American Sucker

Greed Is Good ... Not!
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Feb. 19 2004 10:50 AM

American Sucker

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Dear Andy,

In Margaret Drabble's wonderful novel The Ice Age, a provincial reporter is sent out to write a story about a shady real estate magnate. To his vast surprise, he falls in love with the guy—his energy, his sense of fun, his determination to make the world bend to his will. Suddenly the reporter finds his own work pointless and his quiet life of dutiful domesticity pathetic. He quits journalism and goes to work for the magnate and sure enough it's incredibly exciting and he feels alive as never before—until the inevitable disaster. Moral: When intellectuals (I'm using the term broadly) get crushes on Men of Action, their judgment is terrible. Beethoven (briefly) admired Napoleon; Ezra Pound loved Mussolini; a whole raft of writers and artists thought Stalin was a great humanitarian He-Man.

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Denby's crush on the Big Men of the boom is essentially of this sort. He's not just looking to make money. He's looking "to be in the swim, to find the winners, find the vitality—Julia Roberts bursting into a room." He likes greed because it fuels creativity, promotes refined pleasures like the array of glorious food on sale at Fairway and that Audi A6, and so on—but does it? "I admired Donald Trump," he writes, "hero of the burnished cigarette case in Columbus Circle, because he got things done, but I hated Trump's taste, his ruthlessness, his sneer, his destructive passions." David, David, run that by me again! You admire Trump for his ability to accomplish things you consider harmful, wrong, and ugly?

As he mentions several times, this isn't a terrific moment for movie criticism, and criticism is already a derivative mode, dependent on the creative energies of the people who actually make what the critic discusses. Perhaps the very act of whipping up your interest in the Erin Brockovich or Matrix of the week so you can write 1,500 really smart words about it produces a hunger for enthusiasm—a bent toward the larger-than-life. I mean, every week movie critics have to produce reams of words about films that, were they books, would get 200 words in the "Briefly Noted" column. Moreover, unlike book critics, movie critics hover on the edges of a world that is all about wealth, power, beauty, sex, fantasy, fame, and flamboyance. It's a world that (unlike the world of books) the vast majority of Americans find profoundly fascinating while not caring all that much about you, the critic, at all. Talk about frustrating!

Denby's crushes on Blodget, Waksal, et al., transfer the movie critic's enthusiastic and perhaps envious relation to the movies to the hard, cold world of finance. He thinks he's going to immerse himself in real life—and that's just what happens. It's just that real life was a lot realer than he bargained for.
 
All that makes for a very American story—a version, you might even say, of another major theme of American literature, Innocence Imperiled by Wily Sophisticates. (I know, Andy, you've pointed out that Denby's innocence is self-willed, and he partially admits that in the book.) The Great Books may not have been much of a guide to the stock market. But they certainly helped Denby craft a resonant narrative.

I should say, before we say goodbye, that for me Denby's book isn't just a cautionary tale about a fool and his money or the middle-aged solid citizen trying to put some risk and passion into his life. It also shows what happens to your sense of social solidarity when you start believing the hype that greed is good; that the market can solve all our problems; that the people who don't grasp the brass ring are dullards and sluggards and cowards. The opposite of a society governed by greed and acquisitiveness is not a society in which everyone lives in thatched huts because no one has a motive to do anything but scratch themselves. It's a society that refuses to accept, as ours does, high poverty rates, homelessness, bad public schools, closing libraries, and 43 million people without health insurance. I believe it was Thoreau who says somewhere that in the end you only get the things you go after. We're not going to cure cancer as a byproduct of making a few entrepreneurs like Sam Waksal fabulously wealthy. And we're not going to make a good society by fuelling the notion that everyone can be rich and the devil take the hindmost.

Denby ends American Sucker with an "Aristotelean ethics of greed," which is that greed is good up to a point. What point? According to Denby, you need two places to live and $5 million in liquid assets to "attain the great ends of life," which are survival, love, achievement, knowledge, and a metaphysical understanding of the meaning of life. Give me a break! He intends this as "ethics for big shots"—like they're listening. But what about solidarity, fellow feeling, the basic sense that everyone should have enough for a good life? Denby has a lot to say about the pleasures of living well, even extravagantly, and I would never deny that those pleasures are real. But what about the pleasure of knowing that what you have—good medical care, a good public school for your children, healthy food, leisure time—everyone has?

That is not a pleasure greed will ever provide.

I've enjoyed this, Andy.

Watch out for black cats,
Katha

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation and a poet and essayist. Andy Serwer is an editor at large at Fortune and a contributor to CNN's American Morning.

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