If 1990 was the year of freedom and democracy–you know, when all the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in Eastern Europe gained their liberation–why do I feel so depressed? Maybe it’s just me. (My favorite Dylan song always was “Desolation Row.”) Or maybe it’s that it all looks like a stage show. The people get on their feet, give a push, and the walls come tumbling down. The tyrants turn out to be little, frightened men–Straub of Hungary, Zhivkov of Bulgaria, Honecker of East Germany, Husak of Czechoslovakia: who can even remember their names without a crib sheet? They scamper out of their presidential palaces and plead that they never really meant it, never really wanted to be bad. It’s all been too easy. I’m waiting for the tragic denouement.
Or maybe it’s that the “revolution” in Eastern Europe seems predicated on an American model. Poles and Czechs, Russians and Bulgarians, all (so we’re told) turning eager faces to the golden sun in the west, pleading, “Teach us of your wonderful system of democracy and free enterprise. We want something just like it.” Now that’s depressing.
Free enterprise. Pure capitalism. I thought we just finished a decade of unrestricted freedom of enterprise–one that brought, among other things, the budget deficit and the great savings and loan crisis. Champions of capitalism have always boasted that it’s a system of unleashing private greed for the greater good of all. I thought maybe recent events had given the lie to that.
But maybe I’m being too negative. If our new comrades in capitalism want an education, who am I to object? Luckily the past year has brought a crop of notable nonfiction books that offer some fascinating case studies of free-market economics–the real-world kind, as opposed to the idealized textbook version.
Like Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s lively tale of 1988’s $25 billion sale of the foodstuffs giant; and Burning Down the House: How Greed, Deceit, and Bitter Revenge Destroyed E.F. Hutton (these titles do tend to the vivid and apocalyptic, don’t they? They’re an education in themselves), James Steragold’s story of scandal and ruination in an old-line Wall Street firm; and Peter Bart’s Fade Out: The Calamitous Final Days of MGM, the archetypal story of a corporate raider’s takeover and bleeding of an old-time movie maker; not to mention Too Good to Be True: The Outlandish Story of Wedtech, by James Traub, the tale of a company whose modus operandi was the corruption of high officials and which ended up costing taxpayers and investors some $300 million.
And of course, telling a tale whose scope dwarfs all of the rest, Martin Mayer’s The Greatest-Ever Bank Robbery: The Collapse of the Savings and Loan Industry recounts such a monumental scheme of scams, corruption, and good old-fashioned money-making that both its size (the final cost will probably come to $500 billion) and its scope (encompassing federal bureaucracies and big accounting firms, Wall Street and Main Street, Congress, state legislatures, and the White House) really overwhelm the imagination. Finally, just to tell the whole story (albeit in a melodramatic mode) we have Philip Mattera’s Prosperity Lost: How a Decade of Greed Has Eroded Our Standard of Living and Endangered Our Children’s Future.
But of course, as any leader of the free world will tell you, capitalism is not just a system of economics; it also encompasses the sphere of free-enterprise politics. A good place for our neophyte friends from the east to start on this subject might be Kevin Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, the inspiring tale of how wealth in the 80s was transferred to people who were already wealthy. Of course much of the charm as well as the virtue of capitalist politics lies in its hurly-burly character, its quick reversals of fortune, and in the next act of this drama Phillips forecasts a populist revolt and the possible renewal of liberal fortunes.
Or perhaps our comrades should first study our last presidential election, in which Bush–the environment-education-no new taxes president–was already trying on the populist role. For the story of that election we have Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War by Sidney Blumenthal and See How They Run: Electing the President in the Age of Mediaocracy by Paul Taylor, both telling a stirring saga of chicanery and double-dealing, bunkum and humbug, bombast and fustian. What makes this election so exemplary is that, like the unabashed money-grabbing and buy-offs described in the economic tales listed above, it seems to hark back to the freewheeling “gilded age” of late-19th-century free enterprise, and thus to distill a kind of essence of capitalist politics.
Finally, of course, our new students from across the sea will need to learn about foreign policy, about how a capitalist country makes friends and influences people all over the world. Right now we’re offering a real-time, living example in the desert sands; but in the book world, for the time being at least, we’ll have to settle for our relations with Panama–a minor-league case, to be sure, but still quite instructive. Here our pupils can learn from Frederick Kempe’s Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair With Noriega and John Dinges’s Our Man in Panama: How General Noriega Used the United States–and Made Millions in Drugs and Arms, which develop, in yet another area, the merry theme of rampant corruption: the complicity of high U.S. officials in Noriega’s crimes, and so forth. (One may begin to sense a certain sameness to all this, but then that’s instructive, too. Besides, it’s all so high-spirited, roguish, and just plain juicy, it doesn’t ever get boring.)
On a more general level, speaking of invasions and such, in The Rockets’ Red Glare: When America Goes to War: The Presidents and the People, Richard J. Barnet recounts the history of America’s entrances into its wars, concentrating on the interplay between presidential initiative and the feelings of the people. His finding is that over the years presidents have become more addicted to secrecy and more adept at manipulating public opinion. One more lesson about the workings of capitalist democracy for our new proselytes in Europe–perhaps an unwelcome one, in that this is more or less what they were hoping to get away from, but them’s the breaks.
All in all, some pretty good books this year; pretty useful lessons. And you know what? I’m not depressed anymore. Thinking back on all we have to teach the world–not just our new friends in the east, but our little brothers and sisters in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East–thinking of the new world order we’re helping to construct all across the globe, from the unchained nations of the former Communist bloc to the burning sands of Arabia . . . Well shucks, it’s just bound to make any American–any real American–kinda quietly proud.