by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 13, 2003
WHERE HAS ALL THE MONEY GONE?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Town Meetings are over for another year, and like people all over the country, Vermonters are in sticker shock.
There's no money to pay our teachers what they're worth. There's no money to run our schools. There's certainly no money for badly needed school expansions. There's no money to run town governments.
For those of us who own our own homes, our property taxes are escalating much faster than our incomes. For those of us who rent, our landlords' rapidly escalating property taxes are reflected in our rents. Gas and heating oil prices are skyrocketing, while winter, at least in the Northeast, shows no signs of abating. Many of us can't afford to see doctors or buy the prescription medicine they would certainly prescribe.
There's no money anywhere, it seems.
Where has all the money gone? For an answer, look at Parade Magazine's recent annual issue of "What People Earn."
Actress Cameron Diaz made $40 million last year. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen made $12.5 million. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen made $7.5 million each. Even Elvis Presley made $37 million last year, and he's dead.
The thought has crossed my mind that the reason the powers-that-be pay entertainers and sports figures (pro basketball player Amare Stoudemire made $1.9 million and I've never even heard of him) such obscene amounts of money is that watching them distracts us from noticing how little money the rest of us bring home.
Writer Stephen King made $52.4 million last year. according to Parade, by comparison West Virginia police officer Greg Martin made $28,000, Detroit firefighter Pheng Kue made $50,000, Portland, Maine, schoolteacher Melissa Ross made $43,000, and the woman who runs the senior center in Falls City, Nebraska, took home $23,000.
In all, Parade asked 120 people how much they made. Looking over the list, it ís hard not to wonder about the glaring disparity of salaries in modern-day America. Besides the 16 people in the millionaire (or better) category, outside of the owner of a kiteboard school in Hawaii who made $200,000 and a chiropractor in Vermont who made $240,000, only 13 people made over $100,000, and that includes Gen. Tommy Franks ($145,000), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi ($171,000) and Attorney General of New York Eliot Spitzer ($151,000).
In other words, where is the middle?
Americans have been taught to applaud the high salaries paid those very special talented few because "The American Dream" cons us into believing that we all have a chance at the golden ring. Most of us - and that includes the aspiring singers on "American Idol" - know that is a lie.
Parade separated out the category of CEO salaries, pointing out that Boeing paid its top executive more than 23 times the amount earned by the commander of the U.S. Marines, and that in 2000, the typical CEO was paid 531 times as much as the average worker.
The "let them eat cake" arrogance and contempt inherent in the salary differentials between ordinary folk and overpaid behemoths was best expressed a few weeks ago when dethroned AOL Time Warner boss Gerald M. Levin, 63, told The New York Times that he will receive $1 million a year until 2005, when he will start getting a pension of about $350,000 annually.
This is chicken feed in the CEO world, but Levin is not complaining. "My needs are small," he said. "I'll be O.K."
My needs are even smaller. I could make it to the end of my life on $100,000, if anyone (maybe Stephen King?) is listening.
So is this 21st Century America, or Louis XIV's France? Things are so unbalanced in America that even the elite are growing restless, concerned that the rest of us will pick up pitchforks and advance on the palace.
For example, in the September issue of W Magazine, I read a rapturous piece about a gala benefit put on by the American Friends of Versailles at the Palace of Versailles itself.
"The soft evening sunlight bathed couture gowns in a golden glow and sparkled through the big jewels, like the huge diamond-and-sapphire necklace worn by Nancy Kissinger," gushed the writer.
The designer Arnold Scaasi whispered to Kissinger, "You've brought back the time of Marie Antoinette."
"I hope the same thing doesn't happen to me," she said.
Writing in Newsday last August, Donna Seaman compared the court of Versailles to modern corporate America this way:
"It can be seen as counterpoint to the fantastic edifices of our times: the smoke-and-mirror structures of Enron and WorldCom, the devious constructs of men who believe in the divine right of capitalistic kinds. The virtual palaces of corporate monarchs and their minions who dwell in a rarefied world of lies and delusion, greed and indulgence, willfully oblivious to the realities of other people's lives and the cruel consequences of their crimes. And the dollar kings won't even leave behind anything of beauty to remind us of humanity's fitful brilliance and endless folly." Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.