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55 Billion Pennies

IT turns out that, in creating ``master of the universe'' Sherman McCoy in his novel ``The Bonfire of the Vanities,'' satirist Tom Wolfe suffered from a pinched imagination. As a symbol for Wall Street in the '80s, bond-trader McCoy was supposed to be larger than life. But alongside Michael Milken, Sherman's a 5-and-dime guy. Mr. Milken is the financial wizard who almost single-handedly invented the $188 billion market for high-yield ``junk bonds.'' But his wizardry may have included some illegal legerdemain; he is under indictment on a variety of market-manipulation charges.

The numbers that keep surfacing in the Milken story elude understanding through all the normal criteria - sort of like the number of miles in a light-year. In 1987 alone Milken made $550 million. Now we read that Milken's lawyers have been negotiating to get his bail bond reduced from $1 billion to a mere $600 million. For him, it probably makes the difference between being able just to write a check and having to sell a few assets.

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(Just kidding. Actually, he will put assets worth the agreed-on sum into an account that can be monitored by the government during its prosecution.)

Maybe Milken is innocent of all wrongdoing. Maybe he earned every penny - all 55 billion pennies, that is - he banked in 1987. Markets can reward seemingly marginal skills, like hitting a baseball or screaming rock lyrics into a microphone, in eye-rubbing ways: That doesn't make markets bad, say what populists will.

All in all, it's well that the frenzied, grasping '80s produced a Mike Milken. Genius or crook, he brings complex issues into focus in a way no other person has done. His exaggerated - if you will, leveraged - circumstances have become a fable for our time. For years into the future, moralists will look at Milken's career and ask, What does that say about our system?