Listen Up, Banking Executives: A Brief Rant

Lisa Simpson: Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity?’
Homer Simpson: Yes, ‘crisitunity!’

There’s an article in the New York Times that discusses the financial hardships that banking executives would face due to President Obama’s proposed salary limit of $500,000 per year on those who accept government bailout money. The article touches briefly on what some refer to as Sudden Loss Syndrome which I discussed here, so I won’t go into those issues again now.
Whether he wants to believe it or not, every therapist has a ceiling to his empathic abilities. There’s a boiling point, a peak where you simply can’t get into a person’s shoes and attempt to feel what he/she is experiencing. In some ways this limit is similar to the notion of Countertransference, where a therapist’s own psychological conflicts cause an emotional reaction toward the patient. Sometimes that reaction is anger, sometimes confusion and other times it can be simply indifference and there is an emotional numbing toward the patient’s problems. For some therapists this occurs when working with abuse perpetrators, for others it’s those with substance abuse problems. I’ve made no secret that I struggle not with the wealthy per se, but with those who have no connection with the real world because of that wealth. Those who live in a bubble of consumption, greed and entitlement, who believe they are better or more deserving than another and have no interest in understanding the plights of others. This is my Therapist Achilles’ Heel. And when those with riches and ignorance are required to adjust new demands from the environment but instead claim to be victims, my head crashes through my Empathy Ceiling, hurling into space.


Countertransference or not I believe I have an obligation to offer something to these people. However, because I don’t charge the highest fees in the city it’s unlikely these banking executives are going to be in my office anytime soon. So I’ll use this forum to give some advice to those who are now struggling with their new, unreasonable salary cap of half a million dollars per year:
Executives, an opportunity is right here, sitting in front of you. Here is a chance to connect with and understand how the real world works, to be a part of society. Don’t waste this crisis by wallowing in self-pity, perceived victimization and creative financing to keep all of your treasures and your bottomless hedonism. Come back down to Earth. Here’s how:
Sell your multi-million dollar home in the Hamptons. You won’t get what you believe it’s worth but you will be able to pay off the mortgage on your multi-million dollar apartment in Manhattan. You don’t even have to leave the city and scurry to the ‘burbs. You’ll only own one home (outright) and you might only be able to vacation once per year but I promise you that you won’t break.
Take your children out of Dalton*. Put them in a more affordable private school or, God forbid, public school.
Learn to shop at reasonably-priced fashion outlets for your suits and gowns for the galas that you must attend.
Since the bus or subway is out of the question for you (because, as the article so astutely points out, you ‘would not feel like yourself’), learn to drive your own car instead of paying a chauffeur $125,000 per year.
Learn to walk on a treadmill and save the personal trainers’ fees and cut back on the spa treatments and fine dining, especially the $8.50 frozen hot chocolates at boutique cafes to which the Times refers.

This is your chance, executives, to actually identify with real people who have real problems. You can move out of your glass house of frivolity and join society rather than engross yourself in a pity party of superficiality and disconnection. You have the opportunity to redefine yourself not as someone who believes he or she needs to wear only Brooks Brothers at the office, eat the finest caviar at every meal and ‘keep up with the Joneses’ at all costs, but as a person who can adapt to the conditions surrounding him/her. I understand that you are accustomed to a certain lifestyle, but the reality is that I’ve had patients who were “accustomed” to walking, only to lose a leg. Did they roll over and die? No, they adjusted. Acclimating to new environs is what evolved creatures do, and if you are truly the elite as some like to call you, this shouldn’t be a problem for you. Any therapist will tell you that no matter what you have habituated to, you can change it if you want to badly enough.
While this advice may sound harsh and unfeeling, it can actually bring you to a place of greater psychological health. If you are pitied and told that you don’t deserve a harsh reality or such an abrupt and rash change in lifestyle, that will simply perpetuate your delusion that you shouldn’t struggle with the rest of the world. This would be a mistake and, whether based on my own issues or not, I will not promote such treatment. I’m sure you can find a therapist who will advocate such an approach, but I would advise against that.
I’ts tough love time. Your greed and irresponsibility is perceived as being at least partly responsible for the financial clusterfuck we are experiencing. Most Americans hate you right now. This is your chance to give us a reason not to. Don’t find a loophole to make more money, don’t simply move on to a higher payer job and don’t give yourselves another round of colossal bonuses before the dawn breaks. Join the party and get the slightest glimpse into what real problems are. It won’t feel great at first but you’ll be a better person for it.
* Dalton is an extremely expensive private school in New York City. Executives, if you can show me real, empirical evidence that Dalton-educated children become happier adults – not richer, not more highly educated – but actually happier adults, I will gladly retract this piece of advice.

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23 Responses to “Listen Up, Banking Executives: A Brief Rant”

  1. I shared this article today. I didn’t know until reading this article about the proposed salary limit and I think it is both interesting and bold. Overall, I agree with it. I also understand (somewhat) what emotional and financial outcomes could result from such a salary cap. I’m a believer that everything is relative. I lost two salaries this year and literally went from making 6 figures to no figures. It is hard to adjust, but we can all do it and I think in the end, those of us who are having to make sacrifices, I think it will only encourage us to appreciate what we DO have.. more.
    Dr. Rob Note: This is a fair point, although Linda’s salary at zero figures isn’t relative, it’s absolute. Of course relativity is an issue but $500K keeps you in the top .1% of the American people, so I see the relativity issue as minor when compared to others.

  2. Benjamin Butina says:

    I’ve been enjoying the blog for several weeks now–the post on Dr. Steve and his Diet Pepsi is a particular favorite–but this post leaves me scratching my head.
    Is it intended to be an editorial-style rant couched in psychological language for humorous effect, or do you actually believe that what you’ve written bears some relation to “psychological health”? (If the latter, I hope you have enough self-awareness to avoid working with any wealthy clients.)

  3. Limoncello says:

    I agree with Benjamin, Dr. Rob. I was searching hard for your usual sharp-witted quip in this article but instead this piece reads like a bitter rant. Bad day at the market?

  4. Jen says:

    I work for a partner at a hedge fund and am amazed at the amount of financial ‘stress’ these privileged folks claim to be under. The assistants and analysts at my office have had their small bonuses cut significantly, yet the ‘Big Boys’ talk in their offices about the new yachts, houses, etc. they will be buying (cash in full) before the end of the upcoming quarter because they had to put it off. I’d love for my boss to live my life for just one day. I have no compassion for these people whatsoever. Financial clusterfuck indeed. Good post.

  5. Dr. Rob says:

    My friend Linda (first commenter)was interviewed by CNN as part of their series on couples who suddenly had no income due to the financial crisis. You can see that video footage here:
    http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/02/10/from-six-figures-to-broke/

  6. Caitlin says:

    I have cousins who go to Dalton. They are two of the most miserable children I have ever met in my life. The boy is in military school and the girl started crying because her dad brought her allowance down to $1,000 a week.

  7. Joe says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that these people feel that they shouldn’t have to struggle with the rest of us.
    Its a strong indication of what’s wrong with this country. The people who profess the highest level of dedication to capitalism really, at the root, don’t believe in it. In a purely capitalist society, these people would be out on their asses, looking for jobs in a restricted economy. The totality of their denial of any responsibility for their own companies failure is striking. At the center of the problem, the people who have the most power over our markets, the people who have the most influence over things like whether hedge fund investor criteria should be changed, or whether pension funds should be barred from masquerading as venture capital, really don’t believe in capitalism. They believe in advocating capitalism because it seems like a convenient way to stay on top.
    Maybe your piece is a rant, but more than anything, it indicates how a ridiculous, skewed, hypocritical point of view can affect the mental health of someone who should be a cool, rational person. After all, properly understood, in a market economy, no one is entitled.

  8. Rob says:

    @Limoncello
    Maybe that’s because he’s a human being with emotions who may well have had difficult times in his life, as opposed to a machine for dispensing quips and witticisms.
    Maybe it’s because the shit that’s going on because of the greed of a small number of individuals in an extremely corrupt, dysfunctional banking system is affecting all of us, and the people in this system claiming that they’re not massively rich ENOUGH is only going to piss off people whose job doesn’t involve sitting back and watching their bank accounts swell up.
    Hmm?

  9. Nadia says:

    For me, it’s hard to have sympathy for these people because I don’t believe that they actually exist. I’ve never met someone so rich and ridiculous, but I have met people who were so out of touch with reality that I was dumbfounded. So maybe if I try to connect the ideas — the only thing I can muster is thinking of them like big, spoiled children. It’s much easier to feel for a child than an adult; this behavior isn’t malicious. It’s like they don’t know any better, like those spoiled kids on My Sweet Sixteen.
    Or as my fob aunt would say, “Send them to Iraq.”

  10. Tracie says:

    As an aside to further bolster the “more expensive ≠ better” argument, the Serendipity mentioned in the article was shut down for failing health inspections.
    Not much else I can say here. I used to live under the poverty line, and I’m finding it difficult to comprehend having anywhere near the amount of money the people mentioned in the article do. Forget empathy, it’s like asking me what it’d be like to ride a sparkly pink unicorn to work.

  11. Objectivism Now says:

    Looters, moochers, and parasites, all of you. Following the collectivist ideal that if not everybody can afford it, it shouldn’t even exist. Is a man not entitled to keep what he earns? Both the poor and the government are equally guilty of stealing the fruits of other mens labor to pay off their own debts. Who will you blame when the rich are dead, when you have run out of victims, and yet the poor still starve?

  12. Amber says:

    Amen Doc…Amen.

  13. Gordon says:

    Objectivism Now, it’s not about blaming someone for “earning” anything. It’s about a sense of entitlement to things that WEREN’T earned – and don’t forget people who were already working extremely hard for much less, and now get the true short end of the stick: nothing.

  14. John says:

    Most of these executives should be in jail for committing fraud because that is very much what they did. At best their financial decisions bankrupted the companies they were supposed to run and they should suffer financially for that. (far more suffering than a paycut)
    They are lucky that no one has the balls to bring charges or simply let their firms eat the losses and instead they have taxpayers bail them out and have to deal with a couple very minor stipulations attached to that money.

  15. Joe says:

    If Objectivism Now would care to debate me on who the parasites are and who is wealthy, I’m open to that.
    Which MBA program did you get that dogmatic justification from, anyway? And, for the record, I am a libertarian sick of 3% of this country skewing regulatory and tax laws to stay on top, regardless of their actions in the market.
    And who said that it shouldn’t exist if not everyone can afford it? People here are pissed about corporate crybabies whining that their welfare check only amounts to $500,000 per year plus a one third bonus.

  16. Lil says:

    Interesting post..it’s certainly sparked a lot of debate.
    Perhaps the one thing I feel was strongly missed was a note in the original article stating that these executive wouldn’t “feel like themselves” without their seven figure incomes and that “one must play the part accordingly to “fit in”…
    If the majority of banks are taking these bails outs…and the majority of high end bankers are being capped at 500K a year…
    Then they should be able to “play the part” on this reduced income pretty easily.
    Americans all over are struggling to stay out of debt…foreclosing homes, losing cars, losing privilidges…
    If the American people who are struggling are going to pay into these people’s salaries in order to keep the economy alive then why shuoldn’t they suffer as well?
    I imagine they wouldn’t be financial execs without knowing how to manage money properly…Now is as good of a time as ever to prove their worth. (quite literally)

  17. marcia says:

    I’m angry because those at the top are actually *responsible* for the economic mess the country (and world) is in, and for the suffering of millions of people, while they experience few, if any, consequences for the product of their greed.
    I’m beyond lacking empathy for these people; I want them to SUFFER with us, damn it!

  18. Ricky says:

    This post comes off a whole lot like philalawyer, maybe too much…

  19. S says:

    Nice post. Helped me put things in perspective a little too, at my $20K salary.

  20. IrreverentWhartonite says:

    First of all, why is it that Objectivists find their way, unsolicited, into every conversation on wealth. we all know that they’re brain-washed psychopaths who were picked on in high school and are trying to adopt a “strong” identity by accepting Ayn Rand’s gospel as unquestionable truth.
    Second, the original post by Rob is unjustifiably critical. So what if people spend a lot of money on fine things? Give some reasons for your checklist of things rich people should do with the $500K cap.

  21. RJ says:

    I agree with your post ENTIRELY! In fact, the wealthy who were and are in charge of the countries great wealth are pretty lucky I am not the one to decide their fate. I never wished to be rich, never complained about having a simple life, so anyone who cares to object can kiss my proverbial ass. I never complained and actually felt good with my minimal pay because at the end of the day nobody could say I didn’t earn my paycheck…can these bankers & investors say the same? I seriously doubt it…
    You don’t have to watch TV, or read posts on the internet to see what these folks have caused…just look around you. The streets around my home are now littered with foreclosure signs and financial help information. The homeless are more visible than ever before because there are now so many. Men, women, and children are suffering because of irresponsible jackasses. I can take this further…because in all honesty we, as a society, allowed this to happen. We gave them this power and we blindly allowed it to happen. Small example: We pay a baseball player $2.5 million dollars a year for OUR entertainment. Yet, the President who runs the entire country makes so much less. Makes no sense…
    I’m sorry, need that example a little closer to home? Ok, let’s forget about a President’s salary…let’s compare what we pay athletes with what we pay teachers, police, firemen! Then because of our own greed we allowed them to introduce winning scams like credit…which any professional in the field will tell you honestly is all designed to simply KEEP you in debt! All I can say to the Bankers and Elites of society that are resonsible for all this is be glad you are not in a country like Iran, Iraq, or even Cuba where most likely you would have been put in front of a firing squad for such a horrible failure and lack of concern for your TRUE job! Financial responsibility!
    BRAVO DOC! You only verbalized what those of us HARD WORKING Americans have been feeling for a very long time!

  22. RB says:

    I often read you. Most of the time, love what I read. Never did I feel this before, but when I read this, all I feel is that this is dripping with jealousy and bitterness.
    Dr. Rob: bitterness, yes. Jealousy, no way.

  23. I am almost always pro-business/capitalism….though our financial companies have gotten out of hand. Bailing them out is rewarding them (much like rewarding Detroit Automakers and the bloodsucking unions). In a truly capitalistic world we’d let them fail and support the replacements.

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