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Have you read the Muppet Man? Greg Smith's Goldman Sachs book hits the stores

They're disappointed with their banker, Goldman Sachs. But will they read Greg Smith's memoir, which hits bookstores today?
They're disappointed with their banker, Goldman Sachs. But will they read Greg Smith's memoir, which hits bookstores today?
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Back in March, Greg Smith really shook things up on Wall Street with his "See ya later!" walking-out-the-door New York Times op-ed about how Goldman Sachs has lost its way in the relentless quest for profits.

"Why I Left Goldman Sachs," the memoir for which Smith was paid a rumored $1.5 million to write, has now arrived in bookstores. Parts of it leaked out early, and there has a been a flurry of pre-publication punditry on what the book really means. Smith also went on "60 Minutes" Sunday to discuss all that has gone horribly wrong at Wall Street's most infamous investment bank.

Meanwhile, no shortage of Wall Street insiders and financial journalists of various stripes have begun to sift and parse Smith's motives, in some cases alledging that Smith was more con-man than crusader. 

Frankly, it is more than a little shocking that Goldman — the "vampire squid" of Matt Taibbi's famous Rolling Stone article, the firm that survived the 2008 financial crisis while less well-connected banks like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers vanished beneath the waves — had not fallen in for this treatment before Smith came along. Is it really cool to call your clients "muppets," even if the Muppets are your clients?

I guess the idea is that there is a Goldman omerta, a code that says the first rule of being a former Goldman Sachs employee is that your never talk about being a Goldman Sachs employee.

Here's a quick roundup of the chatter, on Greg Smith Goldman Sachs Book Day number one.

At Reuters, Felix Salmon offered a nuanced take:

The con-man accusation, however, goes one further. It doesn’t just accept Goldman’s narrative and reject Smith’s; it says that even Smith believes the Goldman narrative, and is presenting himself as some kind of natural occupant of the moral high ground, despite the fact that he knows full well that in reality he’s little more than an underperforming money-grubber who never got the seven-figure bonus he desired.

At Slate, Matt Yglesias goes high concept:

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.

Businessweek goes with the "Greg Smith is no Michael Lewis and actually kind of a pretentious buffoon" argument:

The memoir, like the dinner story, is a genre that thrives when the narrator is self-effacing, the butt of all jokes—Michael Lewis, in Liar’s Poker, takes his own achievements as a suspicious sign about Salomon Brothers—but Smith reverses this entirely. He compliments himself on his “dry sense of humor,” he saves parties with his jammin’ iPod, and, in one of the strangest subplots, details his international triumphs in Ping-Pong. In 1993 he represented South Africa in the Maccabiah Games. He “took the gold medal,” and has the special blue blazer to prove it.

At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan detects a certain opportunism envy among Smith's detractors:

What bothers most Wall Street-savvy critics about Greg Smith is this: He got a lot of attention for complaining about a situation that all of these Wall Street-savvy people already know exists. Smith's charges were, for them, old news—and worse, they smacked of a naivete about what banks like Goldman Sachs do. These Smith-haters resent the attention he reaped, and charge him with being either stupid, or dishonest about what he was doing for those 12 years he worked at Goldman.

New York Magazine creates a glossary-like listicle and accuses Smith of lying about speaking Zulu. Also, the publication grabs the inevitable Muppets quote:

Smith, Greg...Gradual loss of innocence with respect to beloved childhood TV puppets of: “Muppet was a word that, for me, had once evoked childhood memories of cute puppets such as Kermit the Frog. But the way it was used in the London office had nothing to do with cuteness. Being a muppet meant being an idiot, a fool, manipulated by someone else.”

At the Huffington Post, Mark Gongloff cuts right to the chase:

His book is yet another reminder that our capital markets are a casino where the game is rigged in favor of the house. Banks like Goldman have all of the information, and they take advantage of it. That doesn't always lead to financial blowups, but when it does, it affects all of us, and our faith in capital markets erodes a little more.

The New York Times' James B. Stewart gives Goldman a hug:

The mere mention of Mr. Smith invokes passionate reactions at Goldman, but much of the initial anger seems to have dissipated. People I spoke to who had been close to him felt hurt, wronged and saddened by a broadside from someone they considered a friend and colleague, dedicated to the firm and its values, who was hard-working, reliable and humble. He seemed, they said, the last person to attack the firm and its culture.

And finally, the Goldman side of the story. Bloomberg says Smith provoked CEO Lloyd Blankfein to commission a firm-wide soul-search. Or perhaps a paranoid witch hunt:

The firm hired forensic specialists to troll through emails and taped conversations, according to four people with direct knowledge of the probe. It also conducted interviews with 125 employees who had contact with Smith, going as far back as his summer internship in 2000.

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