“A wise person should have money in his head but not in his heart.”
One of the earliest scandals around insider trading involved Ivan Boesky. While many have forgotten him he lives on through the one quote attributed to him – and his being the basis for the character of Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) in the film Wall Street: “Greed is good.”
It was one of those unforgettable (and maybe unforgiveable) lines that summed up an era in one way but signaled the advent of another that was more irresponsible and harmful than even his own. In some ways Boesky was merely a precursor – or the first locust of a swarm – that swept through the economy in the following decades. He was not our first in history but for many of us the first in memory who genuinely and completely loved money.
Until then we had read stories of robber barons living splendid lives in the midst of surrounding poverty during the Gilded Age, but we could chalk that up to extraordinary success. We had no example of anyone (other than Scrooge McDuck diving into his pool of cash) who so relished money for its own sake.
In one interview with Boesky the reporter asked him if he did as reported actually love money. Boesky reached in his pocket, pulled out a silver coin he kept with him, and said, “I love money. Not just the accumulation of money or the power of money or symbols of money. I love money itself. I love the texture of it in my hand. That’s why I keep this with me all the time. I want to feel what I love.”
H.L. Hunt used to say that past a certain point it was not about the money. The money was just a way of keeping score. Boesky went beyond that. It was literally about the money itself.
This last weekend I was reading several articles that made me think about money in this very basic way – not just what it symbolizes or how we allow the power of it (or lack of it) to guide our lives but how inexorably it has edged out other values that created legitimate wealth and have been pushed aside by a single consideration: money.
In “Night Club Royale” in The New Yorker Josh Eels reports on the emergence of incredibly lucrative dance clubs and market value of deejays in Las Vegas. One club XS brings in hundreds of thousands – sometimes even a million – dollars each night. And for a two-hour performance a top deejay is paid $300,000. Owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan (who paid $600,000,000 to overhaul a British soccer club) more than $100,000,000 has been spent on this one dance club.
When the subject of the article deejay Afrojack is asked by Eels if his lifestyle would be considered outlandish, Afrojack responds that he sees the point but “If someone gives you a whole bunch of ice cream what are you going to do…put it in the refrigerator? No. You’re going to (expletive) eat the ice cream.”
Lizzie Widdicombe writes “From Mars” in The New Yorker. The article is about Bryan Goldberg the founder of the websites BustleÂ and Bleacher Report. Six years ago at the age of 24 he and a few friends created Bleacher Report, a site that was written by a network of 2000 unpaid sports fans. Today it attracts 220,000 unique visitors each month and sold to Turner Broadcasting System for reportedly $2000000 – almost as much as Jeff Bezos paid for The Washington Post.
A well-researched article in Sports Illustrated may take months of expensive work from a reporter and editor. But in the end, a quickly written and humorous article costing $200 will yield the same amount of revenue.
But the final article I read last weekend a review of Eric Schlosser”s book Command and Control brought everything back into perspective. Schlosser’s book recounts the time in 1980 when NORAD’s computer mistakenly warned of an all-out Soviet attack. The whole Air Force went on high alert. The following year there was another bogus alert. Menand writes, “A year later it happened a third time: Zbigniew Brzezinski the national security adviser ” was called at home at two-thirty in the morning and informed that two hundred and twenty missiles were on their way toward the United States. That false alarm was the fault of a defective computer chip that cost forty-six cents.”
So in the end it’s not the really big-money outlandish lifestyles and distorted personalities I need to worry about, is it? It’s those 46-cent chips that are going to take us down.
Maybe the old adage is right about the devil being in the details – and the small almost invisible things. The lavish is perhaps a distraction – even a foil – for the real danger the unnoticed things that find their way into the heart.