- Bulletin Features
Advocating Capitalism for the Greater Good
The Family business is politics. But John G. Taft '72 doesn't need a bully pulpit—like his great-grandfather William Howard Taft possessed—to be a catalyst for reform. He doesn't need a mandate from voters or the backing of a political party.
An excerpt from Stewardship: Lessons Learned from the Lost Culture of Wall Street (author John G. Taft '72)
I attended the Taft School, in Watertown, Connecticut, for four years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Almost every day I walked past a black and white photograph of my grandfather taken in 1953 as he walked across the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on crutches after his last day on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where he had just transferred his duties as Senate Majority Leader. He was suffering at the time from cancer, diagnosed after a golf outing earlier that year with President Dwight Eisenhower. He died shortly after the photograph was taken.
The Taft School motto [which roughly translates as, "To serve...not to be served"] is a fitting expression of the core principle of stewardship. The school's Citations of Merit recognize the same "commitment to serve others" that Stewardship is all about.
When I was a student, those words themselves didn't fully resonate with me as they do today, after 30 years of the vocation and demands of the financial services industry. But even then, as now, the photograph of Robert Taft looking into the distance, as if saying goodbye to a lifetime of public service, evokes for me what C.S. Lewis once described as God's ideal—"a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity..., washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him."
When Taft says Wall Street has lost its moral compass, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and his wealth management peers listen. When Taft advocates for the protection of LGBT rights in the workplace, it speaks volumes. And when Taft helped pay for a full-page ad in his hometown newspaper rebuking intolerance toward Muslims in Minnesota, it made headlines.
Each is part of a values system that comes from nature, nurture, and a transcendent motto for Taft: Non ut sibi ministretur sed ut ministret, Not to be served, but to serve.
"I think my beliefs are consistent with Taft DNA, reinforced through my Taft School experience," he says. "They're certainly a fundamental part of my family's legacy."
Taft, 61, is the maverick at the intersection of Wall Street and Main Street, an unlikely voice of shared prosperity and restraint in an industry that's taken its lumps since the 2008 financial crisis and housing-bubble collapse.
He's authored two groundbreaking books on the need for financial reform, starting in 2012 with Stewardship: Lessons Learned from the Lost Culture of Wall Street, and following that up in 2015 with A Force for Good: How Enlightened Finance Can Restore Faith in Capitalism. They are touchstones of a 35-year career in the sector that is culminating for Taft, the Minneapolis-based chief executive officer of RBC Wealth Management.
"The financial services sector exists not as an end unto itself, but as a means to greater ends," Taft says. "Its goal is to facilitate greater economic growth. We lost touch with that. We lost touch with the fact that we should be about achieving social goods that improve everybody's standards and quality of life."
In a presidential election year, Taft's message has proved to be prescient, with the disconnect between bailout recipients and taxpayers shaping the narrative of the historic battle for the White House. But unlike Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, Taft doesn't want to blow up the system. Nor does Taft subscribe to Sanders' claim that the business model of Wall Street is one of fraud.
"That is not true. It is not helpful," Taft says. "It will not lead to the right kind of regulatory and financial policy, but, unfortunately, it's an indication that the wounds from the financial crisis are far from healed."
A New Haven native and son of a Yale educator, Taft's late father, Horace '43, was a dean and a physics professor. Taft fits the well-rounded archetype set by his high school alma mater. He's worked on deadline as a newspaper reporter in Lowell, Massachusetts. He understands the inner workings of city government, having served as an assistant to the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota. He knows his way around the pitch, having briefly played for the North American Soccer League after captaining the Yale squad.
The third generation in his family to attend Taft, the married father of five serves as a trustee and frequently credits the school in his writings for teaching him lessons in character. The proceeds from the sales of his books, which include essays from some of the sharpest minds in the world of finance, go to charity.
Righting the wrongs that brought the U.S. economy to the brink in 2008 is where Taft found a renewed purpose. From unsustainable home ownership quotas to antiquated regulations, he was troubled by what he saw.
The packaging and sale of securities backed by risky subprime mortgages had become commonplace, with banks keeping them off their balance sheets. At the same time, some of the endangered banks lacked adequate capital to withstand the financial maelstrom.
"Financial markets were falling apart," Taft says. "The people who worked for me were confused. Clients were frightened. Personally, I was experiencing things I had never experienced before. What happened leading up to the financial crisis was a wholesale breach of contract between the financial services sector and society."
In 2011, Taft served as chairman of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a major trade group that took him to the halls of Congress. It was there, on Capitol Hill, that the scion of one of America's most influential political families—the grandson of the late Senator Robert A. Taft, Class of 1906—testified in support of a federal standard of fiduciary care.
"Financial markets were falling apart. The people who worked for me were confused. Clients were frightened. Personally, I was experiencing things I had never experienced before. What happened leading up to the financial crisis was a wholesale breach of contract between the financial services sector and society."
"We're in the middle of a healthy debate about what we want from our economic system," Taft says. "We thought we wanted growth at any and all costs, and it turns out we don't want that. We don't want growth that blows the system up every 10 years."
For all of his criticism of the government's oversight role leading up to the crisis, Taft says there have been encouraging strides. He supported the $700 billion bank bailout of 2008, which Taft says prevented the U.S. from plunging into a 1930s-era Great Depression. The faith of the world economy, he says, was hanging in the balance.
"I think of all the conversations you have today about 'too big to fail'—about never again using public money to shore up the financial system—my feeling would be, never say never," Taft says. "Government intervention is a last resort, but it is a resort that should be used in extreme cases and was appropriately done so."
Equally nuanced is Taft's assessment of the signature piece of Wall Street reform legislation, the Dodd-Frank Act, which was named for then Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, who was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
"Government intervention is a last resort, but it is a resort that should be used in extreme cases and was appropriately done so."
"There is no question financial regulation was hopelessly out of date and ineffective. But the problem with Dodd-Frank is that there were a lot of unnecessary provisions and harmful provisions put in the bill because of the intense political environment in which it was drafted," Taft says. "We're now well into the punitive phase of regulatory overreach. The policy pendulum, as it always does, is in the process of swinging too far."
In 2013, Investment Advisor magazine recognized Taft as one of the 25 most influential people in the financial industry. He has also been a mainstay in recent years in the top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business by Trust Across America, a business ethics group.
"I had always heard of his leadership in the corporate world, and he is one of the most principled, ethical, thoughtful leaders I know," Headmaster Willy MacMullen '78 says. "His commitment to equity and justice, to corporate stewardship, to doing the right thing, is deep."
But Taft's tireless advocacy isn't limited to liquid capital. It extends to human capital and fostering a tolerant workplace. The cause of LGBT employment rights is deeply personal to Taft, whose stepdaughter, Gabrielle Fabre '13, and oldest daughter, Mary Taft-McPhee, are gay.
For five years running, RBC has received a 100 percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index. Taft's efforts to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and to help legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota have earned him acclaim from the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
"My personal experience with my children has obviously informed my views on a broad range of LGBT issues and has inspired me to be involved and make a difference," Taft says. "I'm gratified to say I have."
Taft credits his stepdaughter with reconnecting him to the school when she enrolled. Like her stepfather, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Fabre was presented with the Aurelian Award when she graduated. The honor is given to the senior who best exemplifies sterling character, high scholarship, and forceful leadership. "It was one of the proudest moments of my life," Taft says. "I always felt Gaby completed the circle for me."
"My personal experience with my children has obviously informed my views on a broad range of LGBT issues and has inspired me to be involved and make a difference. I'm gratified to say I have."
Fighting bigotry is not a single-front conflict for Taft. In February, he helped spearhead a group of prominent Minnesotans that took out a full-page ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune decrying religious intolerance toward Muslims. Taft was one of the only Republicans among them.
"Though we may be a soft-spoken bunch, we know better than to be silent or still in the face of bigotry shown to Muslims. Our Minnesotans," the ad read.
Among those behind the $20,000 ad was U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat and the first Muslim elected to Congress. Another backer of the effort? U.S. Senator Al Franken, hardly a conservative. Not that Republicans have held up their end of the bargain, says Taft, who wrote a 2013 New York Times op-ed titled "Cry of the True Republican."
If his great-grandfather and father were alive today, Taft says they wouldn't recognize what the GOP has become. His principles, he says, are closer to bedrocks of conservatism.
"Republicans used to be the responsible adults in the room," Taft says. "We're a long way from that today."
Taft has wrapped himself up in the lore of his family, including his great-grandfather's connection to the national pastime. In 2013, he took part in Taft Night at a Washington Nationals game and Presidents Race, where he shook hands with the William Howard Taft "racing president" during its debut. (William Howard Taft was the first sitting president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game.)
While Taft is eager to preserve and build on his family's legacy in deeds and diplomas, don't count on him trading on his name at the ballot box, not even as he retires from his successful financial services career. Taft says he already has a platform, whether it's the books or opinion pieces he's written or issue ads.
"Being civically engaged—that's the kind of thing I seem to be able to do effectively and want to do, as opposed to running for office," Taft says.
Taft doesn't need an "R" after his name to show what he stands for. He doesn't need a focus group or slick slogan.
He's living the motto.
"Responsibility, integrity, respect for others—those were all family values. They still are," says Taft. "They're school values, too, and they're alive and well at Taft today, which is incredibly gratifying to me personally."
For more about William Howard Taft, see this issue's From the Archives column on page 88.
Neil Vigdor '95 is the statewide political writer for Hearst Connecticut Media, which includes Greenwich Time, The (Stamford) Advocate, Connecticut Post, Danbury News-Times, and five weekly newspapers.