April 25, 2010
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So Goldman Sachs, the world's greatest and smuggest investment bank, has been sued for fraud by the American Securities and Exchange Commission. Legally, the case hangs on a technicality.
Morally, however, the Goldman Sachs case may turn into a final referendum on the greed-is-good ethos that conquered America sometime in the 80s – and in the years since has aped other horrifying American trends such as boybands and reality shows in spreading across the western world like a venereal disease.
When Britain and other countries were engulfed in the flood of defaults and derivative losses that emerged from the collapse of the American housing bubble two years ago, few people understood that the crash had its roots in the lunatic greed-centered objectivist religion, fostered back in the 50s and 60s by ponderous emigre novelist Ayn Rand.
While, outside of America, Russian-born Rand is probably best known for being the unfunniest person western civilisation has seen since maybe Goebbels or Jack the Ripper (63 out of 100 colobus monkeys recently forced to read Atlas Shrugged in a laboratory setting died of boredom-induced aneurysms), in America Rand is upheld as an intellectual giant of limitless wisdom. Here in the States, her ideas are roundly worshipped even by people who've never read her books or even heard of her. The rightwing "Tea Party" movement is just one example of an entire demographic that has been inspired to mass protest by Rand without even knowing it.
Last summer I wrote a brutally negative article about Goldman Sachs for Rolling Stone magazine (I called the bank a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity") that unexpectedly sparked a heated national debate. On one side of the debate were people like me, who believed that Goldman is little better than a criminal enterprise that earns its billions by bilking the market, the government, and even its own clients in a bewildering variety of complex financial scams.
On the other side of the debate were the people who argued Goldman wasn't guilty of anything except being "too smart" and really, really good at making money. This side of the argument was based almost entirely on the Randian belief system, under which the leaders of Goldman Sachs appear not as the cheap swindlers they look like to me, but idealized heroes, the saviors of society.
In the Randian ethos, called objectivism, the only real morality is self-interest, and society is divided into groups who are efficiently self-interested (ie, the rich) and the "parasites" and "moochers" who wish to take their earnings through taxes, which are an unjust use of force in Randian politics. Rand believed government had virtually no natural role in society. She conceded that police were necessary, but was such a fervent believer in laissez-faire capitalism she refused to accept any need for economic regulation – which is a fancy way of saying we only need law enforcement for unsophisticated criminals.
Rand's fingerprints are all over the recent Goldman story. The case in question involves a hedge fund financier, John Paulson, who went to Goldman with the idea of a synthetic derivative package pegged to risky American mortgages, for use in betting against the mortgage market. Paulson would short the package, called Abacus, and Goldman would then sell the deal to suckers who would be told it was a good bet for a long investment. The SEC's contention is that Goldman committed a crime – a "failure to disclose" – when they failed to tell the suckers about the role played by the vulture betting against them on the other side of the deal.