Garry Emmons

Corporate greed and disaster? Like pages from a crime novel

By Garry Emmons
December 15, 2009

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DECADES LATER, the gig with the economy would end badly for the erstwhile saxophone player. But in the 1950s, jazz musician Alan Greenspan was just another cat under the spell of a dame, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered, in thrall to the novelist Ayn Rand and her torch song of laissez-faire business, free markets, and capitalist elitism.

If only the Fed chairman-in-training had swung to a different drummer. In 1957, for example, instead of Rand’s pie-in-the sky “Atlas Shrugged,’’ imagine if Greenspan had taken to heart another book published that year, John D. MacDonald’s “A Man of Affairs.’’ (The two authors were contemporaries and both sold well, but MacDonald was “the best novelist in America,’’ according to writer Pete Hamill.)

If only young Alan had shrugged off Rand for MacDonald, maybe we’d all be better off today.

A hard-boiled crime writer who maintains legions of fans decades after his death, MacDonald had no illusions about how people and institutions behave when big sums of money are around. And because MacDonald actually knew how business works, he had a more trenchant view of American enterprise.

The son of an executive, MacDonald earned an MBA at Harvard (Robert McNamara was a classmate) and then spent several years in factories and industrial plants procuring matériel for the Army, an experience he later used in plots involving business.

MacDonald is best known for his paperback series starring Travis McGee, a private operative who takes care of violent bad guys but also rights financial wrongs perpetrated by slippery businessmen and corporate malefactors. To do this, McGee often calls upon the financial acumen of his brainy buddy Meyer, a “retired economist’’ who lives on a boat named the John Maynard Keynes.

But MacDonald also wrote nonviolent novels of contemporary American manners featuring organization men in corporate middle management or family businesses. These characters are dragged down by their own moral failings but also by the numbing impersonality of business and by predatory corporations and financiers. So while “Atlas Shrugged’’ is Rand’s paean to unbridled, heroic capitalism, personified in the character John Galt, in “A Man of Affairs,’’ MacDonald’s capitalist icon is a corporate raider named Mike Dean. In a tirade directed at the novel’s protagonist, Dean lays it out: “You sicken me. You pollyanna boys want to go around thinking the business world is honorable and reasonably decent . . . . Listen to me. There’s no more morality or ethics in industry than there is in that pack of barracudas out there . . . . I tell you that the only limitation is the law. And everything else goes.’’

Everything else indeed goes in MacDonald’s 1977 national bestseller “Condominium,’’ in which Florida developers and bankers are portrayed as environmental pillagers and corner-cutting fast-buck artists. A Katrina-like hurricane eventually collapses the slapdash apartment buildings the villains have constructed, killing the guilty and innocent alike.

Lax oversight combined with business as usual is a recipe for disaster, MacDonald implies, a prescient moral for our recent economic cataclysm.

MacDonald, who died in 1986, once wrote that “no matter how much feeling of public obligation the executive staff of any corporation might possess, the corporate entity is involved in maximizing short and long run profit. . . . The old yardstick is deadly but we cannot abandon it because it is what makes our society function. But it is turning our land, from sea to shining sea, into a sour jungle, noisy, dirty, gritty, and infinitely depressing.’’

Unrestrained capitalism, MacDonald suggests, contains the seeds of its own destruction. And markets and powerful business forces, left to themselves, will seek to satiate their own, intrinsically amoral, needs - not unlike MacDonald’s terrifying sociopath Max Cady in “Cape Fear.’’

MacDonald apparently believed that no serious person could be influenced by Rand; even Travis McGee dismisses her writing as “portentous gruntings.’’ It was one of MacDonald’s few misjudgments. But as we now know, it was nothing compared with staking America’s well-being on a Randian belief in the inviolable sanctity, security, and wisdom of markets.

Garry Emmons is a Cambridge-based business writer.

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