The American Delusion of Becoming Rich Without Work

American Sucker

The American Delusion of Becoming Rich Without Work

American Sucker

The American Delusion of Becoming Rich Without Work
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Feb. 19 2004 2:27 PM

American Sucker

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Katha,

I've enjoyed it too!

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Denby, like the rest of us, made a choice in life—or choices, really. He decided that he was going to be a Writer, and that generally means—leaving aside the Susan Collinses of the world—that you aren't going to get rich. But if you work hard and keep a steady moral compass, you may be able to live a very fulfilling, never mind cool, life. It's kind of vicariously cool, but it ain't bad.

Denby did not decide to go work on Wall Street, which he could have done. Obviously he has the requisite brain cell capacity, etc. Wall Street is a funny place. It is the only business, or occupation, where the line function (sorry for the Harvard Business School lingo) is to make money. In other words, at Monsanto you make chemicals, and by the way you get paid. At Ball State, you teach and by the way you get paid. At The New Yorker, you write, and well, you get the point. … But on Wall Street, you take money and use it to get more. The whole point is to make a lot of money. (There is nothing more sickening that someone from Goldman Sachs saying [and they do this more than anyone] that what they are really doing is creating value for their customers. Twaddle!)

But let me dribble out some credit here. Working on Wall Street is tough. Very tough. Yes, there are a few Ringo Starrs out there, who just happen to be at the right place at the right time, but mostly it is grueling. Long hours. Boring like you would not believe. Lots of assholes. Constant temptation to cross the line. And if you navigate through this and you have a brain, yes, you too could make, let's say, $750,000 a year. Denby could have chosen this life.

Of course he didn't, but he did choose to dabble there. And of course he picked the very worst "entry point," as a money manager might say. He happened upon a time when, yes, even the cloddiest of the clods were making big money. (This happens on the Street from time to time, and you can tell because it's when folks like us start talking about $ at cocktail parties—I mean brunches.) Then money (fools?) rushes in. That money pushes up prices to unsustainable levels. A Crash ensues. One of our readers in the Fray had a great point, writing, "As Galbraith put it in The Great Crash, 'from time to time something causes the American middle class to be seized with the delusion that God intended it to become rich without work.' " Yup.

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One thing that's interesting to me is that there haven't been many/any really great accounts of the Bubble and Crash yet. Couple possibilities here: 1) It's too early; 2) it's not a good subject; 3) the writers are all bad. I'll pass on 3 and pick a combo of 1 and 2. First of all, every day I am reminded that it ain't over. Just today, Katha, you might have seen that Enron's chief slickster, Jeffrey Skilling, was finally indicted, nearly three years after Bethany McLean's story first suggested the place was a complete house of cards. It takes time and distance. (I believe that William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich didn't come out until 1959 or 1960. No, I am not suggesting that this blip of history is anywhere near that important.)

Of course, the Bubble/Crash theme over history has been warmed over many times now. I already mentioned The Great Crash. The other seminal work is Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises by Charles Kindelberger. (Amazon has a two-for-one special on them—$24.44!) Then there's things like Bonfire of the Vanities (and Katha, you know the classics so much better than I do). As for the most recent Bubble, ironically, one of its early chroniclers was Denby's "conscience" at The New Yorker, John Cassidy, whose book Dot.con : How America Lost Its Mind and Money in the Internet Era, didn't generate much buzz. There's Burn Rate, by my very favorite author (Michael Wolff), and Extravagance, a novel by Gary Krist. I don't know much about Roger Lowenstein's new book, Origins of the Crash: The Great Bubble and Its Undoing, but he is good.

I know, I know, Katha: This gets back to the point you made before. It ain't the meat, it's the motion. That not every writer needs an experience like the one in Into Thin Air (come to think of it, that would have been a good title for Denby) to create a great or even really good piece of work. Someone just has to do it right, like the late Anthony Lukas with Common Ground—now, that was a superb telling of a historical event. In the end, Denby's book is a slice. (A slice into the woods.) And to me, a real gratifying look at the Bubble and the Crash is still to come.

Take care, Katha, and I hope to run into you someday at Fairway or Zabars or Citarella …

—Andy

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.