February 14, 2009

A Perpetually Sputtering Bonfire of the Ptolemies

"It's a long, long way to the top—but when you come down, it's one headlong rush."
—David Lowery of Cracker
Gravity is working extra-hard on everybody these days, but for me, its extraordinarily powerful pull on the rabid wild animals of the financial industry makes Mr. Lowery's quote strikingly appropriate. Jimmy Cliff said the same thing much better, of course, and it's not like previous faux-flagellations of the super-rich have yielded any behavioral changes in terms of arrogance, entitlement, or narcissism (a Boesky or Milken here, a Madoff there), but since king-hell extravagance seems to be falling back out of style for the time being, it's probably a good time to reflect on the mind-sets that got us to this point. When the worst is yet to come, we tend to dismiss the merely awful in tense anticipation of whatever ugliness may follow, but one of the most predictable episodes in the whole sorry saga of the President's economic stimulus package was the temper tantrums and other spastic freakouts from Wall Street and the Republicans when they realized they weren't getting all the props from Obama and Geithner that they'd paid for in 2008.

It was these convulsions—along with this week's Michael Phelps pot hysteria and that insane mother of octuplets—that provided an ugly display of decaying American existence in the twenty-first century—a time of transitory, post-Soviet ephemeral enemies; a brutal era of politics rent by fantasy-fluffed rhetoric; a cerebrally juvenile period of culture in which dead trends were recycled every twenty years as "the next big thing"; a conspicuously consumptive, banausic, and profoundly ignorant world of avaricious debauchery populated by solipsistic, flaccidly obese and intellectually inbred citizens with prominent eyes and swollen necks. It was a nation of flagrantly degenerate men, hopelessly bored housewives, and cynical, spoiled children—all overwhelmed by a profound sense of dashed glory never to be regained, and obsessed with history and the chronicling of their titanic Greatest Generation forbears. Mass retreat to a private life of urbane commercial and secular pleasures, all provided to them by an economy dependent on slave labor, seemed the only option. Science wasn't exactly frowned upon, but it was plenty yawned at, and a general moral distaste for the processes of finance engendered incredible economic ignorance.

Consider Anthony P. "Tony" Soter III, for example—a multi-millionaire Los Angeles investment banker and scion of the legendary Manhattanite first family of economics; a vain, morally corpulent swine who lurched his way through careers in both financial law and management before flaming out in a series of depraved, megalomaniacal episodes at his Newport Beach mansion late last year. Soter had been a friend and colleague of many of L.A.'s biggest names across a variety of disciplines—divorce lawyers, plastic surgeons, land developers, movie stars, two mayors, and a governor—but within three months he blew several successive, sky-high-profile arbitrage gigs and demolished too many of their portfolios with mercurial fits of incompetence.

Soter himself was not a first-rate mind, but his fifty-five-year-old brain contained enough residual echoes of his ancestors' economic genius to create a passably proficient advisorial style—while not quite the swaggering, pencil-dicked he-man of Wall Street, his macho bravado nevertheless matched up very well with that of the other reptiles and vampires clogging the upper echelons of Los Angeles' ecosystem. His guiding philosophy, as stated to Kudlow and Cramer back in April 2005, was nothing more than the same old self-enriching, privilege-worshipping royalism of the Reaganite 80's: "Money is how the world keeps score, gentlemen; it separates the free from the slaves. All I'm doing is providing my clients with the best possible return any American could ask for—the freedom to buy their way out of anything unpleasant." He was duly féted by his hosts as a true visionary. Then—according to a December '08 investigative series in the OC Weekly:
One day in late 2007, at the peak of his career, Soter signed off on multiple routine memos authorizing substantial investment of several clients' portfolios into promising firms that had recently gone public. L.A. County court records indicated 80% of the investments in question were to one stock in particular: PhysCon Inc., an Agoura-based company specializing in ritual stomach-stapling with a lucrative sideline in full-body cleanses. PhysCon was also known, in certain circles, as a silent partner in the manufacture and distribution of a device called the "Philo-Meter," an "astoundingly effective" piece of "assistive sexual equipment" prominently advertised during late-night TV broadcasts on KTLA, KCOP, KTTV-11 and KCAL-9.
Soter, however, kept early nights—and therefore the existence of any such super-dildos was entirely beyond his ken. So, almost four months later, he was dining at Alessandro's in Santa Barbara when he received a frantic text message from his personal assistant Dimitri Gonatas (a loyal minion who'd attended USC with Soter's coke-addled, nymphomaniacal daughter Cleo) to call the Wilshire office immediately. Gil Garcetti's brown-shirted vice squad was knocking on the door and shouting awkward questions through their megaphones. Soter laughed it off at the time, and hung up on Gonatas to instead take a call from his twenty-five year-old mercenary son Tommy—on assignment for Blackwater in Iraq as a munitions expert. Later, however, as Soter's limo threaded its way back down the 101 to L.A., a sneaking suspicion began to gnaw away at his multiple ulcers. He couldn't check in with Gonatas yet. He needed to go home first—to Balboa, so instructed the driver to drop him at his Porsche in a secluded corner of company property.

Tony Soter had never accustomed himself to the sun-fried suburbia of Orange County; in his head he longed for the frantic human crush of Manhattan, and cringed inwardly every time he'd heard his son Tommy describe the City to his young friends: "New York is a phat city, man. Stinks, though." Tommy's voice continued to ring in his father's head as Soter drove through the security gates of his mansion, parked the Porsche next to the Lamborghini, and made his way inside. Once in, however, he immediately detected something wrong. The air was electric with tension, and there was no sign of the Mexican servants anywhere—though that in itself was no surprise; Soter's imperious wife Bernice insisted on treating the help like house-slaves and he was sure he'd seen impotent murder in their eyes many times.

However, Soter's thought process was interrupted then by what sounded like a minor avalanche, followed by the wavering notes of a collective, gleefully orgiastic shriek. "Jesus Christ," he thought, "what the hell has that woman got herself into now?" He quickly bounded up the stairs to the third floor—the elevator would, ironically, be too slow—and was then confronted by the disturbing and yet fascinating vision of Bernice—and various naked limbs of her entire fifteen-woman "investment club"—covered in a mountain of dildos, which had spilled out of the walk-in closet. Soter barely had time to process this before the cops burst in, hot on his trail from L.A., and arrested everyone on the spot. His routine approval, four months back, of Bernice's surreptitious bid to make additional millions on the inflated value of her favorite product, had effectively sealed his own doom.

That was Tony Soter's last relatively normal day in Newport, because he was soon indicted by the L.A. district attorney on a galaxy of charges: insider trading, racketeering, obscenity, fraud, tax evasion, and much more. His army of lawyers was no help—half of them were tangled up in the same mess—and his many high-profile friends all over California experienced convenient fits of devastating amnesia when confronted with the reality of what would become the most embarrassing confidence scam California had seen since the passage of Proposition 13. Soter's life deteriorated rapidly at that point—his son was captured by insurgents in Anbar, his wife ran off to Bali with Anthony Kiedis, his daughter was sold into slavery in Mazatlán by her Sinaloan dealer, and his Balboa mansion was burned to the ground by those same vengeful Mexican servants. He is currently on twenty-four-hour suicide watch—but of course, it could have been much worse. At least he never had to submit to the indignity of a castrated bonus or a $500,000 salary cap like his Wall Street counterparts. That would have been entirely too shameful.

Cross-posted: dkos, dd, fsz.

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