Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bankers: Doing God's Work?

"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti"
After the GFC, the 'new austerity' was all the rage.

Then it vanished from the headlines as the news cycle moved on, and some bailout packages were repaid: no more bonus caps.

After three years without a bonus, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (left) recently pocketed a handsome $17 million.  Quite something when his company's profits have slumped.

A few years ago, Blankfein quipped that he was 'doing God's work'.  He was joking, but it's a suggestive point: just how 'religious' is the banker's vocation?  And why don't we expect the missionary's monetary sacrifice and austerity from businessmen?

I recently had a piece on this in the Canberra Times, 'A time to plant and a time to harvest'.  A sample:
By name-dropping God, Blankfein suggests an important counterpoint: these bankers have missionary zeal, without the missionary’s austerity. Put in more secular terms, many bankers believe they have a public role, but those in public service rarely reap their economic dividends. On the contrary, many vocations are expected to sacrifice their comfort, health and income for the sake of some greater good. We expect financial sacrifice from priests, and the ultimate sacrifice from soldiers. Yet we tell our businessmen that wealth is their chief aim: corporate and personal. ‘Money is the way you define your success,’ said one former Goldman Sachs employee. ‘There’s always room — need — for more…. It’s an addiction.’
If Wall Street aspires to the public good – as opposed to glossing greed with religious rhetoric – it will have to remedy this addiction. Most bankers probably care little for what average Joe thinks – no more than most Australians care for the opinions of workers in Chinese factories. But if the super-rich like Blankfein do want to make good on their public role, they’ll need a new outlook on loss and failure. ‘In true commerce, as in true preaching, or true fighting,’ wrote the philosopher John Ruskin, ‘it is necessary to admit the idea of occasional voluntary loss.’

Ruskin’s point was not that we must force businessmen to fail, but that genuine corporate leaders will sometimes sacrifice their own gains to remedy others’ losses – rather than socialising the costs of their mistakes, and pocketing the gains. They’ll invest in social enterprises, rather than simply in money-making schemes. They’ll lower their own salaries rather than cutting into the lowest staff wages. They’ll sacrifice short-term profit for longer-term considerations of community and environmental health.
Of course this is unlikely to happen. But it’s good to be reminded: austerity is a moral virtue, not a legislative slap on the wrist.
(Photo: Gawker)

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