The Green Sheet Online Edition
June 22, 2009 • Issue 09:06:02
A bad man gone good
In his new book, I'll Make You an Offer You Can't Refuse, erstwhile Mafia mogul Michael Franzese weaves mafia doctrine, personal perspective and the very different, but equally enduring, principles of two well-known philosophers into a discussion of business ethics.
The 150 page volume is an oddity - a book on ethics written by a former mobster, and a highly notorious one at that. The mob may have certified Franzese a "wise guy," but it did not make him a nice one. Indeed, the two qualities might well be mutually exclusive where the Mafia is concerned.
The author was born 58 years ago in Brooklyn to a mobster family - his dad, John "Sonny" Franzese, was a noted Colombo family Underboss at the time. It's doubtful the author was reared on anything resembling conventional propriety.
Sonny, now 92, was released from federal prison in 2008 after almost a three-year stint (his fifth time
in the joint) and remains under indictment on other charges. Meanwhile, Michael just published a book on business ethics. Who'd have thunk it?
Franzese actually provides an interesting vantage point on the subject - a combination of perspectives from his Mafia days and, after a self-reinvention, his present outlook.
Not your average viewpoint
The author is uniquely qualified to analyze the merits of the opposing doctrines (championing versus rejecting ethics and morals) that form the narrative's crux.
For Franzese, the wreckage left by his old way of life has only underscored the virtues of his new one.
Also, Franzese's Mafia knowledge informs his approach to assessing the practices and ethics of American businesses. His comparison of tactics traditionally employed by the mob to the transgressions of corporate America provides a sense of just how quickly even the mainstream marketplace can corrode.
Two prominent historical figures - the biblical King Solomon, and 16th century Italian politician and writer Niccol• Machiavelli - thread their way in and out of the narrative, offering starkly contrasting views on the subjects of business, power, wealth and ethics. Frequently, Franzese contextualizes his own business advice within their philosophies, which are quoted at length and accentuated by their separation from the main text.
Machiavelli dismisses morality as a constraint on the pursuit of power; he favors a cut-throat approach where "end always justifies the means"; Solomon advocates a judicious approach where ethics and morals are the centerpiece of one's life.
Not surprisingly, Franzese informs us that his decades of service to the mob were informed and defined predominantly by Machiavellian principles (A distinction that may well apply to every Mafioso in the world, among whom Machiavelli is revered. Franzese points out that while most criminals read the Bible when they're incarcerated, "when mob guys are in jail, they read Machiavelli").
Under new guidance
Since resolving to travel the straight and narrow, the author professes to have reinvented himself in the spirit of Solomon. Throughout the book, Franzese weighs the viewpoints of Solomon and Machiavelli, on one subject or another, before invariably arriving at the same essential conclusion: Solomon's approach is better. It is fitting, then, that Frazese's transformation followed a stint in prison: His incarceration, which came after five other indictments that he managed to beat (including one filed by then Manhattan U.S. attorney Rudolph Giuliani), finally shattered his own Machiavellian illusion of impunity.
"Know well the condition of your flock, and pay attention to your herds, for wealth is not forever; not even a crown lasts for all time," reads one quote of Solomon, while another states: "Dishonest money dwindles away." Such warnings came to bear for Franzese (he lost his entire fortune when he was arrested and fell deeply into debt); in large part, his book is a warning to readers that they not make the same mistakes he did. But many do, as the book also makes clear, and a chapter on gambling underscores just how quickly and easily a person can slide - and how universal the danger is, criminal upbringing or not.
Business is business
Then there is the business side of things, where Machiavellian tactics are most evident.
One example: the disastrous, though legal, practice of credit default swaps: "In a nutshell ... bets between two parties as to whether or not a third party will default on its debt," Franzese said. "If the mob had created such an instrument, the scheme would have been a RICO indictment waiting to happen."
Yet, while Franzese admonishes those shady corporate practices that resemble dealings of the mob, he mentions other mob tactics that conventional businesses would do well to emulate - ones that are both highly savvy and within the bounds of fair play.
The mob's business dealings - good or bad - are "extensive and complex," and operated by professionals with considerable expertise, he asserts.
The various snippets of its operations are among the book's best features.
"Anyone who sells the mob short when it comes to its ingenuity, its ability to connect with people from all walks of life and its substantial profit margins is simply kidding themselves," Franzese contends.
And yet, nowhere are the shortcomings of Machiavellian thought more evident. Collectively, the mob has actually defied Solomon by continuing to prosper as long as it has.
The irony is that even when the group flourishes, its members don't. As Franzese points out: "I have been blessed with ... opportunity, while most all of my Machiavellian former counterparts are either dead or in jail for the rest of their lives."
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