For the Love of MoneyPosted: March 14, 2012
There’s an interesting juxtaposition about public and private morality elucidated by Robert Reich on his blog. It’s even more interesting given an op-ed written today by a now former up-and-comer at Goldman Sachs that’s publicly announcing his reasons for leaving the firm. There’s a Buddhist idea of morality called “right livelihood” that goes along with the ideas of doing no harm to other beings. There’s also a notion in Islam of a similar idea that it’s okay to be in business but you should not make a living by creating suffering in others or by gambling, or by lending people money at interest rates and doing nothing else. It is a concept deep in the roots of Judaism too. Our ancient philosophies of morality seemed to have this lesson. What has changed so radically that our modern notions now call for a crusade against women using birth control instead of banks bringing entire countries down via reckless business practices? I’m not sure when we got the idea that any time you make money it’s the result of doing something right but there it is. As Reich writes, there is an upside down notion of morality afoot that wants to mandate, monitor and ban very personal actions with basically imaginary victims. Personal bad decisions can only do so much damage. An international market made up of institutions doing harm can bring down entire nations.
Republicans have morality upside down. Santorum, Gingrich, and even Romney are barnstorming across the land condemning gay marriage, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, access to contraception, and the wall separating church and state.
But America’s problem isn’t a breakdown in private morality. It’s a breakdown in public morality. What Americans do in their bedrooms is their own business. What corporate executives and Wall Street financiers do in boardrooms and executive suites affects all of us.
There is moral rot in America but it’s not found in the private behavior of ordinary people. It’s located in the public behavior of people who control our economy and are turning our democracy into a financial slush pump. It’s found in Wall Street fraud, exorbitant pay of top executives, financial conflicts of interest, insider trading, and the outright bribery of public officials through unlimited campaign “donations.”
Political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died last week, noted that a broken window left unattended signals that no one cares if windows are broken. It becomes an ongoing invitation to throw more stones at more windows, ultimately undermining moral standards of the entire community.
Some time during the Reagan years, our morality went askew. We were regaled with “Greed is Good”. Government is the problem. The poor and needy are morally weak. Job creators must be accommodated at all costs. They wouldn’t be rich if they weren’t doing gawd’s work. No where was this mindset more evident than the systemic deregulation of the finance industry. This is something I witnessed first hand. Commercial Banking went from the business of determining which business deserved loans to expand to a temple built of gambling on exotic financial “innovations” worthy of a three card monte con artist.
We’ve got tons of evidence on mortgage originators gaming the underwriting process, commercial banks robo-signing foreclosures with no clear property title, and investment bankers engaged in pass-the-trash. Yet, we’ve had precious few moments of justice and accountability. The “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs” Op ed by Greg Smith at today’s NYT ought to bring out howls for the government to stop vaginally probing women exercising their constitutional right of privacy and start anally probing financial institutions destroying their fiduciary responsibility and the lives of millions of people in the process.
What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.
Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.
It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.
A nation’s fiat money and its financial system is only as good as the trust it earns and maintains. We are fortunate that the US is still the main game on the planet because the political system and the financial markets are burning through the trust of real businesses and consumers daily. They hold our chits. They buy our politicians. They can bring down entire economies because they provide services and products that grease our machine. Our policymakers should understand the importance of functioning markets and recognize the signs of a very sick system.
It’s probably not coincidence that the major Republican contender for the presidency is a retired corporate raider. Let me just clarify the difference between what Romney calls “creative destruction” which is the Schumpeter theory that economic growth requires that old technology and obsolete businesses in an economy need to be cleared out to make room for the new. This article in Slate makes the argument that corporate raiders do engage in creative destruction.
The idea is to build a distinction between the good kind of businessman, the one who launches and grows firms, creating new products and jobs and opportunities, and the evil, Romney-style businessman, who makes millions by raiding and looting.
Superficially, this appears to be a fair distinction. Coming up with an idea, raising funds, building a factory, and beginning to sell products is one, often admirable, way to get rich. Undertaking a leveraged buyout of an existing firm, shutting down a bunch of its plants, reorganizing it, and then flipping the restructured entity to new owners is very different. One creates jobs, one kills them. One is noble, the other squalid. One builds firms, the other loots them.
But as is so often the case, the reality is more complicated. Almost every successful business career is built on the ashes of doomed factories, pink-slipped workers, and towns laid to waste.
Eastman Kodak and the once-thriving community of Rochester, N.Y., that it supported, for example, have been driven to ruin not by predatory private equity firms but by simple competition. The drivers of that competition—the digital photography industry—are classic entrepreneurial “good guy” capitalist job creators. And yet they destroyed jobs even as they created jobs. My neighborhood growing up was filled with photo developers and copy shops, now all gone. Apple and Google look like job-creating good guys to Americans, but from the vantage point of Espoo, Finland, or Waterloo, Canada, they’re destroying Nokia and Research in Motion. Radio, broadcast television, cable, and the Internet all count as technological advances that have helped the economy and improved America’s quality of life. But they’ve harmed newspapers and led to endless rounds of publishing-industry layoffs.
The art of the leveraged buyout and the private equity restructuring is, needless to say, different in many ways from the art of innovation. But they don’t differ in their destructive potential.
So, is the layoff business “a moral choice” just because innovation can be equally destructive? Let’s just forget the idea that Romney even inkles on occasion that he enjoys axing people. Is it better for a business to quietly lose money and slowly shut down from not being able to compete compared to some guys stepping in and extracting the wealth immediately? Is it better for Goldman Sachs to survive to fund a few decent businesses while passing the trash to the naive portions of its customer base? Is it better for the housing market to let all those houses convert to rental properties quickly rather than to take the time to keep some families who may or may not have fallen prey to some crooked industry practices in their homes? Is it just me or is this a bit of the ol’ ends justifying the means?
At some point, all transactions between people boil down to trust. At what point does a system collapse because all the players are viewed as snake oil salesmen instead of pharmaceutical companies?
Here’s where our upside down view of morality comes in. Don’t pay attention to the men behind the curtain robbing you blind. Pay attention to those wanton women! Those sluts who want you to pay for their birth control! Quick! You may shortly be homeless and jobless, but the real issue is the Muslim usurper in the White House who wants to ensure there’s a war on Christmas! We better get rid of those teachers and professors who push evolution and critical thinking skills! They’ll turn your kids into gawdless liberals! They belong to unions! How could they deserve good pay and benefits! Forget that those degrees give your kids better paying jobs and lives! We don’t want to pay for their indoctrination into something so horrible!
How did our public policy conversation ever sink to this? How did our sense of morality get so twisted? There is a right and wrong way to go about business.