In the Heart
By: Daniel Kwon
In his recent Op-Ed in the NY Times titled For the Love of Money, Sam Polk does an insightful job of addressing and analyzing the root of the cancer that plagues the financial services industry: the idolization of power. Polk starts by discussing how he was lured to Wall Street by the prospect of immediate wealth and power. In his first year as a trader at Bank of America he received a $40,000 bonus and by the time he reached the age of 25, he was making $1.75 million a year while living in a $6,000/month loft on Bond Street. Polk’s drive to make more money ultimately led him to join a hedge fund, where he went from being “thrilled” with a $40,000 bonus in his first year to being disappointed when he only received a $1.5 million bonus his second year.
The turning point in Polk’s life occurs when he is in a meeting with one of his bosses to discuss new regulations imposed by the government that would negatively impact hedge funds. While most people hated the idea, he posed the question “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” His boss provided a response that revealed that the only thing he cared about was how it would impact his personal wealth. Polk goes on to say:
“From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses.”
In his aha moment, Polk is able to vividly see the striking similarity in the behavior of his wealth-addicted compatriots to that of heroin addicts. He saw that their never-ending drive to amass more wealth ultimately took them captive until they lost all control and became both self-destructive and destructive to everyone around them. Behind wealth is power. Blinded by the illusory deception of power, while they grew wealthier they were actually growing more and more powerless.
In Polk’s early account of his struggle with alcohol and drugs during his college years, he exposes the root of the underlying problem: “a spiritual malady”. His counselor helps him to realize that he was using alcohol and drugs to blunt the powerlessness that he felt as a kid. It is this same spiritual malady that cripples the soul of the financial services industry and manifests itself in people’s insatiable drive to accumulate power. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the money that attracts people to Wall Street. It can be the deceptive sense of power and identity that people derive through the prestige of their company or position. But almost always, it is about power. The most treacherous allure of the financial services industry is its promise and ability to immediately deliver to people a sense of worldly power (kids coming out of college are almost guaranteed a six figure salary in their first year on the job).
As Christians we should re-imagine what a redeemed industry would look like and seek structural change, but the root of the problem lies in the hearts of the people. If we are to seek renewal in the financial services industry, we must begin by actively praying for a renewal in the hearts of men and a healing from the spiritual malady that plagues the industry.