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Merrill Lynch: Pay it back, baby?

President Barack Obama called it "shameful." Senator Christopher Dodd says he knows what we're all thinking: "this infuriates the American people, and rightly so." He follows that statement up with a demand (well, sorta): he'll use "every possible legal means" to get the Wall Street bonuses back; especially those $4 billion paid out by Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, shortly before handing the reins over to Bank of America.

I have to confess I am torn. While I am a bit outraged at having my tax money used for bonuses (I'm far more outraged at other things, like using my tax money to produce high fructose corn syrup, but that's an entirely separate rant), I'm also sympathetic with the bankers. Wait! Before you throw up all over your computer monitor, imagine being in their shoes: they work insane hours and are frequently subjected to scandalous treatment all year, giving up life, family and sanity at the service of the almighty deal.

When I worked at Merrill Lynch, a friend in the M&A department spent her Sunday nights consoling the analysts, who she'd find crying at the copy machine, wishing they could go see their recently widowed mother in Brooklyn, afraid they'd lose their jobs if they did. I am not kidding. One classmate was given a tongue-lashing for trying to spend Fourth of July with his dying dad. It may seem obscene to you, the money these people make, but the bonuses are sacred, considered the compensation for laying your life down to the Gods of Finance.

That Thain would put his career on the line to pay out bonuses to the faithful is, while unwise, also an entirely selfless act, a kind of fist-pump to his long-suffering crew. I do not believe in that lifestyle any more. But for those who do; for those who serve the few at the expense of the many; the greatest cost is suffered in solitude, with their families and sanity. I do not want their money back. I would, however, like to keep my soul, so I'll not weep for my life as an investment banker. Godspeed, Merrill Lynch, and next time, try just treating your employees well and paying them fairly and we can skip the presidential beration.

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