'80S VILLAIN MORPHS INTO TODAY'S DOT-COM HERO

'80S VILLAIN MORPHS INTO TODAY'S DOT-COM HERO

In the 1980s, the one fictional character that media panjandrums used to embody the values and spirit of the 1980s was Gordon Gekko, the fiendishly avaricious stock-market speculator in the Oliver Stone movie ''Wall Street.'' Gekko, played by actor Michael Douglas, would casually violate any principle as long as it enhanced his wealth and power.

Several accounts of the decade of the '80s have converted the name into a condition, Gekkoism, that implies insider trading and misleading the stock-owning public.For some commentators, President Ronald Reagan's free-market inclinations were a manifestation of Gekkoism, since the market was assumed to be insulated from moral considerations.

Several pop analysts defined the '80s as the ''decade of greed,'' a time when only money counted and it didn't matter how you got it.

Yet the era of greed seamlessly evolved into the boundless prosperity of the 1990s and into 2000. Without even a reflective look backward, the children of dot-com have converted greedy Gekkoism into a virtue.

This might all be amusing were this phenomenon not draped in sanctimony. But to hear the boos directed at the Gekkos converted into cheers for the dot-com revolution gives new meaning to hypocrisy.

Most of these companies today will not be in business 10 years from now. Moreover, most of these companies with high market capitalization based on anticipated revenue don't have present earnings.

You might think a media maven would proclaim this condition a form of Gekkoism. Instead what one hears is the steady drumbeat of optimism, welcoming us to the new age of abundance.

There is some truth to the claim, since the nation has reached new heights of per capita income and net worth. What's not being told are the fictions surrounding many dot-com companies. The market-cap phenomenon is based on an indeterminate future.

For example, if a company by dint of its retail sales has an extensive e-mail address list, that asset is evaluated against future sales, even if the company has a negative balance sheet. In other words, a company in debt may have its market cap increase.

One can envision a dot-com company that gives every customer a dollar for 90 cents, no strings attached. In short order, this company - let's call it $.com - will have the most extensive e-mail address list in the world, even though it will have a 10 percent loss each year.

As the retail list grows, the market cap increases. In fact, in order to reduce the loss and increase the valuation $.com will give everyone a dollar for 95 cents, thereby cutting losses in half without dramatically reducing the appeal of the ''product.''

While this is a foolhardy scenario, it's at play on Wall Street today. Gekko is alive and well, except he's gone from villain to cultural hero.

Trying to explain this cultural shift isn't easy. Clearly, President Clinton is part of any explanation since he was so critical of the ''greedy 80s'' and is so sanguine about the high-octane economy he takes credit for inspiring.

But, of course, it is more complicated than that. Mammon, that devil goddess, was admired long before Gordon Gekko was created. ''Money talks'' was a Wall Street contention well before the '80s.

And the greed of the '80s was no different from the greed in the decade that followed. It's only been made to seem different because of media accounts.

If there is an emerging cultural position in the first decade of the new millennium, it is the belief wealth may not be a sufficient condition for contentment - the ''fat wallet, hollow soul'' condition.

This is a new problem for America, probably one government cannot address. But it would be a mistake to overlook it. Mr. and Mrs. Dot-Com with a brownstone in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and their weekend home in the Hamptons are in a perpetual search for meaning in their lives.

Another trip to Europe or course at the YMCA simply doesn't do. They've grown blase about everything. Gordon Gekko needs a spiritual transfusion. At the moment all he gets is accolades.

Yet I suspect the time is coming when Gordon will face mortality and ask, as all people do, ''What is the purpose of life?'' Is it related to Gordon's wealth, his possessions, his power?

It may be time for reassessment, not only of Gekko, but what Gekkoism has produced. And it's time to ask why the culture has changed its tune. Why was the Gekko of the 1980s vilified and the one of the 1990s admired?