Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals — John Lefevre

Masters of one medium, like Twitter, aren’t necessarily masters of another medium, like the 80,000-word memoir. They can be but don’t have to be. Lefevre mastered Twitter, but his long-form game is not as strong. That being said I did laugh when reading Straight To Hell; I feel like I couldn’t drink anywhere near the amount Lefevre does, or take anywhere near the amount of drugs. I don’t imagine I’d want to be friends with him. As he puts his life philosophy, “As we see it, if you’re dumb enough to get caught cheating, you probably don’t belong on Wall Street.”* That sounds like a sentence from a Bernie Sanders rally. It isn’t.

Straight_To_HellLeFevre writes, “From my experience, the rich and unscrupulous tend to make for entertaining company.” Speaking of political connections, he could be talking about Donald Trump, which is part of the reason he makes a popular, evil presidential candidates (and I don’t use the word “evil” lightly, but he is evil: the evil of pure id, untempered by knowledge or self-awareness). Straight to Hell has more political resonances than it should, and that may help explain its popularity, as it works on readers’ subconscious.

Still, LeFevre’s company is often entertaining, and the best one can say about his scruples is that he makes public what many would like to be private. The speaker of unpleasant truths has a kind of honor. The book is his unpleasant truths, though it is often about the unpleasant truths he dodged (“Now I know for sure, this deal is never going to work. But I still don’t want to be the one who gets blamed for killing it.”) Machiavelli has a vital role in history for a reason.

Even for people like me, who don’t see money as evil, LeFevre will make them want to see money as evil. (Consider how Sylvia Nasar puts it in Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius: “Historically, money had been seen as powerful, desirable, very likely evil, and mysterious, like natural calamities or epidemics.”) Money can be earned in ways that tend to benefit humanity or, in LeFevre’s world, in ways that tend to be about rent seeking and stealing pieces of the pie, rather than earning them, or expanding the size of the pie. Finance here looks like the latter part. That being said one doesn’t and maybe can’t know whether LeFevre’s book is representative, any more than a movie like Bad Teacher is representative of the teaching industry.

Straight To Hell is a memoir about signaling. The finance world presented in it has descended to an almost-pure signaling hell, in which there is no content, only surface. Hence the ceaseless references to luxury brands and luxury-brand schools. The two have become synonymous, however much humanities-department Marxists may want to deny it. There is a weird kinship between high school memoirs or novels and Straight To Hell. American high schools are painful because there is no content to shape form. Lefevre’s finance world is similar. In it, seniority beats skill (count the number of times the word “senior” appears). Many American high schools are so bad because there is no financially viable way to start an alternative high school that can siphon off smarter students and parents. Banks, in Straight To Hell, operate the same way. If contemporary investment banks operate anything like the way Lefevre depicts them operating, then “fin tech” (or “financial technology companies and products,” to use a phrase du jour) should be a ripe opportunity for startups, because the banks, and their personnel and culture, are so internally fucked up that smart startups ought to be able to eat them.

Unless, of course, regulatory and other barriers kill startups before the startups can really succeed. Still, anyone investing in financial companies should read Straight to Hell. It ought to give them courage, if it’s accurate. I can’t really judge whether it is. I’m too far from the industry. It seems unlikely, but unlikely things turn out to be true all the time. It seemed unlikely that the U.S. government would massively spy on virtually all of its citizens, but Snowden showed that it does. It seemed unlikely that an electric car startup could succeed, but Tesla showed that it can. I won’t discount Straight to Hell without trying to triangulate its portrayals. Still, if it is to be believed then many bankers are redistributing money to escorts and drug dealers. Not that I’m opposed, necessarily, to either group, but it is interesting given recent noise about financial inequality to see money flow from the rich to middle-skill service providers (though the book is not conceptualized or framed in that way; still, often the most interesting parts of a book are those that are unintended).

One could write an interesting piece comparing temperaments in Houellebecq and LeFevre. One could also write an interesting piece comparing Thiel in Zero to One and LeFevre. As Thiel notes, in a discussion about why startups (and other companies) must incentivize their employees with stock and other methods that align incentives:

Cash is attractive. It offers pure optionality: once you get your paycheck, you can do anything you want with it. [. . .] A cash bonus is slightly better than a cash salary—at least it’s contingent on a job well done. But even so-called incentive pay encourages short-term thinking and value grabbing. Any kind of cash is more about the present than the future.

zero to oneStraight to Hell can be seen as a document about “value grabbing” and about living in the hedonistic present. The value grabbing is not purely financial, either: It’s also sexual. The team lives or dies by the current roadshow. Slickness rules. One could also compare Straight to Hell and Zero to One in terms of humor versus earnestness. Zero to One has its moments of humor (think of the brief section comparing hipsters to the Unabomber, or the part about Richard Branson and the naked windsurfing model) but the preponderance of the book is about how to make serious, real improvements in the quality of life for all humans. Straight to Hell is about getting a bonus and getting your dick wet (concern over women’s pleasure is mostly absent, or I’d add something appropriate for women as well). There is nothing intrinsically wrong about either and indeed both have concerned me greatly at various points, but there is something distinctly sublunar about the relentlessness of those concerns, and the way one never looks up from the bonus or the girl or the meal.

Is it a satire? Is the joke on me because I don’t get it? There is much like, “There’s no justice in this world—a valuable lesson to learn at a young age, especially if you want to end up on Wall Street.” Is it bravado, trolling, or truth? After many words I still don’t know.

* If they’ll cheat someone else, they’ll cheat you when they get a chance.

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