Eat the rich
Politicians? Lawyers? Not anymore. Time to loathe the *real* American monsters
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Call it the backlash against the recoil against the collapse. Call it the completely natural response to the downward-spiraling times, though that seems a bit feeble and pansy-assed and not at all in alignment with the general attitude of raging seethingosity.
Call it, then, the death of all we once held dear, if what you held dear consisted of seven McMansions and three trophy wives and five revolving psychiatrists and four personal trainers and regular spa treatments for the Wheaten terriers, along with blatantly rubbing your aging genitalia against the stiff leather of your fleet of Porsche Cayenne Turbos after drunkenly nailing your mistress in your corner office at Goldman Sachs. Ahh yes, that's more like it.
Whatever you call it, there's a bitter tang in the air, a nasty streak of anti-Everythingism, a collective bullet of disgust and frustration that's most violently aimed at the most precious American commodity of all: the rich, the overly entitled, the uberwealthy, the manicured bankers and CEOs and Wall Street cash jockeys we used to cherish like royalty but who now smell vaguely of death and foreclosure and Bernie Madoff.
What a strange phenomenon. From the public outcry against giant investment firms daring to hold fancy Christmas parties, to the image of those bloated Big Auto CEOs driving themselves to Congress in cute little hatchbacks, to Obama himself decrying the obscenity that is the typical executive salary, it's like you can't swing a dead Gulfstream 450 these days without hitting a wall of anti-privilege outrage. Frugality might be the current national pastime, but it's also a mean sonofabitch.
Empathy, however, can be a difficult thing to muster. How many stories did I read in the NYT over the holidays about, say, those poor multimillionaire socialites who think nothing of strolling into the Hermes store and dropping five grand on a handful of pretty scarves to hand out as party favors, who then quietly asked the sales clerk for an unmarked shopping bag so as not to appear too out of place, too ugly an overspoiled diva amongst the hoi polloi?
Or what of those shrill, heavily processed 20-something women with names like Laney and Chandler and Becca who all thought they'd hit the yuppie mother lode by dating young hotshot New York bankers, but now find their boyfriends are more interested in getting drunk and commiserating with their laid-off buddies than treating them to dinner and buying them new Jimmy Choos at Bergdorf's?
Or finally, what about just how difficult it really is to live the good life in NYC on a paltry $500,000 per year, as Obama dared to suggest? Waves of pity are decidedly not rolling forth.
Then again, while some antipathy is understandable, it's often strangely misguided. Take the example of old Wells Fargo bank, recently forced by way of public outcry to cancel its annual Vegas junket, a moderately pricey parade of self-congratulatory silliness aimed at rewarding its top 1,000 employees with all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets and tickets to Danny Gans and free banana daiquiris at the swim-up bar at the Wynn.
Wells Fargo just sucked up $25 billion in federal bailout assistance. Cancel the frivolous corporate junkets? You're damned right they should.
But wait. Let us examine a bit more closely. It was reported that, in previous years, Wells employees heading to Vegas had been treated to fancy-pants "entertainment" from the likes of -- wait for it -- Cher and Jimmy Buffet and, um, Huey Lewis. There was horseback riding. There was wine tasting. There were little gifts left on their beds at night. Flowers. A nice card. Maybe some chocolates. Oh the gluttony!
"I was amazed with just how lavish it was," Debra Rickard, a former Wells Fargo mortgage employee, enthused. "We stayed in top hotels, the entertainment was just unbelievable, and there were awards -- you got plaques or trophies."
Let us hereby note how there is, of course, zero accounting for taste. But a Cher concert and some cheap Chardonnay and a shiny little "Associate Lender of the Month: Albuquerque Branch" plaque? Not exactly snorting cocaine off a caviar lid on the Italian Riviera with George Clooney, you know? Hating on mid-level Wells Fargo cube knaves who just want to enjoy their annual drunken hookup week in Vegas seems a bit, how do you say, out of scale with reality.
Here's the reality: The CEO of Wells Fargo is Richard Kovacevich. According to Forbes, in 2007 our boy Dick raked in roughly $72 million, including bonuses and stock options and free happy endings at the corporate massage parlor in Bangkok (just guessing). In short, Kovacevich is, how do you say, f--king loaded.
Translation: If he so desired -- and of course he most likely doesn't -- Kovacevich could subsidize his company's entire Vegas junket, 1,000 people in a top hotel with all the shiny trimmings, from the spare change in his own pocket, from what he makes in about two days. Maybe three. Mmm, perspective. So bitter to choke on.
So then. Shall we hold our collective breath for CEOs like Kovacevich to begin giving back? Shall we imagine a time when the rules change and most overpaid zillionaire execs, even the best and most benevolent, begin behaving like they actually give a damn about balance and employee happiness and fiscal integrity? Better not.
Which brings us to the bad news: As pointed out elsewhere, when it comes to overpaid CEOs and the boards of directors who fellate them, until the tax code changes, there will be no end to the obscene fact that the average CEO makes upwards of 275 times more than an hourly employee working for him. At least.
Sadly, the corporate cronies and tax attorneys involved in negotiating these vast sums are far smarter and more nimble than the politicians -- even the whip-smart Obama administration -- could ever be. So long as it's vaguely legal -- and even if it's not -- these kingpins will always, always find a loophole or 20 to keep them swimming in mountains of largely undeserved cash. It's just how the system is rigged.
But there is some good news. Despite the gilded CEOs, the overall culture of corporate entitlement and frivolous waste might be, much like the era of giant SUVs and blinged-out everything, fading to artifact. The tone is shifting, the public is vastly more wary, the shine is off the Lear jet. Well, sort of.
In other words, it's now slightly possible that the American dream, while still front-loaded with a shiny new car and a vacation home in Hawaii and top-notch dental insurance, might become slightly less extreme, less disproportionate, less downright stupid, and might instead become a bit more humble, realistic, even (dare I say it) morally and socially compassionate. I didn't say it's likely. But it is nice to imagine.
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