Goldman, Guns and Greg Smith

Why it matters that a “gun” gesture was directed towards former Goldman Sachs whistle-blower Greg Smith on CNBC, the day his book came out.

Artist’s collective, UX in Paris, where they worked on repairing a broken clock.

Artist’s collective, UX in Paris, where they worked on repairing a broken clock.

 

An artist’s group in Paris, UX, was only interested in nurturing and preserving things abandoned or lost which were in the possession of officials. There was a clock that no longer worked. They repaired it thinking they had created a gift for the people of Paris and for the government officials. When they first looked at the clock in its state of disrepair they realized that it had actually been intentionally damaged so it would not function. This came as a surprise. But they went ahead and painstakingly repaired it to working order. Afterwards, they went to the officials to share their story of repairing the beautiful working clock, thinking it would please them. But rather than be pleased the officials sought the help of the police and the courts to file criminal charges against the group. Although this was never successful, as there was no crime of repairing clocks, it pointed out something of importance: the dysfunction was not unintentional.

The story of the restoration of the clock in Paris points to the illness of many officials, including those in investment banking and government, (though these groups operate so closely it is almost not worth separating them). It described something beautiful, a treasure, a cultural icon that was broken. The group of artists who had no interest in anything other than bringing it back to its original state for everyone to enjoy, succeeded in their mission. But rather than thank them and embrace the good they did for others, they were seen as a scourge to be chided and hopefully imprisoned. This response is inversely logical. So much so it probably makes sense. Yes, we can rationalize why the officials did not want the broken clock fixed. It would be too much work for them to maintain it. But on a cultural level, it makes no sense; the effort of a few to restore something of beauty that most would enjoy should be lauded.

The same is true in our broken world of finance. Greg Smith, a former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, noticed banking at the company he loved was broken. So he decided to end his career and use this ending as a way to let others know how it was broken. He thought that in doing so he would be helping to restore his bank to working order by shining the light on what was broken. This is what eventually brings all whistleblowers to a point of action. It requires a certain blind naiveté.

Below is a presentation given by Greg Smith about his choice to leave the firm and tell what he had learned. 

Greg Smith took action by sending his resignation to the NY times, as an Op-Ed piece and it was published. He then got a book deal. But rather than fix the problems that he outlined the banking and government interests sought instead to discredit Smith. As the publishing date came closer, his confidential employment reviews were “leaked”. It is easy to imagine that Goldman made sure they were edited to look as disparaging as possible. If you do a Google search for Greg Smith today, the first two pages are all articles questioning his credibility, not about what he criticized. Most are published by mainstream media. The Huffington post figures prominently. Smith is re-defined. His own story is muted and belittled, if you can find it.

One of the most telling responses to Smith occurred on CNBC, the financial network. On the day Smith’s book came out, a pundit was interviewed who early on made a gun gesture in response to being asked how he viewed Smith. He did this more than once. He sounded and looked like a thug. This threat was not discussed. The reporter barely flinched. Later on, someone who sympathized with Smith said that the fact Goldman was taking such an effort–for over a year–when they usually try to say as little as possible in the media, was evidence that Smith was considered a viable threat by them. Another person who was critical of the banking sector but cynical, said Smiths actions were ill-conceived. That what he did would never change the current unethical practices in banking. Greg Smith’s actions to fix the clock, rather than being lauded, were seen as a nuisance.

But, if you listen to what he says, during a presentation at the New School for Social Research, you get an idea of how helpful it is for the broader public to have someone who worked on the inside speaking about the working of these banks. Yes, the story is being hidden by officials. Yes, they are creating a new distorted history of Smith, which places him in a false light to most people. But, his words are there. You can still see them if you dig far enough. You can read his book. It is a small crack in a massive foundation of concrete. And this is not trivial.

Those who profit from the bad practices will continue to bury him. Just as the clock was returned to a non-working state by the French officials. But the fact remains, Smith took action and what he said has been noted. And even more helpful, the overzealous response to him serves as clear evidence that what he has said was true. Smith joins others, like UX, working quietly to restore what is broken.

Here is the story about UX and the clock. Other videos are below.

 

This article was originally written in 2010. Author: Marta Lyall

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