A preacher is lost

Russell Baker

August 11, 1992|By Russell Baker

PUTTING Michael Milken in prison was ridiculous in the first place, and sending him up for 10 years was outrageous. He was just another finagler, after all. The financial world abounds in finaglers, always has, always will. They go with the territory, as fixed wheels, stacked decks and loaded dice go with casino sports.

Of course Milken's killing had been just too, too big. To put it another way, he was not as brilliant as Wall Street fans made him out to be, because raking in dollars by the billion was bound to start envy's poisonous juices bubbling and boiling. A brilliant finagler would have known when to stop. Not Milken.

"Where's that guy get off anyhow? Billions he's making. Billions! He's a disgrace to the button-down brotherhood of well-bred finaglers. So immodest. So gross."

If you were the kind of finagler who came out of the big Reagan hog roast of the 1980s with a mere, discreet handful of millions, Milken's billions offended your sense of decorum. A guy that greedy -- he could scare the suckers out of the markets for a generation, could ruin the thing for everybody.

Not to mention that for anybody to get that rich that fast was not just disgusting, it was enough to make your blood boil. He came to trial in the worst of times: Reagan's good-time grin gone, the big hog roast over, the whole country working on the worst national hangover since 1930, everybody enraged by the excesses that had been so delightful during the delicious squandering of the nation's wealth.

By unholy Moloch's toe, somebody had to pay for that hangover. And there was Milken at the bar of justice, or at least the bar of envy, charged with finaglings so ingenious, so complicated you couldn't begin to understand them. Government lawyers said they were monstrous. Maybe they were. As monstrous as the savings and loan debacle produced by White House and congressional finaglers? Hey, don't change the subject. The judge gave Milken 10 years.

That was in 1990. Last Wednesday the sentencing judge cut the 10 years to 2. Reason: something about Milken cooperating with prosecutors to nail other finaglers, as he had been nailed by fellow finagler Ivan Boesky, who'd been pressured to nail Milken or spend life on the rock pile.

The question of course is: What's the point of putting people like them on rock piles or canning them in sealed rooms at immense cost to the public? Somebody with a computer has discovered that the cost of federal prison per jailbird exceeds the cost of a Yale education. Economically, it would make more sense to sentence Milken to Yale Divinity School to study morality.

His case dramatizes the silliness of the American theory of prison. Except for prison bureaucrats on the public payroll nobody believes anymore that prison gives the public its money's worth in rehabilitation. For people with subtle minds, like Milken and Boesky, a year at a good tough divinity school would probably give us more rehabilitation for our money than 10 years in the typical iron cage. Be a lot cheaper too.

But what about the famous deterrent effect? People say we've got to make an example of Milken. "All right, you Wall Street wise guys, see what Milken got? Ten years listening to doors clang. You want a dose of that, just try some of your filthy finagling!"

Anybody here seriously believe this will stop another Milken, another Boesky, a thousand little bush-league Milkens and Boeskys from having a crack at the big bucks? Come on, optimists: We are talking the get-rich-quick gland, which is the answer to the question, "Why, in spite of all the embezzlers already in jail, does humanity keep on robbing the till?"

There's also the practical side. The big market jailbirds often come out, even after paying big fines, with the wealth of the Indies squirreled away. Boesky is said to be living a princely existence on the fortune left after he paid his multimillion debt to society, and there are varying guesses about how many billions remain at Milken's disposal.

If the law's goal were punishment, it wouldn't bother with prison but simply seize every last sou our Milkens and Boeskys had and leave them to use their wits to survive. Yes, they'd probably have to go on welfare for a while, but welfare is cheaper than a year at Yale.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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