The Return of Gentility? No, It’s Scoundrel Time!

The nice thing about being out of the city, away from the rat race (a competition for minute degrees of comparative social, vocational and financial advantage conducted by marsupials and rodents in generally human form), is that it allows time to ponder the great questions of life.

For the last 3,000 points on the Dow Jones, the Old Blowhard has been vexed by puzzlements concerning the true causes of that rise in the price level (or, more accurately, the deterioration in the price-productivity ratio) that we call “inflation” and that is so feared by the Great Greenspan. Are prices pulled up by rising demand, which leads to a rise in wage levels and other costs? Or might it be that prices are pushed up by the need to keep producer-distributor profit margins in line with Wall Street’s expectations, and thus to support the stock prices that have so gaudily rewarded investors, executives and-not least-the Street? I think we should be told.

Milton Friedman, the economist often quoted by the present lot in support of recent fiscal policy, has somewhere written that inflation is almost exclusively a monetary phenomenon, by which I assume he means a condition of gross excess liquidity in consequence of an excess of policy and an absence of control. Does this mean that the present situation, upward-creeping real interest rates (the more Draconian the lower down in the Lincoln Bedroom food chain you go) accompanied by a pretty hefty increase in the money supply, is inherently inflationary? If so, might it be that the Great Greenspan himself will in time prove to be the architect of the inflationary calamity he so pompously inveighs against? I ask only for information. The Old Blowhard, who fancies himself the very voice of reason and moderation, would never dare to criticize a recognizedly great man. An individual whose words or deeds have permitted the triumvirs of so great and socially useful an institution as Bear, Stearns & Company to cut up $88 million in annual compensation. No wonder the rich need that tax cut!

Far be it from me to take my little rhetorical hatchet to the great beanstalk that Wall Street promises will grow to skies still undreamt of, that splendid plant from which the American nomenklatura dangle like sparkling Christmas ornaments on a department store tree, oohed and aahed at by untold millions pressing their collective nose against glass that, it is hoped, will prove to be bulletproof when the time comes.

To do so would be ungentlemanly and ours is the Age of the Gentleman, or so the Old Blowhard is increasingly informed. In her New York Post column of Oct. 8, Cindy Adams quoted one Richard Beckman, identified as the publisher of GQ magazine (to which the O.B. recently let his subscription lapse, apparently not a minute too soon): “There is a movement toward civility. It’s back to martinis, cigars, three-piece suits, nostalgia, pocket watches. Behavioral shifts point to a trend. America in the late 1990’s is ‘The Return to the Gentleman’ … Dennis Rodman, the antithesis of what’s refined, has been replaced by Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons, who’s a gentleman … Today a gentleman is made , not born … It’s again pocket handkerchiefs, flowers to women, doors being opened instead of body parts pierced.”

One’s immediate reflex on reading this is to dismiss it as typical Condé Nast piffle. An utterance typical of a value system that equates accessorization with character. An utterance typical of the red brick (in Manhattan, “white brick”) yoick Brits that S.I. Newhouse Jr. has imported by the boxcar, for reasons that escape this observer. (I have for some time found it fascinating that-Englishwomen having for some centuries been considered, by universal consent, the worst dressed in the world-both our big fashion magazines are edited by daughters of Blighty, which may be why nothing in them looks wearable for occasions other than Halloween. Is there any significance in the fact that Condé Nast’s most profitable “books” are all run by Americans? Does red brick equal red ink? I ask only for clarification.)

One might ask what a pocket handkerchief has to do with “civility.” Or martinis, indeed, gin being about as “anti-civil” a lubricant as exists! My suspicion is that Mr. Beckman has confused “gentrification” with “civility,” as people of his sort frequently do. One might observe that if Grant Hill has indeed replaced Dennis Rodman, it does not seem to be up on the platform where the championship rings are passed out. Or that the advantage of a three-piece suit is that it supplies more pockets in which to stash one’s ill-gotten takings.

Hold that last thought. The alarm bells are ringing! You see, it is the O.B.’s experience that whenever the emergence of a new Order of Gentility is proclaimed, it as sure a signal as any I know that Scoundrel Time is upon us, and that the blackest souls can generally be found to be wearing the whitest shoes.

Now, as it happens, the very day that Ms. Adams generously reprinted Mr. Beckman’s views on the onrush of the New Civility, I learned of the publication of a new book called F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street , by Frank Partnoy (W.W. Norton, $25). I hastened to obtain a copy and-although deadline has permitted me to get through just over half of it-I commend it to my readers. It is a book that I expect has Schadenfreude levels on Wall Street surging to all-time highs, because it details one aspect of what has long been known to people close to the Street: that the greatly respected-and self-respecting-firm of Morgan Stanley & Company, famous for doing “first-class business in a first-class way” (pronounced as if there is a “w” after each vowel or, to paraphrase Lauren Bacall to Bogie, “just puwrse your lips and gloat”), has frequently dealt in an underhanded manner that would have Ivan Boesky enviously gnawing the carpet (a fine 900-knot Persian, natürlich ).

In other words, a properly cut three-piece suit doesn’t inhibit one physically or morally when it comes to “ripping off a guy’s face” in a derivatives trade. Indeed, it helps gain entree. If the third little pig had looked out through his peephole and found on his doorstep a specter wearing an Ascot Chang shirt and drawing on a fine Cohiba between sips of a perfectly prepared Bombay gin martini, stirred not shaken, the story might have ended differently, and our lupine friend would be boasting today to his cronies at Patroon about how he got possession of a fine brick “tear-down” for little more than a huff and a puff.

A new age of civility, eh? Well, we shall see-as we shall see whether beanstalks do grow to the sky and whether “fee-fi-fo-fum” in fact translates as “I told you so.” It seems equally likely that we may be approaching the ultimate stage of our 30-year regression from a state of relative cultivation back through various degrees of philistinism (cultural, material, spiritual and otherwise) to the present day’s near-barbarism. Whether at the top of the ladder of comparative advantage or at the bottom, our young people today seem capable of a savagery that the Old Blowhard finds as baffling as heartbreaking. The Mayor may exult in the crime statistics, but this space cannot escape the feeling that a new fermentation of disorder may be a-bubble, soon to send its hideous offspring slouching toward Gotham to rip off our faces.

The Return of Gentility? No, It’s Scoundrel Time!