Last week, Kevin Roose of New York Magazine published a scathing exposé of the 80th annual initiation dinner of Kappa Beta Phi, a secret society of Wall Street tycoons.
What took place inside the St. Regis Hotel that night, however, confirmed every negative stereotype of the country’s ultra-rich in stunning detail. Diners tucked in to meals of racks of lamb, foie gras and petit fours. KBP neophytes dressed in drag and sang parodies of musical numbers on stage, including a parody of The Book of Mormon’s hit ballad “I Believe.” Some of the parodied lyrics included “I believe that God has a plan for all of us / I believe my plan involves a seven-figure bonus.”
Americans often take media depictions with a grain of salt, assuming that most representations of the wealthy by the media lie on the more sensational side. It comes as a surprise, then, that the KBP dinner events illustrated the beliefs and habits of United States’ ultra-rich as a disturbing collapse between reality and caricature, with the kind of combination of self-pity and disregard for others that borders on self-parody.
But isn’t throwing petit fours at a bunch of high-powered executives dressed in drag the Wall Street everyone expected? Isn’t this the age of the “Progressive Kristallnacht,” or persecution of the “successful few” by the many, as Tom Perkins so audaciously suggested in a letter to the Wall Street Journal?
The reality lies somewhere in between; though Wall Street suffers from an image problem, the fact remains that vitriolic criticism of Wall Street is doing nothing to help the problem.
Social psychologist Paul Piff explored the idea of wealth making individuals less compassionate and empathetic in an October 2013 TED Talk. In one of the experiments, Piff had two participants play a game of Monopoly with one catch: One player starts at a distinct advantage over another player, including extra cash. Piff noted that the advantaged player began to justify his successes to a sense of entitlement. To his credit, it was partially justified: The participants in an advantageous position were able to parlay their advantage into further success.
As William Shakespeare once wrote in Julius Caesar, “lowliness is young ambition’s ladder.” Many of the executives rose to their positions with a combination of skilled decision-making and determination. For lack of a better phrase, these executives are at least partially entitled to their sense of entitlement. In a sector such as Wall Street, where the only way to make a living is to make someone else money, it only stands to reason that these men or women would worship money. The logic behind criticizing a Wall Street banker for worshipping money would be akin to criticizing an athlete for wanting to win games, or criticizing a chef for wanting high- quality ingredients. At the end of the day, all of these things contribute to the perception of excellence in their respective fields — a Wall Street banker’s evidence just happens to be more directly financial.
This doesn’t absolve the Wall Street members of Kappa Beta Phi of their actions. Though they had an expectation of privacy, the amount of self-pity and bitter opposition to progressivism are telling. What these bankers are exhibiting through their sense of entitlement is a failure to understand their responsibility as wielders of significant financial capital.
The type of critical discourse employed by the 99 percent, however, only serves to galvanize the two factions. Instead of separating society between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the public discourse should be trying to foster a sense of collective responsibility toward bettering the world. Though the financial autonomy of individuals might vary drastically from person to person, personal human autonomy is a far more equal playing field. To that effect, there are those who abuse power and those who understand their responsibilities.
In another experiment from the previously mentioned TED Talk, participants of varying socioeconomic backgrounds watched a short segment on impoverished children, and all of them seemed to exhibit an equal amount of capability for empathy and compassion. Piff then went on to note that some of the wealthiest individuals in the world, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have pledged a considerable amount of their fortunes to improving the conditions of disadvantaged individuals.
Former New York Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg encapsulated this sentiment best in a 2012 interview with Scott Pelley of CBS Evening News.
“I’ve been very lucky in terms of making a lot of money and I’m going to give it all away,” Bloomberg said. “I’ve always said, my great ambition in life is to bounce the check to the undertaker.”
This only belabors the point: No matter how much one gains in his or her time in life, the only thing that lasts beyond the grave is the impact he or she makes on the world. It’s a concept that shouldn’t be relegated only to the one percent or the 99 percent of the United States, but 100 percent of the world.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan.