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Unlike the Poor, Financial Manipulators Take a Human Toll

November 13, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

Living in Orange County, I find it hard to avoid--even in the company I keep--frequent lectures on the indolence and cunning of the people in our society who live off the public dole.

Such talk comes easy for many middle- and upper-middle-class Americans for two reasons in particular: 1) they have no direct contact with these down-and-out people and therefore don't have to clutter up any of their thinking with facts; and 2) blaming the homeless and indigent for their own low state makes it unnecessary for the well-off to feel any social guilt--or even to think about it.

This resentment toward the poor grows out of the "I worked hard for what I have and I don't want to give it away to a bunch of dead-beats" syndrome. This is what leads people to give panhandlers advice instead of a buck. There are many answers to the arguments that support this attitude--and also a soupcon of justice in it--but that's not where I'm headed.

What interests me today--especially against the backdrop of the current trials and tribulations of Wall Street manipulators and savings and loan moguls--is a quite remarkable gap in our concept of givers and takers.

Most of us see ourselves, more or less correctly, as givers to the society--through taxes, charities, work, contributions of time and effort to civic causes--and we tend to see those requiring public support as takers who are a drag on the society.

What fascinates me about this attitude is that it seldom carries over to the real takers in our society, to the giants of takerdom, beside whom welfare recipients are relatively benign.

The people who should be getting the heat as takers are a recently burgeoning breed of money manipulators who can cost us more in one burst of spectacular greed than the Orange County welfare budget in a year. Plus a lot of human misery that can't be measured in dollars.

For example, a while back I wrote in this space about the victims--many of them now living in Orange County--of the Continental Airlines takeover by Frank Lorenzo. Since then, he has done it again--this time to Eastern Airlines.

Now, Lorenzo is out of both airlines, allegedly with millions of dollars in profit in his pocket. And behind him are not only struggling companies but a miasma of human debris--families facing financial disaster, divorce, and even a few suicides--among the people dislocated by Lorenzo's financial manipulations.

And this doesn't even begin to touch the scope of the people victimized by the savings and loan debacle. While Charles Keating complains that somebody else did it, not him, and his wife writes plaintive letters to The Times about what a misunderstood guy Keating really is, the human misery he caused is almost incalculable.

Many thousands of retirees saw their life savings go up in smoke in worthless bonds that were sold to them with false promises of security by Keating's establishment. And that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars you and I and our children and their children will be paying for years to come to bail the country out of the excesses of venal savings and loan executives--many of them still living high off the hog among us--and the inept and possibly corrupt public officials who were supposed to monitor their activities.

Finally, I don't even know how to begin to calculate the harm done all of us by people like Michael Milken, who used his enormous intelligence to play our economy like an organ, creating his music from junk bonds that finally ended in a crescendo of disaster.

And Milken, of course, wasn't alone. He was just a little more visible than a lot of his associates who aspired to do the same thing. The common strain that appears to run through all of these manipulators is a complete absence of caring about the social impact of what they are doing. Their only concern is accumulating money. For themselves.

It's not just the magnitude of the taking that sets these people apart. It's also the fact that they have been richly endowed by their own genes and by our society. Most of them are intelligent--some even brilliant. Most of them are well educated and have been nurtured in surroundings that gave them the opportunity to contribute much to their fellow men while pursuing their own success.

Instead, they chose to use these assets for personal greed that was frequently highly destructive to the society that offered them these opportunities.

Contrast that for a moment with the people who receive public assistance. Most of them had none of these opportunities, and many of them lack the education and the health--both physical and mental--that would help pull them out of a situation the great majority would prefer not to be in.

For the most part, they take reluctantly--while the money manipulators take by design, and with high glee when they're on top.

I guess what concerns me most about this situation is that in some quarters, these people who play with our economy and accumulate money as a kind of sport are looked on with admiration.

In a society in which money is used as a measure of success--sometimes the sole measure--I suppose this is hardly surprising, especially when we add in the American penchant for admiring anyone who can beat the system. The social destruction that takes place as a result is far too seldom factored into the equation.

One of the prices we have to pay for an economic system that has proved to be the most viable in the world is that it is also highly susceptible to big-time takers. Since we're probably not going to change the psyches of these people, they need to be restrained by laws that are effectively administered to prevent harm to the society as a whole. But that step is unlikely to be taken until we turn our collective anger on the real takers in our society.

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