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Goldman, Wall Street and Financial Terrorism

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Terrorism isn't caused by bad people being born to do bad deeds. It's caused by two things: a culture of fundamentalism, where extreme beliefs are celebrated as absolute truth; and a pattern of using these beliefs to make the ends justify any means.

By this standard, what we're seeing come out of the current financial autopsy (including the allegations against Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, AIG, etc.) is looking less and less like a natural catastrophe that "just happened," and more like the results of a culture that breeds regular acts of financial terrorism.

The most disturbing aspect of the recent Goldman Sachs lawsuit isn't just the legal violations involved -- it's the way it confirms Goldman's reputation of doing whatever it takes to win, even if it means doing damage to their own clients and society as a whole. Reading the email of the indicted Goldman VP, Fabrice Tourre, it's clear he didn't care about the damage that might be caused by the way he, and so many of his peers, had been playing with their "weapons of financial mass destruction."

"More and more leverage in the system. The whole building is about to collapse anytime now... Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab[rice Tourre]... standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!!!"

From this email, all it seems Tourre cared about was that he, personally, be able to walk out of the explosion he was helping create, with his health (and bank account) intact.

This isn't to say that Wall Street is evil or banking is bad, just as it wouldn't be right to judge all Muslims for the acts of 9/11, or to judge all Christians for the abortion clinics that have been bombed.

By and large, the members of our financial industry are good, hard-working, caring people. And taken as a whole, our capitalist system can be a tremendous force for good.

However, somewhere along the line, the culture of our financial industry became infected by a fundamentalist, destructive religion that worships profits above all else. This then supported actions that have caused a tremendous amount of suffering -- 8 million jobs were lost in the U.S., there are now 15 million workers here who've been unemployed for a year or more, and the IMF estimates the global cost of the crisis at 11.9 trillion dollars.

That's a lot of suffering.

And it easily could have been much, much worse. What we're experiencing right now is pretty close to the best case scenario for cleaning up this catastrophe.

Yet our financial executives seem remarkably challenged when it comes to owning responsibility for this crisis, let alone taking a leadership role in fixing the culture and systems that created it.

Instead, as with the Catholic Church's defensive reaction as decades of abuse have been revealed, the financial industry seems primarily concerned with defending its core dogmas and power structures.

Rather than leading efforts for regulatory reform, they're leading efforts to stop it. Rather than leading efforts to control the market for CDOs and other "highly leveraged exotic monstrosities," they're trying to convince us that "Wall Street knows best" and that we should let them get back to doing what Goldman's CEO calls "God's work."

This is not surprising, as free market fundamentalism has become one of the most powerful cults in our society.

But it is something we urgently need to address.

As described by labels such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainable Business, Conscious Business, or Social Enterprise, ever more people are seeking to create companies that both make a profit and make a difference. This only makes sense, since careers devoted just to making money quickly become empty and unfulfilling.

And in fact, businesses ultimately have to make a positive difference in society, or we wouldn't give them the license to exist.

Free market fundamentalism agrees that businesses need to be a force for good, but then it makes the remarkable claim that the unfettered quest for profits is the unqualified best way to do so. Indeed, in a classic piece, Milton Friedman (a nobel laureate economist and free market prophet) claims that executives who reduce a company's profits in order to do good are acting unethically, and deserve to be fired.

In other words, as Gordon Gecko proclaimed in the movie Wall Street, "greed is good" -- and working for the greater good is bad.

To date, Wall Street has been particularly susceptible to this upside down ideology. Few people wake up in the morning wondering how they can steal from society. And while many companies can point to the concrete value they've created, it's harder to justify how investment bankers deserve billions for gambling with other people's money.

Free market fundamentalism allowed many to rake in millions, in dangerous, aggressive, abusive ways, while pretending they were doing the world a favor.

With any luck, that era is coming to a close.

Just as the collapse of the Berlin Wall marked the end of Communism's credibility, the Great Recession marked the end of free market fundamentalism as a credible philosophy.

Many companies get this, and are helping lead the way to an improved, more socially conscious brand of capitalism. Others are seeking to hold back the tide.

Which side of this divide do you want to be on?

And which side do you want your politicians to be on?

Because as long as fundamentalism remains a driving force on Wall Street, the financial industry has proven it needs a lot more adult supervision than it's had in the past.