Monday, November 24, 2008

Please no.

With the Bush administration on the way out, there has been a lot of talk about which convicted felons will get an official pardon -- with Slate going so far as to rank each and every prominent criminal who has been lobbying the administration and what their chances are.

Junk bond king, Michael Milken, is given an "excellent chance" of getting a pardon. (Which is unusual because the administration has been extremely parsimonious with these pardons.)

It won't matter too much whether Milken gets his pardon in the grand scheme of things -- he has already served time for his criminal activities (racketeering; conspiracy; tax fraud; insider trading, etc.). And despite the fact that he paid more than $200 million in fines, he's still a billionaire. (Probably. Who knows who's still a billionaire in this economic climate.)

And it would seem that fate was somewhat cruel to Milken; shortly after he was released from prison he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Since then he has raised millions for cancer research and been a reasonably active philanthropist.

All good things -- one would suppose.

But if anyone feels too sympathetic to Milken, I would advise reading James Stewart's (scarily relevant) book, Den of Thieves, which was about the fraud and insider trading of the 1980s.

The book is worth another look these days, given how much of the current fiscal crisis is due to over-leveraging companies -- which was precisely what was happening back in the 80s. Moreover, the whole concept of junk bonds feels eerily similar to that of subprime mortgages. (High interest and high risk. One wonders why we're suddenly surprised when they melt down.)

But Milken seems almost singular in his embodiment of the excesses of the 1980s; few people were as ruthless, as greedy and as underhanded as Michael Milken. He collected and distributed inside information -- in flagrant violation of the law. He manipulated stock prices on companies he wanted to undervalue. He bullied his clients into deals that lost them money (but made Milken millions). His practices encouraged banks to make extremely risky investments, and when they failed, tax payers got stuck with an extremely expensive bailout.

In one year alone, Milken gave himself more than $500 million in bonus compensation -- but that didn't stop him from haranguing his colleagues for a $15,000 finder's fee on a piece of business he thought he brought to his firm.

All in all, a disgustingly greedy man.

One wonders in an age of similar excess and similar downfall if it really sends the right message to give this dude a pardon.

But, then, that should be perfectly in line with the Bush administration.