When My Own World Came Falling Down

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I know first-hand about a falling-down world. My father, the bright youngest child of working-class Irish, was more an inventor than a straightforward engineer. At the end of the Second World War, he designed a revolutionary kind of heating system for all the new homes being built for returning vets. In order to fund the start-up, he found two partners willing to invest. They would handle the sales and finance, while he would focus on the designs and shop floor. They even gave their company a name that sounded a little like America, a nod to the patriotic mood of the times.

Dad’s business rapidly took off. He and my mother had moved from Yonkers and the Bronx to the pretty suburban town of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Year after year, they enjoyed the fruits of increasing prosperity: ­­ a speedboat, a second car, a second home. By 1970, one partner had died and dad’s remaining partner was growing ill. The company began to founder badly.

 

After the remaining partner died and my father took over, he discovered the reason: two sets of accounting books, the official one for my father, and another revealing the truth about the other two partners’ drawings.

 

A million-dollar life

Before the business got bought for a song, the hefty life insurance on the company’s directors was still in place. The partner’s widow landed a million dollars, while my father, by then in his mid-fifties, with two kids in college, had to find work among his company’s competitors as an employee. When I returned home from college one summer, the second car and house were gone, and the house in Ridgewood he and my mother had built from scratch was up for sale.

 

Dad never stopped believing that he could do it all over again. On a trip to Florida, he saw another problem that needed a solution – the damage done to small pleasure boats continuously kept in the water. My parents moved to Florida, where my father set to work designing an ingenious boat lift that would scoop boats up and out of the water with just a push of a button.

 

During a particularly stifling summer’s day, while welding one of the prototypes, he fainted. The welding rod in his hand fell on his face, killing him instantly. Unlike his old partner, he died without life insurance. The new policy he’d meant to sign that evening was sitting on his bedroom chest of drawers.

 

I win/you lose

The entire trajectory of my family’s life was defined by unfairness – by ‘I win/you lose.’ Like too many other people these days all over the Western world, my father’s American Dream turned into an American Nightmare. It’s a nightmare that happens every day, with no rescue for anyone who happens to get pushed off the wagon train.

 

I thought of my father’s experience this week when reading about Greg Smith, former manager of Goldman Sachs, who not only left the firm in disgust, but decided it was time to blow the whistle on the investment bank’s practices.

 

Smith was a Rhodes School from South Africa, who started at Goldman Sachs while still an idealistic undergraduate from Stanford University. For 12 years he worked his way up the corporate ladder in New York before landing a plum position in London as head of the firm’s US equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

 

At the moment he quit, Smith was at the top of his game; the job he left entailed advising on two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia – a combined asset base of more than a trillion dollars.

 

The secret sauce

In his early year there, Smith had been extremely proud of the culture at Goldman Sachs, ‘the secret sauce’ that ‘revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility and always doing right by our clients.’

 

Slowly that culture began to disintegrate. And the way it changed had to do with leadership, he says, of what got defined as ‘setting an example and doing the right thing.’

 

Currently, he says, the moral code at Goldman’s is all about feathering your own nest in whatever way you can. At least five managing directors refer to their clients as ‘muppets’ and boast about ‘ripping out the eyeballs of customers.’

 

In fact, the only way to get ahead at the investment giant, a message that gets pounded into the heads of the junior staff, says Smith, is to hoodwink your clients by getting them to invest in stocks the firm is trying to get rid of, trade whatever brings biggest profit to Goldman, and offer illiquid, impossibly opaque products that sound good in order to make the most money for the bank and the individual trader concerned.

 

‘I don’t know of any illegal behavior,’ wrote Smith, ‘but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.’

 

God’s work

Goldman’s modus operandi is now such standard practice in investment corporations that chief executive Lloyd Blankfein once characterized it, without irony, as ‘just doing God’s work.’

 

As with my dad’s business, it is now seen as not only okay but a sign of virtue to take whatever you can get for yours and yours alone.

 

Smith finally looked around him and said this is not doing the right thing. His brave disclosure (he obviously wanted to get out of banking forever) is causing an almighty‘s***storm inside Goldman’s. It will be interesting to see how many investors yank all their assets out of the bank.

 

But the real place this storm needs to be set off in is your heart and mine. My own experience has convinced me that fixing the problems that now beset us requires nothing less than ripping up the rulebook and starting afresh, based on something other than every man for himself. And that begins with a refusal, by each one of us, to buy into our current set of rules.

 

Every one of our internal hard drives was programmed long ago to think individualistically and competitively. Eat or be eaten. My way or the highway. That mind-set creeps into both your worldview and your dealings with others in ways that you cannot even imagine, much less identify. Even when we attempt to create new prescriptions for living, many are unconsciously assembled with some variation of I win, you lose.

 

The endless ripple

True change only starts when you begin to understand the extraordinary ripple effect you have on someone else’s life, every time you decide to win at someone else’s expense. It’s a little like that old English proverb, ‘For want of a nail, a shoe was lost’ which leads to a horse and rider left stranded, a message left undelivered, and a battle ultimately lost.

 

Think of the alternative trajectory if my father’s partners had decided to do the right thing, if there hadn’t been a second set of accounts. Dad would have got to read my first book. He would have met my husband and his two grandchildren. Mom wouldn’t have spent her golden years on her own, or died with large credit card overdrafts to clear, which kept up the pretense that she had enough money. One family’s life wouldn’t have been hit by lightning.

 

As Arthur Miller wrote, the one new thing that we must begin to feel again is ‘a kind of responsibility, man for man,’ like ‘some kind of monument’ that everyone would feel standing behind him.

 

Each of us must start to build that monument today, brick by individual brick.

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