The Goldman Sachs/Greg Smith Matter: Readers Respond

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I think I now know what it feels like to be as despised as Goldman Sachs ( GS).

My tentacles aren't nearly as long or likely as slimy, but an article I wrote posing questions about former Goldman executive Greg Smith's attack on the Vampire Squid put me squarely in the corner of Goldman, that is, as far as many readers are concerned. My character was assassinated all day Wednesday in a blistering offensive. I was called all sorts of bad names fit for a playground or locker room and accused of all sorts of ethical breaches that could probably land me a job at Goldman as Smith's replacement.

A simple -- and somewhat cheeky -- proposition I laid out, that "it's easy to become a Buddhist after you've made your first million," was seen by some as a rousing defense of Goldman.

Reader Greg Janetka noted that Buddha set a good example in this regard, but says I've got Buddhist history all wrong: "The historical Buddha was a very wealthy prince prior to his search for enlightenment. The idea that, 'It's easy to become a Buddhist after you've made your first million' simply has no regard for actual Buddhist history."

It's not easy being Goldman Sachs and making all the green (by cheating those "Muppets.")

I would disagree, and say that the Buddha example is a perfect example of questions about wealth and enlightenment being more complicated. My objective was to search out the contradiction and complexity in the world and on Wall Street.

Where some want to see the Goldman Sachs "smoking gun" in Smith's New York Times piece -- the banking world's equivalent of a former tobacco exec going public with studies proving Tobacco Road has known all along it's killing people -- I see an opportunity to ask broader questions that get to the heart of the capitalist zeitgeist.

Indeed, just a few years after the monumental collapse of our financial system, for which most of Wall Street is to blame, and in the wake of the Occupy movement, there are still more questions than answers about our capitalist system, its ethics and its excesses.

Here are some of the more essential questions raised in reader comments on the Greg Smith Goldman Sachs story.
  • Does Greg Smith have the right to preach ethics after making all the money he made at Goldman over 12 years?
  • Reader Myron Pitts thinks Smith is vulnerable on this question, writing, "Smith himself said Goldman was acting dishonorably. He never said or implied that he ceased working for the firm immediately when he discovered that it had gone astray. So, if you're working for a dishonorable outfit and profiting from it, you in some degree share its dishonor. It's great that he got religion now, but it's after he's made his money. Sorry, I'm just not overly impressed with that. It's not brave when it doesn't cost you anything. I don't think I'm saying anything particularly negative about his character. I'm just not ready to shower him with confetti and roses and act as if he's a hero."

    Former Wall Streeter LarryC2 added, "As someone who also went 'buddhist' from Wall Street some years ago, though from a less illustrious position than Smith's mind you, I agree...It's easier to be picky about the grey moral areas on Wall Street once you're set financially, especially if you're the type of person for whom some level of wealth is actually enough (for some there is no such level, God bless 'em). And the idea that GS tries to screw other people in the market as part of its basic culture, including its 'customers', is near the all-time top of no-sh*t-Sherlock 'revelations'."

    Reader Dan Lee disagrees, writing that Smith did a brave thing. "I don't doubt that you aren't impressed. He did a brave thing but it wasn't fast enough for you, ergo, moral failure? If he had not reached the status he has his editorial would have been worthless. The knives have been sharpened for the retribution, which begins by undermining his character as part of the damage control."

    J. Shindler also has Smith's back when it comes to putting a knife not just in his former employer Goldman's back but his own career: "This public message WILL cost Smith plenty. It was career suicide, and he may be sued to boot. For an ambitious person to speak up and thus become persona non grata within his industry definitely is a brave act."

    Other readers were less interested in rating Smith's bravery on a scale of 1 to 10 and more interested in this question:
  • Do the rich ever have the right to the capitalist moral high ground?
  • Reader Garrett Eaton had the kindness to call me "utterly moronic" and a "character assassin."

    Eaton writes, "What's missing is whether or not what Smith has to say is right or wrong. Believe it or not, the 1% can actually hold opinions that other people can agree with (and we're going to need some rich people on our side). Would he have preferred Smith to proclaim utter contempt for the underprivileged dupes? "

    Susan Clay adds, "Maybe it has nothing to do with the millions he's made. Even millionaires can get fed up with a lack of ethics."

    Reader Mindshell provided a historical example in disagreeing with those seeing Smith as a moral warrior: "Emperor Ashoka declared himself a pacifist by embracing Buddhism after the Kalinga War. By that time he had conquered almost entire India (except the southern tip) through brutal warfare and merciless killing -- so there was nothing left to conquer except his own soul."

    When it comes to the historical Buddha, one reader noted that he renounced all of his wealth and lived his life as a penniless monk once he found enlightenment, and some readers are reserving judgment until Smith announces he is forking over every penny he made at Goldman to charity:

    "I find it interesting that Smith's moral outrage did not cause him to return any of his millions of ill-gotten gain from his work with GS," writes reader Smokey48. "If he's really that outraged maybe he should take those millions he earned on the back of greedy, unethical Goldman Sachs and return it to the clients that were ripped off."

    For some readers, the big "rip off" otherwise known as Wall Street raised a more fundamental question about human nature:
  • Are the rich by nature less ethical than the poor?
  • Reader BunnyNSunny thinks this is the case, writing, "Recent research has found that the rich are more likely to "break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to raise their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work."

    The scientific data isn't on the side of a "profit-at-all-cost gene" in our nature, according to Alex Couseins. While there is scientific research about this and while the point seems common sense, "it's actually a fallacy if you look for peer-researched articles on the subject. There is every reason to believe that Mr. Smith's idea of what was 'wrong' was not something that only sprouted from his brain once he was rich.

    My colleague at TheStreet John DeFeo noted that the rich are also more likely to steal bagels .

    Indeed, if Goldman executives would lie, cheat and steal bagels, as far as some readers are concerned:
  • Did Greg Smith tell the world anything it didn't already know about Goldman Sachs?
  • In some strongly worded language, JakeinTexas says it doesn't matter what we already knew.

    "For those who had not heard of Goldman, plenty -- he was an insider from another country who, at one point enjoyed working there and sheds more light on how sleazy Cohn and Blankfein are and how a great firm has just become a joke."

    JakeinTexas continued, "For those who, like me, who had friends working at Goldman in the early 90s, it merely confirms that Goldman has become just another boiler room operation, AND, for those smart young people who are thinking of going to Goldman or another Wall Street firm, like my cousin, it will give them pause and think, 'do I really want to work for a sleazebag company run by two sleazeballs?' "

    Indeed, among all the debate over the Greg Smith attack on Goldman, one thing is certain: It's more profitable to be a sleazeball than a Muppet.

    -- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

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