20 Aug 2006

Competing For The Deckchairs

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Ben Stein compares the behavior of American society’s privileged elites in the relatively recent past with their behavior in the present day, and is naturally dismayed.

My dear old father was a friend of his father, the venerable Sidney J. Weinberg, who ran Goldman Sachs from 1930 to 1969. My dad wangled a job interview for me with John Weinberg, an unprepossessing figure but obviously a smart guy. After some talk, he offered me a job. I would start by spending two years sitting at a desk until late at night going over spreadsheets. “Really?” I asked. That did not seem to be so glamorous. “Yes, really,” he said. “That’s how we all start.”

I turned it down and became a poverty lawyer instead. But what I did not know about John Weinberg was that even though he was rich and well connected, as a young man he joined the Marines to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, then fought again in Korea. That was America’s ruling class then. The scions of the rich went off to fight.

My longtime pal and idol, Peter M. Flanigan — a former high honcho of Dillon, Read; a high aide to my ex-boss, Richard M. Nixon; and heir to a large brewing fortune — was once a naval aviator. My father left a comfortable job in Washington to join the Navy. The father of my pal Phil DeMuth left a successful career to be an Army Air Corps pilot, flying death-defying missions over Burma. Congressmen resigned to serve. Senators resigned to serve. Professional athletes resigned to serve in the uniform.

Now, who’s fighting for us in the fight of our lives? Brave, idealistic Southerners. Hispanics from New Mexico. Rural men and women from upstate New York. Small-town boys and girls from the Midwest. Do the children of the powers on Wall Street resign to go off and fight? Fight for the system that made them rich? Fight for the way of life that made them princes? Surely, you jest.

And that’s the essence. The other side considers it a privilege to fight and die for its beliefs. Those on the other side cannot wait to line up to blow themselves up for their vision of heaven. On our side, it’s: “Let the other poor sap do it. I’ve got to make money.” How can we fight this fight with the brightest and best educated rushing off and working night and day to do private equity deals and derivatives trading? How can we fight this fight with the ruling class absent by its own sweet leave?

I keep thinking, again, that if Israel, with its back to the sea, cannot muster the will to fight in a big way, then the fat, faraway U.S.A. will never be able to do it. I keep saying this and it terrifies me.

We’re in a war with people who want to kill us all and wreck our civilization. They’re taking it very seriously. We, on the other hand, are worrying about leveraged buyouts and special dividends and how much junk debt the newly formed private entity can support before we sell it to the ultimate sucker, the public shareholder.

We’re worrying whether Hollywood will forgive Mel Gibson and what the next move is for big homes in East Hampton. We’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The terrorists are the iceberg.

What stands between us and the iceberg are the miraculously brave men and women of the armed forces. They’re heroes and saints as far as I’m concerned. But can they do it without the rest of us? Can they do it while we’re all working on our tans and trying to have our taxes lowered again? How can we leave them out there all alone to die for us when we treat the war to save civilization as something we can just wish away?

If we don’t win this war against the terrorists, there’s not going to be business as usual ever again. If the terrorists get to their goal, there’s not going to be a stock exchange or hedge funds or Bain Capital or the Carlyle Group or even Goldman Sachs. If the terrorists get their way — and so far, they’re getting their way — there’s not going to be business, period.

Everyone with the really big money at stake is — again — bidding for the best deck chairs as the iceberg looms, not so far, any longer, under the surface, and very large and very cold and very solid.

Not too long ago, I was ranting myself about our disloyal and irresponsible elites, and I said rhetoricaly to a friend from college: “Has there ever been any society in which the people at the summit of society, enjoying the greatest material well-being and the most privileges, despised their own country and their own people and felt not the slightest sense of personal identification with either?”

“Sure,” he replied. “France in 1789, and Russia in 1917.”

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