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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fortunes Without Futures

I've been thinking again about the friend of mine who recently went to see a Russian politician as high as any you can think of. "I like you," the politician said, leaning over, grinning. "Why don't you give me a million dollars?"

As it happened, my friend didn't actually have a million dollars about his person at the time. I'm told it weighs rather a lot even in used hundred dollar bills, not to mention the suitcase you have to carry it in. I'm told too that this is the problem with the cocaine business: the money weighs a lot more than the dope you peddle for it. Hauling the profits around, as they say, is a righteous pain.

One has to assume, then, that the pol didn't actually want to do any on-the-spot hauling himself -- though I wouldn't put it past him to employ one of those giant wrestlers or weight-lifters you sometimes see out and about in the city for just this purpose. No, one has to believe that he wanted one of those little clickety-click transactions that swells real coffers in imaginary places -- or is it the other way round? An electronic deposit in the Cayman Islands or Panama or Jersey or Cyprus after which everyone soft-shoes it away, and gets on with the business that was being discussed in the first place.

You do have to wonder, though, just how much Russian money there is in these sunny bolt-holes, waiting for the inevitable rainy day. It's an open secret that everything's for sale here: and every now and again some paper publishes a list of the richest Russians which tells you (in disguise) just who the major sellers are. The names on the list are enough to make your eyebrows sizzle, and enough -- you'd think -- for the pols to reach for their libel lawyers. But they never do. I remember a British MP coming over here for a look, and then announcing that in any civilized society the folks who ran City Hall would be in the slammer. And even he was allowed to get out of town untouched.

Anyway, I've been thinking about this money recently. (We writers do think about money, you know. In fact, we think about little else.) And since everybody says it's like Dodge City or the Yukon here these days, I've been wondering what the comparisons are with American money and the great fortunes that were made there in the past. The assumption, you see, is that Russia's dirty money will somehow clean itself up in another generation: the children will become deputies and pillars of the community, and start building hospitals, concert halls, galleries and universities in the American way.

Trouble is, though, when you think about it, that the founders of the great American fortunes actually did things. Take Commodore Vanderbilt, for example: a Staten Island water-rat who started out with a small ferry-boat bought with a $100-loan from his mother and went on to leave a $100 million fortune. He ran ferries everywhere -- to Washington, to Havana, even to California -- and when he'd finished with ferries, he started in on the railroads. When he began railroad-building -- undercutting and ruining his competitors in the process -- a passenger between New York and Chicago had to change trains 19 times. And by the time he was done, it was a straight-through Vanderbilt ride. He also -- for what it's worth and while we're at it -- built Grand Central Station.

The same is true of the other great fortunes. John Jacob Astor, once a butcher and an importer of musical instruments, became a trader (in furs and with China) and bought up huge lots in Manhattan. The first Hearst was a miner who walked to California across the Great Plains. Andrew Carnegie helped create the American steel industry. The Du Ponts were gun-powder-makers to the U.S. government. And even John D. Rockefeller -- about whom not much else good can be said -- created Standard Oil.

And what have these Russian pols created? Nothing at all. Nothing. They're simply parasites on the body financial: the bouncers and bully-boys who stand at the door of the Russian market, collecting entrance fees from anyone who wants to get in. They don't make anything, nor do they cause anything to be produced. Nor are they, I think, remotely interested in creating a dynasty that will serve their country.

Perhaps that's the difference, in the end, between the America of long ago and the Russia of today. America had a future then. Russia has none that any can see clearly. It only has a past -- the same past on which all those new Americans had turned their backs -- and an awful, eternal present: a present in which "Why don't you give me a million dollars?" is a reasonable thing to say. Heaven knows, you might get it.