Goldman Sachs has had an excellent financial crisis

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Goldman Sachs reported earnings this morning, and it reported lots of them—$3.44 billion in the quarter ending June 26. That’s well more than the $2.33 billion Goldman’s made in the comparable quarter in 2007, back before the world started falling apart. In other words, Goldman may be emerging from this crisis in a better position than it entered it. Don’t take my word for it—the great Meredith Whitney more or less said so yesterday.

What are we to make of this? Well part of it is “survival of the fittest,” as my former Fortune colleague Pattie Sellers put it. Goldman is undeniably better run than its rivals. It mostly avoided the mistakes that sent Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns into bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch and Citigroup into the arms of, respectively, Bank of America and Uncle Sam. In some sense it deserves to get the business they have all forfeited.

At the same time, though, Goldman was the most important, most influential player in a Wall Street-centered financial system that steered the global economy into its worst crisis since the 1930s. It played at pretty much all the same naughty games as its rivals did; its executives just turned out to be much better than Chuck Prince at sensing when the music was about to stop. And when Goldman itself seemed threatened, as it did in September and October of last year, Washington pulled out all the stops to halt the panic—and kept supporting Goldman (among others) in subsequent months.

This wasn’t the result of some vast conspiracy engineered by Goldman alum Hank Paulson (at least I don’t think so). It was because Goldman and a handful of other institutions were perceived as being too central to the American financial system to let fail. But the upshot is the same—Goldman helped get us into this mess, and it is still intact today because of taxpayer largesse. So is it really appropriate that Goldman and its employees be allowed to turn right around and start raking it in the moment markets start functioning again?

I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no. I’m much less clear as to what we should do about it.

Update: Here, in response to the urgings of several commenters, is my belated take on Matt Taibbi’s Goldman epic.

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