Monday, September 1, 2008

Molon Labe

Ω ξειν’, αγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ότι τηιδε
κείμεθα, τοίς κείνων ρήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

— Simonides of Ceos

For some reason, Dear Readers, I have been spending a significant portion of my leisure time recently reading about King Leonidas, his 300 Spartans, and their suicidal stand against Xerxes' Persian hordes at Thermopylae in 480 BC.

I trace my current interest to the 2006 release of the sword-and-sandals epic, 300, which I personally found to be a more enjoyable piece of comic book art than the original Frank Miller creation itself (Gerard Butler's clotted Scottish accent notwithstanding). My interest has unquestionably deepened as I traversed the slippery slope of increasing realism, historical accuracy, and scholarship from Steven Pressfield's fictional Gates of Fire to Paul Cartledge's Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World.

Psychologically, the reasons for my current fascination with the topic are less clear to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the story of a small band of elite, hand-picked warriors battling hopelessly against overwhelming odds to preserve their freedom and way of life. One need not be too grandiose to draw parallels with the predicament of a shrinking band of highly trained investment bankers struggling desperately against a relentlessly rising tide of inactivity and an actively hostile society to preserve their right to three Lamborghinis in the driveway of a Hamptons potato mansion. Pathologically self-absorbed and massively egotistical, yes, but not grandiose.

Human psychology is such that we all like to imagine ourselves at the center of a dramatically coherent and meaningful story, whether we work in a Dilbert-style cubicle zoo or commute to weekly Executive Committee meetings on the company G550. And, pace the current wisdom concerning the evolutionary origins of investment bankers, the best scientific evidence available seems to indicate that most of them are indeed human. Investment bankers do have the same hopes and dreams as the rest of society. It just so happens that our dreams contain more champagne, caviar, and expensive Russian hookers than yours do.

Besides, the closer you look into this Thermopylae business, the more eerily exact and disturbing the parallels become. The battle itself is believed to have happened in the dog days of August, traditionally the nadir of capital markets and M&A activity and hence the scariest period on the investment banking calendar. This August in particular has been so dead that the typical jumpy, underemployed i-banker can be forgiven for seeing crouching Medean warriors—or HR associates armed with pink slips—lurking behind every Starbucks counter and Southampton hedgerow.

And notwithstanding the common man's perception of the Spartans as the Western World's first freedom fighters, marching bravely off to certain death for God, for Country, and for Yale, Spartan society was a deeply weird and rather repellent concoction, at least by current standards. The justifiably intimidating standing army of Sparta—which was composed of every adult Spartan male, for whom the role of full-time soldier was the only profession allowed—was in fact established and maintained primarily to control a vast underclass of enslaved Greeks known as Helots, upon whom the full-fledged Spartan citizens, male and female, relied to do all their labor.

Throw in officially sanctioned pederasty, fearsome women who expected their husbands to come home draped in glory or in a body bag, and the educational system of the agoge, which taught young boys to steal, lie, and do whatever it took to come out on top, and Spartan society begins to look disturbingly similar to investment banking culture. (I'll let you figure out where the pederasty comes in.) By many accounts, the Spartans were an arrogant, anti-intellectual, and unpleasant bunch, and their festival days must have looked a lot like the Hampton Classic horse show, minus the Ralph Lauren togs.

But the bugger(er)s were principled; you have to give them that. And, whether you believe it or not, most investment bankers are too. We just don't adhere to the principles most of the rest of society holds dear (or at least the principles the political correctness police loudly tells society it should hold dear). Cigar smoking, misogyny, excessively foul language, and a scornful disrespect for the meek and downtrodden are central to the Darwinian world view of your typical investment banker, and dearly held beliefs, too. On the plus side of the ledger, investment bankers do tend to hew to a punishing work ethic (at least the junior ones, before they learn the tricks of the trade from slacker MDs like me), and they clean up real nice. Some of them even—in a moment of weakness, I grant you—donate to charity. Who knew?

And, like the Spartans at the Hot Gates, the true threat to investment bankers' way of life does not really come from collapsing markets, vengeful regulators, or rioting shareholders: it comes via treachery from within. If any force has the capability to destroy all that is unique and special in investment banking culture, it is the bog-standard Human Resources department of your typical investment bank. Now—when banks are groaning under the pressure of plunging revenues and dousing smoking craters where their balance sheets used to be—is when the craven HR weenies crawl out from under their rocks and start swaggering around the halls waving sheaves of termination notices in their hands. They resort to each and every trick in their book to cull the bloated ranks of former Masters of the Universe, including enforcing the banks' internal PC behavior codes which normally remain dormant and unenforced when said MoUs are raking in the legal tender.

Therefore, we witness senseless little tragedies like the recent termination of fellow bloggist and investment banker 1-2 for the heinous crime of blogging while employed at some nameless über-bank. 1-2 seems to be taking it well, but his fate definitely casts a pall over the rest of us who undertake the occasional character assassination or fierce excoriation of some hapless boob in the industry from behind the comfy firewall of anonymity.

It is at times like these, with the PC Empire bearing down on the narrow defile where Yours Truly and a select few bloggers man the Phocian Gate in defense of truth, justice, and the Investment Banking Way, that my mind turns toward King Leonidas' laconic response to Xerxes' demand that the Spartans give up their weapons:

"Come and take them."

That—plus a few choice Anglo-Saxon epithets of rather more earthy persuasion—is what I mutter to myself whenever I sense the threatened approach of the nannies-that-be to confiscate the laptop, smoking jacket, and case of 20-year old Scotch which comprise the bulk of my blogging tools. They haven't caught me yet, but it may just be a matter of time.

Well, gotta go. Sounds like someone's banging on my office door with a battering ram, reciting the text of the Americans with Disabilities Act over a bullhorn. I guess they're coming for me.

I think I'll sit down, smoke a cigar, and comb my hair.

© 2007 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.