The Mandatory Mercy of Goldman Sachs

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations
     – Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”

The horrid, big, rich scoundrel.
      – Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now

For months, journalists and politicians have heaped indignation upon our nation’s leading bankers for being, as we term it, “tone-deaf.”  Bafflingly ignorant about appearance, colossally indifferent to public opinion, many of our country’s financial directors have awarded themselves and their peers vast sums of shareholders’ and, it may be felt, taxpayers’ money as salary and bonus payments for contributing powerfully to the domestic and global economic collapse.  No one has displayed more ignorance of or arrogance about public reaction than the directors of our society’s most influential and successful bank, Goldman Sachs.  Nor has any other bank received more ignominy.

Goldman reserved from its earnings nearly $17 billion for compensation during the first three quarters of 2009.  The bank’s solvency was protected – was made possible – by previous taxpayer-funded government payments and loan guarantees.   Taxpayers’ outrage and politicians’ incensed criticisms evidently surprised the bank’s leaders.  Their initial responses, unapologetic, indignant, intractable, were beyond “tone-deaf.”  They were unprincipled, callous, and astonishingly incompetent.

Belatedly, damage-control specialists conceived that a public ignored and a government defied perchance might make for future political complications.  Their most recent attempt at tardy remedy?  Compulsory charity. 

On January 11, 2010, The New York Times reported:    

As it prepares to pay out big bonuses to employees, Goldman Sachs is considering expanding a program that would require executives and top managers to give a certain percentage of their earnings to charity.

The move would be the latest in a series of initiatives by Goldman to soften criticism over the size of its bonuses, which are expected to be among the largest on Wall Street, bringing average pay to about $595,000 for each employee — with far higher amounts for top performers…

While the details of the latest charity initiative are still under discussion, the firm’s executives have been looking at expanding their current charitable requirements for months and trying to understand whether such gestures would damp public anger over pay, according to a person familiar with the matter who did not want to be identified because of the delicacy of the pay issue.

Here’s a wild guess, a stab in the dark.  “Such gestures,” we assert, will not “damp public anger.”  Such gestures may well, though, intensify it. 

It’s not the case that we who abide in the realm of the public despise charity.  We revere it, and we practice it.  However, we do so in emotions of sincere concern and care.  Not to “damp” other people’s anger.  Not to dupe other persons or newspapers or our government into believing we are compassionate or generous.  Not to make any impression whatsoever, but to aid.  Without calculus, to shelter.  Without manipulative intent, to give succor.  

Mercy, which is compassion toward those who are in distress, by its nature cannot be mandatory.  Altruism, which is unselfish devotion to the welfare of others, cannot be obligatory.  Charity, which is benevolent helpfulness for the suffering, cannot be compulsory.  Certainly it cannot be an insidious artful maneuver.

Fool us with mandatory mercy?  Dupe us with obligatory altruism?  Gull us with involuntary empathy? 

Clams clinging to our coastlines have more commonsense than these guys.  But, of course, it’s not that these guys don’t get it.  They just don’t care.  Their avarice is limitless.  It’s confiscatory. 

Greed and indifference on this scale belong to a species other than the normally human.  When the American president proposes to tax this species heavily, he is pressing against the confines of the U.S. Constitution.  Yet we who inhabit the body politic are not likely to think our president has gone tone-deaf or craven when he does this.  We are likely to sing his praises, send him hosannas, and urge our elected representatives to support his indignant initiative.

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