Why No One Gives Thanks on Wall Street

On Thanksgiving, many of us will gather with families around a table, and give thanks—for our loved ones, the roof over our head, the food on the table. And since the markets are closed on Thanksgiving, many Wall Street workers will be gathering around their own tables. Given the mental picture most people on Main Street have of Wall Street as a den of opulence, some might imagine that gratitude would flow easily from the lips of these exceedingly high-paid workers. But as someone who’s worked there, I can tell you first hard: no one is less grateful than a Wall Street worker.

This isn’t a coincidence. On the contrary, it’s cold, calculating strategy.

Thanksgiving is a time of anxiety on Wall Street. It is, after all, the count down to “comp day” (short for “compensation day”) which usually comes in November or December). This is the day when you learn what your bonus will be for the year. And at most Wall Street firms, comp day is also they day when promotions are announced. Sometimes, those promotions are posted to an internal company website, so many office workers will spend the afternoon scanning the list, seeing which of their colleagues made the cut. And as Karen Ho noted in her book Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, on comp day, nothing gets done:

“[A]ll work stops: bankers huddle in small groups trying to guess each other’s number, to figure out whether they should go out and buy a Lamborghini or look for a new job.”

There is much drinking on comp day, but the outward celebrations are always about promotions, never about bonus amounts. Why? Because you never, never admit you’re happy about your bonus…even if you are.

As I wrote for the N+1 Occupy! Gazette:

If they didn’t know it going in, Wall Street employees quickly learn that even their company is an enemy. To the firm, employees are a cost to be minimized, or a producer to be exploited.

Ho notes this phenomena in Liquidated. One Wall Street vice president tells her that Wall Street: “wrings the most that it can out of its people.”

I was once told by one of my former Morgan Stanley colleagues that the goal of managers on Wall Street was to pay someone just enough so they wouldn’t leave for a rival firm, but not enough to make them truly satisfied. This is because Wall Street is myopically short-termist, and that’s true when it comes to business goals, to their technology, and to their employees. And just as Wall Street is uninterested in offering clients a better price than the one they’ll accept (especially if the client is a “muppet”), they are equally uninterested in overpaying employees. It’s a culture of manipulation, not trust, and everyone is always strategizing. And that’s why, one of the first things you learn on Wall Street is that you should never, ever be grateful for your bonus.

As I wrote for N+1:

To appear satisfied with your compensation is to admit that they paid you more than they had to, so you must feign outrage no matter what.

To put it more simply: you’d be stupid to ever tell your boss “thank you” for your bonus. There is absolutely zero upside to gratitude.

But what happens to a culture that discourages gratitude?

Chris Hayes wrote eloquently about this problem in Twilight of the Elites, noting that the world of the elite is one of “constant envy.” He describes how the richest of the rich experience a “fractal inequality” which makes them feel put-upon even when their salary is many times that of the average American:

“The successful overachiever can only enjoy the perks of his relatively exalted status long enough to realize that there’s an entire world of heretofore unseen perks, power, and status that’s suddenly come within view and yet remains out of reach.”

The numbers back Hayes up. A 2011 poll by the investment group Fidelity showed that 42% of millionaires did not feel rich, and that in order to feel “rich” they’d need at least $7.5 million. And a forthcoming paper from Mike Norton at the Harvard Business school shows not only that “a rich person getting even richer experiences zero gain in happiness,” but also that these incredibly wealthy people all said “they needed two to three times more than they had to feel happier.”

The banker who’s either afraid to be grateful for their bonus, or so far removed from reality that they genuinely aren’t grateful, is a good embodiment of capitalism’s ruthlessness. But apart their disinclination to give thanks, there is another reason to consider Wall Street workers on Thanksgiving. Americans spend Thanksgiving celebrating the history of this country through rose-colored glasses — emphasizing the Native Americans’ and Pilgrims’ moment of comity, and forgetting the ensuing conquest and democide. Given the financial crisis’s vast and ongoing devastation, it does seem that Wall Street workers have their own convenient amnesia, forgetting the vast generosity displayed in the taxpayer-funded bank bailouts (and once-secret Fed liquidity programs).

I was working at Merrill Lynch during the apex of the financial crisis. Everyone in the firm was terrified of what would happen, and speculating about nationalization. At the time, I asked a colleague, “How will America ever forgive us for the financial crisis?” He assured me, “the people will forget. The forgot after the savings and loan crisis, they forgot after Long Term Capital Management collapsed…they will forget again, and things will go back to normal.” For Wall Street, things have gone back to normal. But the people haven’t forgotten. And Wall Street workers, in all their ungrateful whinging about bonuses, would do well to remember that.

Header image credit: Ellie Attebery (CC BY 2.0)