Sometimes it’s the small gesture that defines the end of an age. Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, the single financial firm the Bush administration allowed to collapse into bankruptcy in what may someday be thought of as the slow-motion Crash of ’09, made one of those gestures recently. Just to be clear, we’re talking about a man who, between 1993 and 2007, took home a tidy $466 million in pay. (That’s no misprint, though it’s a pay level that it would take factories of workers cumulative lifetimes to reach.) Then, in 2008, the year his firm would collapse, Fuld was awarded another $22 million in what was called "retirement pay."
But that’s the big picture. Here’s the small one that catches our shape-shifting moment perfectly. Fuld was recently outed for "selling" his wife their jointly held $14 million, 3.3 acre Florida beach-front mansion — one of five houses the two of them owned, including their 8-bedroom main domicile in Greenwich, Connecticut — and the lovely touch is the selling price: $100. That’s right, one hundred bucks "in a possible attempt," writes the British Times, "to move assets beyond the reach of infuriated investors of the collapsed bank." Smooth move, Dick! Just petty and sleazy enough for a $488 million man.
Fuld and the other CEOs, who lived fabulous lives in their many mansions and passed out money as if it were sand, have been slow to grasp changing times. After all, as late as last December, according to the Wall Street Journal, John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch, "let it be known" that he expected a $10 million bonus in a year in which the company he oversaw had a nifty $28 billion in losses. Like Fuld, these men have proven remarkably tin-eared as well as lead-fingered and, in a season of catastrophe for their firms and for so many Americans, they still managed to pass out a staggering $18.4 billion in bonuses.
It helps, of course, to have a memory. I mean a real memory, a deep sense of what happened once upon a time. Steve Fraser, expert on American Gilded Ages, and author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, knows that this country went through such a moment with just such a set of tin-eared former titans once before. And while the two moments, 1929 and 2009, differ in striking ways, it’s instructive to know how it all fell out for the Richard Fulds of another age. As Fraser writes in his most recent piece, "The ‘Best Men’ Fall":
"After the Great Crash of 1929, those at the commanding heights of the economy who had enriched themselves and deluded others into believing that, under their leadership, the United States had achieved ‘a permanent plateau of prosperity’ — sound familiar? — were subject to a whirlwind of anger, public shaming, and withering ridicule. Like the John Thain’s of today, Jack Morgan, Charles Mitchell, Richard Whitney, Albert Wiggins, and others who headed the country’s chief investment and commercial banks, trusts, insurance companies, and the New York Stock Exchange never knew what hit them."