In a lively and humorous debate, the Union considered the question of morality in the banking system and of bankers themselves. Standing Committee member Cai Wilshaw opened the debate in favour of the motion, stating: “bankers themselves are to blame for the financial crisis”. In particular, he castigated their “grand disregard for other people’s money,” evidenced by the continuation of “bonuses in excess of $300 million paid out to top executives at Lehman Brothers, even as the firm asked for a federal bail-out.” He also highlighted famous cases of fraud in the banking industry, pointing out in particular the actions of traders at UBS and Barings that led to losses of $2.3 billion and $1.3 billion respectively.
Wilshaw also brought some humour, reading tweets from GS Elevator Gossip, which included the quotes: “There are only 2 paths to happiness in life: stupidity or exceptional wealth”, and “If there really was a glass ceiling, we’d let all the women work above us.” He blamed bankers for the economics meltdowns in Greece, Italy, and Spain, and engendering the attitude of “blaming the little people” for their problems. “If there was a heaven”, Wilshaw concluded, “it would not be populated by bankers in pin-striped suits.”
Greg Smith, author of the famous New York Times opinion piece ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs’, began the case for the opposition by stating that the title of the motion, as well as Wilshaw’s use of quotes from “a Twitter account run by someone who probably doesn’t even work at Goldman Sachs”, as “trivialising” and “simplifying” the ethical problems of the banking industry. He said that Wilshaw’s descriptions of bankers encompassed “human traits that are common to every occupation”, and drew attention to “general systemic corruption in our capitalist system”, fuelled by not only bankers, but also “high-powered lawyers, regulators, and legislators.”
Smith explained that “humans operate within the system in which they are situated”, adding “people in these industries are just like you”. He described many of his colleagues as “people trapped in a financial system that doesn’t correlate to their values”, viewing that the banking industry’s problems were caused “by a minuscule portion of people working in the sectors responsible for the collapse.” He emphasised that “the public needs to know that their politicians are the ones to blame”.
Louis Brooke, director of Move Your Money UK, an ethical banking advocacy organisation, argued against Smith’s criticisms of politicians, pointing out that “bankers were on the back of every regulator and legislator” to “resist all efforts to reform the system”. He argued that bankers “have been working with business models that are no longer working”. Brooke concluded that “the public has to start placing demands on bankers”, and that “we do bear some responsibility.”
Dominic Hobson, author and editor-in-chief of the Global Custodian magazine, described the current backlash against banks as “part of an unedifying pogrom against banks” and “another episode of the British public’s periodic fits of moral outrage” that “only serves to satisfy consumer entertainment.” He compared the public attitude towards bankers as the “Pharisees who thank God that [they] are not like the other sinners” and argued that bankers are “just as human as us – we, too, want to live like kings”. He finished by saying that “this motion simply re-enforces the idea that the faults of bankers have nothing to do with us” and that the banking system “needs scapegoats, and this motion is just the sort of thing it needs to survive.”
Martine Wauben, chairwoman of the Union’s Consultative Committee, concluded the case for the proposition by arguing that “banking has become completely disconnected from the public”. Wauben also brought students’ enthusiasm for banking careers into question by asking: “How many of you have a genuine fascination for market fluctuations? A passion for Excel spreadsheets?” She connected this “love of money” to “our attraction to banking” and, in turn, “the bonus-chasing, manipulative, confident, bullying, intimidating atmosphere at banks.”
Opposition speaker James Wolfensohn, former investment banker and ninth President of the World Bank, concluded the debate by lamenting that “not a word was said [in the debate] about bankers in other parts of the world, working to improve their societies”. He referred to the $3.4 trillion generated by China’s banking industry as a sign of “using finance as a weapon of empowerment.”