Money to burn

Sep 21, 2005 at 7:00 am

While all attention is on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and as another huge tempest heads toward the Gulf, a less damaging, but equally venal, kind of hurricane season is upon us. After all, there are only about 90 shopping days left until Christmas, and the world’s retailers have begun their annual rite of temptation.

Online shopping is now an American addition, so catalogues proliferate, offering everything from clothing to chocolates to the latest audio equipment. I am not a catalogue person, but I am an inveterate magazine subscriber, and in this shopping season they get heavier and heavier, and the products advertised get more and more expensive.

One of my monthly subscriptions is to Esquire, a periodical I rarely actually read, except for the annual “Dubious Achievement Awards,” which makes fun of the rich, famous and powerful, including a perennial swipe at the late Richard Nixon.

Esquire features clothing I would never wear, cars I could never drive and women I could never, uh, meet. For example, the current issue touts a pair of Tod’s new leather hiking boots, which would never see mud unless your investment banker friend tracked it in from the Hamptons, at the bargain price of $395. Or, you can compete for the heart of your most desired mate with a new Paul Smith-designed, hand-painted Triumph motorcycle for $11,000.

As I flipped through the pages of Esquire, I couldn’t help but wonder about the type of person who would contemplate paying $3,295 for a Valentino cashmere jacket, $13,900 for a Cartier Pasha watch (“... a 2005 reinvention of one of the brand’s most popular watches from the 1980s ...” — oh, the good old ’80s), or $720 for a Montegrappa fountain pen (“Scratching a great tool like this across an important contract or the creamy expanse of a luxurious correspondence card, you’re imbued with a sense of import, of history, of rarity and permanence in an ephemeral world.” — Well flick my Bic!). Clearly the answer lies somewhere between “more-money-than-brains” and “irredeemably insecure,” but with the country on the verge of bankruptcy, is this not a new definition for “obscenity”?

According to The New York Times, the average annual income of African Americans in New Orleans is $11,000. Maybe even more startling, the hourly wage of a rookie New Orleans policemen is $7.30 an hour, or $16,000 per year. (Is it any wonder some of them decided to take care of their families rather than risk their lives during the most dire days of the Katrina tragedy?) Could a compassionate American, conservative or otherwise, seriously consider spending more for a watch than a now-homeless fellow citizen makes in a year? Apparently.

Many conservatives benignly accept this sorry state of affairs, believing in their souls that the marketplace fairly values everyone’s contribution. But that’s nonsense. As I have written before, the salaries of the CEOs of the country’s 500 largest corporations increased 54 percent last year alone! Many of them received millions in bonuses even though their companies lost money and their stocks’ values declined. That is not a marketplace; it is a closed fraternity of rich people with a distorted sense of their own worth. Take any corporation and poll its workers; would ANY employee argue that the CEO was underpaid?

On many of my golf trips, I routinely see million-dollar homes that are inhabited for a small percentage of the year. I guess that is good for the construction business and landscapers and even for local property tax bases, but what does it say to the average American whose labor, in most cases, was responsible for these wasteful expenditures? And what does it say about the values of this society that even the poorest among us aspire to that kind of extravagance? Bono may have said it best in a U2 hit: “What you don’t have/you don’t need it now.”

In the wake of Katrina, we must continue to talk about how resources are distributed in America. As President Bill Clinton said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, “This is a matter of public policy. And whether it’s race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that’s a consequence of the action made. That’s what they did in the ’80s; that’s what they’ve done in this decade. In the middle we had a different policy.”

Rich people in America will always do fine. They will always have more than they need — $13,000 watches and $3,000 sport jackets and hand-painted motorcycles included. But we must recognize waste when we see it; and right now, while the rich waste money on things they don’t need, American society is needlessly wasting lives.