The other day, I posted on John Taylor’s book “Circus of Ambition”. This is a brief follow up.
I remember when I bought this book back in 1989. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and practicing law. The book gave me a fresh look at an unfolding drama that we were living through at the time. The people Taylor wrote about were in the news on a daily basis and the attitudes were in plain sight. There was little doubt that Taylor was right on about the shift in values that merged “morning in America” (from Ronald Reagan) with “greed is good” (from Jerry Falwell and then more famously from the fictional character Gordon Gekko in the film “Wall Street”). Moreover, Taylor was not the only one who noticed. Tom Wolf’s satirical novel, “Bonfire of the Vanities” had already come out in 1987.
Now, more than 25 years later, Taylor’s book has an odd feel to me. In part, the stories seem like they are from long ago. Mortimer’s restaurant, a second home to the moneyed crowd, closed down in 1998.. At the same time, the themes that Taylor describes are still playing out.
For example, Taylor conjures up the scene at a “little lunch” that Malcolm Forbes threw for Danielle Mitterand, wife of the then president of France.
There they all were — Estée Lauder and the Dillons and the Zikhas and John Fairchild and Susan Newhouse and even, for some strange reason, Donald Trump.
See what I mean? It is not just that Donald Trump is mentioned that catches the eye. It is also that he was a bit of an oddball even back then amidst the moneyed crowd. That oddball would much later flaunt his wealth on his way to winning the White House. And it may be that Trump’s “wealth” is connected to the “wealth” of another political actor from a different country, who uses a different sort of “business model” and who nurtured Trump along for his own reasons: Mr. Putin. That is a matter under investigation.
But there is a deeper thought that resonates other than the personalities and antics of the people on Malcolm’s guest list. Taylor writes
By the late eighties, the money culture had taken deep root in American society. The philosophy of wealth creation encouraged each person to seek his or her own fortune and let others take care of themselves. Of course, those incapable of taking care of themselves suffered correspondingly. The growing desolation among the nation’s poor, the increase in homelessness, and the general rise in frustration and disillusionment that helped bring about the crack plague are all ironic outgrowths of the money culture.
Is Taylor right about the effects of the “me first” value shift? Or does this indictment go too far? I am confident that I could find people to take both sides of the issue. That matter remains open.
Certainly, the money culture that he describes still has a powerful hold on the American imagination, and much more so elsewhere around the world. Even after the 2008 meltdown, the financial industry has a hold, not just on its position of power, but on the imaginations of many youngsters who yearn to get rich. But not all are so enamored. There are rumors as well, that some millennials are looking elsewhere for inspiration.
So, is someone like Nail Ferguson right that such a yearning is the normal state of affairs that should be nurtured or at least tolerated because of the benefits that the yearning creates in building prosperity? Or will we move on from the money culture in the 21st century, making a bit less money perhaps, and finding our pleasures and inspiration without the second yacht, private jet, a flock of Ferrari’s and Bentleys, and real estate holdings in ultra luxe settings scattered around the globe?
That story has yet to be written. Stay tuned!
BTW, as I write about these things, I am reminded of the cautionary tale of Commodus, the Roman emperor. It is said that the reign of Commodus began the decline of the Roman empire because it was he who began the culture of “me first” instead of “Rome first”. It was Commodus, for example, who had two brothers, who had led Roman legions in Gaul, to be murdered, so that he could take over their villa for his personal use. Me first, with a vengeance!