Do you ever look back on decisions you made that turned out to be good ones and reflect on how fortunate you were that you did the right thing instead of the alternative? All of us like to think we’ve made more good choices than bad ones, and to whatever degree we’ve done that we can thank parents, educators and other guiding influences for instilling good values in us and for steering us in the right direction when we needed steering. We also can be thankful that we were given enough common sense to do the right thing. And perhaps above all else we can be grateful that we were lucky enough to avoid pitfalls that loomed in our paths. I know what you’re thinking: “And you’re telling me all this because … ?” Because I read a story in New York magazine that reminded me of a moment that could have presented the sort of life-altering choice that brings deep-seated values into play – the sort of choice that can leave you with harmless reflections, or years of regrets. The story focused on a secret fraternity of wealthy financiers and an annual dinner they hold in New York City. A reporter named Kevin Roose crashed the dinner a couple of years ago as part of his research for a book, Young Money, and wrote about it for The New York Times. The New York magazine story is adapted from the book. One of the main characters in the story is Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor best known for buying and restructuring failing businesses. He recently agreed to fork over $81 million to settle a lawsuit accusing him and his firm of “double-dealing and breach of fiduciary duty,” according to the New York Post. I met with Ross in the late 1990s when I was starting my first media company. He was a potential investor. At the time he was married to Betsy McCaughey Ross, New York’s lieutenant governor during the first George Pataki administration. She was not one of Ross’ better investments. After Pataki dumped her from the Republican ticket in 1998, McCaughey Ross switched parties, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor, then represented the Liberal Party in the general election, winning less than 2 percent of the vote. Ross contributed heavily to her campaign only to file for divorce the same day she was thumped in the governor’s race. My chief recollection of the meeting with Wilbur Ross is that I didn’t like him. I found him to be remote and robotic, completely lacking in human warmth and honest emotion. That’s a lot to say about someone I dealt with only briefly during an uneventful meeting but the impression was strong and immediate. There was no tough decision to make about whether or not to take his money – he didn’t offer to invest and I didn’t ask for another meeting. But as I read Kevin Roose’s story, I wondered: What if Ross had invested in my company and what if he had asked me to join his Kappa Beta Phi secret society? I’d like to believe I would have had the good sense to say “no.” But who knows? After reading Roose’s story, I was intrigued by his conclusions about this mostly-male group of Wall Street tycoons. Roose had witnessed them not at their best but at their worst, laughing at crass jokes, homophobic slurs and callous comments reflecting their haughty disdain for those not anointed with wealth and power – and for the government that endorses and feeds their greed. As Roose recalls it, the gathering was a discouraging reminder that the rich keep getting richer, often at the expense of those who financial well-being was obliterated by economic setbacks that left these privileged few unharmed or even better off than before. Part of the evening involved the induction of a new group of financiers – the Young Money examined in Roose’s book. The dinner was the new members’ hazing ceremony, featuring raunchy skits and musical parodies in which the inductees were required to perform in drag and endure other forms of humiliation. Roose aimed his wrath not at the hazing so much as at the content of the skits and songs, most of which ridiculed the less fortunate and made light of the bailouts showered on Wall Street during and after the financial crisis of 2008. Laughing at the poor? Snickering at Americans who lost their homes and 401(k)s while their taxes kept these arrogant financiers afloat? As I read, I asked myself if I would have agreed to participate in such a loathsome spectacle for the sake of being accepted into this elite group. I can only say I hope not; but deep down does any of us really know what we would do when facing such a test? Roose summed up his reaction: “The last thought I had, and the saddest, was that many of these self-righteous Kappa Beta Phi members had surely been first-year bankers once. And in the 20, 30, or 40 years since, something fundamental about them had changed. Their pursuit of money and power had removed them from the larger world to the sad extent that, now, in the primes of their careers, the only people with whom they could be truly themselves were a handful of other prominent financiers. “Perhaps, I realized, this social isolation is why despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, one-percenters like Ross keep saying how badly persecuted they are. When you’re a member of the fraternity of money, it can be hard to see past the foie gras to the real world.” Roose’s conclusion brought to mind the most searing quote about power that most of us know – a statement attributed British politician, historian and writer Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Looking for other observations about the use and abuse of power, I came across a comment by Aung San Suu Kyi, a member of the political opposition in Burma who spent years under house arrest and who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Her quote: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” At the risk getting overly philosophical, I can’t help but think there’s even more to this fear business than meets the eye. Could it be that while the powerful fear losing power and the powerless fear being victimized by power, many of us actually fear the pursuit of power – and the corruption that too often goes with it? Could it be this fear that helps some say no when tempted by the trappings of power? It’s easy to be disgusted by the self-indulgent elitists portrayed in Roose’s story. But the portrayal also conjures up another quote, one of undetermined origin: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Richard Connor is CEO of the Business Press’ parent company, DRC Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.