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How to Ease the Burden of the 1 Percent

Art for How to Ease the Burden of the 1 Percent.
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Departures, a magazine that helps the 1 percent spend their money creatively, is a great read. It comes free with your American Express platinum card. If you don’t have an American Express platinum card, there’s a good chance you’ll find this magazine in a bathroom of your rich friend, right by the toilet seat. Open to any random page, and the pretentious bullshit will blow your mind.

“Are you still waking up to a traditional alarm clock and showering with ordinary municipal water?” begins one article. “That’s so old school.” You are in luck: from this article you will learn that showers infused with vitamin C, lighting that optimizes your circadian rhythms, and task-specific aromatherapy, will soon be available—perfectly suited to tend the occupational injuries one may incur by sitting in front of a Bloomberg terminal all day.

Departures is missing the bigger picture. The burden of the 1 percent is the lack of any real adventure in their lives. If you belong to that “vitamin shower” market niche, but have also read Hemingway in your youth, you will, at some point, sense that something is not quite right. You will sense a dissonance. As a former member of the 1 percent myself, I know the feeling.

Back in 2008 when I was a mid-level Wall Street employee, I wasn’t exactly lacking for thrills at work. Back then, the volatility of the market resembled a wild bronco. It was exhilarating to the point of addiction. I began to look at everything as a battle or a game. But when I was off work, my life was a sterilized and predictable routine: gym, healthy eating habits, annual trips to the Caribbean and Europe. Eventually, this dichotomy—dirty combat at work, decontaminated existence outside—becomes mentally draining.

If you’re able to block those creeping thoughts about the nature of your existence, you’re lucky. I wasn’t that lucky. Like many others, I’m sure, I looked for rationalizations: there must be some purpose in all of this, some meaning. But there was none. Winning is the only meaning on Wall Street. Until you plateau. When you’re used to your career trajectory moving up at a forty-five degree angle, you’ll be at a loss when it inevitably begins to flatten. You’ve groomed yourself for battle, and your pent-up ambition doesn’t just disappear with your diminishing combat opportunities. And what then? At some point, even acquiring luxury items stops bringing satisfaction. At some point your life becomes about seeking not the next thing, but the next thrill, the next adventure.

Adventure is hard to come by in Manhattan—unless you are a homeless drug addict, a hooker or, well, poor. Manhattan and Greenwich, Connecticut are sterilized, anesthetized, gentrified, and risk-free Green Zones. Outlets for real adventure are limited for the 1 percent. Hedge fund managers today feel emasculated. They are reduced to extracting value from others, relying on insider tips, bullying everyone down the food chain, and engaging in insurance scams. I guess that explains their hatred toward the Fed, which took away their thrill rides. But that pent-up demand—to be someone beyond the P&L, beyond the “number”—is palpable among the Wall Street and hedge fund crowd. You can’t just sit quietly in and enjoy your spoils; you want to do something with all that adrenaline.

This need for thrills often manifests itself in seeking artificial adversity. This adversity can include running marathons, taking rowdy trips to Vegas with your bros, or beating the shit out of each other at underground fight clubs. The businesses that serve this market have gotten smart about these repressed desires. The Ralph Lauren clothing store in the West Village sells Boardwalk Empire-themed clothes that will make you look like you’re a destitute Depression-era laborer. Naturally, those clothes cost a small fortune. Trendy restaurants in New York must contain words like “farm,” “kitchen,” “shack,” or “mission” if they hope to compete.

Travel agencies have a new trend—“shantytown vacations”—where you can stay in your very own, customized shithole. (Options include a £20 tour of Nairobi slums, where, if you’re lucky, you can experience feces in plastic bags being thrown at you.) Just think about all the cool stories you’ll be able to tell your cackling friends back home!

When you’ve already got all the money in the world, a new obsession with “character building through adversity” is a natural progression. So today’s 1 percent long to be regular folk, or at least to imitate what they think is regular folks’ experience: physical challenges, dangerous situations, and a scarcity of resources. And that’s the cruel predicament that the 1 percent have gotten themselves into. The well-off work so hard to eliminate spontaneity and adversity in their daily lives, only to spend enormous amounts of money trying to recreate it in controlled environments.

There’s a cure for all this restlessness. It does not require action—it requires inaction. Stop trying to devise new ways to extract value from the rubes. Stop swindling municipalities and raiding pension funds. Fuck HFT, fuck CDX IG! Stop looking for excitements in all the wrong places. Since it’s all about the game, think of it as a new game, called “walking away.” Take the money you already have and retire, or find another line of work. Walking away is the real-life adventure you’ve been desperately looking for all along.

 

[A version of this essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Left with Balls. -Ed.]