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Wednesday, 29 January 2014 05:55

A Former Wall Street Bonus Junkie Kicks the Habit of Greed

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MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

amoneyAddictions of any sort are an indication that people cannot control a facet of their lives.  The insatiable desire to acquire unlimited wealth falls into the category of addictions, according to Sam Polk, in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

Polk writes from experience, having walked away with a $3.6 million Wall Street bonus in 2010.  He is still, he admits, going through withdrawal from greed.  He writes of his unquenchable avariciousness when he was in the midst of his addiction:

Now, working elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. I’d think about how my colleagues could buy Micronesia if they wanted to, or become mayor of New York City. They didn’t just have money; they had power — power beyond getting a table at Le Bernardin. Senators came to their offices. They were royalty.

I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million.

Because Polk had been addicted to drugs and alcohol and gone through counseling, he recognized the symptoms of a psychological dependency.

His awakening, however, came slowly.  He lived the trendy, opulent Wall Street life:

Over the next few years I worked like a maniac and began to move up the Wall Street ladder. I became a bond and credit default swap trader, one of the more lucrative roles in the business. Just four years after I started at Bank of America, Citibank offered me a “1.75 by 2” which means $1.75 million per year for two years, and I used it to get a promotion. I started dating a pretty blonde and rented a loft apartment on Bond Street for $6,000 a month.

I felt so important. At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan — Per Se, Le Bernardin — just by picking up the phone and calling one of my brokers, who ingratiate themselves to traders by entertaining with unlimited expense accounts. I could be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game just by hinting to a broker I might be interested in going. The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.

Gradually, an accumulation of awakenings shifted his thinking:

But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.

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.

Polk, the former Columbia University student addicted to narcotics and liquor, had an epiphany:

Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out. (Italics inserted by BuzzFlash at Truthout.)

In his conclusion to his commentary, "For the Love of Money," Polk suggests a 12-step program for those addicted to wealth without end.  He also proposes that Wall Street fincial hot shots contribute 25 percent of their bonuses to a fund for those short-changed by the system.

The 25 percent assessment appears to be a modest incremental suggestion that unfortunately doesn't result in systemic change.  Polk, however, made the first step into recovery; he recognized his addiction to pursuing financial fortune that had no limit -- and doing whatever was necessary to achieve it.

Now, he is creating a life for himself that puts people first and money second. He got the monkey off his back. He's a free man now, without the false worship of mammon driving him to the frenzied exploitation of others.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

 (Photo: 401K 2013)