Jim Hightower

Giving the Gipper His Due


Whew! I’m suffering from Reagan exhaustion! Greek gods did not get the glorification that Ronald Reagan has received since his death. After a king-like, seven-day funeral and a tsunami of worshipful media coverage, the full deification of The Gipper proceeds with Republican politicos openly engaged in idolatry.

Believe it or not, they are pushing to have Ronnie’s face carved into Mt. Rushmore, to off Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill and replace him with Reagan’s likeness, to name still more big-government facilities in Washington after him, to make his birthday a national holiday, and to name at least one thing after Reagan in every one of America’s 3,067 counties.

A little perspective, please! It would be appropriate, for example, to erect a statue on The Mall and inscribe it, “Ronald Reagan: The man who gave us Saddam Hussein.†Yes, for five years, Reagan provided aid and all sorts of weaponry to build up Saddam and his military might, arming the Iraqi thug for his war against Iran.

And, yes, that’s the same Iran that Ronnie’s White House basement troll, Ollie North, sold arms to in order to finance Reagan’s secret, illegal war against Nicaragua’s elected government—a criminal misadventure that led to 11 top Reagan officials being convicted.

Just for old-times’ sake, here are a few more golden chestnuts from Ronnie’s tenure: James Watt, ketchup as a vegetable, Star Wars, a tax credit for segregated Bob Jones University, the S&L Scandal, trees cause pollution, Grenada, William Casey, union busting, trickle-down economics, CIA sponsorship of Muslim radicals in Afghanistan (including one Osama bin Laden), Ed Meese, extensive cuts in programs serving poor people, Robert Bork, and the tripling of the national debt.

Let’s give Reagan his due. All of it.

Must big time CEOs be SOBs on the job? Yes, says the conventional wisdom. The bottom-line dictates that wages and benefits be slashed and that off-shoring be pursued with a vengeance. “Look Ye to Wal-Mart,†boom the Market Gods, directing CEOs to follow the anti-labor, low-wage, no benefit, “move it all to China†ethic of this giant. The gods decree that no one can out-compete Wal-Mart, so best to imitate the beast.

Apparently, Jim Sinegal has been going to the wrong church. He’s CEO of Costco, the profitable and fast-growing warehouse club retailer. He takes a shockingly heretical view of his job, boasting of his company’s fair treatment of employees: “We pay much better than Wal-Mart,†Sinegal says. “That’s not altruism. It’s good business.â€

Indeed, Costco’s pay is much, much better—a full-time Costco clerk or warehouse worker earns more than $41,000 a year, plus terrific health-care coverage. Wal-Mart workers get barely a third of that pay, plus a lousy health-care plan. Costco even has unions!

Yet, Costco’s labor costs are only about half of Wal-Mart’s. How’s that possible? One reason is that Costco workers feel valued, which adds enormously to their productivity, and they don’t leave.

Sinegal also rejects off-shoring: “We could move to Bangladesh or somewhere. But what kind of message would that send to our employees? Not a good one, I think.â€

While Wal-Mart makes twice as much profit as Costco, Sinegal believes it’s better business to make a nice profit, but not a killing, and to invest more in Costco’s 92,000 workers. “I don’t see what’s wrong with an employee earning enough to be able to buy a house or having a health plan for the family,†he says.

Lifestyles of white-collar criminals Martha Stewart, the multimillion-dollar maven of “how to live the affluent lifestyle†always has a plan! Whether it’s a plan for gold-leafing walnut shells to use as individual caviar cups, or a plan to dump her shares of ImClone Inc. just before the price crashes, Martha is always ready.

As she approaches the prospect of time in the federal pokey for her conviction in that insider stock-dumping scheme, she already has a plan to lighten her jail term. She has proposed that she get good-time credit by helping underprivileged women. How? By cleaning their apartments? Sewing new clothes for their children? No, no, darling—by teaching poor women how to start their own businesses. One wonders, will her course include an ethics lecture? After her term, Martha might follow the path blazed by Walter Pavlo. A former top executive of MCI, he spent a year and a half in prison on a wire fraud and money laundering conviction. With an outside partner, it seems that Walter devised a convoluted accounting scheme so he could loot six million dollars from MCI customers. Bad boy.

But being bad can put you in demand on the corporate lecture circuit. Ex-con Walter, for example, was recently the featured speaker at UC Berkeley’s Center for Responsible Business. I kid you not! Walter pulls down $5,000 a speech and expects to take in up to $200,000 this year lecturing at business schools and corporations, telling audiences just how bad he was.

He’s not alone among former execs willing to talk for profit about their criminal doings. There’s even a speaker’s bureau called Pros & Cons that specializes in marketing these corporate crime confessors.

The lesson here is clear: If you’re going to be a criminal, be a white-collar one. The after-prison gigs are a lot better.

Jim Hightower is the best-selling author of Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country And It’s Time To Take It Back, on sale now from Viking Press.