiply. He delegated all of the real work to professional investors. He’s a nice guy; as far as I know he’s no more to blame or praise for anything than Prince Charles.
    I totally agree with you that taxes should be more progressive, and not even because of any “douchiness” at a personal level.

  2. I gotta agree. After spending years with party operatives and career political campaign people, I can sincerely say that some of the most cloying douchebags I’ve ever met cluster in that field. And these are most of them Dems who presumably are doing “good work”.

  3. Ha, I love the idea that ‘douchiness’ can be used to create a net good. But making that happen involves a nuanced viewpoint that is lacking in Congress and in the media, where it’s easier to make kneejerk judgments than to knuckle down and make things happen.

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