The ‘Robin Hood’ Venture – Who is Stealing from Whom?

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The Oscar’s are coming up so it is a good moment to delve into a few areas of celebrity activism. One of the most interesting competitions this year at the Oscar’s is for the Best Documentary category – what a change that is.   Well, anyway, among the strong group of short listed films is the scathing critique directed and by Charles Ferguson of the recent global financial crisis –  Inside Job.

Although narrated by Matt Damon, the ‘stars’ of the documentary come not from the world of Hollywood but from finance – the titans of Wall Street – with supporting roles from policy-makers – the folks in Washington – and a number of under performing economists. Among the big questions this documentary triggers is whether we can depict non-entertainers as celebrities?

In the case of business celebrity status is accorded to those who not only make massive amounts of money but who also give some of that money back the Ted Turner, George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s of the world.

How do the stars of Inside Job such as the leading lights of Goldman Sachs do according to this test? Some ex-Goldman Sachs have certainly tried to make the shift to this status. In the same week I saw Inside Job, The Financial Times accorded the ‘How to give it’ to Larry Linden, a retired (2008) general partner and managing director of Goldman Sachs. Linden maintains that Goldman Sachs ‘has a longstanding charitable tradition, which continues. For example in 2004 Linden acquired 840,000 acres of pristine forest in Tierra del Fuego as collateral on a package of distressed debt. Linden was asked back to the firm to arrange management and funding to conserve this forest permanently’.

I will leave it you to determine whether such action shifts the impression of Inside Job of Goldman Sachs from notoriety to celebrity.

But what this example suggests is that such organizations and their personnel may require a closer assessment about the philanthropic efforts. Before the crisis there ware laudatory stories of Hank Paulson, the former US Treasury Secretary and head of Goldman Sachs, preparing to give the bulk of his fortune (then estimated as $800 million) to environmental charities. Where does this promise stand now?

Even if the extremely negative depiction of Goldman Sachs in Inside Job is unfair, however, other executives of this firm and their counterparts should get better advice about the names of the charitable Foundations they support. The best or worst illustration of this image disconnect is the participation of Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (along with Dick Fuld formerly of Lehman Bros.) in the Robin Hood Foundation, an organization designed to target poverty in New York City.

After watching Inside Job, many viewers may come away feeling that any association of these financiers with a narrative of ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’ should be reversed. At least it looks like that from screening this documentary.

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