My Journey from Iraq to Working on Wall Street to Occupying Wall Street
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Wall Street denizens like to think they contribute more to society than those who earn less because they pay more dollars in taxes. But where do their earnings come from? Of the myriad ways they extract money from the rest of us, not all are underhanded—but none are noble. The industry that vehemently opposes a financial transactions tax charges exorbitant financial transaction fees. Its members cobble together structured products—ordinary investments cloaked in opaque complexity—and market them as new and valuable. They alchemize derivatives (investments on investments) and use supercomputers to run algorithms that give their proprietary trading desks an incremental advantage, compounded many times a second, over smaller investors (including their own clients). They collect large fees for taking concentrated risk, chopping it up and hiding the pieces in many different places, creating the illusion that it has disappeared (this is how toxic mortgage-based assets ended up in pension funds). They charge municipalities hefty fees to borrow money every time they need a new sewer, school or firehouse.
Of course, as those on Wall Street like to point out, in a hostage-taking fashion, they also keep financial markets running smoothly—a feat that could probably be accomplished by a few months' worth of open-source software and a room full of servers. And then, of course, they give advice, which I like to say is fairly useful, because it's what I did.
As a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, I was proud to enter the elite realm of wealth management. We didn't invent, produce or grow anything, but we helped people preserve and perpetuate their wealth. Oh, what a club.
In training, I was taught how to spot wealthy in a crowd, how to approach family and friends about their financial planning. I would listen to heroes of the business tell how they made it. They would boast that they didn't take one day off the first four years, that they worked every weekend, never saw their families and made 500 cold calls a day. It inspired and motivated me. They became rich fast—what could be more American than that? I wanted the suits, the watches, the cars. I wanted to start collecting digits on my gross income, like someone might collect stamps or Hummel figurines.
I had a glass globe that would glow green when the Dow was up and red when it was down. It was also a good indicator of my mood, for a while. In the office we talked about golf or our pet charity or pet dog to show that there was substance to us, but really what we thought about most of the time was money.
Unlike in the military, there's no loyalty in finance. People left the firm suddenly if they were offered a better deal and thought their clients were loyal enough to stay with them. In emergency meetings, those clients' names were divided up, and we scrambled to persuade them to stay. When I got laid off, two years after I started, my box was already packed under my desk. (You are expected to leave the building immediately.) I had no plans to take files. I had no plans to work in finance again.
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Between work and school I didn't have much time for Occupy, but when I could I marched, and when something was on my mind I made a sign. I was late to the protest on November 17, a "day of action," arriving shortly after the opening bell. I was immediately underwhelmed. A few signs were held aloft and what looked like thousands of police officers milled about smartly; I squinted to make sure the ones in the distance weren't just blue streaks painted on backdrops like the buffalo herds in old westerns. Toward Wall Street a line of people waited to get past some barriers, where police were checking people's identification. I ducked into the subway, whose network of tunnels was familiar from my corporate security days, and emerged inside what I'd dubbed the Green Zone. (The Green Zone in Baghdad is a large, heavily secured area, too.)