The Money Culture

The thesis of Michael Lewis’ The Money Culture is approximately as follows: Anybody skeptical enough to resist buying cemetery lots or aluminum siding on the phone ought to know better than to trust a Wall Street investment banker with a WATS line. Especially one of the new breed of Ivy League hucksters dressed in red suspenders or a navy blue skirt and jacket. These are the people Lewis satirized in Liar’s Poker, his 1989 account of his brief career as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers. You know, the ones with the ”Eat Stress for Breakfast” mottoes over their cubicles, to mention just one vignette borrowed from the first book.

Okay, so Lewis repeats himself a bit. It should also probably be said that The Money Culture consists entirely of his magazine and newspaper pieces, some of which are more timely than others. At the rate that these practitioners of what Lewis aptly calls ”financial terrorism” are being indicted and jailed, some chapters are apt to read like ancient history. Others failed to enthrall the first time around. Why Lewis chose to reprint, let alone open his book with a sophomoric satire of year-end bonus frenzy like ”Christmas on Wall Street” — featuring the ”Ghost of Christmas Presents” — is hard to guess. Ditto the second chapter, in which he makes the less-than-astonishing discovery that American Express cards are marketed mainly through snob appeal.

That much said, it’s also true that Lewis, at his best, sounds like the Holden Caulfield (though not quite the J.D. Salinger) of his generation. For all his sarcasm, the New Orleans native and former Princeton art history major — still only 31 — retains sufficient naïveté to be genuinely astonished at the spectacle of ”greed…ego, vanity and fear” behind all the leveraged buy-outs, junk bond swindles, S&L lootings, and real estate scams of the past decade. He also has both the expository skill and the intellectual courage to cut through business-school jargon like ”risk-controlled arbitrage” to the unpleasant truth.

The essence of the S&L mess, he says, isn’t that crooked executives out in the boondocks fumbled and embezzled away billions. ”A big chunk,” he writes, ”found its way into the pockets of the Wall Street bond traders and salesmen…There are $900,000 houses in Connecticut with two BMWs out back that have been paid for by their twenty-nine-year-old owners courtesy of the savings and loan crisis.” All perfectly legal, all utterly amoral.

If nothing else, Lewis observes acidly, Wall Street knows how to ”chew with its mouth shut while feeding at the public trough.” Chapters like ”Leveraged ( Rip-Off” and ”How Wall Street Took the S&Ls for a Ride” ought to be required reading for undergraduate business majors from sea to shining sea. Fat chance. B-

The Money Culture
  • Book