If you set out to make a noble sacrifice, and it reminds people of Darth Vader leaving the murderous and repressive Galactic Empire in Star Wars — well, that probably means your soul-searching should have started a long, long time ago. That’s what happened to Goldman Sachs exec Greg Smith yesterday, when he quit and published a scathing op-ed in the New York Times accusing the firm of chasing its own profits at the expense of its clients’ best interests — and then The Daily Mash turned him into a Dark Lord of the Sith.
Significant critique, or just one disgruntled employee mouthing off? Certainly, there’s something oddly self-congratulatory about the way Smith takes credit both for his own success at rising through the ranks at Goldman Sachs, and then also for the courage to abandon his career once he realized the firm’s culture was “toxic and destructive”; one suspects that his climb up the ladder could not have been entirely toxin-free. The defenders of finance rushed to tell us that this is just how the banking business works, and that Smith cannot, except by stunning naivete, have believed otherwise.
So is he a canary in the coal mine or a saboteur fleeing after lighting the fuse? How noble is it to sacrifice your own career in defense of the principle that you should be more dedicated to making money for your already-very-rich clients than for your already-very-rich bosses and yourself?
While acknowledging that investment banking plays a role in the allocation of capital and that a profit motive is not necessarily a bad thing in itself — and further acknowledging that I am by no means a financial expert — I’d like to suggest that the real problem may go deeper than the relationship of an investment bank to its clients. A couple of weeks ago, Matt Dunch riffed on the idolatry of finance, jumping off from a recent speech by Pope Benedict. The point bears repeating:
The world of finance is no longer an instrument to foster well-being, to foster human life, but becomes a power that oppresses it, that almost demands worship: “Mammon”, the real false divinity that dominates the world.
I’m perfectly willing to believe that there’s something amiss in a corporate culture that prizes its own profits more than its clients’ goals — but that’s because the primacy of the profit motive over human well-being, no matter who’s profiting, already terrifies me. Yes, the canary in coal mine just stopped singing — but when’s the last time we even bothered listening to it?