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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Was Goldman Sachs Really Politically Impotent amid Public Scrutiny in the Wake of the Financial Crisis?

If the American financial houses on Wall Street are among the most powerful forces in American politics-- powers, as it were, behind the throne--does it make sense that the strongest bank would be politically impotent?  In other words, can a public blemish nullify the power of all that capital?

According to The New York Times, Goldman Sachs employs perhaps the country’s most well-connected stable of Washington lobbyists, and it spent $2.8 million [in 2009] to bend the ear of federal officials and lawmakers. Goldman executives and its political action committee gavve more than $24 million to federal candidates in the first decade of the twenty-first century, including nearly $1 million to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Even so, the pounding in the media that Goldman Sachs took in April, 2010 left it sidelined — at least in public — as Congress moved toward a decision that could reshape the very industry it rules.  In particular, the SEC filing of charges and eleven hours of grueling testimony before Sen. Levin’s Investigations Committee left the bank a lobbyist persona non grata, if only for a day.  However, even then, the reality behind the scenes was doubtlessly very different.  Even as politicians publicly vilified the bank, they were picking up lucrative campaign contributions sourced in the bank, even if through intermediaries; any large scale electorate is notoriously bad at tracing links.  To be sure, The New York Times was reporting that Goldman Sachs was trying to find a way to influence the debate, even if it could not play as visible a role as it otherwise could have.

Goldman Sachs managers declined to comment the day after the hearing before Carl Levin's committee at the U.S. Senate. The question that the bankers were refusing to answer was on the impact that the bank's legal and public relations troubles were having on its Washington lobbying operations. Even so, one person briefed on its plans spoke on condition of anonymity because of the firm’s continuing legal and political troubles. He or she said it was still trying to push its agenda. The New York Times reported that according to industry officials, the bank had been “largely relying on trade groups, like the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. However, this could have been a smoke screen. The real deals could have been made behind closed doors, even by industry standards.  According to the paper, “More often, the firm — whose lobbyists and outside lawyers include such Washington luminaries as Richard A. Gephardt, the former House majority leader, and Ken Duberstein, the former Reagan administration official — has relied largely on intermediaries because politicians are worried about being associated with it, government and industry officials said.”  Members of Congress were worried about public association, but willing to be influenced through intermediaries. Therefore, even though Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who was in a tight race at the time, canceled a fund-raiser at the bank’s New York offices after the SEC filed its lawsuit, I would not be surprised that she accepted contributions by an intermediary.

Most voters are too far away from Washington to get the real scoop, and journalists who want to continue with their career are not apt to dig too deep. We are left with the surface, and can only guess as to the subterranean dynamics.  It seems to me that traces of the underground rumblings can be discerned in lines such as “at least in public.”  We are left wondering how deep the wells of gold run.  Perhaps only the goldman knows.  The actuality can be far different than appearances.  If possible, a study on the real influence of Wall Street in Washington would be very helpful. For this reason, it is apt to be a difficult task with many self-interested obstacles.  In any case, we ought not be so incredulous as to rest on the public appearances. Even as Lloyd Blankfein was testifying, senators turned increasingly friendly to him–with the exception of Carl Levin and perhaps John McCain.  The Democratic side in particular almost made excuses for the CEO, saying that any number of firms should be there with him. Those senators had given their soundbites to be picked up at home; it was time to make sure they were not cutting off one of the ruddy fat hands that feeds them. This expression comes from Nietzsche’s description of businessmen and their propensity to overreach. 

To be sure, Nietzsche is no advocate of modern morality; he viewed it as a defense of weakness.  Weakness cannot be other than weakness, he writes. So too, strength, he writes, cannot be other than strong.  So I contend that we ought to take reports of the political impotence of Goldman Sachs with a rather large grain of salt (or gold, in this case).  He or she who has the gold makes the rules. There is no natural law stating that this process must be transparent.  My question is: can we, the American public, get to it, or does the well of gold run too deep for our patience and perseverance?

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/business/29lobby.html