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September 16, 2009

Tonight on CBS: rich man eats bug

Now that Prius is the new Hummer and Qdoba is the new Vincenzo’s and going for a walk is the new seaside vacation, it’s nice to know the economy is stabilizing.

According to the White House, the economic stim-pack has saved or created a million jobs and averted a depression, which is sort of like saying I’d have some unattractive kids if I hadn’t broken up with my first girlfriend. Sometimes it’s the road not taken that’s got all the potholes.

But after a year of near-ruin, the housing market, Wall Street and Rick Pitino’s career appear to be stabilizing, leaving only the unemployment rate as a major economic concern. The Kentucky jobless rate is 11 percent, but that will improve with the implementation of President Obama’s jobs program, which aims to give every American his or her own cable show trashing the president.

So, with the worst of the crisis behind us, it’s time to get back to building McMansions and buying diamond-encrusted iPod koozies and lighting our cognac-dipped doobies with thousand dollar bills, right? Apparently not. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce forecasts job and wage growth of 2 percent or less for the foreseeable future. Many economists say our conspicuous-consumption rampage was powered by unsustainably cheap credit and that the party is over forever. Most news outlets bemoan this state of affairs, partly because easy access to credit is a salve for the crusty scab of economic recession, but mostly because they’ve always touted affluenza as the cure-all for emptiness, and funded that news with advertising from all the usual tchotchke outlets.

But what would happen if the consumer economy died and we lived to tell about it? The personal savings rate, which was 9 percent in the ’70s and dropped steadily to below 2 percent in the past decade, is back up to 5 percent today. So instead of buying ridiculous googaws that never make us happy, we’re saving money in accounts that hold the promise of someday failing to make us happy. Hurrah!

As long as we’re fine-tuning the economy, we should solve a couple other problems. One is the apparent randomness of prices of everyday purchases. The law of supply and demand is supposed to provide sanity in the marketplace, but many things seem to have been priced by an escaped mental patient using a price gun running Windows 95. Cell phone service plans, movies and health care are comically expensive relative to the quality and service they provide. Others, like news, coal-powered electricity and all-you-can-eat buffalo wings, are absurdly cheap. Families pay a fortune for the privilege of sending cryptic text messages to someone in the next room, while making a video call to Tanzania via Skype is free. Clearly the market is insane.

The other economic fine-tuning that’s long overdue is to tax the rich. Why is this so hard? Mr. Magoo is stone cold robbing us blind and we are helping him wheel his cash-barrow right out the door. The conventional wisdom says that a harsh tax on income and wealth could suppress innovation and productivity, but most people work hard to feed their families and get satisfaction from a job well done, not because they want to swim naked through pools of gold ingots. Would Papa John quit cramming cheese in America’s pizzaholes if he had to pay a higher tax? Probably not. And yet, President Obama is backing off a proposal to fund health care by taxing those earning over $1 million per year. I don’t understand how people earning over $1 million sleep at night with so much despair around. They probably pay somebody to sleep for them. Job creation!

I also understand why rich people — who make economic policy — are against taxing the rich. What I don’t understand is why middle-class and poor people are opposed to restoring taxes on the wealthy — even to their Reagan-era rates. Every time I see a poor person complaining about socialism, I want to grab him by his mullet and explain, “Sir, if we taxed the rich, you’d be able to afford a better razor for shaving Mr. Dale Earnhardt’s ‘3’ into your chest hair.”

But maybe the rich have suffered enough. They’ve got to be steaming mad after losing a third of their wealth under the policies of the politicians they bought and paid for. As a compromise, instead of raising their taxes, maybe we could force them to eat cockroaches on television. It wouldn’t lighten their wallets and we could use the ad revenue to buy us all some Xanax.