The suicide gap.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 17 2009 9:33 PM

The Suicide Gap

European financiers are killing themselves. American financiers aren't.

Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) (R). Click image to expand.
Sen. Charles Grassley 

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told an Iowa radio station that AIG executives ought to "follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, 'I'm sorry.' And then … do one [of] two things. Resign, or go commit suicide." The comment was reprehensible (not to mention difficult to square with Grassley's strong opposition to abortion and embryonic-stem-cell research). It caused a predictable furor, prompting Grassley to sputter, "You ought to be able to tell rhetoric when you hear it." But setting aside the ham-handed recommendation that financiers who brought economic ruin to others croak themselves, Grassley's comment raises an interesting cross-cultural question: Why do so few financier suicides involve Americans?

Consider the lead paragraph of a Jan. 11 New York piece by Michael Idov("Are Wall Street Suicide Epidemics Real?"):

Last week, German investor Adolf Merckle, a multibillionaire who lost a fortune on shorted Volkswagen stock, threw himself under a train. Two weeks earlier, Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, an heir to French aristocracy and the co-founder of an investment fund whose money vanished in Bernie Madoff's alleged pyramid scheme, told the cleaning crew at his Madison Avenue office to clear out, sat behind his desk, and slashed his wrists with a box cutter. Five days before that, in London, a hotel worker entered a $750-a-night suite at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower to find the body of Christen Schnor, HSBC's head of insurance, hanging by a belt in a closet. This spate of financier suicides is already the second such wave in a year: The first commenced with Bear Stearns research supervisor Barry Fox's 29-story plunge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on May 22, and was quickly followed by at least two more cases in June and July.

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Idov goes on to argue that these high-profile cases do not reflect an underlying trend; in the United States, "bankers are no more or less likely to kill themselves, in good times or bad, than anyone else." Nina Shen Rastogi has disabusedSlate readers of the popular notion that the stock market crash of 1929 caused Wall Street speculators to leap to their deaths: "Between Black Thursday and the end of 1929, only four of the 100 suicides and suicide attempts reported in the New York Times were plunges linked to the crash, and only two took place on Wall Street." Idov points out that in New York City there were fewer suicides in the immediate aftermath of the 1929 crash than there were during the same period in blue-sky 1928, when stock prices were 350 percent higher than they'd been five years earlier.

What Idov doesn't say is that, save for one person (Barry Fox), everyone on his list of high-profile financiers who killed themselves was European. Merkle was German. Magon de la Villehuchet was a Frenchman who divided his time between New York and Brittany. Schnor was Danish-born and lived in England. Googling the word suicide together with the word financier calls up the sad story of Kirk Stephenson, chief operating officer of Olivant Advisers, a subsidiary of a Tokyo-based investment bank, who in September threw himself under a train. Stephenson was born in New Zealand and lived and worked in London. It also calls up Patrick Rocca, an Irish real estate tycoon who shot himself dead in a Dublin suburb. American names aren't entirely absent—Steven Good, CEO of a giant real-estate-auction firm, killed himself in Chicago in January—but they're mostly absent. Marcus Schrenker, a financial manager in Indiana facing a half-million-dollar legal judgment in Maryland, was arrested in January and charged with faking his suicide by issuing a distress call from his private plane and then crashing it while parachuting to safety. This would seem a more typically American approach. Bernard Madoff, whose criminality and financial losses were unmatched by anyone mentioned here, pleaded guilty to 11 charges and will probably spend his remaining years (he's 71 next month) behind bars. It remains to be seen what will happen to his assets.

Judging from this admittedly superficial evidence, Europeans possess a greater tendency to internalize public disgrace and/or humiliation. Grassley calls this tendency Japanese. You can also find its roots in classical Greece and Rome. In The Savage God, a definitive text on suicide and its place in Western culture, A. Alvarez writes of the "calm, though slightly excessive, reasonableness" of the Stoics' attitude toward self-extermination. In general, Alvarez argues, "the more sophisticated and rational a society becomes, the further it travels from superstitious fears and the more easily suicide is tolerated." The culturati often argue that western Europe is "more sophisticated and rational" than the United States. Maybe that helps account for the discrepancy in financier suicides. Social scientists often note that Europe is more class-bound. If you thought your position in society was fixed permanently at the top, the prospect of suddenly falling to the bottom might be that much harder to face.

The irony is that, quite apart from moral and religious considerations, American financiers' bumpkin resistance to suicide makes greater logical sense than European financiers' Old World acceptance of it. As Michael Lewis pointed out in a Jan. 8 Bloomberg column, any notion that a ruined financier who commits suicide is "taking responsibility" for his actions, as a New York Times blogger came distressingly close to arguing, flunks a utilitarian test:

[A]fter a financier has killed himself, there is no noticeable decline in the sum total of responsibility in need of taking in the financial world. His death fixes no problems, restores no wealth, redresses no harm.

The people whose affairs the financier has disturbed are left in at least as much of a lurch as they were while he lived—though now, perhaps they feel not only aggrieved by their losses but party to a suicide.

Sen. Grassley, take note. Our culture's relative incapacity for shame has a few advantages.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.