Wednesday, August 19, 2009


It's probably becasue I don't get around much, but I've only seen one depiction of greed that I thought was funny, and that's the one from The Addams Family, in which Gomez Addams shows the impostor Fester how to get to the money vault by pulling on the book titled "Greed" on the bookshelf.

Then there's the other kind of greed, the greed that is just nasty, heartless, shameful and yet shameless, as epitomized in Barbarians at the Gate, a wonderful non-fiction book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. In the book they paint a picture of egos and cash chasing after RJR Nabisco, a conglomerate that makes everything from cigarettes to Oreo cookies. I found the book at a library sale over the weekend, and feel like the dollar I spent buying it was well spent (Sorry to the authors; but I rarely buy new books these days. In fact, it's been at least ten years since I last bought a new one). The story was so captivating I had to read it midstream, interruping my reading of Max Hastings' Nemesis, which si good, but just not as compelling.

So what makes Barbarians so compelling? It's the perspective. Over the weekend, we got a little perspective ourselves. We're looking for a new vehicle, one to replace our van but one that has the towing capacity to haul our camper. So we went to the local Toyota dealership and started looking at SUVs. Bad idea. Though they have what we want, their prices are just insance -- out of our price range, to the tune of $30,000 to $35,000. It all made the deal my father-in-law offered us on his Honda Pilot, at a mere $14,000, look a lot better, so we're going that route again.This ties in with Barbarians because with the amounts of money involved in competing attempts to buy RJR Nabisco, there is no perspective. Billions of dollars flying through the air, pushed there by men and companies poised to make millions in fees. And little of the money they're playing with is their own.

Soak this in a bit:
There were, Finn admitted, some unique problems to be ironed out. For one thing, deferring $3.5 billion in taxes -- a conservative scenario -- was unprecedented. According to Finn's calculations, this single transaction would boost the annual federal budget deficit by 2 percent. If first Boston proposed it, RJR Nabisco's board would almost certainly have to take into account the political fallout. "It's clear," Finn said, "that Washington would go apeshit."
No kidding. But as Theodore Forstmann, senior partner in Forstmann Little & Co., one of the firms that vied to buy RJR Nabisco in 1988, said, "It's like Alice inWonderland. The reason Kravis can pay these incredible sums is that his money isn't real. It's phony. It's funny money. It's wampum." Of course, Forstmann is talking here of the junk bonds of the 1980s, but in my perspective, when you're playing with billions of dollars, it is all funny money and wampum; such amounts have no basis in reality because none of us can imagine spending that much money on something, not even skee-ball.

That's the perspective I gained from the book. Anybody who plays with insane amounts of money -- whether they're corporate raiders or the federal government -- has lot perspective on what they're actually doing, or spending. It's all funny money or wampum. A billion here or three billion there is meaningless when you're dealing in hundreds of billions, or trillions. If a little leaks out along the way, it doesn't matter, because there's always more wampum where that comes from. So spend, friend, spend.
I'm sure, unfortunately, that the greed depicted in Barbarians is eclipsed by what's gone on in the past few years, from Enron to the mortgage meltdown. I'm grateful that we have fine writers like Burrough and Helyar to chronicle these kinds of things. but it's a truism in the business world, especially in New York, that the kinds of shenanigans displayed in this book are cheered on by the business press and the business world in general, unless the deals go sour and people don't make money. Everyone wants to be their friends (even their enemies) until the accusations start.

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