Sympathy for the Devil

If you’re a certain age – if you’re an old geezer – you remember there was, long ago, a band called the Rolling Stones. Yes, they’re sort of still around, but barely. In two more years Mick Jagger will be seventy. The guy just got old. It happens. But back in the day they were really something. Your parents could accept the Beatles, eventually. They were, in the end, such nice young men. The Stones were not. And there was that song Sympathy for the Devil – the opening track on the 1968 album Beggars Banquet. And in that song Mick Jagger was the devil – “If you meet me, have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste; use all your well-learned politesse – or I’ll lay your soul to waste.”

That’s alarming, and in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said this – “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it.”

Does that help? Probably not – the parents cringed. But that was the whole idea. You tweak the old folks by adopting the pose of having sympathy for what is just evil. It drives them crazy. Of course in your late teens or early twenties you probably don’t know what you actually believe about good and evil – you haven’t really given it all that much thought. But you adopt the pose anyway, as it’s cool. And of course at the time – the late sixties – we had become a nation of poseurs. And maybe we still are – a nation of self-righteous defenders of Mom and Apple Pie and Jesus, and also screw-what-you-think rebels, and also holier-than-thou dispassionate Deep Thinkers who think no one else can think straight, and tell you so, endlessly. And each will tell you who you should have sympathy for, and who you should not.

And that applies to political discourse, as it has since the self-righteous sixties. Do you have sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street crowd in Lower Manhattan, and now in most major cities across America – or do you consider them just second-rate hippie wannabes, spoiled kids who should just get a job and quit whining? Are they un-American and really at bottom, whining about those who are successful, those who achieved something and made a success of their lives – just parasites, really, who want to bring down capitalism itself? Or do they have a point? Has the system become absurdly distorted, leaving most everyone – the Ninety-Nine Percent – high and dry, while the few – the One Percent – get all the goodies and makes sure no one else gets any chance at competing for any goodies at all? Do you sympathize with them? Which is the devil here? Has Obama been leading a war on the successful, a war which set these people off? Or are the casually greedy sneering rich simply continuing their century-long war on the Average Joe? Choose your side. The other side will say that you are in sympathy with… the devil.

Yes, neither side can see the other’s point of view. But Max Abelson, in Bloomberg, tries to bridge the gap by painting a picture of how hard it is for the One Percent these days:

Wall Street executives – facing demonstrators camped for a fourth week in New York’s financial district – say they’re anxious and angry for other reasons.

An era of decline and disappointment for bankers may not end for years, according to interviews with more than two dozen executives and investors. Blaming government interference and persecution, they say there isn’t enough global stability, leverage or risk appetite to triumph in the current slump.

“I don’t think it’s a time to make money – this is a time to rig for survival,” said Charles Stevenson, 64, president of hedge fund Navigator Group Inc. and head of the co-op board at 740 Park Ave. The building, home to Blackstone Group LP Chairman Stephen Schwarzman and CIT Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer John Thain, was among those picketed by protesters yesterday. “The future is not going to be like a past we knew,” he said. “There’s no exit from this morass.”

Ah, 740 Park is this building – David Koch has his eighteen-room duplex on the fourth and fifth floors there – he picked that up in 2005 for seventeen million dollars. The building was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ childhood home. Cool.

But times are tough way downtown on Wall Street for bankers and hedge fund managers these days:

“They’re not going to make the kind of money they wanted,” said William Hambrecht, chairman of San Francisco- based WR Hambrecht & Co., who designed the Dutch auction of Google Inc.’s 2004 initial public offering. “I’m not sure people really have come to terms with the fact that what we had was a financial bubble.”

New rules from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision will more than double capital requirements for banks. Fixed- income revenue could fall 25 percent under a draft of the Volcker rule, which may outlaw so-called flow trading, according to an Oct. 10 note from Brad Hintz, a Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst. Leverage has been cut by more than half at banks including Goldman Sachs and UBS AG, and an Oliver Wyman and Morgan Stanley (MS) report estimates that regulation may reduce returns on equity by 4 to 6 percentage points.

The new rules are the result of “societal objectives of a populist administration in Washington,” private-equity investor Wilbur Ross said in an e-mail. John Phelan, co-founder of MSD Capital LP, a New York-based fund that manages assets for billionaire Michael Dell, said “the whole capitalist system is being called into question.”

Oh really? Maybe not everyone is worried about the banks:

“I wouldn’t shed too many tears for Wall Street,” Neil Barofsky, 41, the former special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program who is now teaching a class on the financial crisis at New York University School of Law, wrote in an e-mail. “The systemic advantage that the too-big-to-fail banks enjoyed in the lead-up to the financial crisis may be diminished in the near term, but the structure is still essentially the same and will almost certainly help catapult them to record profits and bonuses once the good times return.”

And see David Atkins:

Wait, what? Aren’t these the same guys whose bonuses shot up dramatically in 2010 just two years after they crashed the world’s economy and then got bailed out by taxpayers? Well, yes. As it turns out, bonuses are going back down this year.

Yes, those bonuses are going down to the lowest point since the crash, although the Abelson item in Bloomberg, while trying to make this sound awful, does not quite pull it off:

The declines in pay will be widespread, with the average managing director taking home $1 million in compensation, down from $1.5 million in 2010, according to Alan Johnson, managing director of Johnson Associates Inc., a New York-based pay consultant.

Senior management – whose pay is tied closely to performance – could see their compensation plunge as the KBW Bank Index, a collection of large banking stocks, has fallen by nearly one-fifth over the past 12 months. Investment banks have shared the pain as shares of Morgan Stanley are down 42% year-to-date, and Goldman Sachs has plunged 41%.

Even professionals who work in areas that have fared better this year – including some commodities and emerging-markets businesses – are still likely to take home pay that’s flat to down slightly from a year earlier.

Atkins:

However will the poor babies be able to survive on an average of $1 million a year? Why, that level of pay is almost insulting. If it comes down much farther, these Masters of the Universe are going to have to take the jobs of those lazy teachers.

And Atkins refers to this email that has been going around Wall Street, spreading like wildfire:

We are Wall Street. It’s our job to make money. Whether it’s a commodity, stock, bond, or some hypothetical piece of fake paper, it doesn’t matter. We would trade baseball cards if it were profitable. I didn’t hear America complaining when the market was roaring to 14,000 and everyone’s 401k doubled every 3 years. Just like gambling, it’s not a problem until you lose. I’ve never heard of anyone going to Gamblers Anonymous because they won too much in Vegas.

Well now the market crapped out, & even though it has come back, somewhat, the government and the average Joes are still looking for a scapegoat. God knows there has to be one for everything. Well, here we are.

Go ahead and continue to take us down, but you’re only going to hurt yourselves. What’s going to happen when we can’t find jobs on the street anymore? Guess what: We’re going to take yours. We get up at 5 am & work till 10 pm or later. We’re used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don’t take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don’t demand a union. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when the only thing left to eat is on your dinner plates, we’ll eat that.

For years teachers and other unionized labor have had us fooled. We were too busy working to notice. Do you really think that we are incapable of teaching 3rd graders and doing landscaping? We’re going to take your cushy jobs with tenure and 4 months off a year and whine just like you that we are so-o-o-o underpaid for building the youth of America. Say goodbye to your overtime and double time and a half. I’ll be hitting grounders to the high school baseball team for $5k extra a summer, thank you very much.

Well, Atkins says that given the downturn in the stock market and the poor performance of financial sector firms, this shouldn’t have come as much of a shock.

But it did, as Wall Street professionals were actually counting on increased bonuses this year:

Most Wall Streeters are eternally optimistic about their bonuses. World markets may be sputtering, but maybe their firm is hanging in just fine. Or their department – didn’t it get a co-advisor role on that deal nobody remembers back in April?

This mentality may help explain why 41% of Wall Street employees say they expect a bigger bonus this year than in 2010. …. That’s despite the worrying earnings outlook described in today’s WSJ.

The biggest reason people thought their bonus might be going up: “personal performance,” cited by 45% of survey respondents.

But Atkins has no sympathy for the devil:

The average Wall Streeter is essentially a narcissist who believes that he’s really that much smarter and harder working than everyone else. It doesn’t matter if he contributes anything of value to society; it doesn’t matter if his company is failing or succeeding. It doesn’t matter if his actions crash the entire world’s economy. He’s worth it, because he just is. And if he doesn’t get his God-given right to make millions of dollars, there’s something wrong with the world and the parasites in government and society who are stopping him from getting his due.

The whining is simply phenomenal…

Well yes, that private-equity investor, Wilbur Ross, said this is the result of the “societal objectives of a populist administration in Washington” – and John Phelan, the fund manager, said that “the whole capitalist system is being called into question.” And Phelan said he’s worried about “social unrest” – “My taxes are going up. Everybody hates me. I have two friends who bought land in New Zealand. They’re trying to convince me to go.”

That might not be a bad idea. New Zealand is pretty. Peter Jackson filmed all three Lord of the Ring movies there.

But bank profits are way up, which makes this interesting:

Bankers aren’t optimistic about those gains. Options Group’s Karp said he met last month over tea at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York with a trader who made $500,000 last year at one of the six largest U.S. banks. The trader, a 27-year-old Ivy League graduate, complained that he has worked harder this year and will be paid less. The headhunter told him to stay put and collect his bonus.

“This is very demoralizing to people,” Karp said. “Especially young guys who have gone to college and wanted to come onto the Street, having dreams of becoming millionaires.”

Atkins:

I can see the headlines now: oppressed 27-year-old Ivy League graduate makes $500,000 a year after just three years on the job at a big financial firm. Now, all of a sudden he may make only 3/5 that amount. However will he survive? When will society give him what he deserves?

Atkins suggests he should try to live with the folks who showed up to protest:

Or, if that’s too harsh for a person of his educational attainment, he deserves to live like any other 27-year-old who graduated from a decent school with a degree, but didn’t sell their soul to manipulate other people’s money on Wall Street. The average starting salary for college graduates in this country is $27,000. The median salary for the very small percentage of young Americans with a Masters degree? $60,000. Poor widdle baby.

And Atkins knows the devil when he sees the devil:

For too long, taking massive risks with other people’s money has been a golden ticket to insane riches not encountered in other segments of society. As a summa cum laude student at UCLA in the early aughts, I saw first-hand the ridiculous recruiting bonanzas from financial firms. No other industry was making the same promises, and no other industry was recruiting remotely as heavily from the academic elite.

People who went to work on Wall Street were making six figures their first day on the job, while everyone else struggled to find employment at mediocre pay. Wall Street and their allies have been on a campaign for years if not decades to “normalize” that fundamental imbalance. They expect that imbalance to continue even after crashing the world’s economy and receiving no-interest loans from taxpayers.

That 27-year-old trader should be making no more and no less than any other graduate from a similar school in a different field. The fact that they’ve been making a killing isn’t a reflection of their inherent worth, nor of the natural order. It’s the product of a system deliberately rigged to allow them to do so on the backs of everyone else. It’s high time that the cream of the crop of our academic institutions produce professionals devoted to actually improving society, rather than destroying it for no other purpose but their own enrichment.

And Atkins says THAT is what the protests are about, and predicts that they will continue until that imbalance is corrected.

Maybe so, but John Cole at Balloon Juice can only offer this dry comment:

I’ve always wondered where the assholes on HGTV shopping for their first home at the age of 25, and bitching about the appliances not being stainless steel or that the bathroom only has one sink came from. Now I know.

Max Abelson, in Bloomberg, did his best to offer sympathy for the devil, by saying there are no devils here. That didn’t work out.

And after the most recent Republican debate, where the heroic defenders of the heroic One Percent gathered around a table with Charlie Rose and defended that vastly outnumbered One Percent against the great unwashed masses of awful parasites, Kevin Drum summarized the gist of what they were saying:

The candidates in general continue to occupy some weird alternate universe where our biggest financial problem is that Wall Street is too regulated, our biggest health problem is that Medicare keeps denying treatments to old people, and our biggest economic problem is the intolerable burden of taxation we place on rich people. On an individual level, Rick Santorum continues to be bitter that so few people like him. Herman Cain continues to be a novelty candidate who can deliver sound bites with the conviction of a CEO giving a speech at a motivational seminar. Michele Bachmann continues to be out of it. And Mitt Romney continues to be strangely invulnerable to attacks. I know that Romney has so many negatives that it seems impossible for him to win, but somebody has to win, and I have a hard time seeing how it can be anyone else.

That’s about it. And the fight against the devil – choose which one you’d like – goes on. And it gets weirder by the day. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino offered this response to the arrests at Occupy Boston:

“We will tolerate demonstrations, we will tolerate expressions of free speech but when it comes to civil disobedience we have a real issue with that, that is why we moved in last night,” Mayor Menino said. “Civil disobedience doesn’t work for Boston; it doesn’t work for anyone.”

And Atkins is not amused:

That would be news to the people in Tahrir Square. It would be news to the marchers in Selma. It would be news to Rosa Parks. The suffragettes would have been surprised to hear this, as would Mahatma Gandhi.

There are limits to the efficacy of civil disobedience to be sure, especially when the forms of oppression are more subtle and the solutions less clear. But to claim that civil disobedience “doesn’t work for anyone” is simply asinine.

Well, yeah, and there’s this:

Today in Chicago, 40 activists dressed as Robin Hoods kayaked down the Chicago River while several hundred more protesters rallied outside a hotel to deliver a message to the Mortgage Banksters attending a national conference inside: It’s time for big banks to Pay US Back!

The photos are priceless. It takes you back to the sixties.

But then the Sheriff of Nottingham said Robin Hood was no more than a common thief. And maybe Robin Hood was no more than a common thief – a devil of sorts. But that’s not how the legend goes. Robin Hood is the hero in all tellings of those tales. It’s that sympathy with the devil thing. Baudelaire knew all about it. So did Mick Jagger. And people can see who the real devil is every time.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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