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Sallie Krawcheck will bring Wall Street work culture to the SEC

Sallie Krawcheck of Bank of America, being shopped around DC for head of the SEC

Sallie Krawcheck of Bank of America, being shopped around DC for head of the SEC

Yesterday, I read a post by DDay on Firedoglake about how the totally uneccessary “fiscal cliff” talks are going and I felt a tiny, teensy ember of hopefulness.  But it was quickly dashed when I read in the NYTimes about how the Obama administration is considering Wall Street executive Sallie Krawcheck for the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Never turn your back on the Obama administration or its backers.

It’s not just the fact that Krawcheck is a Wall Street executive who will be regulating one of the worst bunch of cheaters, liars and thieves in the history of the world. It’s more about the other things she brings to the table that the movers and shakers think are important.  For example, she is “known for her independent streak and consumer advocacy efforts”.  I don’t know what that means and the New York Times does not go into details.  Does her independence extend to not calling consumers of Wall Street products “muppets”?  I guess that would be a step in the right direction.  But something about the vagueness of this sentence reminds me of the slick, tailored dude from the major 401K management firm who I will not name who came to our site to describe all the new financial products they were rolling out.  He gave his presentation to a bunch of sciencey types but the numbers on the brochures were all based on estimates of salaries and 401K balances of the executives up the street.  Then he went on to say that these were our choices, there are no guarantees we’ll make any money from any of them, but, hey, where’re you going to go?  There’s not going to be any Social Security.  (Oh, yes, he really did say that.  I kept wondering where he was getting his information in 2009)

So, that’s the first thing that bothers me.  Making the financial products easier to understand and transparent for the consumer doesn’t get rid of their risks.  It doesn’t give you something solid and guaranteed to fall back on like Social Security.  And if everyone on Wall Street is offering products where the House is guaranteed to win no matter what but where consumers could lose everything they have because there are no company pensions anymore and we’re all shoved into 401Ks against our better judgements, then consumer advocacy means very little.  I don’t like the premise to start with that we all have to be playing at the global craps table.  Some of us want other, more secure, boring, plodding choices.  No, we really don’t care if we never own our own yacht.

But it’s more than that.  It’s Krawcheck’s crappy attitude towards work that is characteristic of Wall Street culture as described by anthropologist  Karen Ho in her book Liquidated, An Ethnography of Wall Street.  Here’s what Krawcheck had to say:

One [LinkdIn] recent dispatch, titled “What I Learned When I Got Fired (The First Time),” offered career guidance from her own rocky periods.

“If you haven’t been fired at least once, you’re not trying hard enough,” she wrote. “As the pace of change in business increases, the chances of having a placid career are receding. And if in this period of rapid change, you’re not making some notable mistakes along the way, you’re certainly not taking enough business and career chances.”

This is where she becomes completely unacceptable.  Here’s the problem: she acts like a “placid career” is a bad thing and a thing of the past.  (How does she know that?? What information does she have that we don’t? What schemes have the bankers been up to?)  Well, it might be a bad thing for people who suffer from ADHD and pernicious greed well into their adulthoods but to the rest of us out here, our placid careers are what makes us consumers in the first place.  You can’t buy anything if you don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from.  I have seen this attitude creep into the pharmaceutical research industry and ruin it.  Around 2000, many of the pharmas started employing Jack Welch management and rewards systems on the research community.  But Welch was trying to motivate salesmen.  His method doesn’t work in science.  Research people are about as far away from sales people in temperament as it is possible to get.  But suddenly, we were all supposed to act like salesmen, become super competitive and cutthroat and be prepared to lose our jobs at any moment.  You can’t do science under those circumstances.  Research takes continuity and patience and collaboration.

I’m pretty sure that science is not the only industry that doesn’t adapt well to the Wall Street work style where everyone is ready at any moment to be laid off.  It’s not practical for hundreds of millions of Americans to become instant precariats.  For one thing, many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.  Challenging the status quo and getting fired isn’t an option for them, much less getting things wrong just for the sake of shaking things up.  For another, you can’t plan for the future if you’re always worried about your present.  It’s impossible to put down roots, buy a house or even rent one, purchase a new car or computer.  You can’t have a family.  Well, you *could* have one but you’d better be prepared to not see them.  That’s what has happened to a lot of ex-pharma people.  Their families live in one state while they work in another. Think of South African diamond miners in Soweto.  And no job is secure for very long, which makes relocation a constant problem.

That’s going to have a downstream effect on homeownership, the auto industry, consumer goods.  Has it ever occurred to people on Wall Street and the people from Wall Street who are now in the upper echelons of the Obama administration that this kind of attitude towards work may be prolonging the recession??

Oh, but Wall Street people will argue that it’s the survival of the smartest.  But the science researchers out here who have lost our jobs know this is bullshit.  What Wall Street values is status, not intelligence.  Spend a few months in a lab trying to discover something that no one has ever done before.  That’s intelligence.  Or do brain surgery or rocket science or green energy science.  Or try plumbing, or modern architecture with new materials.  Or fixing some young banker hotshot’s car.  There are many different professions that require intelligence.  Computational chemists have an inkling of what Wall Street professionals do because we work with complex mathematical models all the time.  Wall Street professionals *can* be replaced- easily.  It’s not so easy to replace someone who can interpret a new protein structure.  That takes practice.

And that’s another thing that flies out of the window in Krawcheck’s world.  In an environment where you can be fired for being bold and the safety net is weak to non-existent, no one is bold.  And with each firing, there’s less time to rehearse your skills.  You’re never on the job long enough to learn anything with proficiency.  There’s some study that says that to become truly proficient in an area, you need to have spent 10,000 hours practicing it.  In Krawcheck’s world, no one gets nearly that much time before the bean counters decide to subtract positions from the bottom line.  It’s even worse than that.  During Pharmageddon, it was the salesmen in the labs who survived the job cuts, not the people who actually did the work.  And there were plenty of people with excellent performance evaluations, merit awards and inventors of billion dollar block buster drugs who were let go.  One thing we science geeks have learned from Pharmageddon is that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how long you work, how dedicated you are to your job or any other factor that you’ve been told is crucial to your employment.  You are expendable whenever the executives need your salary to pay a shareholder or buy a new company.  The relationship between effort and reward becomes permanently broken and no amount of mean spirited insistence from the conservative Tea Party whip kissers will change that.  Kissing the whip doesn’t do you any good any more, no matter what level of education or profession you have achieved.

So, to recap, Wall Street’s idyllic work environment would result in more economic uncertainty, more stress on families, less consumer spending, less long term thinking, less expertise for businesses and a poorer, more demoralized, less motivated workforce.  It sounds like something straight out of Central America circa 1980.

It’s hard to believe that someone like Sallie Krawcheck or anyone with her attitude towards work, would seriously be considered for any governmental position during this Little Depression that was caused by so much short term thinking.  I hope that the New York Times is just trying to be provocative.  Consider me provoked.

The problem with prospective appointments like Krawcheck’s to the SEC, like Tim Geithner’s to the Treasury department, is that they bring with them a moral attitude and values system towards work and reward that is dangerous to the average American.

But the morality and values starts at the top.  I doubt that Krawcheck and Geithner would even be considered by a president who was thinking about the long term interests of the average American.  And that’s what worries me and snuffs out that little teensy ember of hope.  Obama’s actions have to match his rhetoric and just by considering someone like Krawcheck or anyone like her, the actions and rhetoric will be miles apart.

Trust no one.

Update: In a followup post at the NYTimes titled Dropping the Ball on Financial Regulation, Simon Johnson of Baseline Scenario has similar misgivings about the Obama administrations prospective appointments, particularly with respect to Sallie Krawcheck to the SEC.

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