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Honoring the Golden Calf of Wall Street

George Salamon
January 4, 2014

The UJA-Federation Fetes Lloyd Blankfein and Judaism

by George Salamon Blankfein“GOLDMAN SACHS CEO Lloyd Blankfein should be hung by his thumbs in a public square.” So suggested Briton Ryle on February 20, 2013 in Wealth Daily, no hothead lefty rag, but a source of advice for money-making investments. Nevertheless, this past December 2nd, the crème de la crème of New York Jewry, 1,700 people in all, came to honor Mr. Blankfein at a fundraising dinner for the UJA-Federation. The dinner raised $26 million for the UJA’s aid to those in need and to Jewish communities — but it should also have raised the hackles of some Jews by making Blankfein and Judaism co-honorees. Instead of creating a stir in the Jewish community, however, the story in next day’s New York Times, headlined “Wall Street Toasts Blankfein and Judaism at UJA-Federation Dinner,” simply disappeared into the triple-A culture of our era: apathy, amnesia, and attention deficit disorder. The story said that Blankfein had been honored for “his professional track record and philanthropy.” (What Judaism itself was celebrated for was not reported.) Blankfein’s “track record,” however, does not suggest that he or Goldman should be singled out for honors. Business journalists and economists chronicle the achievements of a man who has made his firm enormously profitable and himself enormously wealthy — but he and his executives are regularly depicted as ethically challenged, tarnishing their success with the moral price they were willing to pay for it. Should such a track record be honored alongside the religion that prides itself for bringing law and serving as a light to others? A long list of Goldman Sachs missteps is easily put together:
  • “You may remember Goldman Sachs as the bank accused of making billions of dollars while ordinary people were losing their homes during the financial crisis,” the New York Times reminded its readers on October 20, 2013. The firm, headed by Blankfein since 2006, is described in the same story as “a symbol of Wall Street greed and excess.”
  • In July of 2010 Goldman paid the biggest SEC fine ever, $550 million, “for creating and selling a mortgage investment that had been secretly designed to fail.” An internal email described that investment as “junk that nobody was dumb enough to take the first time around.” While outsiders such as Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs points out that “every Wall Street firm has paid significant fines during the past decade for phony accounting, insider trading, securities fraud, Ponzi schemes, or outright embezzlement,” others see differences in Goldman’s behavior.
  • The leadership inside Goldman Sachs during Blankfein’s reign was described by the former director of its equity derivatives business as being responsible for the “decline in the firm’s moral fiber.”
  • “Bear Stearns (sold to JP MorganChase after it failed during the 2008 financial crisis) was hardly the paragon of ethical propriety,” according to Jake Zamansky, principal of a securities arbitration firm, “but it’s impressive that they chose to turn down a lucrative fee arrangement rather than engage in a transaction they perceived as morally wrong. Goldman and Deutsche Bank apparently had no such ethical compunctions.”
  • Joan Lappin provided a pithy conclusion in Forbes to the Goldman Sachs story: “Goldman Sachs’ Ethics Reflect Its Ethos.”
What, then, was UJA thinking of by honoring Blankfein’s “track record”? Mark Taibbi in Rolling Stone described Goldman Sach as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Blankfein turned that squid into the world’s most powerful investment bank, a track record that should earn him and Goldman entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. Perhaps that “success” alone was enough to blind UJA planners to larger ethical considerations? BLANKFEIN WAS ALSO CELEBRATED on that December evening for his track record in philanthropy. But there are two records to look at here — one prior to the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing kerfluffles with the SEC, and the one after. His philanthropic contributions in the ten years before 2010 were described by Susanne Craig’s article in the New York Times as “completely paltry... based on Blankfein’s tax returns.” Since 2008, however, a charitable arm of Goldman has “given away more than $1.6 billion.” The Times headlined its piece on Goldman’s newly discovered charitable side “Goldman Sachs, Buying Redemption.” It seems, however, that the firm hasn’t yet bought ethics. In July 2013, Forbes charged that Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms, like “street thugs have been manipulating prices, such as aluminum, to profit. The result is higher prices for consumers.” The magazine titled its story “The Great Vampire Squid Keeps Sucking.” That brings us to the third party celebrated at the dinner: Judaism. Whose Judaism? Surely not that of Maimonides, of Moses Mendelssohn, or of Martin Buber. Was it, perhaps, the Judaism of the Jews who forged and worshiped the Golden Calf in Exodus? The silence from the Jewish community is extremely disheartening. When Ken Lay was charged with financial crimes while CEO of Enron, a Christian blog posted the message that “for a Christian, the bottom line isn’t the most important thing. The United Methodist Church — Ken Lay’s denomination and mine — speaks about corporate responsibility in the Book of Discipline.” If only a rabbi or group of rabbis had posted such a message, substituting “for a Jew” and the Jewish teachings that speak about responsibilities and ethical behavior — of which there are many. The festivities of December 2, 2013, as described in the Times, reads more like a summary of a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, filled with self-congratulatory and insider jokes. Displayed in that story is not Judaism as a religion, but as a private club or college fraternity. We are the ones who made it and got in, the celebrants exclaimed, and now we’re giving back. Aren’t we wonderful? Honoree Blankfein was greeted with a joke by David K. Wassong, the co-head of private equity at Soros Fund Management (who himself received a “young leadership” award): “Lloyd, I’d like to welcome you to your second bar mitzvah. The only difference is that tonight the money goes to UJA.” The joke nobody told would have represented the kind of outsider’s humor made famous by Jewish comedians like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Or even Don Rickles, who, had he been there might have insulted his audience with the following exchange: “Why are we honoring Lloyd Blankfein tonight? Because Bernie Madoff isn’t available!” George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter on the St. Louis Business Journal and senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has contributed articles to The Washington Post and The American Conservative and poetry to New Verse News. For the past five years he has been a regular contributor to the Gateway Journalism Review.