Lloyd Blankfein’s Enigma

“An impish grin spread across his face,” wrote the Times’ reporter about Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, responding to a question about excessive profits:  “we’re doing Gods’ work.”  What did he mean? (See, “I’m Doing God’s Work. Meet Mr. Goldman Sachs.”)

He did offer an explanation:  “We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle.  We have a social purpose.”  This routine, grade-school style justification for financial institutions is surely inadequate to account for the massive dominance that banks like Goldman have achieved.  If they raise capital for business, why do they have to skim off so much for themselves?  And how does their excessive wealth create growth and wealth for others?

Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times: “Whether he knows it, he’s referring back to The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism.”  In her schoolmarmish, condescending manner, she is referring to R.H. Tawney’s  classic thesis about how the protestant reformation promoted the worldly discipline and drive of early capitalists.  That must be what he meant. (See, “Virtuous Bankers. Really!?!“)

Or is Blankfein alluding the Adam Smith’s invisible hand, guiding markets to perfect values.  Could be mean that Goldman offered a helping hand?

Perhaps is it about the guiding hand of evolution?  Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone memorably described Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  At the top of the food chain, the giant squid has prevailed.  “Greedy, but long-term greedy,” is how the people at Goldman describe their investment and payment policies, according to The Times.  Built, in other words, to prevail and survive.

John Arlidge, the reporter who interviewed Blankfein and saw the impish grin, concluded:  “Call him a fat cat who mocks the public. Call him wicked. Call him what you will. He is, he says, just a banker ‘doing God’s work.’”

A fat cat, certainly, but we’ve seen that grin before — on the Cheshire cat, holding out an elusive but tantalizing promise of meaning.

Lewis Carroll understood how deeply we are trapped in our assumption that words are supposed to make sense.