Greg Smith and the General Case for Moralistic Outrage

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 22 2012 11:30 AM

Greg Smith and the General Case for Moralistic Outrage

I haven't been very interested in former Goldman Sachs VP Greg Smith, his book, his op-ed, his 60 Minutes appearance, or any of the rest. But the ferocious anti-Smith push from Goldman Sachs PR and Smith's critics in the media have me interested again!

Hamilton Nolan offers a fine defense of being outraged by things everyone "already knows," but more generally what needs defense here is the very concept of moralistic outrage itself. Can you look at the world in a certain way and say that it sounds naïve and almost preposterous to be complaining that Goldman Sachs is a business enterprise whose aim is to make money and not to benefit its clients, counterparties, or the world at large? Yes, you certainly can. And we shouldn't expect selfishness to vanish from the face of the Earth or deny that one of the fundamental strengths of market capitalism is its ability to channel selfish impulses in constructive directions.

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And yet the Buenos Aires dog-shit problem is also an important aspect of life. Why should you waste your time picking up your dog's excrement? Fear of a fine? Clearly if everyone just leaves the poo where it is, no police department is going to invest the resources necessary to make a citywide crackdown work. For that matter, why should a police officer do his job correctly rather than just take bribes?

Norms matter. People work for money. But people also work for status, and people work because they take pride in a job well done. Ideas about what kinds of financial success merit high status and what kinds of jobs constitute a job well done are important. A doctor who bragged to you at a party about scoring a great deal on season tickets is doing something very different from a doctor who brags to you at a party about scoring season tickets after swindling a woman out of a bunch of money for unnecessary medical treatments. A doctor isn't supposed to be hustling patients. Everybody knows that. The vast majority of journalists are working for for-profit enterprises that are publishing stuff in hopes of making money, but it's much better to live in a world where the editorial personnel don't understand themselves as merely engaged in a transactional quest for money rather than a genuine effort to entertain and inform the public. The idea that there's a difference between making money by being clever and inventing something useful to sell to people and making money by being clever and inventing a way to persuade people to buy something useless is fundamental.

It would be both pointless and impossible to try to enact a generalized regulatory framework to prohibit making money in bad ways, but that makes it more important, not less important, to maintain a social sense of outrage around sleazy behavior.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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