The Wolf of Wall Street

I recently saw the movie The Wolf of Wall Street (about the Jew Jordan Belfort and many of his Jewish friends) and was also just watching this PBS Frontline program, To Catch A Trader, about finding insider trading on Wall Street, and I thought this program could be called, “To Catch A Jew.” There were an awful lot of Jewish names who appeared to be doing shady things in this show. There were also an awful lot of Indians doing shady things. And one Taiwanese lady doing shady things.

When I read about wrongdoing on Wall Street, I notice a lot of Jews and Indians getting busted.

I’m not an expert on Wall Street, but I have this supposition that any trader who consistently makes big money trading stocks is doing it with inside information. I also have a sneaking supposition that when it comes to dealing in the most adventurous financial instruments, that middlemen minorities (who may feel more loyalty to each other rather than the wider state) play a disproportionate role. So I’m wondering what’s going on.

Part of it, I think, is that minority groups may feel more free to innovate and to take risks in ways that majority groups regard as too dangerous for their precious country. Sometimes this innovation is a great thing and sometimes it is a disaster.

People with whopping high IQs dominate trading on Wall Street, and Ashkenasi Jews have high average IQs. Additionally, Jews out-perform their high IQs (while Latin Americans, for instance, consistently under-perform — both in work and in education — their IQs).

I grew up a WASP (where if anybody in my community had done this sort of bad behavior, people would have been appalled, we Seventh-Day Adventists just didn’t act this way) and then I converted to Judaism. The WASP way and the Jewish way of doing things is different. Neither one is inherently superior to the other. They are different hero systems.

In my upbringing, sex, money, power and prestige were not things you were supposed to talk about in polite company. By contrast, Jews and Judaism have more peace with discussing the natural passions.

For instance, let’s talk about bribery. In my WASP upbringing, bribery was a horrible thing and there was never a reason for it. By contrast, persecuted minority groups such as Jews have often needed to use bribery to stay alive and to rescue their fellows who had been kidnapped and held for ransom.

Now let’s talk about insider trading. I suspect that virtually all big money made in stock trading is done with insider information. While Jewish law holds that a Jew should obey the laws of the land where he resides, this means the law as practiced, not necessarily the law on the books. Law enforcement must be selective in which examples of insider trading it prosecutes. Law isn’t just law on the books. It is also law as practiced. If the speed limit says 55mph and the traffic is going at 70mph, a Jew is allowed to drive at 70mph according to Jewish law. So too on Wall Street, if certain levels of insider trading are the accepted way business is done and it is universally practiced, then a Jew is allowed to do that.

By contrast, I kept hearing as a Seventh-Day Adventist, “Just because everybody is doing it doesn’t make it right.” There was great emphasis on obeying the law of the land.

Tribal identity differs from majority citizen identity. For some members of a tribe, be they Nigerians or Jews or Indians or Japanese-Americans, their primary group identity is tribal. On the other hand, most Jews in America are more loyal to America than they are to Israel or to Jewish causes.

While WASPs may have their primary group identity as Baptists or Seventh-Day Adventists or Methodists, there’s very little in their thinking that it is ok to cheat outsiders. Members of tribes by contrasts, are likely immigrants or the children of immigrants, and some learned to survive over the centuries by working the system, usually a corrupt discriminatory system. For instance, under communism or under the czar, it may have been good and right to cheat the system because they were dealing with a corrupt system. This way of thinking does not always disappear when you move to a new country worthy of your allegiance.

Down through history, there were a lot of professions regarded as grubby that were relegated to Jews such as money lending. Some Jews became somewhat inured to doing society’s dirty work. Dirty work today might be something like being a defense lawyer or mob lawyer. In WASP society, you’d likely be shunned if you primarily made your living defending murderers and mobsters, but there’s much less shunning for that sort of thing in Jewish or Armenian life. So long as you give generously to tribal causes, you’re not given a lot of grief for how you earn your living.

I have a Jewish acquaintance who grew up Orthodox in New York and New Jersey and he tells me that most of the people running his shul were convicted of various white collar crimes. On the other hand, I know a guy who was a drug dealer in college and then he became a ba’al teshuva (an Orthodox Jew) but he grew disillusioned that he was never accepted in Los Angeles Orthodoxy — despite his donations — because of his drug and financial shenanigans. Modern Orthodox Jews, who dominate the professions, tend to have the strictest ethical standards of the various Jewish denominations.

A Jewish friend emails me: “Dude, you know better than I do that Christian religious disposition toward money is way different from the Jewish one. Christianity addresses with predominantly moral concerns from a universal perspective. It’s an unusual tradition in that way. Judaism (and Islam, and every minority religious tradition in most of the world) addresses finance mostly from a pragmatic point of view, with morality a secondary concern and with different standards depending on whether you’re dealing with Jews or non-Jews. Even most secular Jews with no knowledge or experience of Judaism have inherited some of this, both culturally and almost certainly to some extent genetically.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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