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Politics > Stir It Up

Money lust

 

Published 2/11/2009

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When it comes to lust, deep-down-gotta-have-it, do-anything-to-get-it lust, money can't be beat. Sex is all right, but that's just a fringe benefit of having lots of money, a distraction. Money-lust is what makes the world go round.

And when big money, millions and billions, is in play, the lust is amplified way beyond anything most regular folks can imagine. Just think: If every financial concern you have is swept off the table and there are still millions upon millions of dollars to play with — that's when things really get interesting, when you have so much money and power you feel entitled to it.

The thought of losing all that sent financial-industry executives into a tizzy last week when President Barack Obama put a cap of $500,000 on salaries for top executives of companies taking federal bailout money. At least for future recipients of bailout money. At least until the loans are paid back. And additional regulations are to be announced for how companies can spend any future bailout loans. That went over big with the crowd who took about $350 billion in bailout money last fall and pocketed big raises and bonuses after driving their companies over a cliff.

When asked to account for the money taxpayers had ponied up, they either refused to come clean or said they didn't know where it went. Drunken sailors on leave don't know where the money went either, but you would think that people in the business of moving mega-dollars around would be able to whip out a few reports accounting for things. That's pretty much what they make us do when we want a loan. And if those companies want any more from where the last loan came from, well they're going to have to do like the rest of us.

"We believe success should be rewarded," Obama said. "But what gets people upset — and rightfully so — are executives being rewarded for failure, especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers."

Who do we think they are, auto company executives or something? Last year President George W. Bush and Congress threw wads of cash at banks, investment firms, and mortgage and insurance companies that were about to go under (or so we were told). But when executives from the Detroit auto companies showed up on their private jets to ask for about a tenth of the $350 billion that had already been doled out, they were attacked in every which way. Their products sucked, their workers made too much money, the companies weren't green enough. Let 'em fail said some, most loudly lawmakers from states with nonunionized assembly plants from Japanese automakers.

While resentment of so-called "overpaid autoworkers" is no longer a headline, the image of overpaid CEOs pigging out at the public trough is strong enough for Obama to score points by taking them to task. And they deserve it. While they've enjoyed the rewards of corporate financial growth over the past few decades — with salaries into the hundreds of millions of dollars for some — worker pay has stagnated. Studies cited at a 2007 Wharton Economic Summit showed that in 2006 big-company executives averaged more than 400 times the pay of rank-and-file workers. In 1980, they made only 42 times more than the average worker. If the minimum wage had gone up at the same rate over that time period it would have been $22 per hour in 2006.

The minimum wage was only $5.15 in 2006. It's $6.55 now and is slated to rise to $7.25 on July 24. That kind of pay doesn't make your private parts tingle and it's a long way from the kind of money corporate executives make. But then everyday workers aren't entitled the way the bigwigs are.

Even those who are supposed to be on our side get silly when money's in the mix. Like Tom Daschle, whose bid to become secretary of health and human services was scuttled due to more than $140,000 in unpaid back taxes for 2005-2007. The average worker didn't even make $140,000 during that time period. Daschle accepted the use of a car and driver from a friendly financier, and flew to the Bahamas on a private plane owned by a company that makes student loans. Apparently he should have counted that as income and paid taxes on those and other items.

What was it that Leona Helmsley once said? "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Now that's a sense of entitlement.

Score one for the little people on this one. Given the amount of wiggle room in the details, Obama's $500,000-a-year provision probably won't make much of a difference to the executives' income. It won't make much difference to the economy or the financial standing of the companies that take the bailout money. But in the eyes of the little people who are losing their jobs and homes and health insurance, there's a bit of justice in letting the bigwigs know they can't just run off with the money.

"There is a deep sense across this country that those who were not responsible for this crisis are bearing a greater burden than those who were," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who had to overcome his own tax foibles, said in discussing the Obama rules.

How ya gonna make it on $500 grand a year? You can't buy a private plane with that kind of money. You have to fly commercial, albeit in first class, but commercial just the same. From there the high and mighty can cast a glance into the coach section and get a glimpse at how the rest of us live. That ought to stoke their lust for getting past this economic crisis.

Got your back: The Arab American National Museum recently hosted a panel discussion titled "Rise Up: Activism through the Arts" in conjunction with its exhibit "A Yemeni Community: Photographs from the 1970s by Milton Rogovin." Musician and activist Pete Seeger was slated to share the stage with Ismael Ahmed, Gloria House, Mark Rogovin and moderator Fran Shor, but Seeger had a last-minute family emergency that kept him away. Too bad. Seeger is a hero who stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and won an appeal of contempt of Congress charges for refusing to name names. But there were numerous arts heroes discussed by the panel including singer Paul Robeson, writer Richard Wright and photographer Rogovin, who at age 99 still participates in weekly anti-war vigils in his hometown of Buffalo.

Ahmed brought it up to date in speaking about how the local Arab community was affected by the 9/11 attacks. "We became not so different from the Japanese" during World War II, he said. "Our community was very much afraid. We were afraid of our neighbors."

Each panelist added a piece to the quilt of oppression, from enslaved Africans, civil rights activists, communists and Arab-Americans. But resistance has always been shored up through the arts, and Ahmed spoke powerfully of how his decades of cultural work, such as the Concert of Colors, brought local ethnic community leaders Marie Wang and Maria Elena Rodriguez to speak out in solidarity with Detroit-area Arabs.

"The work we did in the arts made the difference," he said. "We knew them from working in the arts. Creative work can bring people together to know, trust each other, and eventually to stand up for each other."

Larry Gabriel is a Detroit writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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