By Jennifer O’Connell
There were hints of it all along. The peculiar language – the "no credit defaults", the "exotic and vanilla options", the "bunds", the "bobls" and the “big swinging dicks”.
The strange uniform of shirt with mismatched cuffs and collar, and amusing tie. The stubborn refusal to be bowed by the conventions of economics, society or fair play. The conviction that the laws of mathematics could be charmed, bullied or bollocked into submission.
But there it was last week, in all its incontrovertible and irrefutable glory: evidence that bankers are not merely a different species, but an entirely separate life-form, which evolved – in the words of one of its most perfect embodiments, Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein - to “do God’s work.”
The implications of this are not as devastating as they might sound. Just as Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans co-existed reasonably peacefully for almost 20,000 years, and may even, scientists believe, have interbred, we too can find a way to live with bankers. Perhaps we can even take a cue in this from our ancestors.
According to Irish anthropologist Ciaran Bewster, who publishes a blog called Ad Hominin: “Modern humans and Neanderthals would have recognised each other as fellow humans, but this does not mean that they would have acted humanely to each other. Countless social and psychological studies have shown humans have a very strong “us versus them” mentality that no doubt also existed in our ancestors. It is unlikely that modern humans and Neanderthals had an easy relationship. Most .. encounters that took place between the two were likely opportunistic and probably involved enslavement and rape.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So let’s have a look at the evidence.
We share certain anthropological traits with members of the banking species. They walk like us, eat like us (only perhaps more expensively) and occupy similar, if larger and better-accessorised, habitats.
It is in our behaviour that the differences truly begin to emerge. Just as Neanderthal Guy probably shocked Cromagnon Man with some of his habits, which included ritual cannibalization and defleshing, so too is it common for modern humans to feel a bit appalled by some of the antics of bankers.
The first hint that bankers might have branched off and begun evolving into an entirely different species came sometime around 9.30pm on Monday September 29, 2008 when a number of them pitched up at Leinster House and, using tools quite beyond the comprehension of a mere homo sapien, elicted from the government an IOU for €440 billion.
Then last week brought what one American union worker called the ‘obscene’ vista of large batches of swine flu vaccine being delivered post haste to the offices of Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, while thousands of normal folk in ‘at-risk’ groups queued out the doors of hospitals and health-centers for their dose of the scarce jab. The reason the bankers were being prioritized for the jab was, a health worker explained, because they shouted loudest.
Final conclusive proof came in the remarkable interview the Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, did with another Sunday newspaper, in which he spelled out exactly what it was bankers were doing with all our money for all those years. “God’s work”, he put it elegantly. “We have a social purpose.”
Having played their part in successfully banjaxing the world economy, Blankfein’s army of do-gooders and servants of the people will earn more than $20 billion in bonuses this year. “I don't want to put a cap on their ambition. It's hard for me to put a cap on their compensation.”
Of course, the belief that bankers are a superior life force is not confined to the chief executives, the big, hairy gorillas and the self-styled Masters of the Universe occupying the trading floors.
The culture of superiority trickles all the way down the banking system, right down to the rung occupied by the beleaguered sub-species known as the ‘arrears controller’.
Here’s something you should know. Being an arrears controller is not the kind of job you’d dream about as a small child. They are the traffic wardens of the banking world. If you call on your bank, pleading for clemency because you’ve lost your job or your partner’s taken a pay cut, it is one of this growing band of besuited omnipotents to whom you will end up making your case.
Last week, one ‘collection arrears agent’ wrote an anonymous contribution for the blog run by the Irish Mortgage Brokers (you can read it at http://www.mortgagebrokers.ie/blog/).
Along with legions of practical advice on what to do if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of not being able to make your mortgage repayments, it is illuminating for the light it throws on how bankers – whatever their position on the financial food chain – view the lesser life-form known as ‘the customer’.
The document manages to combine practical advice and rare moments of humour, with a spectacular lack of empathy for the shattered lives who find themselves on the other end of his phone line.
“If you mention you are spending X amount on food and groceries because you have 3 young kids, then your lender will know that you are in receipt of child benefit for each of your children,” the collector cautions.
“Do not demand that your mortgage provider extends your term beyond the limits of human longevity.”
“Do not repeatedly ask for a MONO-torium. It won’t in any way affect your eligibility for being granted a moratorium, but it will make the arrears officer want to bite his or her tongue which may affect their ability to properly annunciate the further options available to you.”
“Your lender will have more sympathy for a request from a customer who is not seen to be trying to pull the wool over their eyes. I mean that from a collections point of view, if somebody is jerking me around I’ll return the favour.”
So there you have it folks, if you want to co-exist harmoniously with this strange species of hominin – forget about feeding the kids; watch your buzzwords, and never, ever try to jerk him around.
Remember: that’s his job.
First published in The Sunday Business Post on Sunday November 15, 2009