Why greed wasn’t good for Wall Street

It seems odd now — with Citibank boss Vikram Pandit saying that he will take a $1 salary and no bonus because of the downturn — to think of a time when go-getting stockbrokers and investment bankers would go into paroxysms of anxiety, self-doubt and depression at the news of a $400,000 bonus. Michael Lewis’s sharp and oddly prescient The Money Culture, first published in 1991, gives us a trenchant, sardonic portrait of that vanished age.

Lewis, who studied art history at Princeton and then at the London School of Economics, worked as a bond salesman with Salomon Brothers. Here, from The Observer, are a collection of interesting links about him and his work.

He wrote a very funny, bestselling memoir called Liar’s Poker about his time there. He gave up the world of big-money finance for (in his case, luckily, almost equally big-money) journalism. He is now an editor with  The New Republic. Read an interview with him from The Atlantic here.

The Money Culture is a collection of essays and reportage Lewis did for The New Republic mostly in the late 1980s — several of them in the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash. It is extremely good on the
staggering avarice of investment bankers and brokers, and it maps with depth and withering irony the contours of that particular world.

The men (and they are mostly men) who people this strange world are at the heart of these pieces. “You had only to spend five minutes with these people,” Lewis writes in his introduction, “to realize they didn’t see
themselves as part of orthodox business culture. They saw themselves romantically, as guerillas in the corporate jungle. They were fanatics with attitude.”

Lewis’s attitude towards management graduates and his tearing apart of the credos of two top American business schools – Yale and Harvard – are incandescent with wit and sarcasm. And his reworking of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in Christmas on Wall Street is laugh-aloud funny.

The amazing thing is that this is not — like Bret Easton Ellis’s great, phantasmagorical novel, American Psycho, which touched on some of the same themes of avarice and self-delusion — fiction. Would you believe it?

After The Money Culture, Lewis has gone on to write just as intelligently and amusingly about lots of subjects, among them the internet revolution.

He has also edited an anthology on the “modern financial insanity”. Read a review here.

That one is now out in India.

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