by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A few years back, when the six luckiest actors in the world - the cast of "Friends" - negotiated a $1 million-an-episode contract, there was a general scratching of heads. It was a lot of money. Were they worth it?
In one sense, the answer - if you have any sense - was no, of course not. No one is. In another sense - maybe spelled "cents" - the answer was yes, they were. NBC was making much more than $6 million an episode, and so were the advertisers. Since everyone else was profiting from their six beautiful faces and their crack comic timing, why not them?
If you want to understand why you're having a hard time making ends meet, it's just a matter of following the money.
The entertainment press - which means the entire press these days - regularly reports on star salaries. We know that Oprah, who is worth $1.3 billion, is the richest woman in show business, and that Tom Cruise makes $42 million a picture.
In sports, the salaries are more pumped up than the athletes' bodies. Even when the great David Ortiz misses a curve ball and strikes out, he's a bargain at $5.25 million a season. Manny Ramirez makes $20 million.
In politics, dollars swarm like black flies around a compost heap. The New York Times Sunday Magazine had a piece last weekend on a lobbyist who regularly earned $4 million a year from one client and $14 million from another. Then there was the $66 million he and a partner earned from several other clients over a period of three years. Hey - a million here, a million there, it adds up.
And let's not forget the business world. Warren Buffett is worth $40 billion, CEO salaries and perks regularly climb into the stratosphere, and, although it is currently dropping, Halliburton stock was selling for $42 a share the last time I looked.
Ever wonder what these rich folks do with their money? Well, after the big houses, fancy vacations and diamond jewelry, they get creative. A celebrity broker I read about in the Times a few months ago built a million-dollar home on Long Island and added a $210,000 aquarium stocked with sharks.
Yes, I'll repeat that. He bought a 5,600-gallon, salt water aquarium, 22 feet long and 5 feet high, and stocked it with $50,000 worth of tropical fish and four three-foot long, black-tip reef sharks. "The sharks, however, made quick work of the fish," the Times reported, deadpan. It cost the guy $3,200 a month to service the tank and feed the sharks their prescribed diet of salmon and flounder filets.
Our country does not mint extra money every time a hitter belts one out of the park, Cruise makes another film, or Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay takes another luxury vacation on a lobbyist's dime. So it stands to reason that all this money comes out of the general dollar pool. The more they get at the top, the less there is for the rest of us.
With that in mind, meet middle-class Ruth Ann, her husband, James, their two kids and their floppy-eared dog. This American-as-apple-pie young family - no last names given - took part in an academic study that was reported upon by The Boston Globe. Ruth Ann was an accountant who did payroll and tax returns. Her husband was a manager. They had stretched their two incomes to buy a house, and they needed both their salaries to pay the mortgage and feed the kids.
"Then it all went bad," said the Globe. "The owner of the flooring store that James managed said he couldn't compete with the new discount store the next town over, and they were closing up. By 10 a.m., James was out of a job."
After that, James worked every job he could find - fast food, telephone sales, carpet cleaning - but the numbers never added up to a life. Ruth Ann cut the family's expenses to the bone and dropped their health insurance. They juggled their bills, doing without electricity for a few weeks when the check to the power company bounced. They sold bottles and cans for gas money. Still, they began to slide into debt.
Last year, according to the Globe, more people filed for bankruptcy than divorce. Bankruptcy filings outnumbered college graduations. More Americans went bankrupt than were diagnosed with cancer.
The middle-class lifestyle is becoming too expensive for the middle class. The Republicans say it's all about over-consumption and personal responsibility, but Ruth Ann and James were hard-working, decent, reliable people. They didn't buy diamonds and jet skis. James had no "personal responsibility" for the big-box store that drove his employer out of business.
Jobs are moving abroad, wages are stagnating, health care costs are skyrocketing, housing costs are out of sight. And our Republican Congress and our wealthy president just made it more difficult to file for bankruptcy.
"Ruth Ann and James have learned the new American lesson," said the Globe. "The rules of money have changed, the politicians in Washington are looking out for the giant banks, and people like Ruth Ann and James are now on their own."
In other words, everybody knows the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Now the middle class is getting poorer, too. To the Republicans, the rest of us are just fishbait - fillets of salmon and flounder. And watch out for those sharks!
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.