That's the question quietly lurking amidst Gabe Sherman's exploration of banker rage. The bankers, of course, are baffled. "There’s a vast woundedness now on Wall Street," writes Sherman. "Just months ago, the masses kept what anger they had to themselves, and the bankers were close-lipped about what they thought they were owed by society. There wasn’t much of a dialogue about the haves and have-nots and who was entitled to what. For the privileged, it was a lot more comfortable when things remained unspoken."
But just because words are spoken doesn't mean they're heard. The bankers see efforts to limit their pay as vengeance masquerading as public policy. “People just don’t get it,” says one banker. “I’m attached to my BlackBerry. I was at my doctor the other day, and my doctor said to me, ‘You know, I like that when I leave the office, I leave.’ I get calls at two in the morning, when the market moves. That costs money." Bankers unlike doctors, work really hard. And so should be paid more! That's just capitalism, baby. Look. It. Up.
“We’re in a hypercapitalistic society," says another. "No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee. We have ex-presidents who cash in on their presidencies...I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much.”
"Fair" is a useful word here. Consider the case of a successful robber. For 10 years, he stockpiles wads of cash and strings of pearls and gold-rimmed works of art. His income is steady. He is flush. And then he is caught. His storehouse uncovered. Does he get to keep the gains?
The law says that he does not. The public views bankers much like the law views the robber. The money they made was illegitimate. The business was fraudulent. They took hefty cuts on hyped transactions that moved fake money. They inflated the bubble and saw their fees rise commensurately. They made things worse, in other words, and by making things worse, they made themselves richer. The robber, at least, does not leverage your jewelry before pocketing it. The banker's money was not fairly acquired and thus restitution is owed.
The bankers would protest that collapse was not, in fact, their intention. The proof is in the equity: They were paid -- at least in part -- with share in their own stock. That stock is now worthless. They may have been stupid but they were not malign. They may have been incompetent but they were not thieves. Their behavior might have been different if their contracts had included clawback provisions. But customers wanted the rewards of risk and so paid bankers to take it. Everyone got what they wanted until everyone got what they feared. But the banker holds no special moral culpability for the reversal of fortune.
Going forward, bankers will be paid less. There will simply be fewer transactions to skim. A financial transactions tax would also help matters. Going backward, little will happen. Tax rates will rise, but not just on bankers. Compensation will be limited, but only for those on the dole. But put policy aside for a minute: Is the anger legitimate? Would it be appropriate to for Congress to try and recapture some of that money, maybe by making it back through measures like a transaction tax (my preferred measure) and an end to the hedge fund loophole? Or are Sherman's anonymous bankers right to lash out against their attackers?