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Financial dystopia: “The giant Wall Street firms have taken on lives of their own”

In a review of Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story, the new (October 2012) book by Greg Smith — who also wrote last year’s bombshell piece “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times — Michael Lewis makes the following cogent, riveting, and frightening observation about the current world of American high finance and the way it has now mutated into a Frankenstein-like entity and manifested a monster-amok scenario, such that insider confessions and whistle-blowing are rendered meaningless, since the system is effectively operating autonomously, without regard for human morals and meanings.

He also offers one of the most succinct accounts of the real history and nature of the financial crisis in the collusion of Goldman Sachs (and by extension the rest of Wall Street) with government power, the better to pursue an agenda of unfettered greed by gaming the whole system from top to bottom, that you’re likely to read anywhere.

In the end, the reader puts down Why I Left Goldman Sachs a little mystified. Why exactly did Greg Smith leave Goldman Sachs? What did he hope to achieve? If it’s change he is after, his particular story comes too late. If, say, back in 2004, someone such as Greg Smith had stepped forward and explained to the world what was going on inside Goldman, he might have spared us all a lot of pain and trouble. But today’s insider confessions feel like vain and useless acts. And what would he have us do, four years after the Great Collapse, to fix the system, or to change in any way his former employer’s behavior? The dystopia often imagined in the world of artificial intelligence — in which computers somehow take on a life of their own and come to rule mankind — has actually happened in the world of finance. The giant Wall Street firms have taken on lives of their own, beyond human control. The people flow into and out of them but have only incidental effect on their direction and behavior. The firms may not be intent on evil; they aren’t intent on anything except short-term profits: they’re insensible. If anyone attempted to seize control of one of these strange machines and impose upon them a clear moral direction, the machine would hit its own button and he would be ejected.

Stop and think once more about what has just happened on Wall Street: its most admired firm conspired to flood the financial system with worthless securities, then set itself up to profit from betting against those very same securities, and in the bargain helped to precipitate a world historic financial crisis that cost millions of people their jobs and convulsed our political system. In other places, or at other times, the firm would be put out of business, and its leaders shamed and jailed and strung from lampposts. (I am not advocating the latter.) Instead Goldman Sachs, like the other too-big-to-fail firms, has been handed tens of billions in government subsidies, on the theory that we cannot live without them. They were then permitted to pay politicians to prevent laws being passed to change their business, and bribe public officials (with the implicit promise of future employment) to neuter the laws that were passed — so that they might continue to behave in more or less the same way that brought ruin on us all. And after all this has been done, a Goldman Sachs employee steps forward to say that the people at the top of his former firm need to see the error of their ways, and become more decent, socially responsible human beings. Right. How exactly is that going to happen?

— Michael Lewis, “The Trouble with Wall Street,” The New Republic,