AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES
My favorite columnist is Paul Krugman, of The New York Times
. An economist at Princeton by way of Yale and M.I.T., Krugman eviscerates the policies of whoever is in power. He does this by using the sharpest of scalpels: hard economic facts. Krugman operates on the pages of the Times twice a week. He once dissected Bill Clintons policies. Now he does the same to George W. Bush, and its a pleasure to watch. Krugman was recently named Editor & Publisher
s columnist of the year.
In the October 20, 2002 issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine
, Krugman wrote an essay that is must reading for everyone who is sickened by American greed. The essay is called For Richer. Warning: Unless you make more than, say, $2 million a year, his essay will make you angry. If you do make more than $2 million a year, it should make you ashamed.
The idea of Krugmans essay is simple: America, he says, has returned to the Gilded Age, when the world was divided between the super-rich, who lived in obscene luxury in their Newport and Long Island mansions, and the average Joes, who lived, well, as best they could. Immediately after the Depression and World War II, says Krugman, this divide between the super-rich and the average Joe narrowed significantly. But today the divide is as great as ever it was during the age of the robber barons. Writes Krugman:
"Over the past 30 years most people have seen only modest salary increases: the average annual salary in America, expressed in 1998 dollars (that is, adjusted for inflation), rose from $32,522 in 1970 to $35,864 in 1999. Thats about a 10 percent increase over 29 years--progress, but not much. Over the same period, however, according to Fortune magazine, the average real annual compensation of the top 100 C.E.O.s went from $1.3 million--39 times the pay of an average worker--to $37.5 million, more than 1,000 times the pay of ordinary workers."
Krugman points out that in the years after the Depression and WW II, corporate C.E.O.s would have been embarrassed to make so much more than their workers. It would have been a slap in the face of the GIs who had fought the war and of the wives and mothers who had scrimped and sacrificed to keep their families alive during the greed-induced Depression.
Having taken Krugmans point, I think its time to embarrass the C.E.O.s again. I hereby propose a new piece of federal legislation: the national Parade of Pigs Act.
The act will work like this: Every year, after tax forms are submitted, the IRS will make a list of all Americans who made more than $1,071,200 in gross income that year. The list will include actual incomes next to actual names. The IRS will publish that list under the title The Parade of Pigs. (The name will be mandated by law.) The list will be made available to every newspaper and television station in America, and will be placed on a federal web site called www.pigsty.gov.
Why $1,071,200? Because thats exactly 100 times the annual wage of a worker who puts in 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. (You may claim that most C.E.O.s put in more than 40 hours per week. Ive spent a good deal of time around C.E.O.s. Most of the C.E.O.s Ive seen were playing golf during workday hours, or eating at someone elses expense. Im sure they called it work.)
Today there is a substantial movement under way on the Internet and elsewhere to legislate an actual maximum wage in the United States. One of the more provocative books on the subject is The Maximum Wage: A Common Sense Prescription for Revitalizing America by Taxing the Very Rich, by Sam Pizzigati (138 pages, $15.95, The Apex Press/The Bootstrap Press). Pizzigati and most of those who agree with him recommend a maximum wage of 10 times the minimum wage. In other words, anything you make over, say, $107,120 per year would be taxed at 100%. Pizzigati makes a strong case that this will not only narrow the dangerous gap between the rich and the poor (the first result will almost certainly be to raise the minimum wage), but it will also lead to a greater demand for goods and services (since poor people spend most of their money instead of hoarding it), thereby boosting the economy. It would also create stronger companies that use job satisfaction and the opportunity for creativity as incentives, rather than mere money.
The maximum wage is a good idea, and I wish it would happen. But it wont--at least not in the United States, not yet. It could happen someday down the line, when the neoconservatives finally do try to grab the last dollar from the last wage worker to give to some rich guy flying off to the Bahamas in his Gulfstream, and the workers revolt.
But The Parade of Pigs is easy, cheap and doable, and it might have at least some small effect. The avoidance of shame, I believe, is still a powerful motivation for most Americans. Im more generous than Pizzigati. Im willing to give folks 100 times the minimum wage before they are pilloried for their greed. Heck, Im even willing to compromise: As a concession to those who (unlike the current attorney general) still believe that the right to privacy should be guaranteed in our system of government, Im willing to leave off from the final list the exact amount each Pig makes.
Back to Krugmans article: In 1998, he writes, the 13,000 richest families in America had almost as much [combined] income as the 20 million poorest households.
So today let us address those 13,000 in a language they can understand: Oink.