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Raghavendra Rau

Raghavendra Rau

Check, Please! Take $65,000, Keep the Change

Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2002

By TUNKU VARADARAJAN

A good story is one that gains rapidly in girth in the days after it breaks, not merely acquiring a wider circulation (what Tina Brown called "buzz") but also exciting, in its train, a certain amount of editorial pontification.

Just such a yarn came to attention six days ago when the Financial Times of London ran a small item by its banking correspondent titled "Barclays Bankers Lose Jobs After $62,000 Dinner."

True celebration is not cheap. So why did five Barclays bankers get the sack?

The story was picked up posthaste by the wires and the London tabloids, then by the American networks and newspapers. Finally -- and perhaps predictably -- it came to rest in the editorial columns of the New York Times, where, on Wednesday, we were given a finger-wagging sermon on the unseemliness of "conspicuous consumption."

In a nutshell, the story is about the firing of five investment bankers who, last summer, celebrated a lucrative day at the office with a dinner so expensive that it broke the world record for pricey meals.

What made the occasion so eye-catching was the fact that the $62,000-plus restaurant tab was almost entirely for alcohol, the innkeeper having waived -- one assumes in slavering gratitude -- the $360 that constituted the cost of solids ingested. (He did not waive, note, the $7 charge for a pack of Marlboro Lights.) Some of the drinks were certainly dead impressive: a bottle each of Chateau Petrus from 1945, '46 and '47 (the last at $17,500, the others at $16,500 and $13,400 respectively), a century-old Chateau d'Yquem for the pudding wine (at $13,100) and a $2,000 Montrachet, with which they gargled back the fish course.

But the meal was not inherently conspicuous, in that it was intended as a private affair; and what we do in our own time, with our own money, should -- provided the exuberance is lawfully expressed -- be no one else's business. In this case, details of the meal made it to the papers only because of a mole, presumably in the restaurant. The diners had initially suspected the restaurateur and had threatened to sue for breach of privacy, but that action appears to have fizzled out.

So why were the bankers fired? Here the facts get murky. The New York Times reports that, although they paid for the tab with their own money, they tried later to pass off some of the expense on their clients. The London papers, however, make no mention of this apparent chicanery. (None of the diners was reachable for comment, alas; a clause in their severance package binds them to silence.)

The London papers' version of events -- that the bankers' dismissals had to do with the vulgarity of "excess" in a climate of recession -- is the more complex one and is certainly the more romantic. Put bluntly, the details of the dinner, once in the public domain, were considered rather appalling PR for the investment bank. "The Lords of Lacadaemon were true soldiers," wrote Byron, "while ours are sybarites." The big-spenders had to go, and Barclays seems to have sacrificed them on the altar of self-image.

If it is at all a salve to them as they seek other employment, they have me on their side. Theirs is a nuanced tale. For starters (the apt phrase here, I think), the occasion was an example of perfect capitalism. They injected the money they earned straight back into the system, to the benefit of the restaurateur, the waiters, the wine merchants, the vineyards, even the part-time grape-pickers in France.

Lest my calculus be deemed too economic, let me point to a cultural theme as well. Three of the five bankers were born on the Indian subcontinent, a part of the world known to me first-hand but not known generally for its adoration of fine wine. Is theirs not a superb example of acculturation, men of the East taking up the ways of the West? The dramaturgy of integration must surely include adopting Western ways of celebration -- extended, here, to the limits of spending power -- and not merely adopting a language or modes of dress and discourse.

And here I must inject an anecdote. My son's godfather, an Indian, is a banker in London. He looks unmistakably Indian and, in his suit and brogues, gives off a whiff of great wealth. In the days after the story broke, he was approached on a couple of occasions by sommeliers in restaurants asking if "Sir wished to look at the list of special vintages." Racial profiling? Of course, and of the most delightful sort.

A last point. One of the diners was a Muslim, who did not drink a drop of Petrus, or Yquem, or Montrachet. One assumes he drank some of the 10 bottles of water ordered (cost: $50) and all of the one glass of juice ($4). Yet he picked up a fifth of the tab. How generous of him. I bet he could have used a slug of something strong afterward, but how very civilized.

As for me, my only complaint about the bankers' behavior would be that I was not invited to join them.