Commentary: Thain's the latest poster boy for wretched excess

The most curious thing was the commode on legs. I've never heard of that, and I'd like to see it. Particularly since the securities firm Merrill Lynch & Co. paid a reported $35,000 for it, related to the redecoration of the office suite of John Thain, who apparently was some kind of golden boy in the financial industry before he was bounced by Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis.

Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch a few weeks ago. Thain headed Merrill's global banking and and wealth-management operations. Now he doesn't.

He'd previously run Goldman Sachs and the New York Stock Exchange and was regarded by some as a Wall Street "Mr. Fix-it."

Lewis apparently decided Thain had to go for a number of reasons, among them the fact that, as the Wall Street Journal reported, Merrill had a $15.31 billion fourth-quarter net loss and that Lewis has been getting some heat because his company's stock has taken a dive since the acquisition.

The Journal also has reported that Thain had arranged for other top guns at Merrill to get big bonuses before the end of the year. Thain's response to that in a follow-up story was to say that "if you don't pay your best people, you will destroy your franchise." Hmmm ... and yet, it appears the franchise has been hurting pretty badly.

Beam him down, Scotty.

Down here on Earth, Mr. and Mrs. America have been to varying degrees pushing chairs in front of the door as the wolves have been scratching on it, watching savings investments dwindle, 401(k)s go in the ... well, not in anything on legs, but you get the picture. What is it with these Wall Street guys? Are they, in the gleaming towers in New York, simply so far removed from the rest of us that they really, truly haven't got a clue?

The lunches at "21" must have gone something like:

"Had a bunch of mortgages go bad. I'll have the small filet and the Chateau Effete."

"Well, you're still a genius. We had some investments go belly up, too."

"That's OK, you're also a genius."

"Yes, it sounds immodest, but you're right."

"So, going to Vail for the holidays?"

"Yeah, the last quarter ain't looking good, but the powder is thick this time of year."

"I'll see you there."

Thain's the latest Wall Streeter to become the poster boy of wretched excess. One problem is that while those who are Earth-bound might not identify with the catastrophic losses in institutions and the billion-dollar numbers, they can picture some of the so-called highlights of a $1.2 million-plus redecoration job on Thain's office suite, some details of which were reported by CNBC and The Daily Beast blog. They included $800,000 for some decorator to the rich and famous, an $87,000 area rug, a 19th century credenza for $68,000, a $15,000 sofa and that commode on legs.

In the aftermath of these disclosures, one news outlet reported Thain has said he'll reimburse the company, quoting him as saying, "it's clear to me in today's world that it was a mistake." He also has apologized.

In the interest of full disclosure, and in response to a query as to whether my own office digs might subject me to accusations of hypocrisy, let me enumerate the redecorating expenses herein. There was $59 for my desk chair, which I bought myself at one of those office stores. I do have a luxurious couch, which was moved out of the women's lounge when a new couch was moved in about 15 years ago.

The commodes in the facilities down the hall have no legs. There are no area rugs hereabouts. No curtains, just some lopsided blinds. There is not a credenza in sight, from the 19th century or any other. (There was a grilled cheese sandwich behind the desk for a while that might have dated to the mid 20th century, however.) All wastebaskets are company-issued.

But, listen, should Thain move on to another titan-type job in high finance, he shouldn't have to give up all the perks. A man gets used to some comforts, you know.

So I'm prepared to ease the transition by offering a good deal on an antique commode-genre item my great-uncle had on his farm in the foothills. There is a nice crescent moon carved into the door. It's very quaint, and I dare say it would be the only such antique in a Wall Street office suite. It's offered for $32,500. That's with legs -- and a roof.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com.

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