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Sunday, Feb 25, 2024

Throwing the Books at Today’s Unethical Businessmen

I am an entrepreneur whose formal education is in literature, in a city whose creative people read little beyond screenplays. I should be booted off the island, thrown under the bus or subjected to whatever the current Facebook catch phrase is for “expendable.”

Yet in a world that percolates with anger, dread and what an earlier era would call a yearning for a “return to normalcy,” there are some lessons our current business and political leaders could take from quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.

Two immediately come to mind: “The Great Gatsby” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”

By our ageist standards, both should have been given their pink slips decades ago. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is pushing 90 years old, while John Steinbeck’s landmark work hit 70 last year. But like many older citizens, they impart a wisdom that simply doesn’t exist in a 20-something.

These novels portray two starkly different Americas that exist only 15 years apart. One is set in the languorous luxury of Long Island Sound, the other in the direst poverty of the West. But their authors came to a conclusion many of today’s Americans might privately agree with: The privileged are different from the rest of us, and they care little for those who are not.

“The Great Gatsby” centers on Jay Gatsby’s struggle with cutting ethical corners to become wealthy enough to woo his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. But the real drama takes place in the subplot: the abusing of Myrtle Wilson by Daisy’s cluelessly supercilious husband, Tom. Myrtle is Tom’s mistress and the wife of a poor mechanic, whom Tom also bullies. The abuse heaped on Myrtle’s husband, George, drives him to kill Gatsby and then himself.

I’ve seen this occur more than a few times on “Dateline.” I’m never quite sure if it’s merely life imitating art, or something profoundly more troubling.

Near the end of the book, narrator Nick Carraway runs into Tom Buchanan and must listen to his self-justifications for his conduct. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy,” he concluded. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their carelessness … and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

BP executives

I am certain the number of C-suite-level executives at BP who read that book in high school or college may be counted on the knuckles of a thumb. Or at Goldman Sachs or Countrywide or…well, you get the point.

“The Grapes of Wrath” was birthed from the bust that followed Gatsby’s gilded age. It follows the harrowing journey of the Joad family from their ruined Oklahoma farm to California, where they believe they can make a living as itinerant farm workers. Instead, they slowly starve, and are menaced by policemen and hired thugs.

Henry Fonda’s speech near the end of the classic film version is what is most remembered about Steinbeck’s work (“Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. …”).

Those words weren’t in Steinbeck’s massive novel, which is far more harrowing than the film. The most searing passage in his work describes the owners of large farms who smash horns of plenty in front of their malnourished employees to help raise commodity prices.

“The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed,” Steinbeck wrote. “And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.”

I’m pretty certain most of the leadership in Bell’s City Hall haven’t read much Steinbeck. Or the members of Arizona’s Legislature or … well you get the point.

As our surprisingly mild summer heads toward some inevitable dog days, and before it yields to autumn’s dreaded Santa Anas (which local oil executive-turned-scribe Raymond Chandler described as making “meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks”), may I suggest switching off the BlackBerry, clearing your Google Calendar and spending some time with these tomes? There is a reason they compete for the title of “Great American Novel.”

Ron Shinkman is a health care publisher and consultant in Los Angeles.

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