There have been times when, while writing about environmental and social justice and vehemently supporting the Occupy Wall Street agenda, I’ve wondered what some of my superiors at work would think of me if they knew the sorts of views I hold – and voice publicly. But I have a life outside of work and as an individual I have the right to self-expression. I never name my employer or claim to speak for anyone but myself. I’d like to think that should any of my colleagues read my blog, they would find my posts to be articulate and balanced regardless of whether they agree with me.
There’s another side to this coin, of course; I’ve wondered what my readers would think if they knew what I do for a living. Or more specifically, who I work for. Given all the pro-Occupy stuff I post, people who know me have been known to ask, “Doesn’t she work for a bank?” It’s a fair question. So the time has come to be out with it.
I work for a bank. I know. A BANK. Please – let me explain.
More importantly than what others think of me, I have to be okay with how I earn my living. Thankfully, reconciling my personal values with my professional role isn’t an exercise in rationalization. Which is especially strange considering I entered the financial industry as a university graduate who couldn’t find work in my field of study (environmental policy/political economy). I wanted to be a researcher/writer/policy analyst. But when I was offered a full-time job by a bank as a fraud detection specialist after doing random temp work for a year, I was eager to stop worrying about how I would pay my bills every month.
When it comes to the financial industry, first of all, not everyone employed therein is a hyper-capitalist or even a conservative, for that matter. Banks employ an awful lot of people. People who need jobs. I’m proud to say that my colleagues have been extremely diverse in every way imaginable. My VP is shamelessly pressuring each of us to contribute to the United Way this year and that’s just one of many examples of how my employer supports the community. Still, I realize that donating to good causes doesn’t necessarily let you off the hook.
Do banks literally profit off of greed? Yes, I think they do. Like any business, they operate within the current system. So if we’re going to blame banks, we have to look more closely at the system. And if our collective economic values change, the system will change, as will the organizations that operate within it. How do I know this is true? However we feel about 9/11 or bailouts, these events have inspired unprecedented legislation. But it’s complicated. Regulations like the Bank Secrecy Act have been credited with curbing terrorist financing while being criticized for eroding civil liberties. These new legal tools, however, have also been instrumental in bringing white collar criminals to justice like never before. The financial compliance industry is big business because it’s being taken very seriously in the courts and the boardrooms. U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, for example, has earned the title of “the man who makes Wall Street tremble” for conducting an unrelenting campaign against corporate crooks. And he’s not just satisfied with busting insider trading and taking down hedge fund titans. Last month he teamed up with the Federal Housing Finance Agency to sue the Bank of America for $1 billion for allegedly defrauding the government in a mortgage scheme.
As an anti-money laundering (AML) investigator, my job is to ensure compliance with laws that seek to prevent FIs from facilitating criminal activity (intentionally or unintentionally). I specialize in high risk clients, specifically politically exposed persons or PEPs, whose political positions or relationships could allow them to abuse their power, or be influenced to do so, for financial gain. Moving money obtained by criminal means through the financial system in order to give it the appearance of being legitimate (until which point it’s basically useless) is known as money laundering. Banks are required by law to know who they are doing business with, what their customers are doing and what risks that might pose. Regardless of how lucrative your portfolio may be, having any part in helping someone conduct a Ponzi scheme will get you more than a slap on the wrist; it’s a serious kick in the teeth. If a public official charged with corruption or bribery happens to be your client, regulators will want to know whether you had sufficient mechanisms in place to prevent them from, say, embezzling public funds. A regulatory landscape that is hostile to businesses that do anything and everything to turn a profit forces the corporate community to avoid practices that are not only illegal but immoral. The much maligned Dodd-Frank Act reinforces the message that the days of irresponsible decision making are coming to an end, slowly but surely. In 2010 the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act was created as an attempt to prevent tax evasion among U.S. persons using financial accounts held outside of the U.S. While not perfect, these regulations signal a significant shift in financial regulatory policy.
While I honestly believe that our current monetary system is ultimately an unsustainable pyramid scheme, the idea that banks should simply disappear or crumble, Fight Club style, seems a very juvenile approach. As an alternative to privatized banking, it seems more likely that communities may begin to form more co-operative institutions such as credit unions. Strike Debt, an offshoot of the OWS movement, is turning the whole game on its head by mimicking debt brokers and buying up debt at discounted prices – and then writing it off. The campaign, dubbed Rolling Jubilee, has actually gotten quite a bit of positive press in the mainstream media.
To hardcore revolutionaries, the fact that I work for ‘the enemy’ might be construed as collusion with a system that is fundamentally corrupt, even if the particular work I do involves fighting corruption. After all, it seems reasonable to point out that banks are probably aiming to comply with AML legislation mainly because of the legal and reputational risks of not doing so, and only secondarily because their policies cite integrity as a core organizational value.
In the eyes of others, however, it might give me real-world cred. The standard anti-protester bark of “Get a job!” doesn’t apply to me. And like most people pushing for fundamental change, I can’t escape the fact that I need a job. Some of us are fortunate or brave enough (hopefully both) to find work that aligns perfectly with our personal values but we can’t all work for NGOs. We aren’t all anarchists and some of us believe that instead of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch, it’s far more practical – and democratic – to effect change through the continued evolution of the systems we already have in place. The evolution is arguably most apparent in the industry most widely blamed for the economic crisis. Seems fitting, really.
I still thirst for revolution. Only for me it means realizing my own innate potential rather than raging against the machine. More Neo, less Tyler Durden, if you will. The radical route isn’t necessarily one of resistance, rejection and confrontation. Being radical just means thinking outside the box, and that involves questioning everything and everyone – including supporters of the status quo as well as revolutionaries. In a culture obsessed with image, picking sides and clinging to delusions, the most radical thing we can do is to be brutally honest in the face of uncertainty and confusion.