If you're like me, you've no doubt been distraught for months over the plight of high-profile entrepreneur Donald Trump. The thought of the Trumper having to sell trophies such as the Trump Princess yacht, the Trump Shuttle or the Plaza Hotel seems ever so cruel.
His recent failure to produce on time the sum of $30 million to pay bondholders at Trump's Castle makes him seem a deadbeat, but, after all, this is nothing that a few Latin American countries haven't done already.Even the ominous potential of bankruptcy (his personal guarantees seem to be all that backs many loans) has me fretting over who'd pay Trump's cleaning bills. My personal concern extends to other family members. The idea of jilted mate Ivana having to make do with the flimsy $25 million stipulated in her prenuptial agreement seems an affront to the American way.
We're not in a recession, and excessive belt-tightening is inappropriate. After all, didn't the 1980s prove that a little debt never hurt anyone? The bigger they are, the bigger they borrow, right? In business transactions, doesn't one hand wash the other? Doesn't every junior achiever harbor dreams of seeing his name in megawatt lights one day?
Fame indeed is a fleeting thing, but fame attached to the flaunting of money appears even more ephemeral in the 1990s. Perhaps average folks can take heart from the recent disasters of so many of the well-heeled that no one is too big to avoid calamity if he overextends and laughs at risk. Readers who have written me complaining that high rollers don't have to play by the same investment rules can take heart.
Debt has become the tobacco of the 1990s, considered undesirable to the same degree that it was once deemed chic. The Michael Milkens and Ivan Boeskys accelerated the debt-ridden game dramatized in the film "Wall Street." Now, turning around the logic of that film's villain, Gordon Gekko, one might say that greed isn't so good anymore. Being smart with money clearly isn't the same as worshiping money and the glitz it brings. And there are ethics involved in the investment process.
I recently enjoyed a production of the play "Other People's Money . . . the Ultimate Seduction," written by former businessman Jerry Sterner. The play dramatizes the actions of Lawrence Garfinkle, a corporate raider known as Larry the Liquidator, as he launches a bid.
Here's how Garfinkle rationalizes love of money and power: "I'm a modern day Robin Hood. I take from the rich and give to the middle class. Well . . . upper middle class."
Garfinkle, whose manner is seductive to those enamored of riches, compares financial climbers to gunslingers: "Instead of galloping in with a six-gun blazing in each hand, we're driven in, escorted by a herd of lawyers and investment bankers, waving our limited partnerships in one hand and our 13-D filings in the other. But they quake just as hard. And they wind up just as dead. And it's legal. And it's exciting. And it's fun. And the money ain't bad either."
Struggles between wealth-flaunters and workers aren't new. It's been a while since I saw Frank Capra's classic film "It's a Wonderful Life," starring James Stewart. But the battle between money-obsessed Mr. Potter and righteous building-and-loan chief George Bailey was classic.
Here's how Bailey told off Potter about his values: "Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about . . . they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?"
When Potter tried to lure Bailey with a big salary so he could shutter the building and loan, Bailey responded: "You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter!"
Ironically, the savings and loan industry, which used the symbolism of that film for years to exact benefits for itself in Washington, wound up with a lot of its own Potters. But then again, the Potters of the S&L industry are coming to trial, as are inside traders.
What goes around comes around. Even for big wheels who've been intemperate rather than illegal in their actions, flaunting money is tougher in the 1990s. Worship of wealth has worn thin, at least for a while.