High Corporate Baroque

By Frank, Thomas | The Nation, December 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

High Corporate Baroque


Frank, Thomas, The Nation


With every days paper adding exquisitely noxious new cantos to the already sordid national epic of the demise of general affluence - think of The New York Times's recent stories on corporations, practice of hiring back downsized workers as temps and on the ability of corporations' owners to avoid paying capital gains taxes on their investment one would not expect to find the corporate order hailed in many places as surpassingly wise or beneficent. And yet here is The New York Times Magazine for December 1. in what must be counted an exquisite bit of cultural hedging, offering up a slavering cover story on a prominent mutual fund manager, one of the very professionals who have made the wonders of die nineties possible.

The Times Magazine story, a hagiographic description of a day in the life of star speculator Michael DiCarlo, is a defining text for the genre that will perhaps someday be called High Corporate Baroque. Like the popular literature of the twenties, it hails businessmen as economic heroes, superhuman benefactors of the general welfare. DiCarlo is said to be the provider for "160,000 wage earners who have put their trust, if not their retirements, in this man's hands." He is, furthermore, a genetic optimist, a faithful believer in opportunity and the American way of life; he works hard, some sixteen or eighteen hours a day; and (since the promotion of popular music and fashion are, next to gambling, the closest metaphors for what speculators do), he's hip as well, having spotted and booked excellent bands for shows at his high school back in the days before anyone was cool. And guess what? DiCarlo is humble, too: "If I get up in the morning, that's a great day," he tells the Times.

Virtually every other brokerage story I've read or watched, from Frank Norris's The Pit to Oliver Stones Wall Street to Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker, drops heavy hints about the moral hollowness of speculation. From the days of Hamilton and Jefferson, Americans have suspected that speculators, even well intentioned ones, are economic parasites, that they profit while producing nothing. But that old moral drama derived from a notion of economic organization that is so obsolete today that it may not even have occurred to the Times Magazine writer to refer to it: that what economies do is make and move the things that people need to live. In the frosted canvases of High Corporate Baroque, the world is all management and rarely production, it is the speculators who create wealth and the lazy, elitist union members who slow everything down by refusing to pull their own weight; it is what DiCarlo does, not the actions of the,,wage earners" whose money he is managing, that represents "the very backbone of capitalism at work."

By some curious twist, a pleading advertisement for the garment and textile union UNITE was placed on a page amid the DiCarlo story. The juxtaposition between the unions desperate-sounding appeal to readers ("Think people who work hard should earn wages that support a family?") and the speculators proud declaration that "the next five years will be the most significant time to really accumulate wealth this country has ever seen" is one of the most sickening media coincidences I've happened across this year. …

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