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Thursday, February 24, 2011

God's Gold on Wall St.: A Vaunted Self-Assessment of God's Work

A year after the financial crisis of 2008, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs,  found himself vilified for his firm’s quick return to risky trading in spite of its new bank holding company status. Populist resentment at the time was especially pitted against the hefty bonuses from the trades. Also, people were upset about the benefits that the bank had obtained from the decisions of its alums in the U.S. Government—specifically, in the U.S. Department of the Treatury. For instance, Goldman Sachs and other AIG counterparties got a the dollar-for-dollar payout from AIG thanks to an infusion of funds for that specific purpose by Treasury. Regardless, in an interview with the London Times, the highest-paid CEO (at least in the financial sector) dismissed such talk and defended his money-making machine and its compensation.  In addition to being the engine of economic recovery, according to Blankfein, Goldman Sachs provides a social function in making capital available to companies so they can expand. Stunningly, he adds, “I’m doing God’s work.”[i]  Such a claim is a far cry indeed from Thomas Jefferson’s warning that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.[ii]  Perhaps God intends to undo our liberties by bailing out the banks.

Besides these rather obvious problems with Blankfein's religious claim is his presumption to know what God's work is, and, furthermore, that he is doing it.   Even though a feckless system of corporate governance can enable a CEO to essentially function as his or her own boss, including doing the board's job of evaluating his or her own performance, it is a tall order for a human being to be able to evaluate his performance as God's work.   To be sure, it is possible that God is an intelligent being that bestows favor on his golden stewards for doing His work.

Lloyd Blankfein may have been involved in two conflicts of interest: 1) that of having excessive power over the board whose principal task it is to oversee him, 2) having communicated with GS alums in high posts in the U.S. Government (e.g., Hank Paulson) and perhaps having them enact policies on GS's behalf.   It may be that institutional and personal conflicts of interests can become so ubiquitous that they are simply not seen by the culprits. Furthermore, it could be that the denial enabled by a tacit presumptuousness is like a white movie screen on which even doing God's work can be projected. How ironic it is, that sordid proprietary interest could operate not merely under the subterfuge of being a neutral "market-maker," but also as God's work. Such work is two degrees of freedom away from squalid greed. So it is remarkable that the two could become conflated in a mind.

[i] John Arlidge, I’m doing ‘God’s work. Meet Mr. Goldman Sachs, The Sunday Times, 11/9/09.
[ii] Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, Monticello, May 28, 1816, in Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99),  XI, 533.