Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is a modern classic that perfectly captures an era on Wall Street and in New York City when traders still yelled in pits and bankers were ‘masters of the universe.’
That was 1987.
This weekend, for the Daily Beast, Wolfe revisited the city and the neighbourhood where his readers met Sherman McCoy, a bond trader with a perfect Park Avenue life, 25 years ago.
But things had changed. Wolfe found no masters of the universe there. Instead he found ‘Eunuchs of the Universe.’ Wall Street’s testosterone driven frat boys had been been replaced by nerds — quants with their maths moving faster than the speed of light.
James Simmons of Renaissance Technologies, Edward Thorp of Princeton-Newport Partners… these are the new masters who mind the markets with machines, Wolfe found.
The financial crisis had ravaged the Street, yes, but nothing was as transformative as this sea-change. The ‘nerds’ had come in with their high speed trading games and dominated. The trading floor was quiet. It was electronic.
So, Wolfe muses, what would happen to Sherman McCoy today?
Nothing. “He couldn’t get arrested.” His brain would be filled with cortisol (stress) from staring at screens all day, not testosterone from howling at his fellow masters.
We couldn’t get arrested! We don’t have the endocrines you need to go after pretty young things and pull off those dangerous rendezvous. We don’t have the testosterone, but we do have more than enough litres of cortisol to make sure we worry, worry worry the whole time. But suppose we did do something today in the Bronx that would have had an old white civil rights lawyer and a black race troller coming after us with raucous sham shows of anger in 1987. Today they wouldn’t bother. Today a Sherman McCoy couldn’t afford Park Avenue and would be hard to depict as a ruthless capitalist—and not worth suing in the first place (on behalf of the victim’s family and taking two thirds of the jury’s huge award, that being their scheme in 1987). Besides, today the trollers have closed down the shop. During the 2008 election campaign, President Obama never said, “Rise up! Break your chains and take what’s rightfully yours!” No, having his head on straight he said, “We must all carefully examine our own lives and see how we can improve them.” This so infuriated Reverend Jesse Jackson that during a commercial break in a Fox TV news show he said—not knowing there was an open microphone—”I’d like to cut Obama’s nuts off.” But he quickly disavowed the statement, realised there was absolutely no percentage in his challenging the first black president. He has said nothing but friendly, polite things ever since. Reverend Al Sharpton got it right away and in effect joined the Obama administration as a minister without portfolio…
Sherman McCoy held his tongue, but what he said to himself was, “Oh, ye Eunuchs of the Universe.”