I bought a stack of rather old books at an estate sale some years ago. Within the lot I purchased was a tattered, leather-bound, compendium containing six years of “The London Almanack” running consecutively from 1853 through 1858. Thumbing through its worn and mildewed pages I chanced upon general interest articles of the day, court circulars, ministry staffing, board-listings of companies and their periodic changes, social diaries, etc. What stood out was the ubiquity of The Military in just about every aspect of life, and the wholesale absence of Hedge Fund and Private Equity Managers amongst the notable and glitterati-of-the-day. There were the Royals, of course, followed by land-owning aristocrats and the clergy who were well-represented, statesmen and ministers, and the odd artist mentioned here and there, after which, finally, on the bottom rung, the very occasional dash across a page by a City of London financier or budding commercial scion. But atop the pedestal of admiration, clearly stood the man in uniform (and I do not mean the blazer, blue-oxford & khaki’s of HF/PE issue). Today, of course, the military man is wholly absent, and one would be challenged to find a statesman of note outside the most senior ministers or cabinet officials in the vicinity of the social stratosphere. Now, upon the pedestal of the nation’s attention, predominantly sit entertainers (NB: sportsmen are entertainers) and money-men.
Of course, in the era of my tattered Almanacks, Britain was solidly an Empire – one that took more than a few muskets and large-cannoned stinkpots to hold the domain together. But one could argue that today, the US Military is no less important to America’s dominance, given the amount of collective wealth expended by our rulers upon soldiers and their toys, and that the The Generals and their Lieutenants shouldn’t be socially licking the shoe-bottoms of Harvard Law grads trading public company shares upon their materially non-public clinical data, or denied their walk down the Red Carpets of NY or LA. Yet outside of General Petraeus, who will now be remembered for his indiscretion in the bedroom, rather than his prowess in the theaters of battle, one would be challenged to recall a single US military figure outside the serious guy who got so furious at Bush-the-Second for stitching-him-up at the UN. This is not a slur, on General Powell, and is intended as the opposite for was a model public servant taking the bullet for his boss, though I do wish (and I’ll bet HE wishes) that he’d shredded the shoji-paper-like evidence underpinning the planned campaign in Iraq, which, if he had, HE might have been America’s first black President. Back on topic, perhaps in some places, the military men still rate in the public’s fascination and admiration. But today, both in NY and London, the society pages are equally devoid of uniformed men (excepting those wearing a football kit).
Commerce and trade were hardly admirable pursuits for a gentleman in the days of my London Almanack, whilst the business of money itself, was even lower still, as it was, unsavourily associated with usury. Yet between then and now, finance has not only been rehabilitated from its Shylock-back-street ex-communication during the middle ages, but so entirely transmuted in its peception that it sits at the pinnacle of desirablility. Moreover, I would posit, this is not for what it does or what it is, or its social function, but ENTIRELY for the very real bling and glamour that its pursuit delivers to its disciples. Yes, it sounds genteel, important and purposeful when embedded in the NYT Sunday Society page weddings & engagements blurb that refers to the Groom’s activity as a Senior Analyst in the venerable buyout firm of Fiddle-Faddle Leveraged Acquisition Ventures, or a Global Macro CDS Long-Short Portfolio Manager at Diddle Doodle & Daddle Hedge Fund Management. But should it’s pursuit and its many faceted pursuers deserve their central place in our admiration? For those waiting breathlessly, this is not today’s question and nor, despite the barbs, am I judging, but, rather, observing.
And prognosticating…by asking a different question: “Will this place on the pedestal continue to be held in the future? Obvious Answer: Probably not. And this isn’t because The People have voted against Bain-like, Romney-esque balls-to-the-wall maximum edge-of-the-envelope extraction in favour of deeper social meaning – the latter being a direction the people are running away from as fast and furiously as possible. Nor is it because we have, over the last decade, seen a more-or-less continuous exposition of what passed as success for what it has all-too-often closely resembled: cheating, tunneling, gaming, corrupting, mis-representing, to the outright frauding, thefting, and private misappropriation-ing at the expense of others and the system a-la Boesky, Scrushy, Frankel, Skilling, Ebbers, Rigas, Lay, Madoff, Rajuratnam, Kozlowski, Cioffi, Waksman, Gupta, Mozilo, and so forth. Rather, it will be for the same simple reason that in 1856, few could have imagined that the day would come that neither Military officers nor Clergy would reign supreme. That, in time, social mores, usefulness and opportunity would not only make their pursuits redundant, but borderline despised. And just as disastrous and grotesquely-brutal wars pursued at public expense undermined the Military’s glamour, dishonest financial extraction and exploitation does similar to finance today. And though the moment of knocking finance off its perch clearly is NOT here…yet, Galleon and SAC-like insider-trading scandals, the kind that the typical citizen viscerally feels to be deeply unfair, and that the cognoscenti have little doubt of their veracity however difficult they may be for public justice to fully prosecute and irrespective of how well-lawyered the directly and tangentially associated may be, hasten the moment such pursuits are purged from our collective fascination. The public’s distaste results not from some puritanical Scarlet Letter-like prudeness, but rather because fairness, trust, and confidence, are essential to the functioning of institutions and our social system, with corruption and similar venality undermining the its most basic machinery.
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With each passing day, larger-than-life archetypically-villainous characters diminish in number. Pessimists may rue the state-of-the-world, and the contents of the evening news may, often enough, cause one to hide all sharp objects in the house, yet, ponder, for a moment, of the idealistic though no less prescient vision of the future conjured 35 years ago by the most vilified of recent Presidents, James Earl Carter. Cars ARE now substantially more energy efficient. The use of alternative energy IS increasing, and America is becoming less-hostage to middle-eastern interests for energy. Home thermostats ARE turned lower. Rivers ARE cleaner. The cardigan HAS made a comeback. Faith HAS become more uniquitious (though I have my doubts about the virtue of the latter two). The iron curtain is gone, and an entire generation in Eastern Europe excepting Belarus, knows little to nothing of the bleak totalitarianism that’s become a fast-fading memory. In all the lands of the western hemisphere south of San Antonio there is but a single totalitarian regime (Cuba), though Gordon Liddy would have his ideological issues with Chavez as Paul Singer DOES with Christina K. Gone are the Somoza, Pinochet, Torrijos, Noriega, Fujimori, Stroessner regimes, as are those of the Generals in Brazil and Argentina. Gone is apartheid, the larger-than-life Amin, Bokassa, Kabila, Taylor, Babangida, Mubarak, Rawlings, Doe, Kaunda, Toure, Bongo, Mariam, the ben-Ali family, and Qadaffi from Africa changing the face of the continent, and the lives of the people, dramatically for the better. Saddam Hussein is no more. South Korea is a model democracy, and even Pyongyang has turned down the rhetoric and turned-off the centrifuges. The Burmese generals, too, have relented. And while there remain a few stubborn boogers clinging to nose of power, they are noteworthy for their place on the tail of the political distribution, rather than in the center. This was the Carter doctrine, and somewhat miraculously, it’s arrived.
I point this out because it highlights the increasing difficulty that a James Bond-type hero has in finding a villain of such repute outside the cantankerous vitriol of the blind Abu al Hamza, the apocalypticism of Asahara’s Aum Shinrikyu, gluttonous obscenity of ex-Soviet Oligarchs, or anti-social loners like McVeigh or Breivik. All this makes me wonder whether, if Bob Kane and Bill Finger were alive and penning a contemporary version of DCs’ Batman, just who, or what the villains might resemble, and what might be that dark motivating force behind a 21st century Bruce Wayne.
“Having witnessed his father brutally bankrupted and humiliated by the purchase of what were rated as ‘AAA’ securities comprising of sub-prime loans, the elder Wayne was driven to secretly commit suicide in order to trigger an insurance payment so his family could seat, the young Wayne swore revenge on the criminal swindlers, cheaters Frat boys and similar who conjured and sold the bogusly-rated securities…
. or how about
“Wayne was driven to combat financial predation when as a child, a NY vulture fund bought obligations at pennies on the dollar and then held out at debt scheduling causing his father to lose his job and meagre income, forcing him to emigrate to America in order to feed his family, whereupon he died trying to get across the border. Wayne swore never to forget who was responsible …”
Imagine the variety of sub-plots, and characterizations of the villains – “….the unscupulous and corrupt hedge fund titans driven by meglomanic visions of world political and financial domination through the hoarding of riches and creation of unlimited Super-PACs to push the evil agenda of environmental devastation and human slavery and…..” Abusrd hyperbole? okay, I got a bit carried away, but the thought of Batman hunting down a Fuld-like or Mozillo-like villain BEFORE havoc has been wrought in order to foil their gestating plots, or crashing a fundraiser at the Hudson Institute BEFORE their or the API’s millions are employed on unleashing anti-climate change myths on the unsuspecting citizenry, or taking out vigilante justice upon the perps of a Chinese gang of miscreants reverse-mergering their P.O.S into some shell-co. with a US listing, or helping Alfred use the bat-computer (with some help from his friend Mitnick) to hack into the bank accounts of seemingly amoral HFT predators (and their programmers) in order to empty them into the bemused but thankful hands of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Sea Shepherds or UNICEF, would bring a smile to the face of those who honestly and unrewardingly play by the rules, and, perhaps provide subject matter for DC’s next generation of 21st century super-hero storylines.
I am well-off on a tangent now, and will veer back on point, I cannot help wondering whether, in our annals, we will appear (to future generations) so parochially-minded, and whether a century from now, Dick Fuld’s, Paul Singer’s or Steve Cohen’s grandkids or great-grandkids will take public pride in the source of their patrimony. That is of course if the down-trodden hungry masses of the future continue to have the munificence to allow their offspring – who will have done nothing to earn it – keep their inheritance, with its attendant place in the pecking order reflected in the then-prevailing Almanack.
Originally published at Cassandra Does Tokyo