Limited perspective: Wall Street to Haiti

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Mr. Alan D. Schwartz, Bear’s chief executive, looking pale, summed it up. “We here are a collective victim of violence,” he said, his voice cracking.

As reported in NYT, so the captain of the largest failed investment bank emotionally addressed a group of top executives. There is temptation to make fun of these people, who count among America’s super rich even after losing millions and millions as a result of bad collective decisions.

However trivializing their pain risks missing insight into the power of perspective. Bear execs are feeling like victims, and we should try to understand why. Wall Street is a culture where you work extremely hard at often tedious tasks and make extremely large amounts of money. When the money and grandiose future you expected suddenly vanish, you feel awful. Within this framework, you got screwed.

Let’s check another extreme framework from the Haitian under class. Because Haitians are also a product of their environment, they aren’t likely to feel as victims until a very large and negative thing happens, such as getting thrown in a jail cell not bigger than a bathroom, with 43 other people locked in, perhaps for crimes they didn’t commit because 90% of prisoners have not had trials. People live in this cell literally on top of each other. This is SCARY. I don’t have to detail other victim examples from ethnic cleansing in Africa or forced labor in China.

The point is that victimhood is always relative. Something violently unfair for a banker may not seem unfair to you. Something violently unfair for you may not seem unfair in a Haitian slum. We should strive to keep perspective on all the things we’re lucky to have, but we shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t show such an enlightened point of view. It’s quite hard to achieve, especially when you’re surrounded by rich bankers and you’ve never seen a Haitian jail.

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