Student protesters and attendees—both from Yale—at a Morgan Stanley recruiting event.
She was tall, blond, standing in the lobby of a swanky hotel in downtown New Haven. She came for the recruitment seminar by Morgan Stanley, the banking and investment firm. Like the other Yale University students who attended, she came to learn more about starting a lucrative career on Wall Street. And like most of the people I interviewed that evening, she seemed afraid.
"Thanks for talking with me, Ally," I said. "Can I have your last name?”
"I don't know if I can say," she said. "I'll be right back."
She never returned.
Perhaps it was all the noise outside. To get to the hotel, Ally and dozens of other would-be recruits had to get by a phalanx of demonstrators, also from Yale, who were protesting the Morgan Stanley event. They were raising awareness of what they call the "brain drain" of American society. While Yale graduates who become entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, and innovators add value to the economy that everyone benefits from, those who go into finance or consulting, they argue, don't add anything. They just make good bets.
The protesters chanted slogans and held signs that read:
"Care about people, not profits."
"Make some change, not just money."
"What will you do with your privilege?"
Ally wasn’t alone in apparent apprehension. In the lobby, I approached four other students and asked what they thought of the protest outside. At first, I got flitting glances and tight smiles. Then one said he had no comment. Another said she wouldn't comment before the seminar. Sure, she had thoughts on Wall Street's role in the recession, but she wouldn't reveal them until after the session with Morgan Stanley and after the protest died down. A third began to craft a thoughtful reply about his true interest in finance but couldn't finish.
Just then a cop told me to leave.
Since September, Occupy Wall Street, with its focus on economic injustice and corporate cronyism, has inspired a group of Yale students, led by Marina Keegan and Alexandra Brodky, to question what had become the status quo.
Over the past decade, a quarter of all Yale grads have entered high finance, according to a 2010 study by the Yale Office of Institutional Research. That number is higher at other elite schools, like Harvard and Stanford. In part, students go to Wall Street for the money. The average Morgan Stanley employee earns more than $250,000 a year. At Goldman Sachs, it's over $430,000. Even interns can expect fat paychecks—about $7,800 per month.
But there's another reason they go, and it's this reason that had about 30 Yale students demonstrating outside the hotel—the aggressive recruiting techniques of the big banks. Every fall, Keegan wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, elite banks and consulting firms entice "the best and brightest ... with a series of superlatives: the greatest job, the most money, the easiest application."
In the Yale Daily News, Keegan wrote about surveying freshman to see if their academic interests matched the rate at which they go to Wall Street. "Not one of them said they wanted to be a consultant or an investment banker," she wrote. "Sometime between Freshman Screw and The Last Chance Dance something in our collective cogs shift and these jobs become attractive."
To Keegan and the Yale protesters, this is the brain drain. Banks skim off the cream of Yale, as it were, the way they skim off the cream of the economy. They say the United States needs more than ever people to serve others or to make things people want and use. In essence, they are evoking a theme more than 50 years old but to them has been almost forgotten: It's time to ask what you can do for your country.
The cop who asked me to leave was nice. So was his lieutenant. It was the hotel manager, they said, not them. I guessed the recruiters for Morgan Stanley, three tall comely women impervious to questioning, must have told the manager I was annoying. Perhaps I was annoying. My questions to them: How many recruiters were present that evening, how many students did they expect to show up, when did they arrive, how long did they plan to stay, would the protest cost them, etc.? Anyway, the cops were doing their jobs.
I could do mine, they said, as long as I stayed outside the hotel. So on the sidewalk, I came up with a strategy: I’d intercept students passing the line of demonstrators on their way in. I'd keep it simple. I’d only inquire what he or she thought of the protesters and their message. To which I anticipated three answers with some variation: I agree, I disagree, or I don't know.
But it wasn't simple. Of the 24 students I interviewed, only two committed full names to their opinions. Some commented but wouldn't give their names. Two gave their first names only. The majority refused any comment.
Mitchell Nobel, a philosophy major and a junior, said he didn’t understand the protesters’ rationale or their methods. “If you want to change JPMorgan, change it from within,” he said. “I don’t think this is serious.”
Shibi Kannan said he believes economic inequality is terrible, but that Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have an unclear message. Yet he said: “I am a part of the 99 percent,” echoing the Occupy movement’s key message.
“It’s cool,” a man said. Will the protest change your mind? “I doubt it."
“It’s pretty funny,” another said. I think he meant that literally.
I was asked repeatedly, with suspicion: “What publication are you from?”
They were well dressed, attractive, and confident—snapshots of cool affluence against a backdrop of raucous idealism. Yet when asked for an opinion, they stiffened, wide-eyed. Some were visibly panicked. A woman who looked like the actress Lucy Liu, only more beautiful, sped up as I approached, dashing in her high heels to get away. She was clearly frightened.
Even though it's Goldman Sachs, not elected governments, that runs the world, as one trader cynically put it to the BBC, that power comes at a price. For the John Paulsons and Ray Dalios of the future, the moral ground is shifting.
Every time an Occupy Wall Street protest erupts, every time police brutalize protesters, the relationship between wealth and moral prestige weakens. Americans are known worldwide for not begrudging the rich their wealth; we generally feel they deserve it. But when police blast pepper spray into the eyes of Americans exercising their fundamental rights—or in the face of 84-year-old dissidents, as was the case in Seattle—public opinion begins to turn.
And as it turns, police aggression of the sort we have seen this month becomes symbolic of raw corporate power. A result might be that bright-eyed young Wall Street recruits become more conscious of society's dimming view of their employers. As a photographer covering the New Haven protest told me: "They don't want to talk to you, because they're the bad guys in this story."
Change is happening. Thousands have brought economic inequality and corporate corruption to the front of our collective conscience. Millionaires are demanding to be taxed. Even the GOP's hard-line against raising revenues appears to be softening. And now, elite Yale students are afraid to be seen walking into a hotel lobby to learn more about making tons of money.
Occupy Wall Street has accomplished what seemed improbable before September: The diminishing of Wall Street's cultural capital. Indeed, the more people understand the 30-year-old financialization of the economy, the more they look askance at the banks, their parochial culture, and their ideological apologists. While the titans of the past decade enjoyed an unprecedented level of ethical immunity, their successors are unlikely to become the same kinds of masters of the universe.
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