Friday, April 30, 2010

'Godís work'

Express Staff Writer

Some of the kids I went to college with got right in on the investment banking or real estate scene in the 1980s and have done very well for themselves. Today I could make a tidy living taking care of their yards.

I try not to be envious. Eventually you find that whatever you do brings its own rewards and that whom you bring to the job counts for more than what you bring away from it. Doesn't it?

When Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein told the world in November that he was "doing God's work" while participating in the dark matters of the financial apocalypse I took him at his word. Influencing the flow of capital across the globe does seem godlike. I read a few years ago that top execs were encouraged to buy $40 million corporate jets because their time was more valuable than the cost of their carriages.

As far as I am concerned, the greatest luxury in the world is to not be in a hurry, and the truest aristocracy is one of knowledge, and knowledge is getting easier and easier to come by. I watch the Senate hearings in Washington, D.C., but get little sense of what Goldman Sachs execs actually do at the office to earn millions of dollars each year in bonuses. We know they used complex mathematical formulas, called derivatives, to establish a market for what are now called "synthetic" financial instruments, beguiling investors in an attempt to make money from thin air. It worked for a while. But I suspect the day-to-day activities at an investment bank have more to do with having connections—with being able to get the right person on the telephone, be it the Russian oligarch, the trust funder, or the government lobbyist—than it has to do with anything resembling "work."

But how long can such conspiracies last? In the Internet Age it matters less and less whom you know or where you go. I can explore the remotest regions of the earth and mine information on the most obscure topics and people at the click of a mouse. Because people are curious and love to tell a story, the inner workings of places like Goldman Sachs will likely become available to us all in time, and it won't take rocket science to put together the kind of deals Blankfein makes, working from the apartment over the garage.

Amassing great wealth is not a crime, of course, but when it comes to doing "God's work" using complex math problems, I prefer to think of Grigory Perelman.

Perelman is a reclusive Russian mathematician who recently turned down a $1 million prize for solving "the Poincaré conjecture," a daunting challenge in mathematics that has baffled the scientific community for nearly 100 years.

Perelman's solution may have practical implications for the study of cosmology, but he refused to defend his work, even after others tried to take credit for it when he posted it on the Internet. He still lives in a simple flat with his mother.

"I am not a politician," he told The New Yorker. "If everyone is honest, it is natural to share ideas."

Purity of purpose, without hope of reward. There is something spiritual about that.

Tony Evans:

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