Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Richly Deserving

Most of us, especially those of us who don't keep our life savings under the mattress, aren't all that shocked by the flurry of post-Enron exposes about corporate hi-jinx. Disgusted, yes; shocked, no. It may indeed be a sad state of affairs, the masses responding to all this handcuffed Armani with little more than a suspicion-confirming snort, but no sadder a state than, say, the back end of the 90s, when the masses couldn't care less about corporate hi-jinx, particularly the commander-in-chief's. "Yeah, so what if the CEO takes too many 'meetings' in the executive washroom? Our bankbooks never looked better."

Funny how obscene money looks in another person's pockets. In fact, once it started leaving ours, we began developing a sixth sense. That's right: we saw rich people. Sometimes they scared us, but more often than not, they disgusted us. Some of us were both scared and disgusted, and, as scared-disgusted people sometimes do, began making sweeping generalizations. Not that one currently sweeping the nation - that the rich are an evil lot - is anything new. Remember "down with the Establishment?" The decade that began at filthy rich JFK's helm ended with that tired old notion, just as the Great Depression, led by filthy rich FDR, began with it. Heck, blaming the rich for all the world's ills was a fashionable colonial pastime, enjoyed by even filthy rich Jefferson himself on occasion.

Interestingly enough, this exceedingly unoriginal thought has begun making the rounds in Ojai, a place known more setting trends than following them. The not-so-great Depression we're in? Blame filthy rich GWB and Co. California's woefully mismanaged budget? All Dubya's fault. The Taliban, the Titanic, grandpa's tinnitus? No doubt the work of the current crop of Washington fat cats.

As always, it isn't the masses leading the revival but the upper end of the middle classes. And just how do I know that? Easy; the people on the lower end of the economic spectrum are too busy struggling to keep a Dodge in the garage/their place on the Sycamore Housing development to set trends, even tired old trends. As fun as a round of flay-the-rich sounds, who has the time to play?

Glad you asked. Because the urge to jump on the bandwagon, be part of the in-crowd, get jiggy with it, etc., is a powerful one, and should you succumb to it, it's important to know how the game's played, as everyone has different rules.

It's like this: the higher the tax bracket, the harder, even dirtier, a person plays. It's highly likely, for instance, that a guy who says he's been 'disenfranchised' (a fancy way of saying he's mad about not getting his way) will also say he blames the rich for all the world's ills when, in reality, he only blames the rich he doesn't like. Find another teammate if this makes you uncomfortable.

Take the letter I read last week, in which the writer brought out a favorite chestnut - the 2000 election, stolen by the filthy rich - to "explain" all this bad behavior we're seeing in big business. He closed his screed by chastising the masses' lack of outrage, its subsequent lack of embarrassment.

Lack of outrage? Friend, I spent the twilight of 2000 in a perpetual state of outrage, an outrage so intense that, whenever that OTHER filthy rich camp (see Dun & Bradstreet on the Gores of Tennessee) made like Bolsheviks with its "will of the people" whine, I'd quite unwillingly pop a vessel.

And embarrassment, well, you don't know from embarrassment. That uncomfortable compassion you have for people whose act is bombing? Magnify that discomfort some hundred times and you'll know how I felt when I heard, "no controlling legal authority;" "vast right wing conspiracy;" or, "if that man wins, I'm leaving the country." (Note to Alec Baldwin: Here's your hat, what's your hurry?)

Or how humiliated I was by the presidential pardon of a billionaire fugitive, the "Room for Let, Quaint Lincolnesque D├ęcor" ad that ran in Variety for eight years, and the U-haul a certain New York senator backed up to the White House when she thought no one was looking.

To say nothing of the embarrassment I feel for people who snarl, "yeah, well your mother wears army boots" or some other non sequitur whenever they don't get their way.

See, if I were to play flay-the-rich, I'd need to know if my teammates counted failed presidential candidates with millions of dollars in stock in Occidental Petroleum, a stake in a zinc mine, thousands of dollars in support from Adelphia, WorldCom, even Enron - stuff like that. If they didn't, I doubt I'd want to play.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, "people who hate the rich are different from you and me."

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