11.14.09

Can Goldman Find God?

Lloyd Blankfein says Goldman Sachs is “doing God’s work.” Is it? A former Goldman partner, a minister, and seminary president have an biblically ambitious plan to help the company do just that.

Lloyd Blankfein says Goldman Sachs is “doing God’s work.” Is it? A former Goldman partner, a minister, and seminary president have a biblically ambitious plan to help the company do just that.

As reported by The London Times, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, said he saw his company “doing God’s work,” engaged in a “virtuous cycle” that fulfills a social good. Although the world most certainly needs well-functioning financial markets, doing God’s work involves so much more. Given that you brought it up, Mr. Blankfein, we’re delighted to welcome you into a conversation we’ve been having for a long time!

Three of us—a former Goldman Sachs partner, a seminary president, and a Presbyterian minister—sat down to discuss how Goldman could truly do God’s work.

What if Wall Street actually did truly commit itself to a new, virtuous cycle that defined ambition and success in terms of both profitability and the common good?

Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column spoke for a lot of people in America when she entitled her recent column, “Virtuous Bankers? Really!?!” contrasting that image of virtue with the notorious Rolling Stone characterization of Goldman Sachs as a “Giant Vampire Squid on the face of humanity.” The question Dowd’s article raises is whether it is truly possible for bankers to be virtuous. What exactly does virtue mean? One could do a lot worse than turn to the long and rich moral tradition of the classical “cardinal virtues” of prudence, justice, moderation, and courage, whose unifying theme is self-regulation, reining in the excesses of our will and desire.

But hasn’t self-regulation been in short supply on Wall Street (and everywhere else)? When asked, “Is it possible to make too much money?” Mr. Blankfein responded, “Is it possible to have too much ambition? Is it possible to be too successful?” Well, ambition and success are a lot like money: They’re neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but an awful lot depends on the ends to which you direct them. Mr. Blankfein suggests that Goldman and its competitors are directing them toward the common good by generating economic growth and monetary wealth in a virtuous cycle. However, making money is not enough to elevate the common good because “super-size” pay is anything but common—it is a circumstance enjoyed by a precious few, and amounts to trickle-down economics.

Furthermore, the values that have been governing American economic life, especially in the last decade or so, have not demonstrated much prudence, justice, or moderation; as a result, we are in a period of historic economic contraction and monetary bankruptcy. Though Wall Street certainly played a leading role, it was supported by a culture that increasingly affirmed: “I consume therefore I am.” What is stoking the fire now is that while the negative cycle continues to viciously dispossess millions of Americans of their jobs, their homes, their dignity, and their future, Wall Street’s record profits have created a new, closed cycle of seemingly unlimited money, ambition, and success. That is why so much anger is being directed toward Wall Street and especially toward Goldman Sachs, its undisputed leader.

But what if it were different? What if Wall Street actually did truly commit itself to a new, virtuous cycle that defined ambition and success in terms of both profitability and the common good? What if Goldman Sachs was the undisputed leader of that new cycle? As a start, what if Goldman’s well-paid people chose to redirect a generous portion of their bonus pool to create a new, for-profit, pooled investment fund? We even have a name for it: The Goldman Sachs Virtue Fund. This fund could be the highest-returning fund on social capital by, for example, providing low-interest loans to small businesses and new business startups. This fund could set the standard for corporate leadership in creating new jobs and bridging the massive gap between the growth of the financial markets and the stagnation of the jobs market, directly helping those who have suffered most in this crisis.

Such a bold new step would exhibit a visible ethic of moderation, and it would most certainly embody a commitment to justice. But there could be many versions of such a step. Surprise us, Mr. Blankfein, with your creativity and innovation in this new enterprise! This effort would be no trickle-down economics; this would be establishing a tangible pool of virtue that could be a source for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” to quote the prophet Amos. With such a commitment, Goldman could truly claim a mantle of public virtue, leading its competitors to engage in similar investments in the common good. This would not only be a noteworthy act consistent with their business principles, but with the biblical principle that to whom much is given, much will be required.

It could be asked why we, and much of America, seem to be holding Goldman Sachs to a higher standard. The answer is that Goldman Sachs holds itself to the highest standards of excellence. It is renowned for its excellence in corporate profit. It is lauded for its excellence in corporate philanthropy, such as its commitment to global economic growth through the 10,000 Women Initiative. It could now be distinguished by its excellence in corporate virtue.

Mr. Blankfein says that he is just a banker “doing God’s work.” We believe he can do just that. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, doing God’s work is “satisfying the needs of the afflicted” (58:10). When we do so, there is a clear return on the investment: “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12). That’s much better than being called a Giant Vampire Squid…

Jacki Zehner is president of the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Family Foundation and a founding partner of Circle Financial Group. She blogs at www.pursepundit.blogspot.com.

The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is president of  the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. She blogs at newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

The Rev. J.C. Austin is director of the Center for Church Life at Auburn Theological Seminary. He speaks and teaches regularly on the intersection of faith and money.