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Business heroes of the 2000s -- and some who could go either way

Join me at 11 a.m. on Monday for a live online chat about my picks for the U.S. business world's heroes and villains of this decade.

You can submit a question to the chat, weigh in with your picks in our discussion group, and vote in the polls below.

Today, I'm going to tease the chat by giving you my heroes list. You'll have to wait till Monday for the villains list. Maybe more importantly, and this will be fun to talk about on Monday, I'm going to give you a second list of people who could go either way.

We like our good guys and bad guys, I know, but this decade -- and especially this past year -- has been complex, gray-shaded and politically partisan. Your hero may be my villain, and compelling arguments can be made either way.

This has been a stunning business decade: It opened with a dot-com boom and bust, segued into some spectacular white-collar crime, rode a massive housing and debt bubble and then ended with the worst financial crisis and recession since the Great Depression. Phew!

First, let's list the heroes, in no particular order. And, naturally, not all are saints. But each has distinguished him or herself positively overall.

I bet both of these lists, by the way, are overweighted toward the end of the decade, so I'm counting on you and your Way Back Machines to remember some of the big cats from the early oughts.

-- Steve Jobs: Has to be the chief executive of the decade, right? And that's even while battling pancreatic cancer and getting a liver transplant. Here's your one fact: At the beginning of 2000, Apple stock was trading at $27 per share. Today, it's pushing $200 per share, with several analysts setting even higher targets.

-- Nouriel Roubini: Widely panned as "Dr. Doom" for his dire warnings about a housing bubble as early as 2005, the NYU economist was one of the few who called this crisis before it happened. Unfortunately, no one listened to him.

-- Elizabeth Warren: As head of the congressional oversight committee working to figure out if the bailout money is working -- and where exactly it is going -- she holds federal officials' feet to the fire.

-- Indra Nooyi: The best CEO you've never heard of. Took over PepsiCo in 2006 after directing the company's global brand strategy for several years, smartly selling off its restaurants and buying Gatorade and Tropicana. Now much more than a soft drink company, PepsiCo's revenue and earnings have skyrocketed under Nooyi.

-- Jeff Bezos: The Amazon founder not only has turned his online bookstore into an online buy-everything store, he has revolutionized book reviews -- putting the power in the hands of buyers -- and may even end up saving newspapers, thanks to his Kindle digital reading device.

Vote on this list after the jump!

Now, here are some who could be considered either heroes or villains, depending on your perspective:

-- Alan Greenspan: Was he the economy's svengali who enabled growth and stability in the '90s or was he Easy Al of the 2000s, holding interest rates so low, we almost had no choice but to create a debt crisis?

-- Warren Buffett: First, a disclosure: Buffett is lead director of The Washington Post Co. On the one hand, his billions provided critical -- and I mean critical -- infusions of cash to Goldman Sachs and GE during the depths of the crisis in 2008. On the other hand, because he's Buffett, he got stakes in the companies at terms no one else -- not even the government -- got. And don't forget this: Over the past year, his Berkshire Hathaway underperformed the S&P 500 by 20 percent.

-- Hank Paulson/Ben Bernanke: Were they the saviors of the economy or the two guys who did more damage than anyone else? Paulson, by pushing for a debt-busting $700 billion bailout that created one of the most bitterly contentious political issues of our time, and Bernanke, by turning on the money spigot, devaluing the U.S. dollar, threatening its status as the global reserve currency and setting alight the inflation embers.

-- Sergey Brin/Larry Page: True, the Google founders have done as much to revolutionize our world as anyone else. Can you imagine a time before Google? But their algorithms also invade our privacy, scanning our e-mails for key words to link to advertising, and a case can be made that Google is as responsible as any company for destroying the notion that anyone should have to pay for journalism and information.

-- Michael Eisner: Here's one from my past reporting life. When Eisner engineered the merger of Disney and Cap Cities/ABC, he created not only a media conglomerate that worked -- rare -- he brought in the ESPN family of networks, now a revenue and profit powerhouse so mighty, it nearly eclipses the Mouse. But by the end, Eisner had grown so full of himself, he turned down Comcast's merger offer before even consulting his board of directors. Eisner and his extraordinary compensation faced a shareholder revolution so powerful, it stripped him of his chairmanship and soon forced him out of the company.

I'm sure I've forgotten plenty on both lists. Let's hear yours.

-- Frank Ahrens
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By Frank Ahrens  |  December 11, 2009; 4:57 PM ET
Categories:  The Ticker  | Tags: Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Elizabeth Warren, Hank Paulson, Indra Nooyi, Jeff Bezos, Michael Eisner, Nouriel Roubini, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett  
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