The big news of the day, other than the Republican primary campaign and the spin placed upon the Santorum victories in Alabama and Mississippi, has to revolve around the resignation letter of Greg Smith from the financial firm Goldman Sachs. Coming on the heals of a report stating that approximately 70% of the requirements of the Dodd-Franks Act aimed at cleaning up Wall Street have been unmet, the nature is Smith’s letter gives credence to the notion that little if anything has changed in the corner offices of New York’s financial district.
Smith resigned via an open letter placed in the New York Times, which has to rank this as one of the all-time greatest examples of bridge-burning. Here is a portion of his letter:
<emAnd he opines that when he joined the company, the working culture revolved around “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and doing right by our clients”.
He says: “The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years … I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years.
“… These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, ‘How much money did we make off the client?’ It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave.
“Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about ‘muppets’, ‘ripping eyeballs out’ and ‘getting paid’ doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.”
The question of how widely spread the attitudes Smith exposes really are will undoubtedly be the topic of conversations in many places, with executives rushing to distance their own firms from any such practices or corporate philosophies. Goldman Sachs, of course, is doing everything possible along the damage control front. I’m not in a position to know the extent of what really happens in such offices. Few people are. Yet what happens has a significant effect on how the rest of us will live, in that the national and global economies are dependent on what happens in those corner offices. Is profit the only motive for decisions, or is public interest anywhere in the equation?
On one level, this might be a topic best left to the experts in finance and economics; that’s a position for which I do not qualify, since my experience therein is limited to managing some of the investments made by a very small bank for a short period of time (a long time ago). Why bother with it when there is little we can can do about it? On the other hand, we can at least use this as a lens through which we peer into the soul of a culture—not just the financial culture, but our entire western, specifically American culture. And the view isn’t pleasant.
I doubt that the people alluded to by Smith are all that different from the majority of folks. They’ve been brought to this point in their lives by the same values and attitudes that have been carrying the culture, many of which are the inevitable result of a morally destitute worldview. The culture that doesn’t know anything for sure except a badly skewed idea of tolerance and diversity will have a hard time producing leaders in any segment of the business world, political world, or entertainment world who have a true (no, really, I mean ‘true’) sense of the interests of others at the center. What the Smith letter frighteningly reveals is that not even when our own interests in the long-term will be jeopardized by ignoring others in the short-term are some folks capable of doing what is right.
I also suspect that there may be an underlying fear among those who take what they can take now. It is the fear of someday not having enough and not having the opportunity to obtain it. And this may well be an indicator of the lack of hope that lies at the core of the culture without grounding in truth. Hope. Where can it be found? When we yield the ground of truth, hope cannot be anything more than wishful thinking—and that’s not a very convincing resource to take with us into the battle we all have against the temptation to accumulate for ourselves at the expense of others.