01.02.09

The Brotherhood of Money

Men like Bernie Madoff understand wealth. They understand power. And they prefer to keep women away from both.

The first I heard of Bernie Madoff or the hedge funds involved (including my brother’s) was via a voicemail I received early on the Saturday morning when the news broke. It was from someone to whom I owed an article who is particularly caught up in the web of news and gossip that consumes Manhattan’s chattering classes—factoid leading into rumor leading into informed guesswork until the original tributary is lost. He was checking in to see whether I was okay under the circumstances (meaning, I suppose, whether my own finances had taken a beating) and, more importantly, whether I would be able to deliver the piece as scheduled. I listened to his message—his voice had that mixture of solicitousness and brazen curiosity that misadventures with money always provoke, as though one were inquiring into a particularly grisly death—and imagined myself rising, phoenix-like, over a decimated landscape, continuing to tap out under-remunerated sentences as tycoons tumbled and long-standing relationships based on clubbish alliances went into free-fall.

Does anyone—men, women, gurus, tycoons, Paulson, Perelman—really understand what goes into making billions of dollars, much less losing it all in one fell swoop?

As a daughter, I was raised to know nothing about money. Whenever I tried to ask my father a question on the subject he would respond, " Nu, Daphne? Since when the interest in business?" and shoo me away. My father appeared to share financial information with my mother on a need-to-know basis, and she in turn became the keeper of the trust, someone sworn to confidentiality. The few times I tried to make inroads into this sealed-off territory I was met with resistance or accusations about my underlying motives. My closest exposure to the world of men and money was at the Jewish charity dinners I would sometimes attend as my father’s escort when my mother didn’t feel like going. At these functions, the men who mattered would often sit on a raised dais while the women sat at round tables below, wearing competitive jewelry and trading off-the-Beltway news about recent divorces and children who had grown up and moved away to far-off lands like California and Massachusetts. I felt like a permanent outsider within the community: insufficiently dazzling, overly probing, a kind of eternal Jamesian Maisie looking in on the heart of communal life and trying to determine where the light came in.

Read an excerpt from Daphne Merkin’s novel, Enchantment, on the Brotherhood of Money.

As an adult my prowess with money extends to haggling over fees for my writing and not much more. Perhaps because I don't understand any form of finance other than the hallucinatory machinery of credit cards and the hard reality of cash, I believe in the power of liquidity. Left to my own irrational devices, I would keep wads of cash under a mattress, like a wily peasant out of a Russian novel. What I see in the culture around me is that money is simultaneously idolized and demonized, in the manner of an unreliable lover who might one day deliver on his promises—or not.

Although we watch the behavior of the super-rich with goggle-eyed fascination, bad feeling toward them lurks in the wings. It is always in good form, that is, to make demeaning remarks about people who accumulate great wealth, even if one happens to move in such company oneself. The meaning of money—its importance to something as fundamental as survival and as abstract as status—makes it a superlative, a kind of metaphor of metaphors. It would be helpful to parse out its significance if only to de-Kryptonite it, but long experience has proven to me that shrinks, who you might think would provide insight into its fogged-over core, are no better than the rest of us at dealing with something so totemic and all-encompassing. It turns out that they themselves don't really know how they feel about money other than coveting elaborate vacations and weekend houses in line with their patients' lives or what they imagine to be—which requires that they charge inflationary prices for each ticking minute of listening time.

A few nights ago I had dinner with a smart, psychologically-minded friend, preceded by a flurry of emails about restaurants and prices. Although a slightly less or more costly entrée would have caused neither of us real hardship, these negotiations were something we felt obliged to have, perhaps to prove to ourselves that we were nothing like those dubious hedge-fund wives who, according to the New York Times, have started asking for their Hermès purchases to be put in unlabeled shopping bags in a show of superficial camaraderie with these stark economic times. During our conversation, my friend told me that she has never admitted, either as a child or an adult, to growing up in a gilt-edged suburb of Manhattan. Although she is the mother of children in their thirties, she also said she doesn't know how much money her mother has invested for her. I admitted to similar lacunae in my awareness, how I have enormous difficulty to this day going against my training as a female not to ask, how at some point along the way I equated ignorance with financial bliss—or something close to it. If I didn't ask, or so went my misbegotten, childlike reasoning, I would be taken care of forever by a magical bank account that flourished precisely because I didn't keep an eye on it.

In the wake of the Madoff affair I have been thinking about the invisibility of women other than in behind-the-scene roles as enabling wives who serve as silent business partners or facilitating daughters (married off in a seemingly cold-blooded manner that might cause even Jane Austen to raise an eyebrow) serving as an advancing flotilla of social connections. Money, it goes without saying, is still a men's club of the most secretive kind. The fact that until very recently men have been the sole breadwinners is not enough to explain this profound separation of the sexes when it comes to lucre, whether shining or filthy. It goes back, I think, to that basic conflict we have about what sort of valuation to put on money in a society besotted with the rewards it brings—the ever more recherché permutations of luxury and connoisseurship, life lived at an ever more padded remove from the daily grind. Are the deals and negotiations that swirl around it too dirty for the gentler sex—or too potentially empowering? Then, too, there is a reflexive enfeebling of women, an equation with children that takes place at an almost organic level—both being seen as emotionally unreliable and ill-equipped to handle the brute facts of life.

I have also been thinking about Michael Gold's book, Jews Without Money, and the world of Jewish immigrants—"greenhorns," as they were derisively called. It conjured up, the ragamuffinish dark-eyed children scampering around the crowded streets of the Lower East Side, the women bent over sewing machines in sweat shops, the men peddling goods or fixing watches. Many of them were engaged in gainful labor with merchandise, or s’choira, as my grandfather called it—something you could actually see and feel as opposed to something that lent itself to numerical crunching. We are long past such concrete equations, long past the notion that goods and services can hold their own against the making of money off money, endless piles of paper, derivatives, credit default swaps, puts, off-shore accounts and funds of funds. Then again, the entrepreneurial imagination, which grew ever more epic and risk-taking across two decades of deregulation, has always been the primary capitalist trope. Still, does anyone—men, women, gurus, tycoons, Paulson, Perelman—really understand what goes into making billions of dollars, much less losing it all in one fell swoop?

I, like most onlookers, don’t know what to think about the whole enormous malfunctioning of it, the hype that worked until it didn’t, the fudged boundaries between personal fortune and public benefaction, the Byzantine networking, the globally interconnected axes of power. But I do know that the very rich are more enraged by losing money than people with less to lose, which helps explain why some sophisticated investors insist that they’re not sophisticated at all, that they’ve never heard of Madoff, and don’t understand how this could have happened. Of course, it seems all too easy after the fact to question the lack of accountability and the Mystery of the 17th Floor. Before the fact, everyone was happy to be in on a good thing—especially a good thing with an air of exclusivity. Hey you, you’re in, you lucky dog.

Hindsight always pats itself on the back, taking credit for a sudden clarity instead of admitting to a sustained blindness or oversight. Which is why everyone is suddenly an expert on the doings of the SEC and on who lost what. Somewhere in this story, in the decimal point between largesse and delusion, arrogance and greed, misdemeanor and tragedy, lurks a sort of unavailing truth, by turns ugly and sad. Enough is not as good as too much and never was, no matter how the saying goes. Behind the impersonality of money lies an intensely personal, often compensatory compulsion. Meanwhile there is schadenfreude, and fear, and a kind of tribal anxiety—anxiety that Jews can draw in so much money only to have it turn to ashes, all the while believing their brains are bigger than everyone else's. And while there is very real and legitimate anger about the fact of Jews defrauding their own, the real questions is, as always: What will the goyim think? Male goyim, of course, the ones on the dais.

Daphne Merkin is a cultural critic who has made a name for herself with her often unnerving candor and elegantly High/Low reflections. She was a staff writer for The New Yorker and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle. Her work appears regularly in Slate, Travel & Leisure, and Book Forum, among other publications. She is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler.