A Goldman Board Member on the Culture of Big Bonuses

Question: There was a report that shareholders were angry that such a large portion of Goldman’s profits were going to employee bonuses. As a board member, where do you stand? (Dan Indiviglio, the Atlantic Business Channel)

Bill George:  I’m very concerned about the compensation issues and the public’s reaction to that.  I frankly think that the public perception is a much bigger issue than the shareholder issue.  I think that is a limited group of shareholders.  Shareholders seem to be quite pleased with Goldman and there is a linkage between pay and performance and I think as long as we follow our principles of long term pay for long term performance then the firm is going to do well.  If it gets back to play, if it goes to a short term game like Citigroup did of paying out large cash bonuses I think that would be a disaster and I don’t think you’ll see that happening.  There is always a question of the amount and I think one has to look at that in relationship to the profits and I think you’ll see even that percentage coming down.  It’s been very high on Wall Street, much higher than any industrial corporation that I know of, but I think those percentages need to be re-looked at and I know the Goldman board and compensation committee in particular are taking a hard look at that right now. 

Question: How does this pay reflect real value added to the real economy?

Bill George:  One of the statements at Medtronic mission is that employees should have a means to share in the company’s success and to me that meant a lot more than salary or wages and benefits and so what we tried to do at Medtronic was to spread the wealth around.  When the company is successful everyone got stock.  In fact, we made sure every employee had stock.  Now it was in a restricted plan, but still, everyone had stock because we wanted them to be the beneficiaries to the extent the stock went up they benefited and we gave out, converted a lot of profitability into stocks spread broadly across the company in stock options.  I was a beneficiary of that, but only because the shareholder value went from $1.27… went from 1.1 billion to 60 billion while I was there, so everyone else had a chance to benefit and I think that is the way it should be.  Now you can’t say in a firm like Goldman that they don’t do that.  I think just the numbers are so much larger on Wall Street and it’s not just Goldman and if you think they’re large on the publically held firms where you know all the numbers then look at what the hedge funds pay and you can just add a zero on that and one of the characteristics there is it is a fairly free market for traders.  I’m not saying that the top executives are going to move into hedge funds, but it’s a fairly free market for traders moving from publically held firms into privately held hedge funds and private equity and so this is one of the sensitive issues I think that one feels like the shareholder value is made up in people and you need the people there to do the job and if you don’t pay them for their performance you’ll lose them and It’s much like professional athletes and movie stars I think.  I can’t justify the relationship between a trader’s bonuses and what a school teacher makes for instance.  I think we have much societal issues.  It’s hard for me to justify that or what an athlete makes you know who plays basketball compared to what you know what a school teacher makes or even an engineer, so I worry about these a lot, but I haven’t figured out how to solve them either. 

I don’t buy the market efficiency argument.  I’ve heard that from The Economist for a couple of decades.  I don’t really buy that argument.  The argument I would buy is that we need strong financial institutions to finance business, to finance individuals and right now that is a huge problem.  The credit crunch may be over for big business and may be over for Wall Street, but it’s certainly not over for small business and individuals still having a lot of problems getting financing and I would be the first to say that financial institutions like Countrywide Financial and New Century Mortgage went way overboard in offering it to everyone in totally inappropriate ways, but I do think we depend upon strong financial institutions to facilitate the start up of business with venture capital, to facilitate the growth of business, small business and this is where the jobs come from.  70% of all jobs in this country are created by small business and most of those are newer companies.  My company started with two people and had it not been for some venture capital. Now admittedly it was only $200,000 in 1962, but it saved the company from going bankrupt and gave the company the wisdom and the focus to go forward, but I think I know lots and lots of young people that would like to start companies today and can’t get financing and don’t have a lot of money personally and I think that is the fuel behind the system, so now do you put that pay in proportion and does it payoff with hedge funds trying to say they’re providing efficiency when they make their money selling short?  I think that’s a stretch as an argument. 

Question: How does one go about determining how much the CEO of Goldman Sachs should get paid and has that changed in the wake of the crisis? (Felix Salmon, Reuters Finance)

Bill George:  Well I think this is a very tough question.  I think it’s got to be looked in relationship to peers and what they’re paid.  First it starts with performance.  Is the performance there?  Lloyd Blankfein and the top six members of management including Blankfein were the first company to take no bonuses last year in the top six, not just top person, took no bonuses because they felt it was a very rough year and they had had a lot of support getting through the year.  When they perform they should be paid.  Now how much that is I think it should be spread around at Goldman so it isn’t just the CEO getting the money.  I don’t like this idea the CEO is way up here and the executives are up here and everyone else is down here, so I think there has got to be a relationship internal, that internal equity and I think that amount that needs to be looked at in relationship to profitability, but I don’t think it should be paid out in cash.  I think it should be long term pay for long term performance.  If you payout for fourth quarter performance or one year performance and let people cash out you’re just creating more of the problem.  You’re asking people to get more fee based income to enrich themselves today and walk across the street to somebody else tomorrow.

Question: Should the government impose a fixed time frame on bonuses?

Bill George:  I think it’s very hard for the government to legislate compensation.  Every time they do there are unintended consequences.  A good example right now is Robert Benmosche.  The CEO of AIG is making 7.3 million dollars in a firm that is 80% owned by the U.S. government.  Is this right?  He is the highest salary of a publically held corporation in history.  Why are we doing this?  Just because of the Dodd Amendment you couldn’t pay more than 50% in bonus.  This is ridiculous.  You know the CEO at Goldman Sachs gets paid $600,000 salary, okay.  That’s more inline and I think you’ll see that people like Blankfein and others at Goldman, all the top group will take it all in long term stocks just like Paulson did.  Paulson never took any cash.  He took it out in stock, so if the firm does well he does well.  If the firm collapses they collapse and you know there was a lot of net worth loss in the fall of 2008 on the part of a lot of top people and some of them like JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs bounced back and some of them like Lehman Brothers and Citigroup and Wachovia never came back and probably won’t.

Recorded on December 9, 2009

Bill George, a board member of Goldman Sachs, on the changing landscape of Wall Street bonuses in the wake of the economic crisis—and why government intervention is more harm than help.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.