Why We Love to Hate Masters of the Universe

In the annals of crime, there is a place reserved for the banker—a special sort of banker, mind you, not just the guy who offers you free checking with your savings account, presuming you keep a certain balance, at Chase.

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"Yet one fine day, in a fit of euphoria, after he had picked up the telephone and taken an order for zero-coupon bonds that had brought him a $50,000 commission, just like that, this very phrase had bubbled up into his brain. On Wall Street he and a few others—how many?—three hundered, four hundred, five hundred?—had become precisely that ... Masters of the Universe. There was ... no limit whatsoever!" —Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

"At the very moment William Bryan Jennings should have been climbing into bed at his sumptuous Connecticut mansion, the high-ranking executive at Morgan Stanley was sprinting through back roads a mile away. He was exhausted, scared and -- detectives would later allege -- had just stabbed a taxi driver in a dispute over a fare." —Michelle Conlin and Chris Francescani, Reuters

In the annals of crime, there is a place reserved for the banker—a special sort of banker, mind you, not just the guy who offers you free checking with your savings account, presuming you keep a certain balance, at Chase. You probably never see this esteemed creature, unless he deigns to be seen, or unless you frequent his gilded circles (in fact, he may look a lot like everyone else, but don't let that terrify you; he smells your fear). He is the one who lives in a million-dollar abode on Park Avenue, or in "the wealthy enclave of Darien." He may be the owner of a "sweeping curved staircase, perfectly plumped chintz pillows, backyard swimming pool, and a Ferrari in the garage." He has so much when some have so little, so much in material goods but also in the currency of power, that when he crosses the rules by which we expect him to conduct himself—after all, he is civilized, or must be, with so much in liquid assets—we recoil back in horror only briefly before we jump in to censure, releasing a sigh that demonstrates our resignation that of course this person could not have had all that and been a decent human being, too. Of course. And there is some joy in that resignation, because we are struggling, because of the economy, because of the haves and have-nots, because of the 99 percent, just because.

Take the case of William Bryan Jennings, a man who could not have been more unfortunately named and now faces an unfortunate reality. Not that there's anything unfortunate about being the head of fixed income for North America at Morgan Stanley, or owning a $2.7 million mansion in Darien, Conn., or being able to send your children to a prestigious private school or afford a $204 cab ride home from Manhattan when you've had too much to drink at your holiday party and can't locate the town car that's been ordered for you. What is unfortunate is fighting with your cab driver over the fare once you're home, refusing to pay that cab fare, shouting racial slurs, and then, in failing to get your way, stabbing that cab driver, who, in perfectly cinematic contrast, lives in a ground-floor apartment in Astoria near the railroad tracks "in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge."

These are things that Jennings has allegedly done. He pleaded not guilty to the charges on March 9; he has denied using racial slurs and claims, according to his lawyer, who says Jennings thought he was being abducted. If convicted he could face 11 years in prison. As a direct consequence of his actions that night in December, he's been placed on leave, and according to rumors he may never get his job back. The next court date, a pre-trial hearing, is scheduled for April 12. But whether he's proven guilty or not, Jennings is now a member of the bad banker club.

He follows in footsteps like those of Rajat Rajaratnum, billionaire and in 2009 the 236th richest American, the Galleon Group's former hedge fund manager and founder—who was found guilty of allegations of insider trading and sentenced to 11 years in prison in October 2011. Or those of Rajat Gupta, formerly of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company, whose trial over "passing along corporate secrets to Rajaratnam" will soon begin (Gupta is a man who in his own estimation still wasn't rich enough). Going further back, there's Martha Stewart, not a banker herself but certainly a member of a certain coterie of power players, convicted of insider trading and sent to jail back in 2004. Fictionally, we have Wall Street top bond salesman Sherman McCoy, done in by his own greed and selfishness (with the help of the media) in The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the case of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, who believes above all else that greed is good.

There is a sense that these figures, the "masters of the universe," dubbed so without our explicit agreement (even as we are complicit in their successes) are somehow more evil than your garden variety criminal, someone without wealth and power and private schools and sisal rugs at his fingertips. This is good for us, because we can hate them more, without any sort of liberal guilt associated. The bigger and badder the persona, the better. Which is why, when the news came out about Jennings, we slapped our foreheads and thought, "Shoulda known, not another one!" in an almost gleeful (though rueful) fashion while feeling just terrible for his alleged victim.

Interestingly, however, Jennings doesn't quite fit our stereotype. As Conlin and Francescani write, "In the world capital of ego-driven alphas, Jennings didn't come off as one. He was polite and well-liked, according to Morgan Stanley colleagues. He also was a 'Morgan monk,' utterly devoted to the firm and his job, with little personal life outside work." If Jennings hadn't been a banker and instead was, maybe, an inebriated mid-level ad exec on his way home from a Christmas party who got into a tiff with a cab driver, would we react the same way?  Maybe...but probably not. With great power comes greater responsibility, so we expect our masters of the universe to behave appropriately. But if we're being honest, we don't really want them to behave properly, not only because it makes for interesting news, but because, well, schadenfreude. We want them to be bad so we feel better about ourselves.

So when Greg Smith, the hero-or-anti-hero or in any case now famous writer of the "Why I'm Leaving Goldman Sachs" op-ed in the New York Times, tells us how bad his coworkers are, calling their clients "muppets," taking advantage of the poorer or weaker or stupider, generally reveling in their toxic environment -- we eat that up and ask for more. We want to hate those corporate bigwigs making all the money and crushing the little people and complaining about how poor they are on Urban Baby. When it turns out they're human...good or decent people who've worked hard but messed up...that becomes less easy, or certainly less pleasant, to swallow along with the lump of jealousy that burns in our throat.

But back to the case of Jennings. There is dispute over what actually happened in the cab that night, and we may never know exactly what occurred. We do know things escalated to the degree in which a pen knife was taken from a briefcase, and a cab driver was left bleeding and in need of six stitches. We know that later Jennings went on vacation with his family, to Florida, but that at the end of February, he turned himself in to cops. And all that is probably enough for him to go down in the banker hall of villainy, regardless of the outcome of the trial. It's easy to hate bankers, because not only are they rich, and richer than we are, but also, most of us don't actually understand what they do. What we do understand, and what people have understood since the beginning of time, is that watching the mighty fall is far more amusing than watching those further down in the rungs of power remain exactly where they are.

Image via Shutterstock by Minerva Studio

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.