Reality Pays: The Quiet Rise of the Sellout Generation

(BLOOMBERG NEWS)-Few of us are immune to the allure of a bribe. We might say we are, or think we are, but usually it is just a matter of price, or the fear that we’ll get in trouble if we take it. Offer a human being enough money, and enough security that he won’t pay a price for taking it, he’ll sell out his most dearly held principles.

The Internet boom has proved that nicely. It has offered some of the biggest bribes ever seen to people who probably thought themselves incorruptible. Pretty much everyone has accepted the deal. A few examples:

· Generation X. Reality Bites was one of several unbelievably annoying movies in the early 1990’s about what was then shaping up as perhaps America’s most annoying generation. But we haven’t heard an alienated peep out of young people in several years, with reason. The moment they realized they could get really rich, really fast, the whole of Generation X-or, at any rate, its noisiest members-abandoned its conceit that it didn’t have any interest in mere financial success.

Overnight, slackers became Internet entrepreneurs working 70 hours a week on their business and 30 hours a week trying to persuade business magazines to write stories about how hard they worked. They are now as ridiculously lost in their narrow affairs as the man who uttered the legendary “plastics” line to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate .

Obviously, the objection that young people have to mainstream capitalist culture isn’t a principled stance against greed, ambition, etc. Rather, it is an objection to what mainstream capitalist culture will pay them to collaborate. Not long ago New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked why it was that people who make money no longer feel guilty about it; rather, they feel guilty about not making money. One answer is that the people who used to devote themselves to making rich people feel guilty-their children-are too busy themselves making money.

· Serious American corporate executives. Remember Roger and Me , Michael Moore’s satirical documentary about the former head of General Motors Corporation, Roger Smith? It’s a little hard to remember what people like Mr. Smith were like, so completely have they vanished from the scene. They seemed to value stability and to view all change as bad for them, since it usually was: They wore gray suits six days a week; they assumed their affairs were more or less private, even when they worked inside a publicly held corporation. They were the people in the newspaper stories who “did not return a reporter’s phone calls.”

This sober character spent the first several years of the current boom watching people to whom he wouldn’t have given the time of day become billionaires. At first, his attitude toward the boom was detached amusement (this can’t last), but it soon became quiet panic (everyone is getting rich except me!).

Finally, circumstances forced him to reconsider his attitude to life and to work. He began to cultivate the airs of a risk-taker. He read sexy books, such as The Innovator’s Dilemma , that flattered him with the thought he was an agent of change in a changing world. He ditched a few suits. He toyed with the idea of creating an Internet division.

Above all, he became a public figure. One of the oddities of the boom is a tiny room on the Stanford University campus where formerly serious executives come to spill their guts to the audience of CNBC and CNN. When they go off the air, they turn to their new public-relations woman and ask, anxiously, “How’d I do?”

· Graham and Dodd investors . All those people devoted to old-fashioned investment principles, with the possible exception of Warren Buffett, have chucked them overboard. The stock market itself has abandoned its old character. It used to be a place where track records were judged against each other. Now it is a venture capital fund.

Across the financial markets you see people taking on new levels of risk. People who might have been gently speculative have become day traders; people who would have sunk their savings into an index fund are now picking high-tech stocks themselves; people who might have exchanged their cash for gold bricks and stuffed them in the mattress are now in mutual funds.

Isn’t it amazing how quickly people will change their beliefs if they are paid a fortune to do so?

Reality Pays: The Quiet Rise of the Sellout Generation