The Washington Times

Conservatives, myself included, have not infrequently found ourselves puzzling over the following question: If the 1980s were “The Decade of Greed,” what about the 1990s? Why isn’t the 1990s, likewise, a decade of greed?

This leads almost inexorably into a discussion/gripe session about liberal double standards. In other words, the reason the 1980s was the decade of greed is that mean, selfish Republicans were in the White House – or such was the view of the bulk of the intelligentsia – and the reason the 1990s is not is that a caring, compassionate Democrat is in the White House. In other words, for a certain kind of person, that which is abhorred and condemned when associated with Republicans is cherished and praised when associated with Democrats.

There’s probably something to this. Socrates’ position – namely, shouldn’t one say the same things about the same things? – is that of a philosopher, not of a partisan. For the philosopher, the answer is “yes.” For the partisan, the answer is, “it depends.”

In the spirit of partisanship, one could, from the conservative point of view, go one better and argue that the 1980s was not, in fact, a decade of greed (but rather of rapid economic growth, as businesses became more accountable to their shareholders and retooled themselves by cutting fat). Whereas the 1990s, under Bill Clinton – that was the decade of greed. Here goes:

Say what you will about the Predator’s Ball and the leveraged buyout. At least companies back then made money before their rapacious owners sought to cash out. Executives at the peak of their careers were the ones getting golden parachutes, not 20-somethings expecting to retire after a year’s work on some tech thing that might or might not ever make anybody a nickel. Sure, there was insider trading in the 1980s. And it was illegal. People went to jail. The scandal (to update Michael Kinsley) of the 1990s is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal – for example, the borderline accounting fraud dot-coms commit in booking revenue to beat “expectations.” Where’s the Securities and Exchange Commission? Where are the U.S. attorneys? Checking the balances in their 401(k)s, that’s where.

And another thing: The choice out of college in the early 1980s wasn’t between a high salary on one hand or a lower salary with a sweet options package on the other. It was between work at low pay and unemployment. The lawyers back then thought they were getting big starting salaries – in the mid-five figures. Whippy dip. If they were really smart, they would have been born 15 years later and started at venture capital firms for quadruple the money.

Oh, and how about the professional analysts at brokerage houses these days, the ones daily rewriting standards of conflict of interest to obscure how much they have riding on their supposedly disinterested analysis? What could be more delicious than the two analysts who were providing coverage of Salon.com – and rating it a “buy,” for heaven’s sake? While Gordon Gekko used his corrupt contact at the nation’s largest financial newspaper to manipulate the market in that classic tale of 1980s greed, Oliver Stone’s movie “Wall Street,” his fictional shenanigans were as nothing next to the volume of disinformation spread in Internet chat rooms on a minute-by-minute basis.

And then there’s daytrading. In the 1980s, there was Sherman McCoy, Tom Wolfe’s mighty investment banker brought low in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Now everybody and his geek brother thinks he’s a master of the universe.

I have thought of buying each of my 100 closest friends a share of DrKoop.com. The stock certificates, suitable for framing, could serve as a monument to wretched excess. The gag would cost me about $200, plus frames. That’s down from the $4,575 that 100 shares of DrKoop.com commanded in July 1999. In fact, DrKoop.com’s trading peak probably deserves memorialization as the high-water mark of 1990s’ greed.

Let’s stop there. In truth, my heart isn’t in it. I thought the flowering of entrepreneurial energy in the 1980s was great for the country, and I think it’s great today, the fortunes of DrKoop.com notwithstanding. (Hey, they had the nerve to try.) I miss inflation no more than I miss the Cold War. It would be as wrong and partisan now to call the 1990s a decade of greed as it was to caricature the 1980s in that way.

But next week in this space, we will meet someone who does indeed manage to characterize the 1980s as a decade of greed and the 1990s as something far from it. He isn’t kidding, either. And while in the end, the analysis may be no less partisan from the Democratic side than the partisan rant I have offered this week by way of parody, there’s something in the argument worth paying attention to.