Jewish World Review July 24, 2002/ 15 Menachem-Av 5762


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Consumer Reports

Greed never goes out of style | One of the the rare assets The New York Times can tout is Walter Kirn, the journalist/novelist whose work is consistently among the best in the United States. In a July 21 Times Magazine essay headlined "My Fault," Kirn's description of the avarice of a nation was so true it made my eyes squint. He admits that five years ago he was also caught up in the mania, fearful of missing that "sure thing" so many instant high-and-low finance experts cashed in on. He writes: "Was I drinking a lot of espresso? Buy stock in Starbucks. Were all my friends on Prozac? Buy Eli Lilly." Kirn adamantly points the finger not just at Martha Stewart, Steve Case and Bill Gates, but millions of Americans.

People conveniently forget the pandemonium of IPOs, the ludicrous dotcom startups and the media-worship of men like Jack Welch that were so prevalent before the NASDAQ crashed in the spring of 2000. Everyone was a day trader: I recall an otherwise savvy salesman at New York Press who'd had such a lucky streak he didn't even deposit his considerable paychecks for 12 weeks in a row. I tried to convince him that he was playing with Vegas money, but that well-intentioned advice sounded like the words of Cotton Mather when he'd just made an $80,000 (paper) profit on a deal the very same morning. .

Kirn continues: "Since there's no Congressional hearing room large enough to hold us all-the lunch-counter Morgans and couch-potato Rockefellers whose hunches and tips and systems warped the markets as surely as all those fraudulent corporate audits-the investigations into where the money went will, of necessity, be witch trials. Which isn't to say they won't feature some actual witches many of us will be happy to see burned, if only to exorcise our guilt for making them celebrities in the first place. .

Years ago, when the great fever struck me personally (I was drinking a Gatorade one minute and buying Quaker Oats, its maker, the next), I alarmed myself by sitting down one day and listing the names of 20 C.E.O.'s I hadn't realized I'd known until that moment. The names came to me from the media ether, magically, the way ballplayers' names had when I was 12. I resented this unbidden mental evasion. Ellison, Welch, McNealy, Ebbers, Whitman-useless info-bytes breeding in a brain that soon, to make room for them, would be forced to dump whole college seminars on Roman history and the complete set of Los Angeles area codes." .

Kirn's story was a welcome relief from the sheaf of stories-every single day-that soil newspapers and magazines with anecdotal tales of the economic downturn that's wiped out the dreams of near-retirees or young men and women just out of school. A typical example of this trend-hopping also appeared in the July 21 Times, leading the "Styles" section, although it could've easily been an op-ed article. Talk about pack journalism. .

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt and Warren St. John educate readers with this tax-the-imagination lead paragraph: "Just three years ago, Ameet Shah, 24, was successfully laying the groundwork for life as a corporate titan. After graduating from Duke University, he had landed a $50,000-a-year job in New York at J.P. Morgan Chase, working 100-hour weeks on deals involving companies like Enron and Kmart. But no sooner had Mr. Shah [I don't think picking a man named "Shah" instead of "Cumberland" was any accident] settled into the perks of his new career-expense accounts, car services and enough cash to support an apartment in a doorman building-than his world was shaken by a market downturn and a stream of stories about corporate malfeasance.

The deals-and the perks-dried up, many of his colleagues were fired, and Mr. Shah got a peek at capitalism's dark side."

Isn't it a pity, Mister Shah?

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Russ Smith