Bad Guys

January 27, 2009: 12:44 AM ET

madoffYou could make the case that this era has produced possibly the worst bad guys in business history. Think about that for a minute. That's really saying something. They've got a lot of competition. Carnegie and Frick, who shot their own workers. The guys who fomented the Teapot Dome, whatever that was. Who remembers? 

Somewhat more recently, during the days I still wore suspenders and power ties, there were a lot of bad guys, too. Many are philanthropists now, just like Carnegie and Frick, come to think of it. God bless 'em and the work they do, but they were pretty bad. The fad then was to rake up companies as if they were fish in a net, gut them, and profit from the asset. It was called, in a most Orwellian twist, "the democratization of capital." Most of the clever little miscreants got away with it, but a few got crazy greedy and messed it all up for the rest of us normally greedy people. There were a few really gross ones. Dennis Levine, for instance. Insider trading? Seems so mild now. 

Ours seems worse somehow. Just look at the harvest! Dick Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers, just sold his $13 million dollar Florida home. To his wife. For, reportedly, $10. You read that correctly. Ten dollars. You have to excuse me, but I just have to say... that's so cool. What bravado! Mess with Dick Fuld, will you? Well, Dick Fuld has a few tricks up his sleeve! And the guys from GM, Ford and Chrysler, who flew to Washington to ask for money, each in his own private jet? Now Citigroup, which took a huge bolus of bailout bucks, is said to be purchasing a $50 million jet. Amazing. I'm sure there are a host of excellent business reasons they are completely justified to do so. I bet they will even save some money, in their minds. But really. You've got to hand it to them.

Then there's Bernie. I really enjoyed the piece in last Sunday's New York Times that did a thorough mental D&C on him. It was very entertaining. I've always thought that it took a certain kind of psychopathy to succeed in business. The bigger the nut, the better he or she does, pretty much. There are exceptions, of course. But Bernie is such a huge, juicy example. The sharp kid who didn't do so good in school. All the smarty-fartys went to Harvard and Yale, and he had to go Alabama, which was fine, but not so Ivy League. Couldn't take it.  After a year, went back to Long Island and attended Hofstra at night. He would show them! And he did, too. Put it over on everybody for a long time. Really stuck it to them all in one way or another. Even now, totally busted, and when he goes outside there's a crafy, insouciant, twinkly, beamish thing going on. Something... proud. Fifty billion dollars. What an achievement in bad guy history. 

And then there's the rest of us. All the Bernies in the world couldn't exist without the support of the brokers, bankers, regulators, credulous investors, and enormous bigshots in their own right who make up the neural network that makes Bernies possible. 

But are we the worst? There's a lot to consider. Take the guys who run the Chinese railway system, controlling the supply of tickets with violence when necessay, stabbing people, beating them upside their heads. Saw in the LA Times. That's bad, if not quite as sophisticated. Still, they're no slouches. I mean, putting poison into children's toys, toothpaste marketed to kids, and pet food? That's seriously not good, I admit it.

At the end of the day, however, I'd put our guys up against theirs anytime, at least for now. They're coming up the ramp. But any nation that can produce a Rod Blagojevich has nothing to worry about in this particular contest.

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