Michael Lewis on Wall Street Oath-taking

A few weeks ago Bloomberg News reported that, in just the past year, hundreds of students at the Harvard Business School have taken something called the MBA Oath. Endorsed by Harvard's dean and replicated by other business schools, the oath comes in two sizes: an important-sounding long version, and a punchy executive summary, consisting of seven crisp bullet points. (Sample bullet point: "I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.") The gist of even the short version can be reduced further, to a single sentence: "Wherever I face a choice between my self-interest and the interests of the wider world, I pledge to act in the interests of the wider world."

News of the oath naturally aroused the interest of cynics everywhere and led them to raise hard questions: Isn't the underlying premise of free-market capitalism and the typical business school education that by doing well for oneself one is also doing well for the wider world? Is the typical business school graduate actually capable of seeing any difference between his own interest and the world's? Does this sort of mushy, vague-sounding oath serve society or the oath taker, who hopes that society will be duped into thinking that he is acting in its interests rather than his own? And anyway, if they are so keen to serve society instead of themselves, why do so many of these oath-takers wind up working on Wall Street, and, more specifically, for Goldman Sachs—whose CEO has been singled out by one of the oath's creators for blindness to the social consequences of his firm's actions?

Lost in this orgy of nay-saying was the mounting evidence that the MBA Oath already has had one clear practical consequence. In the past year graduates of Harvard Business School have flooded Wall Street, as graduates of Harvard Business School tend to do, and brought with them their new passion for oaths. It's too early to say if oath-taking has attained a permanent new high, or we are living through some kind of "oath bubble." What is clear is that many Wall Street firms, and Wall Street people, have found the need to have their own private oaths. In recent weeks several of these have leaked to Bloomberg Businessweek. We report them without further comment:

The Goldman Sachs Oath

We pledge not to call what we do "God's work," even though it is. We pledge to meet and even get to know ordinary people who do not work for Goldman Sachs so that we might better understand their irrational behavior and exploit it only when necessary. We pledge to create Wall Street's best-in-class oath.

The Morgan Stanley Oath

We pledge to stop trying to do whatever Goldman Sachs is doing. We, too, pledge to create Wall Street's best-in-class oath.

The Merrill Lynch Oath

We're just grateful to be asked if we have an oath. We do!

The Citigroup Oath

In our continued quest to make peace with the U.S. taxpayer, we pledge to sell our oath to the highest foreign bidder, the minute we decide what that oath should be.

The Oath of Hedge Fund Man

I pledge to short the credit spreads of only those public corporations and great nations that truly are doomed. I thus pledge to accelerate Darwinian forces that elevate the strong and destroy the weak. And even though that should be enough goodness for one lifetime, I pledge to bid generously for the sexier items at the next Robin Hood auction.

The Warren Buffett Oath

I pledge, even in the privacy of my own bedroom, to seem nothing like the abovementioned hedge fund managers. I pledge to remain the go-to moral compass of the American money culture. To that end, I pledge to learn less than I typically do about the Wall Street businesses in which I invest, so that, after they are discovered to have lied, cheated, or stolen, I can plausibly claim to have known nothing about it. Specifically, I pledge to remain unable to find the headquarters of Moody's on a New York City map. (Really, I have no idea where the place is!)

The SEC Oath

We pledge to figure out who on Wall Street the American people most hate, and to sue them, even if we are sure to lose.

The Oath of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission

We pledge to find out, by the year 2050, what exactly happened on Wall Street in the early part of this century. We pledge to reform Wall Street. Or, failing that, to be taken seriously. Or, at a bare minimum, to attract a bit of media.

The Oath of the Federal Reserve

We pledge to regulate these oaths to prevent others from doing so.

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