Wall Street Agonistes

So the op-ed of the day is "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs" in The New York Times, by an executive named Greg Smith, explaining that he's leaving the firm after 12 years because its culture—which previously "revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients"—has devolved into a single-minded focus on (gasp!) making money. Who would have imagined? After all, we're talking about the firm Matt Taibbi memorably called "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." This comes on the heels of yesterday's blog post of the day, called "Why I Left Google," by James Whittaker, saying much the same thing, that all that "Don't Be Evil" stuff has left Google, which since Eric Schmidt departed as CEO in favor of co-founder Larry Page has become nothing more than a firm that wants to (gasp again!) make money.

The first (and perhaps correct) response to this is to say, "Oh please." The argument from Smith is especially hard to swallow, since he seems to be saying that way back in 2000 when he started there, Goldman Sachs only sought profits as an afterthought, so strong was its "spirit of humility," but now all that has changed. Easy for him to say, since chances are he's departing with many millions of dollars. Google is a different story, since it's a company that didn't even have a plan for how to make money when it began, and cultivated the now-stereotypical Silicon Valley culture of super-geniuses working hard between ping-pong and free massages. And Googlers no doubt believed, and rightly so, that this company was actually remaking the world and creating the future. But wasn't it naive to think that once it became a multibillion-dollar corporation with tens of thousands of employees and offices all over the globe, that the imperative to expand profits wouldn't take over? Perhaps, but Whittaker would argue that that doesn't make it right.

I can muster a bit of sympathy for these two and others like them. From the outside, it's easy to look at a corporation or an organization and put it into a simple box: soulless corporate bloodsucker, noble charity, ineffectual waste of rental space, and so on. But from inside, most every organization believes it has lofty goals, or at least wants to incorporate admirable principles into its more earthly concerns. Even the most heartless companies have mission statements that talk about things like integrity and improving their customers' lives. And many of the people within those companies believe it. No one likes to think of themselves as a con artist. We all want to believe we're maintaining good values as we go about our work. I'll bet if you spoke to people at Goldman, most of them would say, "Yeah, there are people here for whom it's just about the money. But I know I'm doing right by our clients, and I like to think I do my job with integrity." Even the greedy jerks would say that, because very few people think of themselves as greedy jerks.

On the other hand, although I've had many kinds of jobs, I've never worked on Wall Street. So maybe the ordinary rationalizations that the rest of us humans use don't apply there.

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