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Published on February 9th, 2014 | by Dan Walsh

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Addicted to Money

When bonuses aren’t big enough.

When the banking crisis hit in 2008, I couldn’t understand why bankers and traders were still getting million dollar bonuses. They messed up and threw the country into a tailspin. Most people only get bonuses when they do a good job and the still got theirs. I was even more flabbergasted when they complained about not getting enough. I know I’m not alone.

I usually assume I’m missing a crucial part of the story if a situation doesn’t make sense to me. Despite my still-lingering frustration, Sam Polk’s New York Times article, For the Love of Money, presented a clear-headed and approachable perspective from the other side of the table. His candid and surprising journey into his former life as a Wall Street trader was eye opening.

For most people the value of money is equivalent to it’s ability to pay for, or otherwise provide the necessities of life for oneself or their family. Food, shelter, education, self-actualization, and even some fun can all be purchased with a few greenbacks. But to the guys on Wall Street, the guys who could buy almost anything, money buys self-esteem. It is the only way to measure one’s self worth in an otherwise hollow profession. It becomes an addiction.

I felt so important. At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan — Per Se, Le Bernardin — just by picking up the phone and calling one of my brokers, who ingratiate themselves to traders by entertaining with unlimited expense accounts. I could be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game just by hinting to a broker I might be interested in going. The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.

Still, I was nagged by envy. On a trading desk everyone sits together, from interns to managing directors. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet.

This haggling over a few million dollars seems ludicrous when he’s already making millions of dollars. This is how traders lose all sympathy from the public. Isn’t a million enough? Why do you need 2 more? This was hard for me to relate to until I realized it would be like if I made $40,000 per year and the guy next to me made $400,000. That’s a huge disparity, and one I would fight to correct. I think we all would. But to someone in Haiti with an annual salary of $1,300, we’d all look like greedy pigs.

Now, working elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. I’d think about how my colleagues could buy Micronesia if they wanted to, or become mayor of New York City. They didn’t just have money; they had power — power beyond getting a table at Le Bernardin. Senators came to their offices. They were royalty.

I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million.

Polk was finally able to pull himself away after extensive work with a counselor. This distance enabled a sobering realization.

I see Wall Street’s mantra — “We’re smarter and work harder than everyone else, so we deserve all this money” — for what it is: the rationalization of addicts.

And before you and I get all high and mighty, it’s important to remember that we’re part of the problem too.

Dozens of different types of 12-step support groups — including Clutterers Anonymous and On-Line Gamers Anonymous — exist to help addicts of various types, yet there is no Wealth Addicts Anonymous. Why not? Because our culture supports and even lauds the addiction. Look at the magazine covers in any newsstand, plastered with the faces of celebrities and C.E.O.’s; the superrich are our cultural gods.

Read: For the Love of Money

Image: Sean Davis

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One Response to Addicted to Money

  1. Patrice says:

    This definitely puts a new perspective on my thoughts about these guys. After watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I was both entertained and disgusted by the behavior of these men (I realize the movie is a whole different ballpark, but the addiction to wealth applies). I’m glad Mr. Polk was able to find peace with his addiction.
    When powerful, rich people are addicts, they face almost no opposition to their actions. They are always right, and almost always get what they want. This does not apply only to money. Drugs, alcohol, gambling and sex addiction have been brought to light for many of the rich and famous. Maybe the rest of us should stop bowing down and allowing the behavior to continue? No one puts up with bad behavior from addicts on the lower-end of the totem pole.

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