The Pleasures of the Rich  

“Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hands.”

King Solomon

“Behind a desk on the first floor of 590 Madison Avenue stands security guard Timothy Williams. Williams is a 24-year-old African-American who lives in the Bronx, the borough with the lowest rents in New York City. After graduating from high school in 2002 he joined the Army, because he couldn’t afford college, and eventually served in Iraq. "I was for going into Afghanistan, but I'm against Iraq," he tells me at the beginning of a noon-to-midnight shift. Now back home, he's earning $12.50 an hour, with no union and no healthcare. 

Journey twenty-nine floors up from where Williams stands guard and the growing disparities of wealth again come into stark contrast. Here you will find the headquarters of Paulson & Company, a $32 billion hedge fund, this one run by John Paulson, the highest-paid individual in 2007. By short-selling the subprime market, he earned $3.7 billion last year. (In January, after a year in which 2.2 million households filed for foreclosure, Paulson told the Wall Street Journal, "I've never been involved in a trade with such unlimited upside.")

For Williams, who would likely shepherd Paulson to safety in the event of a building emergency, that upside is hard to discern: he would have to work more than twenty years as a security guard to earn what Paulson made last year in one hour.

On the East Side of Manhattan two very distinct classes of New Yorkers cross paths every day: the working poor, who cook, deliver, secure and protect--for little money and no benefits--and the titans of finance, hedge-fund executives and heads of private-equity firms, who stare at numbers on screens while moving other people's money in and out of stocks and commodities or buying and selling companies, and whose wealth is expanding so quickly they have difficulty figuring out what to do with it.

While workers in the first group struggle to survive on wages that don't get much higher than $10 an hour, the financial elite continue to break income records. The just-released 2007 earnings figures find the top five hedge-fund managers all clearing $1.5 billion. As Alpha magazine notes, "The top 25 on the list earned an average $892 million, up from $532 million in 2006"--in a year when the economy began to stall, the group needing no help ended up nearly doubling its income. The top ten earners alone made a combined $16.1 billion, more than the GDP of Nicaragua.”

 From Meet the Wealth Gap by Gabriel Thompson - The Nation

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was like the present period.”

     - from the Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Do you feel like you work hard for your money?

Of course you do, we all do.

I mention this because an insistent mantra of anti-tax zealots and so many people of means, a mantra I heard so maddeningly often this past election season from our conservative friends, is the repeated declaration that they work hard for their money - as if the rest of us perhaps don't. 

During the Great Depression, the economic extravaganza of the 1930's, the era Wall Street is hellbent on replicating for my children, my dad's family was so poor they ate navy beans and potatoes almost exclusively for years at a time (beans and taters in the vernacular of west central Illinois). When my dad was 14 he spent an entire summer cutting down trees and pulling stumps to turn a pitiful piece of land into a field to grow crops. His payment for an entire summer's back breaking work prying tree stumps from the ground? Two pairs of jeans.

I'd say he worked hard.

In his adult life, he worked in a soul crushing factory for over 40 years, with a short break to serve on an aircraft carrier in WWII in which his entire crew, excepting himself, was killed by a kamikaze, leaving him to literally clean up the flesh and viscera of his comrades. Fairly hard work, wouldn't you say?

During his 40 plus years working for the Olin Corporation's Olin Brass Subsidiaries and Joint Venture Companies in East Alton, Illinois, he spent his days (and many nights) working in 110 degree temperatures forging and shaping metal, often for armament based products. 

During those many years in the factory he worked the swing shift, meaning that he would work days one week, evenings the next, midnights the next, never allowing him to get into a stable circadian rhythm, which, combined with the heat and backbreaking labor, left him perpetually exhausted and spent throughout his entire working life.

Because of the quality of his work he was made a foreman, supervising other workers in the hell hole that is a brass mill. After a year of being forced by upper management to treat his crew like machines, insisting that he get ever more work out of them in spite of the hellish conditions, he quit as a foreman when he was told to fire one of his workers who was the sole support of his family. He returned to the line, back on the swing shift, and was soon fired over some trumped up charge, payback for not playing the game as foreman. Unions hadn't been almost completely emasculated at that time, and the union was able to get him his job back. (I must mention that the John M. Olin Foundation was one of the largest contributors in the country to conservative and anti-union causes ).

As an unschooled guy from a small, economically underprivileged town his options were limited. This was his best bet to provide for his family. It was Olin's Brass Mill or destitution.

As he got older he would tell me about friends of his at Olin who were retiring. Incredibly, almost without exception, within a couple of years of retirement he would be attending their funerals. The back breaking, hellish work at Olin literally carved years off of their lives. By the time they retired they were used up.

My dad finally retired at age 62. Within a year he had triple bypass surgery. He made it six years past retirement, dying suddenly in 1992 at age 68, many years short of what an average American should live to, but he still got a few more years than most of his friends.

After all those years of soul crushing work, his estate, including his house (which he built with his own hands) was worth under $25,000. His death benefits from Olin, after over 40 years of work, was $204, giving us insight into just how much the Olin Corporation valued his life’s work, indeed his life. My brothers and I got $68 each. It seemed such an insult that I could not spend it. I gave my portion to a charity.

Why am I sharing this story? Because Richard Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Bros., one of many Wall Street investment banks that spectacularly failed there shareholders and the country during the financial collapse in 2008, shared his own story with Congress in the wake of the economic fiasco. Fuld, under whose watch the very foundation of capitalism has been put at risk, spent his time testifying that he did the best he could, he worked hard, that no one could have foreseen what ultimately happened, and, under questioning, said that he and other Lehman executives deserved the salaries they received, because the firm’s compensation committee ensured fairness. That committee, as you might imagine, was handpicked by Fuld and the firm’s executive committee (one member of whom was George H. Walker, the president’s cousin - small world). 

Which body of hard work was more successful, of more value to his employer, my dad's, or Mr. Fuld's?

In over 40 years of working in a factory out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting my dad never made as much as $20,000 a year, was unable to save more than a pittance because every cent was needed for raising a family, for the necessities of life. Richard Fuld, one of the most incompetent wretches in the history of capitalism has, since the year 2000, earned a half billion dollars, making $106 million in one year alone. He has five houses, including a $25 million dollar penthouse on Park Avenue, a monstrous Connecticut estate worth about $40 million, a gigantic house on the ocean in Florida worth perhaps $30 million. 

For that amount of remuneration wouldn’t you expect Mr. Fuld to be the best in the world at his job? How about just minimally competent? Bankrupting the company that paid you half a billion seems to fall short of these expectations, no? But he worked hard for his money.

What does this tell us?

It indisputably tells us that our economic system has been gamed, that a handful of powerful people have rigged the system so they can live like Sultans, regardless of their competency, their value to their company, their worth as employees. They literally can do nothing heinous enough to decrease their outrageous salaries.

The have turned our country from a meritocracy into a ginned up poker game, and no matter how much they screw up, no matter the insult to the fabric of our nation or the good people of America, the deck is stacked. Regardless of their merit or skill they will be holding aces at the end of the game.

Incredibly, almost supernaturally, they have convinced many, if not most, working people in America that the system is fair, that they should support those who demonize community organizers and trade unions, those who worship at the Cult of Wealth at Any Cost. They have convinced working people that unfettered wealth for a few is what is best for the many, and to think otherwise is to hate capitalism, to think otherwise makes them socialists. They have leveraged people’s patriotism, even their Faith, to manipulate them to work against their own self interests. Astonishing.

I heard an ad on the radio just before the recent election. It was from a representative from the northern suburbs of Chicago. In it he rhapsodized about the immediate need to repeal the “Death Tax”, the manipulative label for the Estate Tax.

Demonizing taxes is the easiest game on earth. Who, after all, enjoys paying taxes? But taxes support government, and in our beloved America, the government is Of the People, By the People, and For the People. Government is not some evil abstraction - it is us!

People who rail against taxes and government don’t levitate above the roads rather than use them, they don’t send letters by carrier pigeon instead of using the mail, they don’t call a militia group instead of the police when they are robbed, they don’t call a tax protest group instead of fireman when their house is ablaze.

They want the privileges of society when it is to their advantage, but they resent and mock the government when they are asked to contribute to that government as members of a free society.

The Estate Tax is one of the fairest taxes on earth, applied to only the very wealthiest citizens, rooted in the biblical concept that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. It is progressive rather than regressive and It works against the creation of an aristocracy, people who are rich beyond measure without lifting a finger, simply as a result of their birth and pampered existence. I give you Paris Hilton.

Richard Fuld should be the poster boy for maintaining the Estate Tax, he should serve as an example to ridicule the very idea that the ultra rich should give nothing back to the society that allowed them to prosper inordinately to their achievements.

Fuld received hundreds of millions for nothing more than sitting in an office on Wall Street that has been designated by the economic mafia as an Aristocrat's office, offering no more native intelligence to his daily tasks than a kid playing Doom on a Sony Playstation. His greed and hubris has brought heartache upon millions of people and he has suffered not in the least for his execrable actions. 

The social connections that come with wealth and power allowed Wall Street firms to be bailed out by an astonishingly quick infusion of hundreds of billion dollars of taxpayer money. This from the same public servants who protested for years that the people’s treasury was too empty to provide health care to America’s working poor. This from the public servants who claim that their is no money to help union workers in Detroit. In Wall Street’s America the masses are lepers, untouchables, invisible.

I have been picking on Mr. Fuld because he was just clueless enough to try and rationalize his ill gotten gains in a dramatically public forum. Others were more discreet. The CEOs of Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and many other Wall Street and Fortune 500 firms, countless lobbyists, and all manner of corporate bigwigs, made multimillion dollar salaries and bonuses while stuffing their pockets and racing blindly towards the destruction of our banking and lending system. 

The executives of corporate giant AIG, within days of receiving $135 billion of public funds to bail them out of their self inflicted failure, treated themselves to a conference featuring spa treatments, massages, and gourmet food. Another set of AIG executives flew by private plane to a fox hunt in England to reward themselves for their hard work, also within days of the taxpayer bailout. Goldman Sachs, the firm that perpetually seeds government posts with people like former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen, got $10 billion of taxpayer money from Paulsen to prevent bankruptcy, disbursed most of it as salary, then moved it’s accounting offshore to lower it’s tax bill from 35% to 1%, vividly expressing their commitment to the system that bailed them out. 

Well organized forces in America like to call folks like me proponents of “Class Warfare”, saying we are trying to demonize industrious souls who are justly rewarded for being hard working and clever, whose only sin is being successful.

This is the manipulative sort of egregious nonsense these folks excel at when cornered with damning truths. I refuse to play their game, refuse to be cowed by their narcissistic certainties.

Class warfare does exist, it is a war waged against average people by a wealthy elite, and it has resulted in the creation of a nation where two sets of rules are in place, one for the ultra wealthy, and one for the rest of us. It has resulted in the underclass feeding the largest and most populated prison system in the world, and a corresponding aristocracy with no limit to wealth, power, or lack of consequences for their incompetence, greed, and criminality.

It has resulted in the greatest redistribution of wealth in American history, not from people who work hard to the lazy and shiftless, as they would like us to believe, but from the many to the few, turning America into a twisted national Ponzi scheme, money endlessly flowing upward, with nothing ever trickling back down to the middle class, to the working poor.

Class warfare indeed.

The Richard Fulds of America have taken, taken, taken, to the point that the well has run dry. The entire world economy is at risk, people are losing their homes, losing their jobs, losing their pensions, losing their health care, losing their dignity - all because their is a subset of human beings that have infinite greed, infinite indifference to the lot of others, infinite capacity to rationalize their gluttony - and no mechanism is in place to mitigate against their reckless indifference to the welfare of others.

And the best the architects of this travesty of class warfare can come up with is a prominent economic advisor’s declaration that we have become a “nation of whiners”.

Richard Fuld whined that it wasn’t his fault. It wouldn’t be, would it?

The fatal flaw of our society is that their is no limit to the wealth that one person can acquire, and since money begets power, their is no limit to the amount of power the ultra wealthy can bring to bear on gaming the very fundamentals of our society. 

And game it they do via the manipulation or elimination of government policies that oversee and regulate financial practices to protect us all, so that they instead protect only the wealthy and powerful. In the wake of the mind numbing lunacy of Citizens United,  they can use their great wealth ever more outrageously to rig the system in their favor.

Society can not, nor should it, legislate fairness. But we must be vigilant in preventing unfairness from being incorporated into the fabric of our society. This is what has happened, this is what must stop.

My dad, who had many of Archie Bunker’s biases, had an observation for me back when All in the Family was the most popular show on television. I was an idealistic college student at the time, in that phase in life when I thought  older folks knew little, and I knew everything. This military veteran, Patriot, lover of America, survivor of the battle of Okinawa, having fought next to his brave , doomed friends to save democracy for America, for all mankind, told me this: He told me that the rich in America were so greedy that they eventually would push working people to revolution.

I believed, truly believed, the lessons of my high school civics class that America was somehow different than other countries, that our great nation could never turn it’s back on the ideals of equality and opportunity for all, that it would never submit to the ravings of megalomaniacs and thugs, would never lose regard for the least among us. I laughed to myself at his declaration, especially from a guy who was the antithesis of a revolutionary.

It breaks my heart to acknowledge his prescience, to acknowledge that their exists a significant population of people in America that would be indifferent to the subversion of the privileges and responsibilities encapsulated in the U.S. Constitution, the document that makes America, America - the brilliant Manifesto of Democracy. It breaks my heart that their are people so consumed by greed that they would leverage this indifference, leverage their great wealth and power to destroy the very thing they profess to love, and bring economic ruin and heartache to their fellow citizens in pursuit of more, more, more.

What seemed laughable to me those many years ago now seems entirely possible.

The market turmoil and bank crisis is just the beginning. Jobs are being lost en masse, countless people are wondering how they will pay their bills, their livelihood and dignity are being crushed, a gigantic burden is falling on our society, and our government may soon not have the wherewithal to help. 

People are suffering, but the people that made the heartache happen have a financial cushion so huge that the heartache will not be their concern. The suffering they have created will not visit their hearth and home.

My mom has often told me the travails of her family during the Great Depression. Her mom and dad had a house full of children, living day to day, depending on the garden for most meals, supplemented with food purchased with money my grandpa earned from occasional back breaking odd jobs around town. Like my dad’s family, beans and potatoes provided the bulk of their meals.

Even with so little, they considered themselves better off than most.

Our hometown is bisected by a railroad and, in those days, any town with a railroad was visited by all manner of homeless souls riding the rails, wandering the nation looking for work, looking for handouts, trying to survive.

My mom’s family lived near the tracks, and a week didn’t go by that a hobo didn’t come to their door asking for scraps of food, scraps that they always shared. As little as they had, they knew others had it worse, and they knew that the Holy Bible admonished them to help the least among us. Mom has remarked on how terribly down on their luck so many of the men were, wearing ragged clothes, shoes stuffed with cardboard to cover their torn soles, pitifully inadequate jackets padded with old newspapers to ward off the cold in the drafty boxcars. And for the rest of her life she has remembered the heartbreaking loss of dignity that she could she in their eyes standing there on the porch of a stranger, begging for food.

Imagine for a moment, If you will, how a hobo riding the rails would be greeted at one of Richard Fulds many mansions. Would scraps of food be forthcoming? I doubt that they would make it past the gated entrances and security, doubt they would make it to a doorstep, so the question is moot.

Better yet, let’s imagine Richard Fuld and the other CEOs that did so well in the months and years leading up to the bankruptcy of their companies, themselves destitute and riding the rails, despairing at the loss of their livelihood, wondering where their next meal was coming from, cold and shivering, going up to the porch of a tiny frame house in an economically depressed small town in west central Illinois, a house whose value had plummeted due to shenagins of men like Ful. Imagine Fuld, suddenly dependent on the kindness of strangers like my late grandma and grandpa, people easily capable of empathizing with the suffering of others.

I can assure you they would return to the boxcar with a belly full of beans and potatoes.

Jesus remarked that if you meet a man with no shirt, you must give him the shirt off of your own back. The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ seminal homily,  admonished us to devote ourselves to the least among us. Even those of us who are skeptics can see the wisdom in that thought, can see that the poetic altruism of the Sermon on the Mount planted the seeds for a compassionate revolution that shook the earth.

Jesus also said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Have you see an acknowledgment of late of that stunning exclamation in the actions of our society’s richest and most powerful members?

In the wake of Jesus admonition, do we still have to be told that the measure of a life isn’t how much success, wealth, and power a person accumulates, but rather how one treats others, especially the weakest and most powerless? Listening to the Richard Fuld’s of the world rationalize their wealth in the face of their failure and greed seems to confirm that the lesson has not been learned. Far too many people have disregarded Jesus’ homily and our society has been transformed into one whose members worship insatiable consumption and consumerism and greed, then tell themselves it is God’s will.

The Bible could not be clearer. Wealth is not strength. Compassion is strength.

The English clergyman Thomas Fuller said that “The pleasures of the rich are bought with the tears of the poor.” 

Like the Reverend Fuller, I am inclined to believe their is a connection between the affairs of the rich and the poor, that one begets the other, and I believe that no amount of mental gymnastics by the rich and powerful will make it otherwise.

When you get discouraged looking at the economic injustice in the world, despairing over the oblivious nature of breathtakingly rich lunkheads like the Wall Street titans, please remember my grandma and grandpa, handing out life sustaining food from the porch of their humble home, even in the face of having so little themselves. 

Remember that they didn’t practice indifference, they didn’t consider class, they embraced the glorious idea that we are all our brother’s keepers.

They worked hard, so very hard for the little that they had, and they shared  what they had with the least among us.

That makes all the difference.

While their is a certain satisfaction in sneering at scoundrels, it is not enough to sneer, to just complain about injustice and wrongheadedness. 

With that in mind, consider these words from Hamilton Wright Mabie, the American essayist, lecturer, and editor:

“The question for each man to settle is not what he would do if he had means, time, influence, and educational advantages, but what he will do with the things he has.”

What are you going to do with the things you have?

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