Our "Best and Brightest"?

In a New York Times article otherwise spent bemoaning the unnecessary glamorization and compensation of those on Wall Street despite their obvious errors and shortcomings William Cohen committed one of my hated pet peeves yesterday.

Despite the very dire consequences of the latest financial crisis that Wall Street perpetrated on the world, America cannot seem to shake its infatuation with Wall Street bankers and traders.

We continue to shower them with riches, prestige and glory. We make movies about them. We write books about them. We seriously overpay and then envy them. This year alone, while millions of others suffer from the Great Recession, bankers and traders are expected to be paid — incredibly — another estimated $144 billion in compensation and benefits. Accordingly, Wall Street remains the No. 1 destination for our best and brightest." (Emphasis mine).

Later, he says:

Why do we seem to excuse one insider-trading and pay-for-play scandal after another? Why haven’t we woken up from our generational slumber and realized that we would be better off rewarding real engineers, not financial engineers?

To this I would add: why do we persist in referring to those who are drawn towards an industry known for its insider-trading, pay-for-play scandals and lack of morals our "best and brightest"?

It seems too obvious to debate but I'll unpack the words separately anyway.

By "brightest" Cohen can only mean, presumably, "having the best university grades" or perhaps "being most recruited out of university". But grades in what, recruited by who? A tight set of qualifications in specific degrees are generally what gets one to Wall St and determines who gets recruited for these lucrative positions. Clearly physicists are left out of this equation, and doctors, engineers (who Cohen himself seems keen on) and historians. Philosophers? Feggedaboutit. The qualifications for this title seems self-referential: they are the brightest because they are who Wall St wants, so they must be. And this, of course, is the myopia Cohen himself is railing against.

But putting "brightest" aside, "best" is more offensive. Anyone so drawn to Wall St simply because "bankers and traders are expected to be paid — incredibly — another estimated $144 billion in compensation and benefits" could never be our best. Our best are out there taking risks, creating value and helping people. They are starting or transforming companies, organizations and, yes, governments. They are working on the hardest problems of our times, helping our society move towards greater justice, equality and prosperity. They are entrepreneurs, artists, activists, visionaries, leaders, facilitators.

And you know what? Our best don't do it for the money. They are not drawn to the lure of obscene and undeserved compensation, or profits earned from moving money around, from tricks or loopholes. Our best are drawn to the challenge, the cause, the need. They do what must be done because there is no-one else to do it. They work on behalf of their family, community, nation or world, not for their own fame or greed.

So I welcome William Cohen's call for "the courage to return Wall Street to a less exalted place", and hope we can start by ceasing to refer to bankers and stockbrockers as our "best and brightest."

Image from Sad Guys on Trading Floors.