In March of this year, Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” in which he outlined his decision to end a 12-year tenure with one of the most successful investment banks in the world. In that declaration — which I wrote about back when I reviewed Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia — Smith put the fault on a shifting Goldman culture, where “the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.”
Critics called Smith’s op-ed naive, but I found it decently badass, and so was fairly excited for Why I Left Goldman Sachs, the book. It held the allure of additional juicy Goldman tidbits — like the Times essay’s disclosure that clients were often referred to as “muppets” — and other embarrassing examples of the kind of corporate greed and financial whimsy that lend credibility to the idea of the 99% versus the 1%. I didn’t expect Smith to divulge any massive illegal folly on Goldman’s part, so much as to remind us why we should be angry that these are the people who run the institutions we’ve deemed too big to fail.
Unfortunately, not only does WILGS fail to be particularly earth-shattering with respect to the financial sector, it for the most part fails to be particularly interesting as a book. Smith, a mediocre writer at best, gets lost in the story of his own humdrum advancement at Goldman, and appears to be confused about what does or doesn’t rate as memoir-worthy. While some degree of exposition is to be expected, it’s not until more than halfway through the book that Smith even begins to outline the subject on which its title is based. Nor does the first half feel particularly relevant, except as an overt ploy to qualify his ultimate disillusionment (“Before we get into why I left Goldman, let me explain that I am clearly a smart and awesome person.”) Listen, I don’t care that you took three years of Zulu, Greg. I don’t care that you visited the first-ever Wendy’s, or how good you were at using the trading desk’s time-stamping machine, or where you buy your shirts, unless it’s a shirt store fronting for a purveyor of diamond-encrusted toilets, or something I don’t know, a little more Goldman Sachs.
For much of the book, Smith doesn’t even seem all that disgusted with his former employer: There’s a lot of Why Why I Deserved to Work at Goldman Sachs and Why I Thought Working at Goldman Sachs Was Awesome and Why I Think I Was Pretty Good at Working at Goldman Sachs. I understand that the idea here is to showcase the company’s transition over time, from a client-friendly and generally moral investment bank to a callous profit-monster, subsisting on old people’s pension funds and the blood of murdered puppies. But due to the aforementioned lack of earth-shattering information, Smith just doesn’t make a strong enough argument either way: that Goldman used to be a paragon of virtue, or that it transformed into anything other than the “one shitty deal“-peddling company we already knew it was.
Of course, it can’t help Haus of Vampire Squid to have a former employee spouting off about its professional-grade money grubbing, however technically legal said grubbing may be. And I’m not surprised to discover that Smith’s impetus for writing such a memoir may have something to do with sour grapes, in part because the op-ed, and the book itself, feel revenge-y, but also because the idea that Smith was just another Wall Street minion dissatisfied with his $500,000 compensation only backs up the stereotype his book is attempting to identify. Either Smith is blasé about casting himself as one of Wall Street’s mindless financial drones — as concerned with big swinging dickery as he is with doing his actual job — or (more likely) he doesn’t realize he’s doing it.
Despite my disappointment with WILGs, I don’t think its content is necessarily bullshit. The book is an addition to a canon of such titles, meant if not to expose the Wall Street culture, then to at least draw attention to its seedier bits, or shed light on the almost inevitable immorality that comes with working so attentively on the sheer accumulation of money. There’s enough outside context to suggest that the substance of Smith’s book is true, or mostly true, or true in spirit. But what made Liar’s Poker — possibly the pinnacle of the Wall Street Canon — so fantastic wasn’t any sort of overt attempt to denigrate certain executives or decisions at Solomon Brothers, or even to come out and say that the company, or the culture, were bad things. Rather, Michael Lewis showed by example. Where a typical Greg Smith Shocking Goldman Moment is getting into the VIP section of a strip club, Lewis named his book after a game of chance he saw played on the trading floor, whose minimum bet was often a $100 bill.
By contrast, Greg Smith is concerned with “Wall Street culture” only insomuch as it relates to his personal experiences — what the interns thought of him, whether he was invited to the VP’s bachelor party, how he ended up in a newspaper photo next to Warren Buffett. Either Smith doesn’t know enough non-finance people to understand what makes Wall Street interesting (competitive orientation seminars? no; mid-afternoon $100 bets among coworkers? yes) or worse, relies so heavily on his own experiences because that’s all he really has to offer. I suspect it’s a little of both. Smith comes across as a generally dispensable cog in the Goldman machine, and unlike Lewis before him, didn’t counter his eventual frustration by becoming a thoughtful observer of others so much as a documentarian of his own generic opinions. That Smith doesn’t seem aware of his story’s deficiencies suggests the kind of outsized perception of self-worth that is completely in line with Wall Streeter examples of yore.
At the end of the day — even though I highly recommend skipping Why I Left Goldman Sachs — I feel a little bad for Greg Smith. He wrote that op-ed, and probably got a lot of great feedback, and someone said he should write a book (and/or offered him a fat advance) and he was like, “Yeah! I should write a book” and forgot that he doesn’t have anything all that insightful to say about Goldman, let alone that he isn’t a particularly interesting person, or a talented writer (an actual line in WILGS: “To paraphrase the great sage Puff Daddy, it was all about the Benjamins now.” I mean, really). And now he’s got the limelight and everyone is calling his book the worst thing it could be called, given the circumstances: uneventful, uninformed, and boring. Think about it — the guy is losing a popularity contest against Goldman Sachs.
TITLE: Why I Left Goldman Sachs
AUTHOR: Greg Smith
ALSO WROTE: “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs“
SORTA LIKE: Liar’s Poker, except bad
FIRST LINE: “It was June 12, 2000, and I was sitting in a conference room at 125 Broad Street, thirty stories above Manhattan.”