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Wall Street titan should explain what he does for a living

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
  • Bob Greene: Chairman of Goldman Sachs should buy 30 minutes of prime time
  • Lloyd Blankfein should tell average Joes why he is worth so much, Greene says
  • Blankfein's '07 bonus was $67.9 million; he may make more this year, Greene says
  • Greene: Americans who have little want to know why Wall Street has so much
  • Bob Greene

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

(CNN) -- The national rage directed at Wall Street seems to be intensifying.

Many Americans struggle in vain to find work. Those fortunate enough to have jobs worry that their pay will be cut. The mortgage meltdown has cost families across the country their homes. No matter what financial experts may say about the recession coming to an end, too many people still feel like they're at the bottom of a deep well.

Yet Wall Street banks -- notably Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase -- are reporting spectacular profits. For them, it is as if the economic collapse last year was a little pothole that has long since disappeared in the rear-view mirror. They're zooming right along.

This month, Goldman announced that its profits in the last three months alone were $3 billion.

If the final quarter continues on this prosperous pace, Goldman's year-end bonus pool may exceed $20 billion, according to the New York Times -- enough to pay its 31,700 employees an average of $700,000.

That's the kind of news that many Americans may find difficult to swallow as a grim Christmas season arrives.

No wonder the anger at Wall Street is real and visceral.

But here is a modest proposal.

It has to do with Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Blankfein, it has been reported, may receive a year-end bonus that is even larger than the one he got two years ago.

Which is really saying something, seeing that his 2007 bonus was $67.9 million.

Here's the proposal:

Blankfein should go on television and make a public service announcement.

Not one of those 30-second ones that run late at night, promoting various worthy causes.

Blankfein should prepare a 30-minute announcement, to be delivered by him personally. He should buy time during the prime evening viewing hours on all the major networks.

He should look into the camera and, as a service to an irate country, answer one simple question:

"What exactly do you do for a living?"

He should answer the question specifically, and in detail.

What is it that he and his employees do every day that makes their work so much more valuable than the work done by virtually anyone else in America?

This proposal is not made sarcastically; it's not a joke. Many of us don't know what Goldman Sachs does to make those billions of dollars in profits. And evidently those of us who are in the dark are not alone. New York Times business reporter Jenny Anderson, in a story on Goldman's success: "Quarter after quarter, Wall Street executives scour Goldman's results hoping to figure out how the bank makes so much money."

Goldman, and the other Wall Street giants, don't manufacture anything, other than those profits. What they do is, by definition, immensely lucrative. But for individual Americans who used to produce automobiles for a living, and no longer can; who want to build furniture for a living, but are no longer able to find an employer; who spend day after day, week after week, looking for a way to support their families. ...

Well, it would be instructive to hear Blankfein spell out, in unambiguous terms, just what it is that he and his colleagues do to make their money. If he is able to present his story convincingly, it could even be inspiring. There are a lot of children around the country who don't have much hope as the holidays approach. Maybe, if Blankfein expresses himself clearly enough, he could make them somehow believe they could grow up to be like him. You would assume that there is a learnable set of skills that combine to create a Wall Street titan. Perhaps Blankfein would be willing to share at least a little of the secret. Tell the rest of America how they might join the club.

He should be the person to speak not because he and Goldman are the only ones on Wall Street living the good life, but because they represent the apex. With their top-of-the-heap success comes a significant amount of criticism; Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, wrote earlier this year:

"Goldman is very good at what it does. Unfortunately, what it does is bad for America."

Blankfein, and much of Wall Street, almost certainly disagree with that (at least the second part of it). They have to believe that what they do is essential, and represents the best of the United States. This is why it would be helpful to hear him explain to a fed-up nation why the knocks against Wall Street are wrong -- why he believes Americans should be grateful for what goes on in those office towers.

Can he do it? And have the country buy it?

He must be a persuasive guy -- he couldn't have gotten to where he is today if he didn't have the ability to make people see things his way.

Perhaps, because his company does so well for itself, he feels that he doesn't have to justify himself to the wider world.

But the anger and resentment about the chasm between the haves and the have nots in the United States is genuine, and it's growing. The most memorable song of 2009, the one that best summed up the mood of the year, will probably turn out to be John Rich's sad and livid "Shuttin' Detroit Down," the key verse of which was:

"While they're livin' it up on Wall Street in that New York City town, here in the real world they're shuttin' Detroit down."

Another hard American winter is on its way.

As, on a certain street where most of the country will never work, is a payday almost beyond comprehension.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.