Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, agrees with me: American society has done a much better job creating wealth than distributing it. This current era of excess, circa 1980, with its emphasis favoring a top-heavy economy, isn’t getting the job done. In a February 12th interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, Blankfein said income inequality is “destabilizing” American society and that “we all need to get together to work on the problem.”
Blankfein has humble roots. Born in the South Bronx in 1954, he grew up in Brooklyn. His family lived in the Linden Houses, a public housing settlement predominantly, at that time, inhabited by Jewish families. Blankfein’s father worked the night shift at the post office, and his mother worked as a receptionist at a local burglar-alarm company. Young Lloyd attended Hebrew school at nearby B’nai Israel, and had his first job (at thirteen) working Yankee Stadium selling sodas as a vendor in the upper deck.
Class valedictorian at Thomas Jefferson High School in 1971, he moved onto Harvard and garnered a law degree in 1978. He joined Goldman in 1981. He became Goldman’s CEO in 2006.
Blankfein has had a few moments of infamy as Goldman CEO. In testimony to a Senate subcommittee in 2010, he claimed Goldman Sachs had “no moral obligation” to inform clients that Goldman was actually taking leveraged positions against the financial products they were selling. I doubt that Blankfein learned that rationale when he was in Hebrew school.
In 2009, Blankfein gave The Times of London a far-reaching interview. The most memorable line of the interview, however, was an off-hand comment that Blankfein later retracted, saying he was only joking. He described himself as a banker “doing God’s work.” The line buttressed his previous comments in the interview concerning the social purpose of the high-end banking industry. It reminded me when Ivan Boesky threw in the comment, deviating from his prepared notes at a 1986 graduation ceremony at UC-Berkeley, that “greed is good.” Boesky meant it and didn’t retract it even as he spent time in jail because of his greedy behavior – and there’s no question that Blankfein meant what he said about his vocation having divine implications, even if he did say it with a bit of bravado and irony. Earlier in the same interview, Blankfein conceded that “he could slit his wrists, and people would cheer.” Bravado, irony, and self-awareness.
The creation of wealth and the accompanying opportunity for credit are categorically God’s work. Common folks, like Blankfein’s parents, do not provide for their children and “climb the ladder” simply by working hard. They need credit – credit that is fair, manageable, and available. That’s what banks do. Lloyd is right. Thank God for banks.
Yet there’s more to the God-talk when we broach the topic of wealth creation – we also must consider wealth distribution. Ah, good ol’ wealth distribution and redistribution. Now it’s getting interesting!
After Blankfein’s theological statement in 2009, he’s obviously had a lunch meeting or two with his rabbi and reviewed some previous Hebrew school teachings. He’s been on record since 2011 criticizing American wealth distribution. He defended his comments further in 2012 saying while he wasn’t “a socialist,” he understood that social unrest in the US (Occupy Wall Street) was related to the poor distribution of wealth in “the last generation or two.”
The Hebrew Bible is adamant that the well-off in society have a responsibility toward the poor. Ancient Israel, of course, was a theocratic monarchy, whereas the United States is a democratic republic. All the same, from their related faith systems, Jews and Christians share a common understanding: All good things come not only from the Creator God, but all things are rightly God’s property. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Our proper use of the goods in and of the earth – from wealth and possessions to talents and abilities – is faithful stewardship. And, yes, there are those in God’s green earth that take advantage of good stewards and their good intentions; even more so, the challenge to share the wealth of the earth calls for our very best efforts and strategies.
In my book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the traditional religions’ claim against greed as a destructive agent upon individuals and communities. Judaism relates greed to “the violence of the rich” and Buddhism warns of the toxic nature of the “hungry ghost.” I also focus on the social problems that fester in a financially and economically unbalanced society, as we’ve seen in the last generation or two in the United States.
And this is where Lloyd and I part ways. I stand with him for better distribution of wealth, but it will only happen once the folks at the very top are disengaged from their conviction – as if a religiously held belief – that the uninhibited pursuit of wealth is a social value worth living by and teaching our children.
Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.