Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Annals of Inequity: The $3.7 billion man

Since Senators McCain and Clinton seem so concerned about elitism these days, they might direct their attentions to a front page story in Wednesday's New York Times about hedge fund manager John Paulson, who last year took home $3.7 billion.

In other words, Mr. Paulson made as much as 3,700 people earning $1,000,000 last year.

Let’s write Mr. Paulson’s wages out in long form — $3,700,000,000.

The senators might want to know how Mr. Paulson’s pay compares with that of ordinary, non-elitist Americans. Later in the Times story we learn that the median American family earned $60,500 last year.

Do the math.

In this economy, in the America of today, Mr. Paulson was “worth” 61,500 times what the median family was worth. Simply put, one man made as much as 61,500 families did last year.

Here’s another comparison. Last year it cost about $600 million to run the entire Portland Public School district. With Mr. Paulson’s salary for one year, we could run the school district here for six years.

What is wrong with this picture?

If you look at poverty in this country, to say nothing of poverty around the world, Mr. Paulson’s greed — let’s call it what it is — is shameful.

Of course he isn’t alone. The same story notes that to make the list of the top 25 in hedge fund pay, a manager had to make at least $360 million last year. Just so we don’t lose sight of what that number means relative to median family income, $360 million is roughly 6,000 times what the median American family made.

We see so many stories about grotesque inequity in America that we are in danger of becoming jaded. We shrug it all off. Some even try to justify it: Isn’t this the American way, this drive to “success”? Why not celebrate this man’s riches?

For whatever reason, we seem to have given up on a just and fair society.

We do so at our peril.

If we embrace the value of greed and celebrate the greedy, we will become a greedy people.

Moreover, such vast sums undermine our system of government. Money like this corrupts. One reason we are unable to right the wrong of gross inequity is that elected officials who could do something about it rely on the self-aggrandizing super-rich to stay in office.

That our economy is controlled by the John Paulsons, by executives driven isolated from the needs of others explains much about our present predicament of falling wages. Of crumbling infrastructure, failing schools and a sick health care system.

Instead of serving the greater good, the hyper-wealthy seem to be in business for yachts, jewels, mansions, lavish parties and Park Avenue apartments.

If they continue to damn the rest of the world, one day they may find that they are part of the world they have damned, that for all their riches, they have damned themselves.

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