Every now and then we have to gather ’round and talk about why something someone on Wall Street did or said represents what makes people distrust Wall Streeters in general.
We’ve come to one of those moments.
Here are the lyrics that he sang with a female singer in his band:
“You want my body / she likes my money … maybe we can find love,” the two sang. “I know you’ve been looking for some real satisfaction / It could be a mutually beneficial transaction / Why don’t we solidify our animal attraction? / Come on baby, let’s do this trade.”
Muller said he got the idea for the lyrics from his friend Ken. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, though because this isn’t about Muller or his friend Ken. It’s about a Wall Street norm that — older men having younger kept girlfriends — for some reason, makes people hate Wall Street.
You see, after Muller played the song, some people in the audience cringed, according to BI’s Rachael Levy. Despite the number of weird transactions we face in society and all the ways different kinds of relationships have become acceptable, this particular one is still uncomfortably transactional for some reason.
This is despite a bunch of arguments for why this isn’t a big deal that I’ve heard on the Street: *‘Well, they’re both adults and they know what they’re getting into’ and/or ‘Whatever, he’s the man!’ I’ve even heard women argue that this relationship can be a form of female empowerment — forget the objectification of women. It doesn’t matter. It’s still a seemingly simple quid pro quo that still creeps people out. And there’s a bunch of social and economic theory about why it does.
Social exchange theory
Principle among these theories is social exchange theory. Basically, according to sociologist George Homans, humans judge all relationships and exchanges based on a cost benefit analysis. Like a perfect trade in the market, it’s a pretty rational tit for tat.
The way Homans saw it, social reactions basically involved people repeating actions they get rewarded for. The more they get rewarded, the more likely they are to go back to the well. Also, the more they have been rewarded, the less interested they are in the reward.
That’s how people make decisions about what they’re going to do in relationships.
Does that sound familiar? It sounds a lot like the life cycle of a man who is dating a woman because she’s young and attractive and then dumps her when she’s not young and attractive anymore. Money, you see, much more often ages like a fine wine than people do.
Anyway, what Homans thought of all that in the 1950s and since then that idea has been complicated. That’s because in social relationships, value is often more complicated and irrational. Reciprocity and value, in an invisible social exchange, are more constantly in flux than people think.
In social relationships, you can’t go dollar for dollar. Men who date younger women don’t just do it for their bodies, they do it for status sometimes. Other times they do it because they’re afraid to get old and die. They do it because it makes them feel powerful.
You see, ultimately this tit for tat tells us more about a man.
And when society reads all those other meanings into the relationship they see it’s not just a simple body to money transactions. They see a lot of dark uncomfortable things they think about age and money. A signal goes off that says people who simplify this transaction are in a sense, playing themselves. Over simplifying the situation masks that.
Words mean things
This is the part where I qualify a few things. No, not every Wall Streeter thinks this behaviour is acceptable. No, not every relationship that involves an older rich man and a younger woman is this kind of transaction. Sometimes it actually does fulfil the qualifications we check off when we think of a transaction between romantic partners — namely trust and a mutual attraction to each other’s personalities.
There, I said it.
That said, there’s another reason this bothers people. This particular tit for tat is not the transaction we as a society allow you to say it is — a romantic partnership that as I said above, is mostly based on trust and mutual attraction.
We (everyone) let you refer to it as a partnership in public because that’s how society marches on harmoniously. In reality it’s more like the relationship between an employer and an employee. A service is transacted for a fee.
Of course again, the details of the services and the fee are way sadder and heavier than Pete Muller’s song would suggest. Knowing that instinctively, we are active participants in this arrangement when we acknowledge along with you that this transaction is a partnership.
The fact that this relationship is a norm on Wall Street — yes, I get it not everyone does it — makes people uncomfortable with Wall Street in general. It makes some people think, ‘this is what these money dudes do with their money?’
It makes other people think, ‘these dudes are playing themselves.’
*I know you fools in the comments section don’t even try me.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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