What should corporate leaders do in a moment like this?
Andrew Ross Sorkin and
A week in which some lawmakers tried to overturn an election and President Trump incited a mob to storm the Capitol ended with Twitter permanently suspending Mr. Trump’s account on Friday night, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence.” Around the same time, Parler, a social media platform with more permissive moderation that could serve as the president’s new digital soapbox, faced bans from Apple’s and Google’s app stores.
As the DealBook newsletter has been asking all week: What is the role of business in a moment like this?
To further reflect on this for our weekend edition, we spoke with Lloyd Blankfein, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive who has a history of taunting Mr. Trump on Twitter, about the expectations placed on business leaders, their role in enabling Mr. Trump and, as Mr. Blankfein put it, “What good could come of this?”
That conversation is followed by one with Judy Samuelson of the Aspen Institute, whose timely new book on the “new rules of business” explores responsible corporate citizenship. The interviews have been edited and condensed.
Lloyd Blankfein, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, is a bit of history buff. He often cites thick tomes about historical figures in conversations, and when I caught up with him Friday morning, he was considering this week’s place in history. “I wonder, is this going to be the sort of thing that people write about 120 years from now? Is this going to be that moment in time? Like living through the election in 1876?”
Mr. Blankfein was never a fan of President Trump and was one of the few top C.E.O.s to say so early on. In a candid conversation, he offered some provocative thoughts on the lessons learned for the business world.
DealBook: We’ve seen a lot of C.E.O.s this week condemn the attack on the Capitol, but few condemned Mr. Trump directly. Do you think Wall Street enabled him?
Blankfein: I try to be honest about these things. I didn’t support Trump — I was taking shots at him — so I don’t feel this way personally, but I think as a group, this is what was happening: For Wall Street, it was lower taxes, less regulation. He was delivering what “we” wanted. We put a clothespin on our nose. We weren’t ignorant of the kind of risks we were taking. We repressed them.
So you think the risks were well understood?
There was nobody who ever got to the presidency who was more transparent and better understood than him. In the minutes before he got elected, those NBC tapes came out. Did people not believe the 20 women who came forward? Do people think he paid his taxes all that time? And certainly for the second election — what was there left to know about him?
So people did know what they were doing. They did it because of their self-interest. Think of another historical example: How about those plutocrats in early 1930s Germany who liked the fact that Hitler was rearming and industrializing, spending money and getting them out of recession and driving the economy forward through his stimulus spending on war material? I don’t want to go too far with that, but just to show you how I’m thinking about it.
So, yes, they supported him. And I think that support is not undone by some one-minute-to-midnight deathbed confession that, “Oh my God, this was too much for me.”
How do you feel about people who went to work in the Trump administration? Several of them were Goldman alumni, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, who was a top economic adviser.
I didn’t vote for him, but early in the administration I had hopes and expectations that it would break to the high side, as most people do when they get into that office and sit behind that desk. So I don’t fault anyone for going in early, like my Goldman friends.
And once in, I don’t really fault people for staying, because once you’re in, I’d rather have them there than not there. I don’t think we would have been better off had Mnuchin resigned.
People who came in and replaced the people who replaced the people — at that point they knew what they were going in for, and I have a different view of that.
During your last two years at Goldman, you made your view of Mr. Trump well-known on Twitter. How did you think about speaking out?
There was a risk-reward element to comments that you made. I was in the risk management business. I didn’t really want to attract a lot of negative attention from powerful people if I could avoid it.
I made some sarcastic comments that kind of would be construed as critical of the administration. Through a kind of a neural network, it got to me that it wasn’t that appreciated and if it kept going, they may have to push back.
Did you feel intimidated?
It wasn’t that. Intimidation is a broad term and it has a connotation. If I said five things about you and I was getting attention, you’d have to push back.
How do you feel about business leaders increasingly weighing in on social issues? What was your policy?
My view is business leaders owe their platform to their company, and therefore they shouldn’t appropriate it for personal things, but rather they should take positions on those issues where it’s in the wheelhouse of the company’s expertise and their expertise.
In my case, I felt that way when I was lobbying for marriage equality, for example, because we had gay people in our firm who couldn’t fulfill their potential, or because there were restrictions on how they could travel.
So where is the line between your personal views and corporate views?
There’s a category of things where it’s so personal to you and so irrelevant to your business interests that you’re kind of appropriating a platform in a way. Like, in my view, it happens when actors on Broadway at the end of the show pontificate about their personal predilections to an audience that’s otherwise trapped and came to see a show. I regard that as kind of an appropriation.
When you think about the news this week, perhaps a culmination of the last four years, what do you think the biggest lessons are?
Character really counts. I learned that as a manager of traders and bankers.
There are people who make a lot of money in the world today, but they play the ethics thing close to the line. And if they were very, very profitable, you could get seduced and rationalize it in saying, “You know something? I know this is not good, but he’s delivering what I want.”
Whenever that happened, the character thing in the long run always came out at the worst possible time. In a way, that’s what happened here with the president.
What else did you learn?
This is where you can take some responsibility. The media hasn’t wrestled with the fact that 75 million people supported Trump and they’re not all stupid ignoramuses.
We have a country where half the country doesn’t communicate to the other half, doesn’t make an effort and frankly doesn’t have access to the rationale behind what drives the other half of the country.
What would you do about that?
We need to bind ourselves as a country. People don’t talk to anybody anymore. They’re linking up digitally with like-minded people and getting that kind of filter of reinforcement all the time. We have to do things that break down those barriers and get people to engage with each other.
You know what I think would be helpful in the United States for a million reasons? National service. The idea that after high school — like they do in Israel, but not necessarily to go into the military — go into national service. Take kids from Arkansas and New York and make them work in a food kitchen or some stuff that needs to be done.
But the real accomplishment will be to make people engage with each other and hear different things. I think there’s value in us having a country that could pull together. Not to be trite, but what better quote is there — biblical and then repeated by Lincoln — than “A house divided against itself cannot stand”?
I spoke to Judy Samuelson, the founder of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, just before the siege on the Capitol began, unaware that we might “remember it as virtually the last convo before our country fell apart,” as she put it later in a email.
It makes sense, then, for the postscript follow-up questions about a disturbing day to lead our discussion of corporate citizenship, reputation and her new book, “Six New Rules of Business: Creating Real Value in a Changing World,” which is released next week.
DealBook: Have the events at the Capitol changed your thinking on the role of the corporate citizen?
Samuelson: The news about businesses pulling money from G.O.P. members who are agitating against the election outcome — wow — now that is interesting. This will have some kind of tail, I believe. Can this be a moment of real change in the practice of influence peddling by private interests?
What’s the matter with corporations making political donations?
What are companies aiming to accomplish through political spending? What protections, advantages and subsidies are they attempting to secure by picking and choosing individuals to support — or by supporting, in many cases, both sides of the aisle?
Businesses can’t have it both ways: They can’t benefit from the protections of the rule of law and play in an inherently corrupt system designed to influence the creation of those laws to their own advantage.
Don’t corporate citizens have the right to “speech,” just like individual citizens?
Business coalitions and individual executives have a voice, a keen interest and access to politicians through their own agency and role as employers, investors in public goods and creators of goods and services. Use that voice without the corrupting influence of money. You will still be heard and be able to exercise your First Amendment rights.
I know this idea feels hopelessly naïve, but my wish for this moment is this: Clean the public square, and let the people decide what is in our common interest.
One of the truest tests of the Business Roundtable’s remarkable restatement of corporate purpose must be a willingness to put the health of the commons ahead of private interests. Are our policy positions aligned with our pronouncements — whether addressing inequality, climate, or removing systemic barriers in pursuit of economic opportunity?
Why can’t C.E.O.s solely focus on maximizing profits and minimizing risks?
A business can’t succeed in a failed society, so executives should be thinking about society first. That means employees and customers, communities and global supply chains — and effects now and later.
It’s hard to measure the things that matter most, and on a very long timeline. But business is fun because you deal with complex issues and make difficult decisions.
So, what happens next?
We have had a lot of signaling of change from businesses on political, environmental and social issues. They have stated their intentions. The work now is holding them accountable.
Purpose is revealed over time, not just in statements. We, the public, need to be assured that the good intentions are being met.
What do you think? What should business leaders do in this moment? How should they use their political influence? Let us know: [email protected].