As we enjoy our wonderful lifestyle, we may be laying up trouble for the years ahead. 

The Almighty Dollar

Let's think for a moment about money. It can buy you a comfortable seat in an airplane; it can pay for your children to go to an Ivy league college; it can guarantee that you have health insurance for your family. It can buy you influence with a presidential candidate. If you have enough of it, it can make you a candidate who will be taken seriously. In short, it can lead to a wonderful lifestyle.

These are pretty tempting prospects, but if we turn the coin over, there can be a downside. You don't have to subscribe to ethicist Peter Singer's thesis to see that having more money than you need can lead to an uneasy conscience. To illustrate, Singer put it starkly, asking us in the New York Times Magazine Sept. 5: "... what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one — knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?" As he put it: Do we really want to choose a luxury rather than a life?

Uneasy conscience aside, money can buy us political upheaval and a loss of freedom. The facts are in place: The corporations that were formed with the idea that the stockholders would own them have been hijacked by the upper managements which, with the aid of compliant boards of directors, have allocated themselves sums that run up into the hundreds of millions. According to "A Decade of Executive Excess," the report from the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, CEOs now earn 419 times the take-home pay of the average factory worker. Tim Smart, writing in The Washington Post, reports that Michael Eisner took home in options and salaries $575 million last year. We can all name CEOs whose compensation is huge and who profit from selling the corporations they head. Meanwhile, thousands of bottom-rung workers lose their jobs. When those who keep their jobs get any sort of substantial raise, Alan Greenspan and his Federal Reserve cohorts worry about inflation and raise interest rates.

The Washington Post quoted Sarah Anderson, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, as saying: "There seems to be no limits to what American society will accept."

I'm afraid we can't count on that. One of the first lessons a physics student learns is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The public can be fooled for a while by expensive political advertisements such as those now running that have the new couple "Flo and Bill" telling us that we don't want the "government in our medicine chest." But how long can they be fooled when many necessary medicines can cost upwards of $2 a pill and the profits on pharmaceutical stocks multiply? Actually, it might be salutary to have the government in my medicine cabinet.

How long before the little stockholder understands that the millions in options CEOs take home come at the expense of the profits they might be sharing, often at the expense of the long-term interests of the corporations?

But more important, how long before those who have been left out of this marvelous luxurious consumption society decide that they want in? On the Sept. 3 "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," Charles Peck, an executive compensation specialist at the Conference Board, a New York research organization supported by business, put it well: "... we see problems both at skyrocketing CEO pay, but also the stagnation at the bottom, that a worker making the minimum wage today, a minimum wage that was created to keep people out of poverty, is now 40 percent below the poverty line for a family of four. So there's a terrible social story we're seeing evolve as this gap widens between the Americans who feel left out and are left out and have terrible choices — economic choices they face from this — and watching at the same time people, who they feel are not working any harder than they are at the top of the company, making enormous amounts."

The working poor may get sick of seeing luxury cars and magnificent homes. If this happens, we can't count on the left-outs making logical sensible decisions when they decide that enough is enough.

A parent needing medicine for a child is not likely to opt for capitalism and political freedoms if another path can lead to help for the family problem. A mother who has to go to work and send her child to school with a latchkey to come home to an empty house or apartment is not likely to listen to rational arguments about the joys of our free market or even our political freedoms. We all know that when we are angry we most often do not make rational decisions. The sorrow of it is that with a little restraint on the excesses we can have a system that might work for all of us.

If we don't exercise restraint, history tells us what is likely to happen and it won't be pretty or logical. In 1917 the Russian peasants turned the world upside down. The French Revolution is still studied as an example of mindless violence. We are not ready for either of these drastic paths yet and may not be for many years, but best we look at the advantages of sharing the pleasures of money more evenly. The Bible tells us that the "love of money is the root of all evil." Samuel Butler added that the "want of money" can be just as dangerous. We may be in for a hard time.

Rozanne Epps is an assistant editor of Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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