A Goldman Board Member on the Culture of Big Bonuses
Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, where he has taught leadership since 2004. He is the author of four best-selling books: 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, True North, Finding Your True North, and Authentic Leadership. With co-author Doug Baker he recently published True North Groups.
Mr. George is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic. He joined Medtronic in 1989 as president and chief operating officer, was chief executive officer from 1991-2001, and board chair from 1996-2002. Earlier in his career, he was a senior executive with Honeywell and Litton Industries and served in the U.S. Department of Defense.
Mr. George currently serves as director of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and the Mayo Clinic and also served on the board of Novartis and Target Corporation. He is currently a trustee of the World Economic Forum USA and Guthrie Theater and a former Trustee of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has served as board chair for Allina Health System, Abbott-Northwestern Hospital, United Way of the Greater Twin Cities, and Advamed.
He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2012. He has been named one of "Top 25 Business Leaders of the Past 25 Years" by PBS; "Executive of the Year-2001" by the Academy of Management; and "Director of the Year-2001-02" by the National Association of Corporate Directors. Mr. George has made frequent appearances on television and radio and his articles have appeared in Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, and numerous publications.
Mr. George received his BSIE with high honors from Georgia Tech, his MBA with high distinction from Harvard University, where he was a Baker Scholar, and honorary PhDs from Georgia Tech, Bryant University, and University of St. Thomas. During 2002-03 he was professor at IMD International and Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland, and executive-in-residence at Yale School of Management.
He and his wife Penny reside in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
In ancient Greece, the Olympics were never solely about the athletes themselves.
Because of a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2021 Olympics will unfold in a stadium absent the eyes, ears and voices of a once-anticipated 68,000 ticket holders from around the world.
Events during the intervening days will likewise occur in silent arenas missing the hundreds of thousands of spectators who paid US$815 million for their now-useless tickets.
After 48 years teaching classics, I can't help but wonder what the Greeks – who invented the Games nearly 3,000 years ago, in 776 B.C. – would make of such a ghostly version of their Olympic festival.
In many ways, they'd view the prospect as absurd.
In ancient Greece, the Olympics were never solely about the athletes themselves; instead, the heart and soul of the festival was the experience shared by all who attended. Every four years, athletes and spectators traveled from far-flung corners of the Greek-speaking world to Olympia, lured by a longing for contact with their compatriots and their gods.
In the shadow of dreams
For the Greeks, during five days in the late-summer heat, two worlds miraculously merged at Olympia: the domain of everyday life, with its human limits, and a supernatural sphere from the days superior beings, gods and heroes populated Earth.
Greek athletics, like today's, plunged participants into performances that pushed the envelope of human ability to its breaking point. But to the Greeks, the cauldron of competition could trigger revelations in which ordinary mortals might briefly intermingle with the extraordinary immortals.
The poet Pindar, famous for the victory songs he composed for winners at Olympia, captured this sort of transcendent moment when he wrote, “Humans are creatures of a day. But what is humankind? What is it not? A human is just the shadow of a dream – but when a flash of light from Zeus comes down, a shining light falls on humans and their lifetime can be sweet as honey."
However, these epiphanies could occur only if witnesses were physically present to immerse themselves – and share in – the spine-tingling flirtation with the divine.
Simply put, Greek athletics and religious experience were inseparable.
At Olympia, both athletes and spectators were making a pilgrimage to a sacred place. A modern Olympics can legitimately take place in any city selected by the International Olympic Committee. But the ancient games could occur in only one location in western Greece. The most profoundly moving events didn't even occur in the stadium that accommodated 40,000 or in the wrestling and boxing arenas.
Instead, they took place in a grove called the Althis, where Hercules is said to have first erected an altar, sacrificed oxen to Zeus and planted a wild olive tree. Easily half the events during the festival engrossed spectators not in feats like discus, javelin, long jump, foot race and wrestling, but in feasts where animals were sacrificed to gods in heaven and long-dead heroes whose spirits still lingered.
On the evening of the second day, thousands gathered in the Althis to reenact the funeral rites of Pelops, a human hero who once raced a chariot to win a local chief's daughter. But the climactic sacrifice was on the morning of the third day at the Great Altar of Zeus, a mound of plastered ashes from previous sacrifices that stood 22 feet tall and 125 feet around. In a ritual called the hecatomb, 100 bulls were slaughtered and their thigh bones, wrapped in fat, burned atop the altar so that the rising smoke and aroma would reach the sky where Zeus could savor it.
No doubt many a spectator shivered at the thought of Zeus hovering above them, smiling and remembering Hercules' first sacrifice.
Just a few yards from the Great Altar another, more visual encounter with the god awaited. In the Temple of Zeus, which was erected around 468 to 456 B.C., stood a colossal image, 40 feet high, of the god on a throne, his skin carved from ivory and his clothing made of gold. In one hand he held the elusive goddess of victory, Nike, and in the other a staff on which his sacred bird, the eagle, perched. The towering statue was reflected in a shimmering pool of olive oil surrounding it.
During events, the athletes performed in the nude, imitating heroic figures like Hercules, Theseus or Achilles, who all crossed the dividing line between human and superhuman and were usually represented nude in painting and sculpture.
The athletes' nudity declared to spectators that in this holy place, contestants hoped to reenact, in the ritual of sport, the shudder of contact with divinity. In the Althis stood a forest of hundreds of nude statues of men and boys, all previous victors whose images set the bar for aspiring newcomers.
“There are a lot of truly marvelous things one can see and hear about in Greece," the Greek travel writer Pausanias noted in the second century B.C., “but there is something unique about how the divine is encountered at … the games at Olympia."
Communion and community
The Greeks lived in roughly 1,500 to 2,000 small-scale states scattered across the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.
Since sea travel in summertime was the only viable way to cross this fragile geographical web, the Olympics might entice a Greek living in Southern Europe and another residing in modern-day Ukraine to interact briefly in a festival celebrating not only Zeus and Heracles but also the Hellenic language and culture that produced them.
Besides athletes, poets, philosophers and orators came to perform before crowds that included politicians and businessmen, with everyone communing in an “oceanic feeling" of what it meant to be momentarily united as Greeks.
Now, there's no way we could explain the miracle of TV to the Greeks and how its electronic eye recruits millions of spectators to the modern games by proxy. But visitors to Olympia engaged in a distinct type of spectating.
The ordinary Greek word for someone who observes – “theatês" – connects not only to “theater" but also to “theôria," a special kind of seeing that requires a journey from home to a place where something wondrous unfolds. Theôria opens a door into the sacred, whether it's visiting an oracle or participating in a religious cult.
Attending an athletic-religious festival like the Olympics transformed an ordinary spectator, a theatês, into a theôros – a witness observing the sacred, an ambassador reporting home the wonders observed abroad.
It's hard to imagine TV images from Tokyo achieving similar ends.
No matter how many world records are broken and unprecedented feats accomplished at the 2020 games, the empty arenas will attract no gods or genuine heroes: The Tokyo games are even less enchanted than previous modern games.
But while medal counts will confer fleeting glory on some nations and disappointing shame on others, perhaps a dramatic moment or two might unite athletes and TV viewers in an oceanic feeling of what it means to be “kosmopolitai," citizens of the world, celebrants of the wonder of what it means to be human – and perhaps, briefly, superhuman as well.
The ancient Greeks wouldn't recognize some aspects of the modern Olympics.
Vincent Farenga, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
A new brain imaging study explored how different levels of the brain's excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters are linked to math abilities.
- Glutamate and GABA are neurotransmitters that help regulate brain activity.
- Scientists have long known that both are important to learning and neuroplasticity, but their relationship to acquiring complex cognitive skills like math has remained unclear.
- The new study shows that having certain levels of these neurotransmitters predict math performance, but that these levels switch with age.
Why do roughly one in five people find math especially difficult?
You might blame teaching methods, which some argue explains why the U.S. lags behind other countries in standardized math test scores. You could point to math anxiety, which affects about 20 percent of students and 25 percent of teachers, according to surveys. And there are also medical conditions that make math difficult, such as dyscalculia, a learning disability that disrupts the normal development of arithmetic skills.
But another explanation centers on neurotransmitters. In a new study published in PLOS Biology, researchers explored how the brain's levels of GABA and glutamate relate to math abilities over time in students of varying ages. The results showed that levels of these neurotransmitters can predict students' performance on math tests. However, this relationship seems to flip as people get older.
GABA and glutamate are responsible for regulating brain activity. In the mature brain, GABA is the brain's main inhibitory neurotransmitter, helping to block impulses between nerve cells in the brain, which can calm feelings of stress, anxiety, or fear. GABA is made from glutamate, the brain's major excitatory neurotransmitter that helps send signals throughout the central nervous system.
Researchers have long known that these neurotransmitters play crucial roles in learning, development, and neuroplasticity. That is partly because they are thought to help trigger developmental windows (or "sensitive periods") during which neural systems become more plastic and better able to acquire certain cognitive skills.
"Importantly, sensitive periods vary for different functions, with relatively simple abilities (e.g., sensorimotor integration) occurring earlier in development, while the sensitive period for acquiring more complex cognitive functions extends into the third decade of life," the researchers wrote.
GABA, glutamate, and math
Still, the exact relationship between GABA, glutamate, and complex cognitive functions has remained unclear. The new study explored that relationship by focusing on associations between the neurotransmitters and math abilities, which "provides a unique cognitive model to examine these questions due to its protracted skill acquisition period that starts already from early childhood and can continue for nearly two decades," the researchers wrote.
For the study, the researchers measured levels of GABA and glutamate in the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) of 255 students, ranging from primary school to college. The participants completed a math test as their brains were imaged. About a year and a half later, the participants repeated the same process.
"The longitudinal design allowed us to further examine whether neurotransmitter concentration is linked to MA [mathematical abilities] as well as predict MA in the future," the researchers wrote. "Crucially, adopting this design allowed us to discern the selective effect of glutamate and GABA in response to natural (i.e., learning in school) rather than artificial environmental stimulation, thus allowing us to test the knowledge gained from lab-based experiments in high ecological settings."
The results suggest that GABA and glutamate play an important role in math abilities, but that the dynamic switches with age. For the young participants, higher GABA levels in the IPS were associated with higher scores on math tests. The opposite was observed among older students: higher glutamate levels correlated with higher scores. Both results held true on subsequent math tests.
Although the study sheds light on how neurotransmitter levels at different stages of development contribute to learning some cognitive skills, like math, the researchers noted that acquiring other skills may involve different processes.
"Our findings may also highlight a general principle that the developmental dynamics of regional excitation and inhibition levels in regulating the sensitive period and plasticity of a given high-level cognitive function (i.e., MA) may be different compared to another high-level cognitive function (i.e., general intelligence) that draws on similar, albeit not identical, cognitive and neural mechanisms," they wrote.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Do our thoughts have any meaning whatsoever?
- Epiphenomenalism is the idea that our conscious minds serve no role in affecting the physical world.
- On the contrary, our thoughts are a causally irrelevant byproduct of physical processes that are occurring inside of our brains.
- According to epiphenomenalism, we are like children pretending to drive a car — it can be great fun, but we are really not in charge.
What if you don't matter? What if all of your thoughts, precious feelings, great dreams, and terrible fears are completely, utterly, spectacularly irrelevant? Might it be that all of your mental life is just some pointless spectator, looking on as your body does the important stuff of keeping you alive and running about? What actually is the point of a thought?
This is the view of "epiphenomenalism," and it might just be one of the most disturbing ideas in all of philosophy.
The pointless chiming of the clock
On any given day, we will make thousands of decisions and perform countless actions. We will move our legs to walk, open our mouths to eat, smile at our friends, kiss our loved ones, and so on. Today, we know enough about neuroscience and physiology to give a complete and full account of how this happens. We can point to the parts of the brain that activate, the route the nerve signals will take up and down the body, the way the muscles will contract, and how the body will react. We can, in short, give a full physical account of everything we do.
The question, then, is: what is the point of our consciousness? If we can explain all of our behavior quite happily (or "sufficiently" as philosophers like to say) with physical causes, what is there left for our thoughts to do?
Anthropologist Thomas Huxley argued that our thoughts are a bit like a clock's chime at the hour. It makes a sound, but it makes no difference at all to the time. Likewise, our thoughts and subjective feelings might be very nice and appear very special to us, but they are completely uninvolved.
The problem of mind-body dualism
This all stems from a key problem of dualism, which is the philosophical idea that the mind and body are different things. There is something intuitive to the idea. When I imagine a flying dragon with fiery breath and leathery wings, that is entirely different from the physical world of lizards, candles, and bats. Or, put another way, you cannot touch with your finger or cut with a knife the stuff that happens in your head. But we don't like believing that our thoughts don't exist. So, what are they?
The problem in dualism is understanding how something mental, nonphysical, and subjective possibly could affect the physical world and especially my physical body. Yet, it clearly happens. For instance, if I want a cupcake, I make my hand move toward it.
So, how can the immaterial affect the material? This "problem of causal interaction" is not easily resolved, and so some philosophers prefer the epiphenomenalist response, "Perhaps our minds don't do anything." If we want to retain the idea that our minds exist but in a completely different way as the physical world, then it might be more palatable to jettison the idea that they do anything at all.
Integrated information theory
Then, what is the point of consciousness? There are some, such as neuroscientist Daniel De Haan and philosophers Giulio Tononi and Peter Godfrey-Smith, who argue that consciousness can best be explained by "integrated information theory."
In this theory, consciousness is something that emerges from the sum of our cognitive processes — or, more specifically, the "capacity of a system to integrate information," as Tononi writes. In other words, consciousness is a net product of all the other things our mind is doing, such as synchronizing sensory inputs, focusing on specific objects, accessing various types of memory, and so on. The mind is an overseer at the center of a huge web and is the result or byproduct of all the incredibly complex things it needs to do.
But this kind of "emergentist" theory (since the mind "emerges" from its operations) does leave us with some epiphenomenal questions. It seems to suggest that the mind does exist but that it can be fully explained and accounted for by other physical processes. For instance, if we suppose our consciousness is the product of our complex and various sensory inputs, as Godfrey-Smith offers, then what does conscious thought actually add to the equation that our sight, smell, interoception, and so on are not already doing? By analogy, if a "traffic jam" is just the term for a collection of stationary cars and trucks, what does the concept "traffic jam" add that all those vehicles don't already provide? A traffic jam has no causal role to play.
This is not to say that consciousness is a mistake or without value. After all, without it, I would not be me and you would not be you. Pleasure would not exist. There would be no world at all. We cannot even imagine a life without consciousness. And epiphenomenalism does believe that physical events, like our synaptic sparks and neuronal interactions, do cause our mental events.
But if epiphenomenalism is correct, it means that our thoughts don't add anything to the physical world that isn't already ongoing. It means that we are locked in our heads. All the thoughts and feelings are ultimately pointless or nonsense. We are like children pretending to drive a car — it can be great fun, but we are really not in charge.