‘I Want to Burn the System to the Ground. But I Also Work Inside It.’
This hedge fund analyst feels disillusioned with capitalism, but leaving her job isn’t an option
Voices From Inside the System is a GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience with industries that have a history of systemic racism and inequity. We asked them to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, or if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.
This anonymous, 42-year-old woman works at a hedge fund in Manhattan. A recent Bloomberg study found that hedge funds not run by white men had returns that were more than double their competition over the past three years. Black-owned businesses are twice as likely to be turned down for financing as white businesses. The Paycheck Protection Program aimed to help small businesses affected by the pandemic; Black-owned businesses received 1.9% of loans offered, while white businesses received 83% of the loans. The anonymous hedge fund employee spoke with journalist Justine van der Leun about her experience.
I was raised in a New York City bedroom community. We were liberal — pro-choice, pro-gay marriage — but we also blithely accepted the narrative that you can live the American dream if you just make the right choices. My father grew up poor but found success in the financial world, so in a sense, the system worked for him. The reasoning went that because he had succeeded, anyone could. We never discussed race. Not in school, not at home. We bought into popular myths: That capitalism makes you more creative and creates incentives; that people need to be held accountable for their decisions; that cops are good; that priests are figures to look up to. Twenty years ago, I went into financial services believing the myths. Now I know they are garbage.
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I was naïve. I got a degree in economics and went to work at a hedge fund in my early twenties. Being part of a capitalist system didn’t strike me as wrong. I didn’t question it. Sure, I was working for the man, but I thought: “If this lets me pay rent, have health insurance, feed myself, and imagine a comfortable life, that’s a win.” I thought anyone could do the same and end up with 2.4 kids and a house in the suburbs.
Then I was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. I received incredible medical care because I had excellent health insurance. My workplace was understanding. I was able to take time to heal. I could afford the best treatment. My parents were devoted to my getting better. But I met people dealing with similar situations who didn’t have the same level of health insurance, family support, sick leave. I realized you can be fighting for your life, and if you don’t have the money, if you don’t have the ideal circumstances, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t do anything wrong, but I might have died if I didn’t have access to top-notch care, if I weren’t lucky and privileged. Others die every single day. If that’s how our country functions, it is not equitable. And the financial services industry plays a role in upholding that inequality.
To be clear, I don’t think financial services are single-handedly corrupt. I think America is corrupt, and it begins with the political system. The Koch brothers can affect the outcome of an election. Congresspeople can immediately turn around and become lobbyists and make millions of dollars. Special interest groups run the country. There’s no incentive for those people to make good decisions. Bad actors take advantage of corruption. It happened and happens in finance. It’s not allowed, but there are no consequences. Like police brutality or sexual predators: The cruelty was never formally permitted, but also never stopped.
It is absolutely a white male club, but they simply think: “I worked hard, and everything went great, so that’s what people need to do.”
Then, of course, capital markets in and of themselves create inequality. Having publicly traded stocks allows people to get control of companies. People become tech gazillionaires because they own equity in these companies. And there’s no real mechanism to allow lower-income people to participate in capital markets. For example, mortgages make sense to me: They allow people to buy homes. But the high rates of interest are ridiculous. Financial services make things function, but they are not widely accessible, so many people cannot bank, invest, or save. And we don’t provide any fundamental financial education, so people don’t know how to manage their money.
Because of this, the upside goes to one slice of society, while poor kids go without vaccinations, food, and education, and adults struggle with no support when something goes wrong, no treatment for physical or mental illness, no childcare. Scandinavian countries can do it, and the whole society benefits. So I don’t buy the argument that it can’t be done. And I certainly don’t buy the argument that people who are suffering are bad people who haven’t tried hard enough.
I’m an outlier in my field. Those of us with similar views tend to keep it under wraps. So many people in finance have done incredibly well for themselves. Things in their lives haven’t gone wrong. It is absolutely a white male club, but they simply think: “I worked hard, and everything went great, so that’s what people need to do.”
That said, I see a shift. Institutional investors are pressuring money managers. I have conversations with investors who want to know: “How many women work at your firm? How many people of color? Do you invest in oil, gas, mining? Has your firm accepted PPP money, which was intended for small businesses struggling due to the effects of the coronavirus, not hedge funds?” Investors are not a monolith; they are nudged by the zeitgeist.
Clearly, it’s not where it needs to be. I often want to burn the system to the ground, but I also work inside it. I don’t think it’s capitalism specifically that I’m disillusioned with — I think it’s everything. The country is a flaming trash pile. Honestly, I give myself a free pass to keep my job. I donate to Black Lives Matter and to the ACLU, and I vote left. But otherwise, I’m not qualified to do anything else. Most urgently, I need health insurance because of my illness; I may need to retire early, and I need savings. There are no social benefits, no safety net. I’m basically a wage laborer to my health insurance — absolutely privileged and fortunate, yes, but stuck working to keep it nonetheless.
So when I want to freak out and scream, “Eat the rich,” I’m also like, “Except I’ll get that fancy healthcare, thanks.” And I’ll have nice things. I’ll be able to make my own decisions and buy a nice, clean, safe home. The reality is that in America, having a decent life — staying alive, even — is not about making the right choices. It’s about having money.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.