Saturday, June 22, 2013

How You Make a Living

“Do you have any qualms about how you actually make a living?” – Dr. Jennifer Melfi
(Lorraine Bracco’s character speaking to Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in the HBO series “The Sopranos”)

James Gandolfini, the actor who so brilliantly portrayed the Mafia boss, Tony Soprano, in the HBO series, “The Sopranos”; died this week. He suffered a heart attack while traveling in Italy. He was only 51 years old. Mr. Gandolfini was a great actor and a gentleman, who by all accounts was nothing like his character Tony Soprano. I remember seeing him for the first time in the movie True Romance (1993) where he played the role of; guess what…a Mafia guy. His violent, bloody scene with Patricia Arquette is classic Quinten Tarantino and definitely not for family viewing. (True Romance is one of my all time favorite movies and the soundtrack is killer…no pun intended.) While he played other roles during his career; to me James Gandolfini was always first and foremost the Italian Mafia guy with that classic New Jersey accent. And he was totally Tony Soprano.

"The Sopranos" was a hugely successful series that ran for six seasons. Even though it was about fictional characters living out their lives on a very unique and violent fringe of our society, "The Sopranos" somehow resonated with many of us. Americans have always been fascinated by gangsters and in particular with the Mafia. Back in the ‘70’s and 80’s, The Godfather series captured our attention and our imaginations. Later in the 90’s movies such as Goodfellas and Casino drilled down even further into the evils of organized crime. For some reason, we just love to watch it. Perhaps we even need to watch it. Usually it’s the ‘good’ bad guys vs. the ‘bad’ bad guys and it matters that we recognize the difference. It matters even more that we always remember that they are all bad guys.

Which brings me back to “The Sopranos”. Somehow “The Sopranos” was different from all of the other mafia/organized crime/mob stories. Just when you thought Tony and his crew were the ‘good’ bad guys, they would do something so awful that you knew they were just plain old bad guys. There was great writing and superb acting. It was an award-winning show all the way. But along the way to winning awards, “The Sopranos” became something more. It became a portrait of dysfunctional life in a wealthy American suburb. Tony Soprano just happened to be a guy whose ill-gotten gains were a bit more ill-gotten than those of his neighbors.

Meanwhile, back in the real world McMansions were being built throughout Northern New Jersey in neighborhoods very much like the one portrayed in "The Sopranos". And not just in North Jersey. Gated McMansionvilles were popping up everywhere. And more than a few of those McMansions were occupied by people who made their living polishing and selling turds; aka Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs). Polishing and selling turds is legal as long as you do the paperwork and add the appropriate legal disclaimers in the fine print. These folks are not Bernie Madoffs, hatching illegal ponzi schemes and literally stealing money. But they aren’t much better. They are certainly not members of the community of ethical financial professionals who actually play a valuable role in the efficient deployment of capital resources. Perhaps we should just call these turd peddlers creative capitalists. Creative capitalists invent new investment vehicles and know how to spin even the most risky ventures into what unwary investors view as AAA grade safe havens. They understand the power of money and the value of diversification. They know how to H-E-D-G-E and that it is unwise to hold in their hands for too long even the most well-polished turd.

“The Sopranos” ended their run in 2007. A year later many of the polished turds started to stink and soon thereafter we had the Great Recession. A lot of people got hurt, including some of those “creative capitalists”. But the truth is that most of those who got hurt never moved into their own McMansion. The power of money tends to hold up pretty well, even in a Great Recession…if you have enough of it and you understand how to use it. So now five years later, those McMansions are occupied once more and new ones are being built. The creative capitalists are still running their magic show, moving money around the world while finding new ways to keep more of it for themselves.

What I found most interesting about Tony Soprano was that he was a tortured soul. He struggled to reconcile his life with the way he made his living. Few of us make our living from felonious pursuits. Even fewer of us end up “whacking people” or having people “whacked” in the process. But, if we have a conscience, most of us will at times question if we are “doing the right thing”. And then there are those who polish turds.

“Yeah. I find I have to be the sad clown: laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” – Tony Soprano’s response to Dr. Melfi’s question.

RIP James Gandolfini

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