“The Life and Death of a Master of the Universe”—the words caught me.
This is a hard story of hope become heartache, of a master of the universe who was not, and of a lecture I am giving this morning to a group of business-interested students and their professors at a think tank in the city.
It is the story of suicide, a tragedy in every way. After an incredibly successful career on Wall Street, becoming a Blackstone Group executive—what some call the largest investment fund in the world –Bruce Wrobel began to see himself implicated in Africa, and gave almost countless energy towards figuring out ways to build sustainable businesses and economies across the continent. Not drawn to quick fixes or cheap solutions, he worked to develop infrastructures that would change social and political economies.
But over the last couple of years his work in Africa drew criticism, and even with his best efforts to argue against the charges, the weight of it all wore him down—and in December of 2013 he was found dead in his Mercedes-Benz CLK550. A tragedy in every way, and his life and death are mysterious, more than I know.
One writer put it this way, “It also illustrates how extremely successful entrepreneurs—even masters of the universe—can appear to lose all hope when their ideals slam into reality.”
Wall Street is a strange place. I have no disdain for the marketplace, for a moment, and in fact spend much of my life arguing for its meaning, for why it matters for all of us. But the artificial market of modern Wall Street is different than the on-the-ground markets and marketplaces of the world. If one looks carefully at Wrobel’s work in Africa, every project was about real things—minerals, timber, oil, trying to trade them in the global market.
But too often Wall Street buys and sells goods that don’t exist, and reading Wrobel’s story I wonder if he longed for his work to about something more. I am not an economist, which is no surprise to anyone who knows me. I know the world is complex, and is so in ways that I mostly don’t understand. So perhaps someone can school me on what honest service it is to history to make money on what does not exist.
It was in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” that the term “masters of the universe” was first offered. These were relatively young, bright, ambitious Wall Street traders who were making hand-over-fist money on transactions that had no relationship to anything that really exists. Since the 1980s when he wrote his story, the tale has only become more tawdry. After the implosion of the global financial world seven years ago that was begun by Wall Street trading in lies—we called them “subprime mortgages” –we have all become more aware that something isn’t working well for all of us. How is it possible that those who offered the emperor’s new clothes/subprime mortgages, were able to make a “killing” so to speak, retiring to their mansions on Nantucket, while the rest of the world only went deeper into debt, killing savings accounts, retirement funds, and economies everywhere?
Bruce Wrobel dreamed dreams of making money and using it for the sake of the world. His heart of hearts is beyond my knowing, but those who knew him well spoke highly of the integrity of his hopes– but then, “ideals slammed into reality.” That is hard, very hard, for all of us.
Today I am speaking to a group of 150 or so students and professors from across the country who are here studying “values and capitalism.” I’ve been asked to sum it all up, and so will speak at the end on vocation and the marketplaces of the world— and I will draw on this tragic story as we think it through. They each have been sent copies of the book, “Visions of Vocation,” and I will press into its argument with them. Can we honestly find moral meaning in the marketplace? Can we honestly speak about vocation in the marketplace?
And finally, knowing what we know about the world, can we still act responsibly in it, for love’s sake, in and through the vocations that are ours?