Tuesday, December 30, 2008

City of Holiday Lights

Looking towards Bloomingdale's from Fifth Avenue. 9:15 PM. Photo: JH.
12/30. It’s still holiday time in New York. Yesterday was mainly grey and colder. And quiet. I was at my desk all day. It felt like Saturday although it was Monday. I was glad to be home the same way you’re glad to be home on a holiday or a Saturday.

I’m reading Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Montecello. My reading comes mainly in bits and snatching time, and Mrs. Gordon-Reed’s history – which won the National Book Award for non-fiction this year (see NYSD 11.20.08) – commands, demands your attention to her details for nuance and social history. I’m only halfway through so I have ways to go before I can tell you why this is such a satisfying read, such a learning and thinking experience. Mrs. Gordon-Reed is a professor of Law at NYU and a professor of History at Rutgers. Command. She’s an intense teacher who lures you in with her scope of the scene she writes about.

Click cover to order.
Click cover to order.
The other day, browsing like a compulsive book-buyer at Archivia, the sleek bookshop at Lex and 72nd, I also picked up a tiny little book that I bought mainly because I liked the cover and the feel of the volume -- soft-cover -- Memoirs of the Life of Monsieur de Voltaire (Hesperus Press) by the man himself, of course. I have never read any Voltaire before, although I knew Candide, mainly because of the musical.

I have read about Voltaire in the histories of 18th century France. His prose is a very easy read, very intimate on meeting. He prods and pokes his subjects and can pull a laugh (a guffaw) from out of nowhere in quietly yet forcefully ridiculing a character.

There were the kings and then there was Voltaire. He himself said one gets a special feeling hanging out with a monarch. He also was wont to point out their foibles and fallibilities as well as those of their lackeys, many of whom were members of the clergy.

As a result, Voltaire ticked off a lot of people when he wrote about them (although they loved it when he wrote about others). He was thrown in the Bastille, he was exiled to England, he was sent off on special missions to Berlin and he was ubiquitous on the world stage of his time. Almost everyone of political authority in Voltaire’s age was corrupt, or vain, or monstrous, or unbalanced or idiotic at times, or all of the above. I read it and wonder if such truths still hold in our “modern” times. I just wonder.

At dinner last night the conversation was ... still ... about Bernie Madoff and the Big Swindle. A couple of tables away, it was the same. We are in the “theory” period since very little is known. The question frequently asked: Why is that man not in jail? Why is he being allowed to relax in the luxury of his living room?” I am not asking that question; that is the question being asked. Because of that question, many have taken it down darker paths of speculation: who knew what? Who were his co-conspirators? Surely there were those who knew, who knew something.

The losses keep mounting. One well-known Manhattan family lost upwards of $300 million (but don’t want it to get out). They remain very well fixed. What is getting out are all kinds of stories and numbers. False or true, the aggregate runs into the billions and the pain extracted will be incalculable and vast. He not only stole their money, he stole their lives. They, of course, were the willing, unwitting accomplices. The root of all evil; remember that one? We used to hear it as kids, but that was long ago.

Evil aside, it’s about Due Diligence. This is a term we hear over and over. This will emerge as one of the Great Lessons of our time. Who was doing the Due Diligence? That is the oft-repeated question. Because the results confirm that either someone wasn’t doing his Due Diligence or he didn’t know how to do it. Bad news on either hand. How could this happen? Greed is a sneaky little partner.

I’ve known two women in my life who were heiresses to great wealth and didn’t like the whole thing. One of them I won't name because she is still with us and wouldn’t like being singled out. Her first reaction when she learned of the size of her inheritance (in the nine figures), was to balk and figure out how to give it away, to get rid of it. The other was the late Bettina Bancroft, an heiress to the Dow-Jones fortune. When Bettina first heard about her vast inheritance, she said out loud: “I don’t want it. Give it away!” Both of these women had a natural sense of its dangers and destruction, and they feared it. Both women, incidentally, didn’t give it away (although they were generous in their philanthropies).

Most people I know who have some wealth, or great wealth don’t know much about managing it and, as a matter of course, often risk making bad choices in getting advice. This can be true even of men and women who have created great wealth. With many exceptions, of course. But bad or ill-informed decisions are made all the time. Money can give you a sense of self-confidence that is more delusion and vanity than anything else. A lot of advisors aren’t much better. A lot of advisors don’t read. They get their information from the same place the dummies get it – from tv. Not a thinking man’s medium. Or they get it over cocktails or dinner, or the guy in the next cubicle.

So it wasn’t just greed, or even greed, that led a lot of people to Bernie Madoff’s door, with hat in hand and loot in their pockets. It was poor thinking, forgetting that something like personal wealth is just like all the other personals in ones life – either you look after it, watch out, take care, or you don’t, opening yourself up to all kinds of hazards.

The real greed in this story, however, is defined by the man (or the men, or the men and women) who devised the method of fleecing his/their friends, neighbors, clients, institutions, community of their property and in many cases, their wellspring of well-being. That’s the greed that kills trust and confidence. That’s the greed that is inhabiting the national dialogue now.

Monday night along Fifth Avenue. JH took the Digital out for a look around at the holiday decorations presented first to promote excitement and anticipation and now remaining temporarily to remind us that the festive restores the human spirit.