We're all looking for a mortal lock.
In these times when the international economic scene looks like a demolition derby, with the stands full of doomsayers ravening over the crash to come, George J. W. Goodman, a.k.a. "Adam Smith" of the best-seller list, has a mortal lock.
How nice. How reassuring that he can sit at breakfast and say: "After you learn the markets the way I have, you build up what psychologists call an apperceptive mass -- such a large collection of information that tiny little glints of additional facts all mean something. I can arrive anywhere, I can arrive in Singapore and in minutes I can know that the yen is up, the pound is down -- but why is that curve inverted? We live in a hostile world. You become like an Indian in the woods if you learn about these things. You can read the footprints, the bent twig. . ."
He lifts a ghostly hand to a phantom twig, this gray-haired man in the gray nail's head tweed suit does. He sees the twig, the rest of us don't. We don't have the apperceptive mass. Or the mortal lock.
We do have his latest book, "Paper Money," which is a mass of perceptions of the mess we're in -- oil is up, productivity's down, inflation is rising, it isn't surprising, given the fact that we used up so many yesterdays spending like there's no tomorrow.
On this particular morning, however, Goodman has arrived at the breakfast table cheery, in his gray, quizzical tenor way, as Pop on the old "Ozzie and Harriet" show (Hi Rick, Hi Dave, Hi Pop, Good Morning, Mom).
"I know the markets so well that I could hedge myself for a hundred years," he says.
Terrific. The old apperceptive mass, the mortal lock. But what about the rest of us? What's going to get us out of this mess?
The answer is truly frightening. Goodman squints past a single fried egg that glistens cyclopean under a brow of parsley, and says: "People are very resourceful. Somebody will think of something."
Somebody will think of something? The economy is careening like a semi coming down Donner's Pass on glare ice, and Goodman says somebody will think of something. It's enough to make you read the doomsayers he scorns so much, Harry "New Profits From the Monetary Crisis" Browne, or Howard "How to Profit During the Coming Bad Years" Ruff.
"They're very myopic," he says. "The big danger is not the wheelbarrow full of money that it takes to buy a loaf of bread if hyperinflation hits, it's the social glue coming apart. Busing, unemployment . . . people are going to start looking for scapegoats . . . all these squinty-eyed right-wingers. . ."
For the rest of us, this is even more frightening.
Goodman, on the other hand, has this lock, and he can hedge himself for a hundred years. Except that he doesn't want to, because if he wanted to, he'd have to move to Switzerland, where the social glue is like reinforced concrete. "I don't want to move to Switzerland," he says.
This is the most frightening thought of all, that Jerry Goodman would even think about having to move to Switzerland.
How could he leave? At 50, Goodman is arguably a representative Spirit of the American Midcentury, a Geist of our Zeit, the man any postwar mother would have wanted her kid to grow up to be. Not just because he wrote three best sellers: "The Money Game," "Supermoney," and "Powers of Mind." Nor because of "Paper Money," with its big, fat, favorable reviews. No, Jerry Goodman, as his friends call him, has also got credentials enough to warm any mom's heart: Harvard '52, Rhodes scholar; and best of all, he has successfully answered the ultimate midcentury American question: "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"
He answered it by getting rich, or a reasonable simulacrum thereof, as manager of a mutual fund; as a director of USAir and the Hyatt Corp.; as an investor and editor at magazines ranging from New York and Esquire to a financial publication called Institutional Investor. . .
And now he's wonderfully grayed with rimless glasses that provide a look halfway between a fighter pilot and Arthur Burns, former chairman of the Federal Reserve. Grayed . . . he wears a gray-blue shirt, a blue and black necktie, black shoes and the tweed suit. He looks like the "prudent man" that everybody on Wall Street is supposed to act like.
The gray ghost . . . he manifests himself in so many different forms. At Oxford he wrote a novel for a thesis, leading to two or more novels, one of which, "The Wheeler Dealers," got made into a movie starring James Garner. Goodman wrote the movie in Hollywood while on leave of absence from a mutual fund he was managing in New York. Not that many mutual fund managers ask for leaves to write movies, but then, not many shared Goodman's perceptions about the financial world either, back in the '60s, when he wrote the pieces collected as "The Money Game."
Goodman says now: "When the book came out The Wall Street Journal had an article on it with a headline that said: 'Nice Book Says Market Is Irrational.'"
He smiles his ghost smile. Of course the market was irrational, that was what was so interesting about it. The market wasn't the way the economists described it with their equations full of those big Vs. The market was a game, and, as Goodman/Smith wrote, "It follows that some sense of timing is necessary." He wrote that in a piece about trading cocoa futures. That piece has since been reprinted in textbooks on both the New Journalism and economics. In it, he extends the heresy of irrationality to point out that the sense of timing isn't derived from graphs or tables or any of the mathematically generated fetishes revered on Wall Street.
No, Goodman wrote, financial analysis could just as easily operate as follows: "I was sitting in the Great Winfield's seedy office. . . We were both watching the stock tape chug by, lazily, like two Alabama sheriffs in a rowboat watching the catfish on a hot spring day.
"They ain't movin' right,' said the Great Winfield, crossing one cowboy boot over the other. . . The Great Winfield does not bother with real facts. They only confuse things. He just watches the tape, and when he sees something moving, he hops aboard for a while, and when it stops moving, he gets off, just like a bus. This is good for about a million dollars a year."
And this sort of writing was good for putting "Adam Smith" -- he used a pseudonym so that he could write more irreverently about the business he pursues in his black shoes and gray suits -- at the top of the best-seller lists.
People are frightened of money," he says, as the single-egg breakfast disappears -- somehow you never see him eat any of it."Banks are the cathedrals of America. You ever look at a bank? The columns, the high ceilings. . ."
And George Goodman was not only laughing all the way to the bank, he was laughing once he got inside, too.
"Part of that tone of my writing came from sheer impishness," he says. "I'd be wearing pin-striped suits during the day, then stepping into a phone booth at night and coming out a journalist. Also, there was the sheer varsity contagiousness of writing for New York magazine." That was back when the New Journalism was intrinsically exciting, and some of the best of it was happening at New York, with writers such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gail Sheehy and Goodman.
It was also the period when the stock market was headed nowhere but up, The Great Buying Panic, Goodman called it in "Supermoney." He published it in 1972, when the stock marked had demonstrated that there were other directions besides up. George Goodman had begun to worry. Not a lot, just a little. He wrote: "Not even a decade ago, everybody believed . . . Then, one thing and another, the John Philip Sousa music faded a bit. Could rational men make events behave rationally? Maybe they couldn't. (Nobody then asked for a definition of 'rational.') Maybe the falcons could not hear the falconers. They were still wheeling around up there; would they listen?"
Things were irrational. He'd said that before. But he didn't think it was quite as funny. Almost, but not quite.
For one thing, he'd taken some of the money he made from laughing inside the bank, and invested it in a Swiss one. Switzerland. A bank. The ultimate hedge combination. Except the bank went broke investigating in the very commodity Goodman had written so wittily about, cocoa.
"There's even a photograph of me and Paul Erdmad [the American head of the bank, and now the author of a string of best-selling novels] standing in front of the bank holding a diseased cocoa pod," Goodman says, miming the holding of a diseased cocoa pod over his empty breakfast plate. "It was a joke. The next thing I knew I was waiting in the courtyard of a jail in Switzerland for him. I drove him home. As it happens, he just reviewed 'Paper Money' and knocked it." This is an irony which does not evoke the ghost smile.
In 1975, he published another best seller. "Powers of Mind." If the market was irational, why not study irrationality instead of the market?
"The market is explained better by Jung than by Alfred Marshall," he says, Jung being the mystical Swiss psychiatrist (Switzerland! Is there a pattern here?) and Alfred Marshall being a pillar of the cathedral of academic economics.
He tried out the I Ching, a Chinese book of divination, on portfolio management, but mostly he stayed away from the money game to range around the gurus and scientists working on biofeedback and right-brain/left-brain differentiation and all of those things some people hoped would save the world.
Nothing else was saving it. He wrote, in the book, of two friends who were portfolio managers: "They remained fully invested, they said, because things were so bad they thought they could get no worse.'The light we saw at the end of the tunnel,' they said, 'was a freight train coming the other way.'"
Or, as he writes in "Paper Money," "Every once in a while, almost a decade ago, I would get a skidding feeling . . . I was getting this feeling, not in a car, but sitting at a desk, reading about prices and money rates. Sometimes I got the feeling in the supermarket when the clerk gave me the change -- very little change. I made an appointment to see Dr. Burns."
As in Arthur Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve. The doctor was no help. "'This long and unhappy war, the American people are troubled, busing, urban race riots, women marching in the streets. . .
"'If only life would quiet down for a while,' says Arthur Burns.
"Life did not, needless to say."
There was no more money game because the players were on strike, the fans were rioting, the referees had thrown up their hand at OPEC, stagflation, the energy crisis, unemployment . . . And now, in 1981, George Goodman/Adam Smith has published a book with charts and tables in it, a book which talks a little less about irrationality and more about "exogenous variables." The Adam Smith touch is still there, however.What other financial writer can write a line like "The deutsch mark may look solid, but when the Russian tanks get to Frankfurt, it's Kleenex."
And Jerry Goodman is doing just fine for himself -- his own personal investments are large and complicated enough that he has to have an office with a secretary to handle them.
Having researched both the powers of mind and the powers of the market, he can talk about things like the apperceptive mass as an investment analysis tool.
Unfortunately, we've been having this problem with our social glue coming unstuck, as he says, this social glue being a sort of apperceptive mass in itself. But George J.W. Goodman does not want to go to Switzerland. Like a lot of people just now, having gone through the phases where first the econometricians knew it all, and then the Great Winfields did, and then the gurus did, Goodman is betting on the fact that people are resourceful and "somebody will think of something."
He says everybody's trying. "When I go on TV the cameramen all come up to me after I'm on, and they say: 'I have a condo. I paid 23 for it and I could get 80, but there's this land in Florida . . .' All the cameramen own condos."
Goodman has faith in America, even if the key to his mortal lock is Switzerland.
Are there no other constants?
"Dunhill's is where I bought this suit," he says, pointing to the gray nail's head tweed. "I buy all my clothes there. In the 1960s it was all the Wall Street people who were getting rich and buying clothes in there. Now I go in and it's all Japanese and Arabs."
Plus George J.W. "Adam Smith" Goodman.
This puts George J.W. Goodman in mind of the old English rhyme that says: "Whatsoever king may reign, I'll be the vicar of Bray."
Or the vicar of gray, perhaps, this phantasmagoria of ghostly manifestations on the other side of the breakfast table.
Constants and mortal locks: the vicar, Dunhill's, Switzerland and Goodman. It's enough to give hope to us all.