Book Reviews
6:03 am
Thu February 20, 2014

A Cautionary Tale For Aspiring 1-Percenters In 'Young Money'

Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 9:17 am

In Young Money, Kevin Roose poses many important questions about the lives of newly minted Wall Streeters, but perhaps none more important than this: "What if Wall Street doesn't just attract pre-existing douchebags, but actively draws normal people into an inescapable vortex of douchebaggery?" For Roose, it's not just a glib rhetorical exercise. Over the course of three years, the New York Times contributor recruits and interviews eight anonymous first-year bankers for details of their experiences in the notoriously opaque, reputedly douchebaggy world of high finance.

The picture that emerges from Roose's telling is not one of an Illuminati-style Goldman Sachs cabal inducting wide-eyed innocents into its equity-fueled black mass. The reality appears to be much more mundane. Entry-level analysts, like the eight Roose befriends, are lured in from their Ivy League campuses using conventional bait, albeit the kind irresistible to high achievers: prestige, respect, connections, competition, visible measures of success.

While most recruits acknowledge Wall Street's less-than-savory reputation, they are for the most part kept too busy working hundred-plus-hour weeks to think too deeply about moral implications of their actions. Roose succinctly — if not altogether convincingly — describes it as "a sort of cognitive triage, and daily concerns always took priority over long-term, large-scale worries."

For some of Roose's young contacts, even daily concerns are too much to think about. Arjun, a 22-year-old mergers and acquisitions analyst at Citigroup, spends every waking moment working, ignores his health, and contracts a rare autoimmune disease for his trouble. In a rare idle moment, one analyst making six figures calculates his hourly rate at something like $16. Jeremy and Samson, two first-years at Goldman Sachs, quickly sour on the spreadsheet-fueled drudgery, but resolve to tough out their two-year stretch in the hope that their quality of life might improve (it doesn't).

Excel spreadsheets and sweatshop hours are hardly the stuff of The Wolf of Wall Street, but Roose does manage to unearth some stereotypically gaudy excess. In one of the book's more memorable passages, the author sneaks into the annual black-tie induction dinner of Kappa Beta Phi, Wall Street's extra-exclusive, ultra-secret fraternity. "All told," Roose writes, "enough wealth and power was concentrated in the St. Regis that night that if you had dropped a bomb on the roof, global finance as we know it might have ceased to exist." The goings on at this "1 percenter's Friars Club" have not been seen by outsiders in the group's 80-plus years of existence, a streak Roose breaks with surprising ease. Prospective Kappa Beta members are required to garner cheap laughs by doing various skits and routines, all tasteless to varying degrees. Investment banking CEO Warren Stephens, for instance, appears in a Confederate flag hat and sings a song set to "Dixie" about the financial crisis. It's Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" comment writ large, a gauche reminder of the country's large and ever-increasing class divide.

This colorful aside is told with pitch-perfect levels of humor, horror and incredulity. It doesn't, however, quite jibe with the rest of the book, primarily a series of anonymous, as-told-to accounts. Contrast this with Roose's 2010 debut, The Unlikely Disciple -- a firsthand report of his undercover semester at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University — and Young Money suffers a bit for his not personally infiltrating Wall Street (aside from his Kappa Beta party crashing). To be fair, Roose is upfront about the necessity of his outsider's point-of-view. He suspects, rightly, that his previous undercover exploits at Liberty would make his cover story too vulnerable to a simple Google search.

It's our loss that he didn't get to try: While the reader gets a solid sense of finance's corrosive day-to-day effects through the tales of his proxies, it never quite captures the immediacy of personal experience. Young Money isn't on the level of famous muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, but as a cautionary tale for aspiring "masters of the universe" — and really just anyone looking for a quick and easy glimpse into the 1 percent — it's quite compelling. As for the vortex of douchebaggery, it seems safe to conclude that it exists, but is eminently escapable.

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