The 5% Factor in Finance  

I had a conversation with my former financial advisor when the markets were crashing back in ‘08. I asked him to give me an estimate, his best, ostensibly educated guess when the market might turn around or at least stabilize. He assured me it would be soon. The credit default scandal had already been exposed. Real estate foreclosures had been assessed and the projected losses factored in to financial projections. The fact is, he offered with conviction, in any industry one had to account for a certain amount of corruption. Maybe 5% of the people in any given field were evil. The evil had now been weeded out and the markets would bounce back to its mean of 8 to 10% growth or better annually very soon.

Turns out, evil abounds in the financial industry. From Bernie Madoff to AIG to JP Morgan Chase and their corporate cronies with 7, 8 figure bonuses; to banks and mortgage brokers hording stimulus funds, my advisor had to be grossly low on his 5% estimate of evil in finance.

According to forensic psychologist and author Robert Hare, it is possible, even likely, that the percentage of evil is greater in the financial industry than most any other field. Money attracts greedy people. Those who choose a career pursuing money, instead of building, inventing, engineering, teaching, are generally looking for what they can get from society instead of what they can give to it. In Snakes in Suits, Mr. Hare claims at least 10% of all those in finance are psychopaths.

The 5% (or more) who callously exploit the rest of us is what makes the free-market system they purport a myth. That 5% evil controls 95% of the financial markets of the world. The enormous scale of capital they play with has proven to collapse economies, robbing millions of their life savings, their jobs, their homes.

Most of us put our earnings in the bank or the market and hope our savings will go up. We depend on those in charge of most everyone’s money to know what they’re doing and manage the money we entrust to them wisely. Most of us don’t have the time or inclination for in-depth study and monitoring of the markets. Even if we did, it is rarely possible to get an intimate and transparent view inside most corporations. We rely on our government to monitor the SEC and avoid financial catastrophes. The Bush administration is an example of what happens when they don’t.

A ‘free-market’ system strives to maintain very few restrictions, touting supply and demand will regulate economics. And though this is a lovely idea, like communism, it doesn’t work in the real world. The economy collapses when demand is only from the [wealthy] 1% of the population that can afford anything. Public companies with no limits on growth, minimal regulations, limited liability and lack of transparency virtually inviteexploitation by the small, but none the less formidable percentage of evil. Our ‘free-market’ invariably becomes controlled by a small minority who represent only their own interests. This corrupts the entire society by shifting the balance of power to a handful of narcissists, if not out and out psychopaths, as Robert Hare claims.

Republicans and conservatives threaten socialism if the government regulates the markets beyond ‘protection of property and against force or fraud.’ But everyone pays the price for the 5% that continually redefine the term ‘fraud.’ The 5% evil at AIG, and more recently JP Morgan Chase that took ridiculous risks for excessive short term yields to line their pockets continue to send shock waves throughout our financial industry and beyond. And the fact is, it IS socialism when taxpayers are forced to bail out banks and brokers who were, and are still indifferent to the suffering they cause—the very definition of ‘Psychopath.’

We will never be able to ‘weed out’ evil from humanity. A certain percentage of our population will always be narcissists, care exclusively about their own welfare over the society in which they live. Regulations on our financial industry must be imposed and upheld to keep evil in-check, and limit the damage the 5% factor will surely cause again and again. We are more than willing to put sanctions on countries that support terrorism. If we are truly ‘by the people, of the people and for the people‘ of this nation, we must sanction the evil in our system as well.

United We Stand?

It was early November in 2001, two months after 9/11, when I went down to the end of the cul-de-sac to meet the new neighbors. We had just moved into San Ramon a few months earlier ourselves, a semi-upscale San Francisco suburb in the east bay. It promised good public schools, and gave the impression of a safe, friendly environment in which to raise our children. That afternoon several of the local residents were hanging out at the end of the block with the new neighbors, sharing beers and casual conversation, watching their children play together in the street. I joined them, introduced myself, and my [then] one year old daughter and three-year-old son, who both ran off to play with the other kids.
 
The new neighbors asked me about my children, their ages, where we had moved from, and the like. Then the woman asked me to repeat my last name.
 
When I told her again she said, “Oh, you’re the Jewish couple then? I heard that there was a Jewish family that had moved in recently.”
 
It was clear that she was tickled by the idea of living near Jews. Unlike L.A., or New York, the Bay area has little Jewish population to speak of. Suddenly, the three other couples standing there plugged into our conversation. Though our last name was often mistaken for Jewish, it’s derivation was German, and isn’t always a Jewish moniker. The woman’s assumption was ignorant, but typical, especially in an area where Jews were such a novelty.
 
“Actually, we’re Atheist. We don’t practice any religion.” I tried to sound casual.
 
Blank stares. Total silence. It was like I had just said that we were registered child molesters. My words hung like lead in the dead air until one of the neighbors we’d previously met broke the silence.
 
“You know,” she tried to sound casual too. “I heard this broadcast on NPR the other day about Atheists. They’re actually very non-violent, friendly people. The Atheist on the air pointed out that you never hear of Atheists blowing up buildings.”
 
The vacuum that followed her comment made it clear that the new neighbors would have preferred we were practicing Jews, or Mormons, or even Muslims at that point. “You mean you don’t participate in the holidays?” the new neighbor asked, mystified. “Not even Christmas?”
 
“No. Not even Christmas.”
 
“Well, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday.” As absurd as her comment was, I hear it all the time. I refrained from reminding her that Christmas celebrated the birth of Christ, the very foundation of Christianity.
 
“We have five nights of winter presents which compensates quite nicely,” I explained. “And we celebrate birthday’s, special occasions, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and so forth.”
 
She bobbed her head up and down, but I could tell I’d already lost her. I was the anti-Christ, the infidel, the soulless she was so afraid of. And though her fear was unwarranted, there isn’t a religious person I can recall that I didn’t get the same bounce from when I revealed I was an atheist. No God? No values. It’s common wisdom, right?
 
I didn’t set out to set myself apart. My brief stint in Sunday school was forced upon me until I was 13, when my parents had to acquiesce to my unshakeable conviction that there was no God. My mother spent the next 30 years convinced that I would come back to religion when I grew up, got married, had kids. But the certainty of a godless universe, one ruled by entropy, not empathy, still resonates with me. The values I question are those that focus on an afterlife instead of on the life at hand, and the contributions we each can make to insure the survival of our race.
 
At the start of every December several of the families in the cul-de-sac adorned their front lawns with small cement statues of The Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. They are subtly placed, though clearly visible in clumps of bushes and at the base of towering Redwoods. Christmas lights go up early, and stayed up well into the new year.
 
Since that first encounter, the new couple has gone out of their way to avoid our family. To date, she and her children ignore us, even my kids casual waves in passing. They do not acknowledge us at the store, in restaurants. The other neighbors do not include our family in their neighborhood parties, nor have they asked my husband to join their Sunday golf group.
 
When we moved here, I didn’t stop to consider the religious leanings of the community. As an atheist, in a monotheistic society, wherever I live I’m on the fringe. I am deeply saddened that my children are being ostracized because of our beliefs. In allowing them to define their own spirituality, I fear I have inadvertently set them up for rejection, condemned them to the fringes, which is a very lonely place to live. But I do not foresee bringing religion into my home. I cannot teach them what I do not believe.
 
This last holiday season, in a brief lapse of reason, I thought of throwing a Hanukkah party and inviting the neighborhood. If they needed us to be something, we could pretend to be Jewish. But, the thing is, I am proud of who we are and our spiritual choices. And I am proud to be an American, where we are free to practice any religion, or none at all.