The Envy of the World

by CARL GINSBURG

Before a sold-out crowd of upstanding New Yorkers, including some of the most committed bankers in the world of finance – Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and James Dimon of JP Morgan Chase among them – President Obama asked the audience of 700 to accept his latest obfuscation, financial reform, “not only because it in the interests of your industry, but because it is in the interests of our country."  Obama offered that “there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. We rise or we fall together as one nation."  To grasp this understanding, he explained, would return America to its rightful place as “the envy of the world.”

(With these measured remarks, President Obama carried forward a tradition at Cooper Union dating to February, 1860, when then-candidate Abe Lincoln made his first New York appearance and received rave reviews. “Wrong as we think slavery is,” said the future president, “we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation.”) 

Wall Street’s speculative mission, and addiction to sky-high profits – witness announcements this week of multi-billion dollar profits from big banks — surely divides it from Main Street, where modesty reigns, and no regulation debated in Congress today will change that reality.   In fact, tallies of bail out costs are now in the trillions, not the paltry $89 billion the administration tried to float recently, and few of those trillions have made their way to Main Street.  No matter.  Consistent with its attempt to blur the line between Wall Street and Main Street, the Obama government suggests salvation can be had in the form better attention to consumers, when we all know that jobs and good wages, not access to credit or better investment information, are needed.   Cue the obfuscation.  You can safely assume that the substance of the president’s proposals to regulate Wall Street, shared by Blankfein and the others, and to be passed by Congress, has nothing to do with addressing the economic story of our time: underpaid America. 

Surely Blankfein attended the event under protest, his bank, Goldman Sachs, having been sued the same week by the Securities and Exchange Commission for multiple counts of fraud in withholding material information in the selling of a sure loser to clients.  Blankfein’s defense in this brazen escapade, is that his bank was among the losers; but certainly his top-tier clients, like John Paulson, among America’s richest hedge fund operators, appreciated the effort an awful lot and that kind of appreciation you can take to the bank.   Chalk it up to the cost of doing business. 

Besides, nobody’s going to jail.  Far from it.  Little more than 50 blocks north of Cooper Union, where President Obama spoke of “one nation,” is located Blankfein’s Manhattan residence.  The condo tower containing the Blankfein city pad, 15 Central Park West, was completed in 2005 and sold out for a total of $2 billion, making it the most lucrative condo sale in the history of the planet.   Now we’re talking “envy of the world”. 

Designed by Yale’s Robert A.M. Stern and drawing upon the architecture of Roaring 20s Park Avenue elegance, the façade contains 85,000 slabs of limestone, behind which wine cellars, swimming pool and chauffeur waiting rooms can be found on lower levels.  Sandy Weill of Citigroup bought his penthouse there for $45 million. O ne of the tower residences brought $80 million.  Baseball great A Rod is renting a lesser unit for $30,000 a month. 

At the building’s entrance a doorman awaited weary Blankfein, back from a yet another grueling day of defending derivatives, promoting risk management and generally feeling misunderstood.  This doorman is not alone, as there are other entrances to the large complex, where other doormen attend the residents’ many needs.  It is a 24/7 job and there is no room for error, as threats to security are real.  Add to these doormen other building workers who keep hallways clean and staff elevators at the highest standards of service.  

These building workers, all members of Local 32BJ, Service Employees International Union, narrowly averted a strike this week when owners of the city’s residential buildings, like Blankfein’s place, settled on a new contract.  Under the terms of the new deal, building workers had to give back some health care benefits, saving owners $70 million, in exchange for which they received a 10 per cent raise over four years.  They make on average $35,000 a year, before taxes.  Truly, the envy of the world. 

CARL GINSBURG is a journalist in New York City.  He can be reached at carlginsburg@gmail.com.

 

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