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How Goldman might seek redemption

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By Matt Miller
Thursday, April 29, 2010

I don't know which was more pathetic or depressing Tuesday: three Goldman Sachs bankers who squirmed mutely when Sen. Susan Collins pressed them as to whether they had a "duty to act in the best interests of their clients" -- or Sen. Carl Levin's badgering of Goldman's chief financial officer over the firm's short positions, as if it were a crime to be smart enough to see a meltdown coming and act to protect your firm and its shareholders.

If you were a Chinese official tuning in to the televised showdown between America's business and political elites, you had to be asking yourself: How can I short the United States?

It would be easy to pile on Goldman today, given how Wall Street's greed and myopia contributed to the crisis. But in our hyper-accelerated political culture, there's already been such an orgy of Goldman-bashing since Tuesday's marathon hearing that I'd prefer to tackle a more intriguing question: Might Goldman have a path to redemption?

Bear with me for a moment. At times you couldn't help feeling for Lloyd Blankfein -- blinking, squinting, acting as if the committee's concerns were literally unintelligible. Don't these people understand that market-makers can't live by the ethical chains that bind ordinary mortals? Blankfein and his team were displaying the confusion and disorientation that business leaders always experience when public expectations about their role in society abruptly changes.

Not long ago Goldman was one of the country's proudest business success stories, with a reputation for being "the best." Yesterday citizens nodded in agreement when Sen. Claire McCaskill said "the cultural reality of what you all do is just jarring to many Americans . . . it seems like hamsters in a cage trying to get compensation rather than producing any societal value."

It is too late for Goldman to fully recover its reputation. But no restoration can even begin with damage control as usual. If I were Lloyd Blankfein (and his board), I'd be asking for ideas so far outside the box they're on another planet.

So here's my unsolicited redemption strategy. It would start with Goldman partners adopting a new public mantra. Because we've been among history's luckiest beneficiaries of the bounty produced by market capitalism, they'd say, we now realize we have a special duty to make sure 21st-century capitalism works for everyone.

For starters, that means leading, not fighting, efforts to clean up Wall Street excess. Goldman would support bans on vehicles such as "synthetic collaterized debt obligations" which exist only to facilitate the side bets that turned what should have been a containable subprime bust into a global crisis.

Next, Goldman would endorse higher marginal tax rates on annual income that exceeds, say, $5 million a year. The country's fiscal situation is dire. Goldman's leaders would say they stand ready to do their share (in ways that wouldn't affect their lifestyles, or economic activity, one iota).

Next, embrace your critics. Ask Andy Stern, retiring chief of the Service Employees International Union, to chair an advisory group of Wall Street foes to review and propose fixes for Goldman practices that seem antisocial. Don't promise to implement them all -- but look in good faith for ways to honor these critics' views of your most troubling routines.

Next, design a radical compensation reform to mimic Goldman's old partnership structure -- in which a partner's net worth is always on the line. That's the only way to ensure that risk doesn't get out of hand when publicly held banks bet with other people's money.

As a gesture of seriousness in this regard, Blankfein would give back to shareholders most of his 2006 and 2007 pay packages (of $54 million and $68 million, respectively), admitting they were unwarranted in light of Goldman's subsequent need to be saved by federal action.

Goldman would then launch the nation's best-funded think tank and advocacy group, staffed with eclectic thinkers from both parties, to craft an opportunity and security agenda for the middle class in a global age.

Blankfein's advisers will say this is preposterous. But a high-risk, high-reward wager is something a trader can understand.

So think about it, Lloyd. This won't blow over. Unsentimental pragmatism now requires changing Goldman's ways via startling steps that make everyone sit up and take notice. Yes, no one will trust this "new Goldman" at first. But in the long term, your soundest course is to more closely align Goldman's business strategy and external posture with society's best interests.

After this week it's pretty clear what the first line of Blankfein's obituary is set to read. All the money in the world can't change that. Inspired acts of corporate statesmanship still might.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.


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