I have a confession to make. I used to feel a bit of sympathy for Goldman Sachs—a flicker of indulgence, a little soft spot, a gentle tug of identification, even. I know, it’s ridiculous. I’m supposed to be a lefty, and Goldman is the worst of the worst. It’s just because I have a friend who worked there once. For a year or two, whenever I heard the name “Goldman,” I automatically thought of her. Over and over the connection was forged, creating an association that lingered for years: after she left, after the crash, even after CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s infamous remark about “doing God’s work.”
Susan worked at Goldman, went the thought, so it can’t be as bad as the others. Or not the thought—the feeling, the reflex. The thought was, you’re being an idiot. And the most ironic part is that she loathed the place—couldn’t stand the macho competitive bullshit, got out as soon as she had the opportunity. We were once discussing the report that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are psychopaths (a finding, I should say, that’s been debunked). That may be true, she said, but 90 percent of those 10 percent are at Goldman.
So why do I disclose this shameful secret? Because it furnishes some insight into the workings of the oligarchy. If I’m susceptible to the influence of a personal connection within the business community, then what must it be like for politicians, who are virtually marinating in them? You can be as analytic as you want (as our president famously is), but relationships inevitably play a role in shaping your sympathies, and thus your policies. The bankers got a bailout, but homeowners didn’t. Washington is focused on the debt, which merely threatens the bondholders, but not on unemployment, which is doing active harm to workers.
One expects no different from the GOP, which makes a point of branding itself as the party of business. Dick Cheney is close personal friends with the former head of ExxonMobil. Mitt Romney was unable to imagine that there are college graduates who can’t just borrow money from their parents to start a business. That much is no surprise. But the meritocracy is such that Democratic leaders tend to travel in environments that are almost as circumscribed. Of the last 10 major-party presidential nominees (going back to the first Bush), nine went to elite colleges; of the previous 14 (going back to Harry Truman), only five did. The ranks of appointed officials are undoubtedly, if possible, even more homogenized. We talk about the dangers of groupthink in Washington, the fact that our policymakers dwell within a tightly bounded, self-reinforcing intellectual universe. But what about their emotional universe? What about, as we might call it, groupfeel, which leads to the assumptions that the people you know are basically decent and that what’s good for them is good for everybody? New ideas aren’t enough. We also need new sentiments.
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