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A Rich Man's Confession

by Ben Howard 13 days ago in literature

A stock trader's confession to a fortunate Stranger

Wall Street traders looking down on Occupy Movement, 2011

Dear Random Person I Shall Most Likely Never Meet but Nonetheless Have Eternally Affected,

You're probably wondering what the hell this little black journal is all about, and, more importantly, where the hell this $20,000 came from, and, more mysteriously, how you, of all people, came across it. And those are questions I shall answer in due time, but I want to ask you to consider something before you read on further:

Do you really want to know where the money came from?

You never realize that, when people ask, "Where did the money actually come from", they never really want to know the answer, so I figured I'd be somewhat cautious about disclosing the answer.

See, I happen to dabble in the business of "knowing" where the money goes. I say that in quotation marks because, well, I'm a stock trader, and the whole machine of the stock market, despite myself being a self-described "expert" on the matter, is still a mysterious, enigmatic specter, yet is somehow rooted in hard math and social science.

Like most people, before I became ensconced in the towering titan known as Wall Street, I had been taught by my homegrown, American parents that money, like everything in nature, has to come from somewhere, and it has to come from somewhere with a reasonable beginning; whether you earn money by performing a service for someone, like cooking for them, or actually building something like, say, an architect, or construction engineer, or a whole host of labors that involve your hands but something that a person like me would never do.

But when you realize the economy is a large-scale simulation of speculation, talking heads on cable TV thinking they know what's going on, and quantities of cash so large it's almost impossible, you realize creating things of value isn't exactly necessary when it comes to making money.

I traded stocks, shorted them, bet against them, managed hedge funds, and very much existed at the epicenter of financial darkness for years; I was there for the early stock market boom of 1983, followed by Black Monday of 1987; I was there for the dot com bubble, then went down in the nose dive of the stock market crash of '08, with the Occupy Wall Street movement right behind it. I've seen activists decry my kind as exemplary of all things wrong with capitalism, and I've seen Reagan-inspired acolytes hail my species as everything "right" about competition and the spirit of the "free-market". Time after time again, I've seen federal investigations, bankruptcies declared just two blocks down, and people make billions off of moving money around for the sake of it.

And, to perhaps no one's surprise, I saw all of this as a natural consequence of my own cunning.

See, like anybody else, I reasoned to myself, I was merely making my own moves, my own plays in the world; to not only ensure my own survival, but also my own ability to thrive. I thought, Gee, these millions of dollars I'm sitting on is great, but what about my wife, kids, grandparents? What's left for them, once the game's done being played? I felt a strong sense of obligation to secure my family's metaphorical castle to be cast into the ground, our lives to be more than just comfortable, because they deserved it. So, I set aside savings to start "charitable" funds that would be exempt from state and federal tax regulations, and through that, acquired material wealth that got increasingly more and more brazen; college for my daughter set aside here, an extra summer home there, so much so to the point that I had managed to go up several tax brackets without paying a single dime more for all the wealth that I had accrued.

My total net worth (after paying essentially zero in state taxes): $5.3 billion.

And, the best/worst part of it was legal.

So, now comes one of other burning questions you may be left with: why the random $20,000?

Call it guilt, an overwhelming inclination to cement myself in the virtuous lineage of the likes of John Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, or maybe a somewhat tone deaf attempt to do good in the world?

The answer: it’s complicated, and it’s not.

Like most people in the world, my definition of “good” is something that checks off the boxes: help people, generally avoid lying, and, in much of the same fashion as the Hippocratic oath, do no harm (or, as little as you can, I guess). I knew that I couldn’t just sit on my vast pile of gold like a dragon in its cave, but, like I said earlier, the art of thriving rather than surviving was far too compelling to live out those moral ideals, so I suppose you could say I was caught in a Catch-22 of wanting to share, but, at the same time, not wanting to share. I started the New York Foundation for Young Businessmen, with an annual scholarship fund of $250 million, along with various donations to clean recycling plants, little league baseball teams, and other varieties of the bland, generic philanthropy that people like me were known for.

At the end of all of that though, I was still worth over $4 billion.

I knew that, if I didn’t want the all-seeing gaze of morality, news media, whatever authority figure there was to be looking down on me, judging me for my vast influence, I knew I had to start foundations, donate to charities, find some cause to champion, for everyone to see. It was my legacy on the line, above all else.

Me, me, me, I had realized: it was all about me.

But I didn’t recognize the real, tangible consequences of my wealth until, one morning in early January, when I was walking out of my studio apartment in Upper Manhattan to walk to my office. On any usual morning, I would just walk past the steam filled and garbage choked alleyways, keeping my head down as I briskly strode past the rows and rows of homeless tents, averting my gaze from the mangy mats ridden with flies, holes, and cardboard signs imploring, HOMELESS VET, ANYTHING HELPS, GOD BLESS. My behavior was, still is, practically a rule of survival among wealthy socialites in Manhattan: don’t look, don’t ask, and don’t talk. And I carried through on this near-sacred command, all the way up to an intersection on West 81st Street, despite the cold, bitter wind and swarming crowds that always devour the city.

Then, as I passed a particular alleyway (I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember where this building was), out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pile of blankets bundled up in a really strange manner, almost like it had weight inside of it or something; like it had been holding something, a package that nobody had thought to pick up or deliver. I don’t know why I stopped in that moment, other than it wasn’t the usual sight of a small, compact tent with someone holding out a hatbox or some other form of offering box to receive donations; it looked more like a desperate hovel than something practical.

That’s when I noticed the limp hand, cold and unmoving, lying out on the icy ground.

My breath caught in my throat; in all my years navigating the streets, I had never actually counted on seeing a dead body, out in the open, yet, here it was, plain as day. As my eyes adjusted to the sight, I realized that the blankets were there as a last minute attempt cobbled together by the poor bastard in there to shield themselves from the wind. The hand, raw and bloodied by what was probably hours of frostbite, sat unfurled on the ground, holding a strange semblance of peace in its grip.

It was 12 minutes before the ambulance and PD car arrived after I had called them. I stared on at the sight; it felt like I was noticing new things about them every time I looked. I didn’t even notice the loose change strewn about, looking like a faux offering placed before a shrine of decay, or the cleared off snow on the ground around them that tried to ward off the evil spirit of a typically brutal New York winter. 12 minutes went by that felt like 12 hours.

That...that was when I first felt the smallest twinge of regret, but I didn’t have a name for it yet.

I saw her face as she was being laid out on the stretcher; she couldn’t have been older than her mid to late 20s. Her face had the “Sweet Death” look that my mom would tell me about when I was younger, warning me of the dangers of hypothermia; an almost genuine, warm looking smile spread across her face, eyes shut, transported to bliss. The officer that was questioning me was drowned out by the sight of this woman's corpse; all the people gathering around, murmuring in quiet shock and awe, all the car honks, foot traffic, all of it.

All of it was silenced by that sweet, death ridden look on her face.

And do you want to know what I did next? Do you want to know the tone-deaf, morally bankrupt thing I did, immediately following seeing that poor woman’s lifeless body being carted off to the morgue?

I went up to my office, had a conference call with several Senators, hedge fund managers and policy makers, and collectively lobbied them to make sure people like me didn’t pay any more in taxes. For 3 hours.

That’s what I did.

Of course, some of the Senators had some initial objections, like the usual, well-nuanced reasoning, “Well, we can do a lot with these extra taxed incomes”, or, “You seem awfully defensive of the extra $2 billion in income that you’re not actively using”, or, my personal favorite, where they get incredibly detailed with what the extra revenue would fund exactly, which included the following:

1.) Increased public education funding, including for at-risk youth

2.) Decreased police funding and overall redistribution of police power

3.) Infrastructure necessary for single-payer healthcare

4.) Additional funding for public parks and public owned land

The fifth item on their proposal list though was what would come to haunt me, all this time later.

5. )Build public housing and begin ending homelessness in New York City

That. That bold declaration was what ended it for me; all the years of moving investments made by people that were rich from birth; the years of speculating, making bets on a grand, ever-moving spectacle of a machine that didn’t do jack shit in terms of making something of material value, yet had all the influence of a typical political operative in Washington, D.C.; the years of convincing myself that the hustle was worth fighting against a growing coup against people like me, that I was going to build something out of my own wealthy philanthropy for millions of people, someday.

So, that is how this $20,000 ended up in your hands, Hopefully Kind Stranger.

You are holding just 4 percent of my total earnings in the span of a decade.

You are holding an income that might be able to make just a year’s worth of rent in this city.

You are holding a sum of money that could help save a homeless person’s life on these streets...a sum of money I was not willing to pay for earlier in my life.

You might think of me as an isolated blip in the great Tapestry of American Wealth and Excess, but what you would fail to understand, at both your peril and the rest of the world’s, is that I am not an isolated incident.

I am what makes this Tapestry so fucked to begin with.

And I can only hope to begin repairing the damage that people like me caused.

Ben Howard
Ben Howard
Read next: Why Denny's Is the Perfect Starter Job for a Cook
Ben Howard

Condensed form that is two parts bitter, angry old man wringing his fist at a world that refuses to change, the other being a river otter haphazardly whittling away at a keyboard. In less obnoxious terms, I write things sometimes.


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