Goldman Has the Power

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Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What’s in those sacks, gold? At dusk on Sunday, passersby heading to catch the last subway took pictures and joked about the thousands of sandbags heaped in front of Goldman Sachs headquarters, like pillows atop a princess bed. “Kind of overdoing it, maybe?” they said. “No wonder they’re worried about the beaches in New Jersey eroding, all the sand is here.” 

The next day, after the waves sloshed in and the lights blinkered out, after the bank’s generator kicked in and 200 West Street lit up like a Christmas tree, they would have other things to say.

At a moment like this, the CEO of such a company might have felt as smug as Noah in his Ark, but one imagines Lloyd Blankfein palming his head in nervous anticipation. Goldman Sachs is good at disaster preparedness—too good. Ever since their well-timed bets against the housing market insulated them from the financial crisis, they’d become the 99 percent’s favorite punching bag, their every boneheaded move an opportunity for people to trot out the refrain: Why should Goldman Sachs have so much when others have so little? They’d given their detractors plenty of grist, but nothing so richly symbolic as this display of literal power. Goldman’s lights were so bright that it looked completely alone, as though it had been caught in a spotlight against the blacked-out backdrop of Lower Manhattan.

“Are you trying to send a message to the rest of us?” demanded The Nation. “The fact that the NYU hospital is dark but Goldman Sachs is well-lit is everything that’s wrong with this country,” wrote one Twitter user, who was re-tweeted over 3,000 times. When the storm stopped, Occupy protestors made their way to Blankfein’s apartment building in midtown. They were still there on Thursday, when Blankfein took the podium at the nearby Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where Goldman Sachs and Financial Times were hosting their annual Business Book of the Year awards. Photos of the glowing 200 West Street building had been so widely circulated that he seemed to feel compelled to touch on the subject. “We are a downtown firm, our building does have power because of some extraordinary efforts made by our people,” he said. 

Blankfein has been cast as a villain for so long, he’s able to joke about it. “The Power!” he said later, when asked to talk about said efforts, lifting his arms like the Wizard of Oz. “We learned a lot from 9/11, so when we built our building, we built it with a lot of redundancy, and a lot of backup power, and obviously invested a lot in testing and preparation and resilience in planning,” he went on. “And I tell you, the day before the hurricane, we put 25,000 sandbags around our building, and the front of our building looked ridiculous, but it worked.”

It was frustrating to be criticized for what should have been a good thing. “It’s really ridiculous,” he said, his brow creasing. “We were lucky. We were in the heart of the flood zone, and I’m not going to take it that someone is going to scorn us for doing what we did. We worked hard and did sensible things. And by the way, having done that, it put us in a position to help other people in the neighborhood. As soon as the crisis passed, Port Authority borrowed our pumps, we had extra water and power we gave out to people in the community, people came by and took showers, we set up a charging station.” Blankfein hesitates. “I wish, frankly, I don’t want to sound haughty, but I think if other people did it, the place would be better off.”

He makes a good point. When Goldman Sachs’s building lit up the skyline it shone a light on how ill-prepared other well-capitalized institutions of New York are, including the hospitals, which will hopefully allocate some of their resources to better disaster-preparedness programs. Maybe Goldman Sachs can help—they’ve already pledged $10 million to Sandy relief. In the meantime, we might want to let everybody’s favorite villain off the hook for this one. Though not for everything: The sand in those bags really did come from New Jersey.