September 2, 2016
Back to school with… Goldman Sachs?
by Ian Dreiblatt
Back in May, we covered a recommended reading list that had issued from the august offices of Goldman Sachs, the banking firm whose tightrope walk over the abyss of capitalism once garnered the memorable sentence, “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
But a lot has happened since March. For one thing, America has gotten a new definition of ‘callow indifference to the general good of humanity.’ For another, we, the intrepid crew of the SS MobyLives, have gotten to know a little more about bankers, via Joris Luyendijk’s excellent Among the Bankers, forthcoming later this month. Consider this, for example:
Every year prestigious top banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan fire their worst-performing staff — no matter how much profit was made. It is called ‘the cull,’ the same term you use when infected cattle have to be destroyed, or farmers need to reduce the number of badgers on their land. ‘Oh yes, we cull,’ interviewees would say, or: ‘When the cull comes…’
What an exceptionally stressful-sounding workplace! To think of Goldman in this way—as a herd of terrified, sickly cattle awaiting their fateful trip to that other barn—might dispose you more sympathetically toward them while you’re reviewing the new reading list they released yesterday. For some reason, it was a “back-to-school” reading list, recommended for anyone “heading back to campus this year, back to the office or just looking to get back into the swing of things this fall.”
Let it be said: this list is not awful. It includes books human beings might want to read, like Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of the Yellow Sun, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Compared with entries from the previous list like Wealth Creators: The Rise of Today’s New Rich and Super-Rich, these are phenomenally humane suggestions. In his photo, one employee even went full Puffy Shirt to recommend Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Seinfeldia, in what future scholars of American late capitalism may one day term “a presumably successful attempt at fun.”
Of course, it can’t be all Seinfeld winks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, and there are some exceedingly bad calls here too, like World Order by Henry Kissinger, the war criminal whom Lewis Lapham once memorably described as “always willing to arrange the world to fit the desire of his patron,” and Zero to One, written by a duo of authors that includes Peter Thiel, the billionaire who recently struck the winning blow for American plutocracy that killed Gawker dead. There are some infelicities in the descriptions of these books, too, as when Paul Midler’s Poorly Made in China is portrayed as “depicting conduct that many will struggle to comprehend,” even though the sort of conduct in question—race-to-the-bottom capitalism—had been amply documented by the end of the nineteenth century, and is something no powerful investment banker should be allowed to play dumb about in 2016.
In an email to Jena McGregor of the Washington Post, a Goldman spokesperson said that the list, like all the firm’s social media postings, was pitched toward “the larger goal of humanizing the firm and our leaders” (here’s looking at you, Puffy Shirt), and that, while it was aimed at people regardless of their current career status, “recruits are an important part of that demographic.” (But wait, which demographic? Are blog readers a demographic? If so, they’re our favorite demographic. We write for you, coveted blog-reading demographic.)
All in all, kind of a mixed year for the Goldman Sachs back-to-school recommended reading list. To our friends on the inside: may your Yaa Gyasis ever outnumber your Peter Thiels, and may you survive the coming cull in safety. Now go in peace, and do God’s work…
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.