Business chair sympathizes with Wall Street bankers

TEMP ORARY November 18, 2011 0

Department chairs and Wall Street bankers have a lot in common. They lead the good life, collect hefty year-end bonuses and do God’s work. (The last, by the way, was what Goldman Sachs’ CEO claimed to do when he was questioned about the firm’s practices at a Senate hearing on the 2008 financial crisis.)

But chairs and bankers also share something else. A very sensitive soul. Chairs are moved by simple things, things that wouldn’t faze ordinary faculty members. Like advising. Or seeing Jupiter in repose next to a lambent moon on a cloudless night in Elizabethtown. Do these things lead ordinary faculty to cry, or weep openly? No.

Wall Street bankers are equally soulful. They shed tears at the drop of a hat. They publicly disparage the Occupy Wall Street people, but privately they are moved by their plight. They say these people are unemployed, that they are good-for-nothing types looking for a handout. But deep down, they marvel at how the protesters survive on donated vegetables. They admire their courage in using sleeping bags—those things don’t even have a sleep number. They resent being called the one percent during the day, but they go home in the evening and weep at the degree of income inequality in society.

But such exquisite sensitivity comes at a price. Like department chairs, bankers are constitutionally incapable of taking any criticism. When you are doing God’s work, you can do no wrong. There is simply no basis for critical remarks to be directed at you. And yet others do not always see it that way.

Mario Batali is a celebrity chef. His restaurants in New York have long waiting lines. His “menu tradizionale” costs $145 a person. He gets invited by Time magazine to advise on the selection of the Man of the Year. Not the sort who would end up making bankers cry.

But that’s exactly what he did. He made some remarks suggesting that bankers were taking a lot of money “into their own hands,” and that the banking industry “has had the largest effect on the whole planet without us really paying attention.” These remarks, as reported in The Guardian, seem to indicate a certain ambiguity in Batali’s meaning, and might have escaped further notice, but for a fatal error. Batali compared the bankers to Stalin and Hitler.

Predictably, all hell broke loose. The bankers, sobbing uncontrollably, sent messages to each on their Blackberries, roundly condemning Batali and vowing never to set foot in his restaurants again. Poor Batali apologized profusely, but the damage was done. Sales of his white truffles now appear to be in jeopardy.

In all the hullabaloo, another of Batali’s comparisons appears to have been overlooked. The bankers, he suggested, were not only like Stalin and Hitler (although that may appear to be sufficient excrescence to most) but also like “other evil guys.”

While this latter group was not clearly identified, department chairs knew exactly who he meant. And being equally sensitive as Wall Street bankers, they were not about to take this criticism lying down either. Chairs don’t have Blackberries, or even ordinary cellphones, so their ability to organize a boycott was limited. But rumor has it they were trying to send an indignant message to Batali, expressing their dismay at being compared to tyrants and dictators, and also asking if they might be able to make a reservation for four on Saturday night.

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