Rich Fear the Non-Rich May Demand a Fair Share

At a recent East Side dinner party, a man was heard to exclaim with astonishment, feigned or real, that there actually are people out there who think $200,000 is a lot of money. A nice piece of snob-snottery to draw the line between the have-too-muches, the have-somes and the have-a-littles, an important distinction in converting the country from democracy to plutocracy. Many devices, besides the simple Veblenian display of wealth, are employed to emphasize the division between the neato, swifto, swello, buzzo us people from the tatty, clumpy, impecunious them people.

Sometimes it seems that the rich are concerned that the non-rich are getting, well, hardly rich, fella, but uncomfortably, nay, dangerously prosperous. Full employment with its attendant danger of people taking days off, writing private e-mails and telling the boss person where to put this lousy job, all that is agitating the minds and emotions of the opulent. The politicians may talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, but in some circles, jobs, at least too many jobs, are nothing to cheer about. You may rely on it-after the government announces unemployment has dropped, the stock market does the same. Among the monetarily corpulent, full employment is bad news.

You might have anticipated that since the crime rate has fallen pari passu with the diminution of unemployment, the rich would be wearing smiles on their pomaded and perfumed faces. You’d think the disappearance of muggers, burglars and other persons waiting in the dark with evil intentions would allow the rich to sleep better and dream happier dreams. But property breeds perpetual anxiety.

The rich worry, lest, in a tight labor market, they themselves will pay too much to their employees, thereby setting off inflation. Inflation, let us hasten to note, is never a danger when the rich get richer, which they have been doing at a handsome clip of late. According to one study commissioned by The Wall Street Journal , last year, the income of 350 C.E.O.’s of major corporations increased 11 percent, or slightly less than three times the consumer price index, to $2,782,482 and nary a word about the dangers of inflation. Although flight attendants’ pay demands are deemed inflationary, the $128 million remuneration received by David S. Pottruck, the co-C.E.O. of the Charles Schwab Corporation, isn’t. The eye-popping pay raises given C.E.O.’s are thought to be deserved because they contribute so much to raising productivity, whilst employees lower in the organizational charts never or hardly ever contribute to high productivity so they should never or hardly ever be given pay raises. It is axiomatic that it is to the C.E.O. we owe our prosperity, so let’s banish talk about how rich they have become.

Rather, let us rejoice that the rich, in relationship to the rest of us, have never been richer. The top 1 percent of households now owns about 40 percent of the wealth. Last year L. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International was paid $170 million by his company. New York’s own Sanford I. Weill, the big kahuna at Citigroup, was paid $90 million in 1999, with another $183 million promised him. Sandy, however, may have been more than outcompensated by General Elecetric’s Jack Welch, who got to take home more than $93 million plus another potential half-billion, if his stock options and such come to fruition. There are many, many more whose emoluments offer pecuniary proof that the free-market goose has gone and swallowed a bottle of golden egg hormones.

The disproportionalities of income and wealth are ordinarily ignored except by the corporal’s guard of old-time lib-labs who discuss the subject in the context of the poverty line and people living below thereof. That doesn’t carry much weight in an era when poor people have refrigeration, sometimes even air-conditioning and always color TV. If the rich have never been richer, neither have the poor, so unless you are a leveler, bringing up the poor in this discussion doesn’t serve the cause of proportionality and moderation. The fact that our poor are too comparatively well-to-do for much in the way of sympathy and indignation may explain why such idealism as is left in the United States often looks overseas to express itself. There still are the poor in other places, where saying the children aren’t getting enough to eat means no food in the belly, not too many Frito-Lays, Cokes and triple-decker burp-o-burgers.

Nonetheless, without resorting to the language of the 1960’s and the War on Poverty, or stirring up class warfare, as Republicans say when bloodying the heads of old-time bleeding hearts, there is yet reason to nurse forebodings when thinking of a John T. Chambers, the top whip-cracker at Cisco Systems Inc. who pulls in nearly $122 million for a year’s work though we are positive that the dear soul is worth every penny of it and more. Even so, if you step back and think in terms of the commonweal, chaps like Mr. Chambers may pose a problem, and I’m not referring to recent accusations in Barron’s that the company has misstated its profitability. Whether or not there is a shady side to the entirely laudable Mr. Chambers we’ll leave to the day traders, market touts and stock plungers to sort out.

The problem with Mr. Chambers is that he and those like him have become too numerous, too too rich and too too too conspicuous. Our political system was built on the assumption that the United States, being a rural society of smallish farmers, would have an electorate with more or less the same material stake in the nation’s well-being. Now we’re trying a new experiment. Now we’re trying to run a democracy in which a tiny percentage of the population owns most of the wealth and has a chattel mortgage on most of the population. Can a democracy, owned and operated by C.E.O.’s and the inherited rich, who have little materially in common with the great majority, happily reflect the people’s will over an extended period of time? Or is this the dry underbrush of an uncontrollable class warfare wildfire somewhere down the road?

Beside the political considerations in the transformation of the American system into the rule of the rich, there are cultural and moral factors. When the rich stay in the background and flaunt it so the rest of us don’t see it, they have their place and their uses, but now, like a vermicular insect that lives in the ground and corkscrews up into light and air in 100-year cycles, the rich have emerged again and are swarming over the trees and the rooftops of automobiles, covering every surface, crawling over each other, entwining, sliding, an aureate mass heaving, swaying, climbing and sliming. It’s been a full century since the golden calf crowd has so dominated daily life in America. Again Dives is courted, made way for, deferred to and fussed over and glorified to the exclusion of all but movie stars and athletes who are, of course, as rich as the ordinary, run-of-the mill business richie. And in Manhattan! It has become an island of modern maharajahs trailed by their processions of body servants, couturiers, accountants, drug pushers, personal trainers, closet arrangers, chefs, plastic surgeons, architects, lawyers, interior designers, head waiters, pimps, estate planners, therapists, jewelers, flatterers and flunkies. We may not be saddled with a class system like the one the Brits have, but the behavior of Manhattanites in a society in which money orders status, opinion and rank of every kind leaves not much to choose from between the two places. Money corrupts and lots of money corrupts lots as the bowers compete with the scrapers for stock tips and other gratuities in a city now divided between the purse-proud and the slobbering, envious masses who, in the midst of such show and wealth, have lost their way, their values and their dignity.

New York has mutated from mere money mania to money idolatry. Money is the extra molecule in the air New Yorkers breathe, the ugly free radical for which there is no antioxidant, the subject of every conversation, the standard of every judgment. If you don’t have 5 million bucks to your name in New York you are dog shit on the sidewalks, ripe for the pooper scooper, for the reign of the rich and the rule of the wealthy is here.