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The New Wall Street Dream

June 3, 2013

The determined face of Jason Trigg, Wall Street revolutionary.

Just when you are convinced that Wall Street is eviscerating our future by sucking up the best talent in the country with the lure of mega-wealth, along comes a small movement of whiz-kids who are not going to Wall Street simply because they want to live like the 1 %:

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn.

The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.

Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

In another generation, giving something back might have more commonly led to a missionary stint digging wells in Kenya. This generation, perhaps more comfortable with data than labor, is leveraging its wealth for a better end. Instead of digging wells, it’s paying so that more wells are dug….[snip]

…While some of his peers have shunned Wall Street as the land of the morally bankrupt, Trigg’s moral code steered him there. And he’s not alone. To an emerging class of young professionals in America and Britain, making gobs of money is the surest way to save the world. When you ask Trigg where he got the idea, his answer is a common refrain among this crowd: “I feel like I’d read stuff by Peter Singer.”

It’s sort of like Bill Gates and his Giving Pledge, except these guys aren’t bothering to stockpile billions, or live rich, before giving most of it away. So you gotta love Peter Singer (and hope that the money rolling in doesn’t corrupt the idealism of the enterprise). Because if every young trader and hedgie played the Wall Street game like this, it would be an excellent mechanism for transferring wealth from the richest among us to the neediest among us. Though it wouldn’t be entirely sustainable because Wall Street would no longer be gushing 1 percenters (because they would be giving all their money away first). Not that Trigg (or many others) would mind.

Ben Bernanke might have been channeling Trigg and his cohort in his address to the Princeton commencement. Among other things, he said:  “A career decision based only on money and not on love of the work or a desire to make a difference is a recipe for unhappiness.”

If that insight becomes conventional wisdom, and future generations start to live by that code rather than the code of wealth and celebrity that currently dominates our culture, maybe there is hope.

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