|Travis McGee and the Busted Flush|
Why not take financial advice from a fictional character like Travis McGee? Is it possible that a made-up private eye (his business cards read Salvage Consultant, but he was cut from the same clothe as Chandler's Marlowe or Parker's Spenser) from fifty years ago still has something to say that's pertinent to our pocket book today?
It's not like the real-live experts have the greatest track record. Where were the warning bells from The Economist, Barron's, and the Motley Fools before our entire economy nearly went belly-up in 2008 in a sea of bad mortgages? Where was manic, in-your-face Jim Cramer? When the dust settled, and our tax dollars bought the whole mess with government bail-outs, only then did we learn how vast a con-job had been perpetrated on America.
|Cramer and Stewart duke it out on The Daily Show, 2009.|
Since Travis McGee and the Busted Flush first sailed into our consciousness in 1964 with John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-by, there's been plenty of bad faith, exploitation, and corruption in and of our economic institutions. Because of McGee's quirky ways of dealing with money, he would've skirted all of them. He likely would've avoided even the kinds of massive fraud that computers and the internet have made possible, two mainstays of modern life that John D. MacDonald couldn't have foreseen.
My favorite story about John D. MacDonald is what he did after being discharged from the Army in 1945 after serving in the Office of Strategic Services. According to Hugh Merrill's excellent biography of MacDonald, The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald's wife Dorothy convinced him that writing would help him get over the bleakness of war. MacDonald listened, writing a 2000-word story titled "Interlude in India." Unbeknownst to MacDonald, Dorothy sent it to Story magazine. When MacDonald returned home from the war, his wife surprised him with the news that the magazine had bought his story for $25.
According to Merrill, at first MacDonald didn't think he was a real writer. Years later, MacDonald remembered thinking at the time, "My goodness, maybe I can actually be one." McDonald threw himself into being a professional scribe after his army discharge in 1946. "During his first four months as a writer he turned out more than 800,000 words and got a thousand rejection slips," Merrill writes. "He spent eighty hours a week at the typewriter and made sure that twenty to thirty stories were always in the mail." MacDonald lost twenty pounds in the process. That's amazing commitment. MacDonald started selling stories to the pulps, and a legendary writing career was born.
It's also important to note that MacDonald graduated with an MBA from Harvard in 1939. Once MacDonald got the writing bug he turned his back on pursuing business and finance as a daytime gig, but economics played a big part in many of Travis McGee's cases. In Nightmare in Pink ('64), Travis has to unravel a gigantic financial scam run by a bank vice president. Pale Grey for Guilt ('68) involves inflated stock prices as part of a revenge plot hatched by McGee. McGee and his partner Meyer pose as investors in The Empty Copper Sea ('80), a story involving life insurance, settling estates, and a millionaire who may have faked his death. I'd guess most of the Travis McGee novels center on elaborate financial schemes.
Meyer, Travis McGee's occasional partner in crime, is an academic, a world famous economist. Meyer's boat is called the John Maynard Keynes, after the influential British economist who said "The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent." In a November 1986 article from Psychology Today, Dr. Raymond Fowler concluded that MacDonald and Meyer had nearly identical personalities. Apparently economics remained very important to MacDonald.
So what were the financial tenets that would've kept Travis McGee not only solvent, but able to pick and choose his gigs, free to enjoy boat parties and Fort Lauderdale's nightlife? From The Deep Blue Good-by:
...I do not function very well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.
McGee wouldn't be hurt by all the rampant credit card schemes that have been stalking the rest of us because he didn't use one in his name. He wouldn't be "skimmed" at a gas station. He wouldn't be phone-scammed by crooks who can spoof phone numbers. He'd be immune to phishing. His private info would be safe from the hackers who stole the data from 160 million credit cards in 2013. Or the Target breach from the same year. Or earlier and later breaches.
|Not the Zinger of my youth.|
When the housing bubble burst, and homes in some areas stood hauntingly vacant, McGee's 52-foot houseboat would've been safely parked in Bahia Mar Marina's Slip F18. Sure, he had to scrub barnacles, but for Travis McGee boat maintenance was much more of an enjoyable work-out than actual work.
McGee wasn't totally disdainful of economic tools, he just didn't trust them. In Travis McGee's final bow, The Lonely Silver Rain ('85), McGee discovers that he has a daughter. His ultimate financial move, his last investment, is to take all the money he has on hand (minus a couple hundred bucks to live on until the next job comes along) and place it in a trust fund for her. It was a total Travis McGee move, the kind of generosity that McGee showed to others throughout his long run of adventures. He couldn't have predicted that he was done after this last act of selflessness, anymore than MacDonald could have guessed that heart surgery with an 8% fatality rate (that's what the experts told him, according to Hugh Merrill) would kill him in 1986. Perhaps that's the final investment advice we can take from the late great Travis McGee. People first, money second.
I'm Lawrence Maddox.
My novel Fast Bang Booze is available from DownAndOutBooks.Com.
Feel free to harass me on twitter, Lawrence Maddox@MadxBooks. Or at MadxBooks@gmail.com.