Lifestyles of the Rich … and Cranky
The rich are fatigued by all this news coverage about the travails of the hardworking middle class.
First, the subprime mortgage collapse got all the headlines, with sob stories about low-income families losing their homes. Then came the hue and cry about rising gasoline prices. Even Republicans are trying to “feel the pain” of working stiffs.
Puh-leeze. What about the pinch being felt by the rich? While the media moaned and groaned about the slowdown at Target and other downscale stores, they expressed not a whit of concern about the sluggishness at Tiffany, whose upscale New York City stores experienced a 10 percent drop in sales this past season.
The only good news for upscale marketers is that the superrich are still buying. Tiffany reports that sales of jewelry costing $50,000 and up continued to be strong-especially to Europeans, Asians, and Middle Eastern buyers who came here to shop, taking advantage of the weak American dollar.
Thank goodness for that, right?
THE PEOPLE’S RECESSION
Economists have finally discovered that America is tumbling into a recession. Most Americans already knew that. The disconnect is that economists live on a different planet than the rest of us.
To economists, “recession” is a clinical term defining two or more consecutive quarters of declining GDP. For several years, America’s economy has been expanding while incomes for most people have been falling, but economists haven’t cared. For them, the measure of a healthy economy is simple growth-not whether regular folks benefit from it.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, most people’s definition of recession is personal. Real, or inflation-adjusted, wages have been declining for more than five years. There’s been a spreading and deepening “people’s recession.”
This mass economic decline is no accident. Washington has worked with corporate chieftains to rig the rules on everything from labor law to trade deals to hold down the incomes of the workaday majority-so the rich have literally grown richer at the expense of the rest of us.
DIVIDED WE FALL
What happened to the good ol’ American notion of the common good?
Oh, sure, we’ve always had rich and poor, but at least we’ve tried to narrow the gap, recognizing that a cohesive democratic society-a morally secure society-is dependent on maintaining a viable middle class and a broad perception of fairness. Today the Powers That Be-corporate and government-have abandoned all pretense of shared sacrifice, shared gains, and a shared future. The very rich are being made ever richer, and they’re no longer moored to America’s egalitarian ideals.
The latest proof comes from faireconomy.org, which analyzes CEO pay, perks, and pensions. The watchdog group’s latest survey finds that the chieftains of Fortune 500 corporations averaged $10.8 million in pay in 2006-more than 364 times the annual pay of the average U.S. worker. On top of that, CEOs salted away an average $1.3 million in pension gains in 2006 and averaged another $438,000 in freebies like personal travel on corporate jets, country club fees, and even corporate payments of their taxes.
Well, the CEO clique asserts, we run huge corporations and get paid accordingly. But when faireconomy.org compared the 20 highest-paid U.S. chief executives with the 20 highest-paid in Europe, they found the European chiefs took only a third as much pay-though they ran companies generating $19 billion more in sales than their U.S. counterparts. The ever-spreading pay gap has become a sundering chasm in our society. To learn more about the study and see some proposals for bridging this dangerous fissure, go to www.faireconomy.org.
MAKE EVERY VOTE COUNT
Election fever is picking up as primary voters make their choices, and the parties are girding themselves for a landmark presidential election this fall. There’s only one little clinker: How do we know our votes will be counted accurately?
There have been all sorts of problems (ranging from malfunctions to malfeasance) with voting systems in recent elections. Especially untrustworthy are the paperless, touch-screen electronic voting machines sold by such infamous outfits as Diebold Inc.
I call these systems “faith-based voting” because you make your choices on the computer screen-but you get no verification that your vote registered as you meant it to. The machines are vulnerable to hackers, prone to mechanical error, and have been known to “flip” votes from one candidate to another.
About a third of America’s counties use the touch-screen systems, putting millions of voters at risk and bringing into question yet again the integrity of a presidential vote count.
That’s why it’s so crucial that Congress quickly approve the “Confidence in Voting Act” proposed by Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey. It provides $500 million to help counties replace electronic machines before November’s national election. It also calls for hand-marked ballots and provides another $100 million for audit committees to hand-count 3 percent of ballots.
Holt’s reform isn’t perfect, but it’s a huge advance over the “trust me” machines now in use. For information on Holt’s effort to restore integrity to America’s vote, call his office: 202-225-5801.
For more information on Jim Hightower’s work-and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, visit www.jimhightower.com.