by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
December 31, 2009
THE RICH GET RICHER
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The events of Sept. 11, 2001, of course, indelibly mark the decade that is ending tonight. But when you step back and look at America from a distance, you will see that the years 2000-2009 are more defined by the growth of the largest disparity in wealth since the Gilded Age, which lasted from 1870 to 1900.
This should not come as a complete surprise. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore warned us that the Bush/Cheney machine wanted to increase the wealth of the top 1 percent of Americans at the expense of the rest of us. They never denied wanting to create an oligarchy, and after they stole the election, they did. Today, according to most reports, that greedy 1 percent now owns 45 percent - heading towards half! - of the wealth in America.
I've recently come back from South Florida, where great wealth and the great loss of wealth are equally flaunted.
As we know, when the subprime market crashed a couple of years ago, Florida was badly hurt. It was especially disastrous for the middle class. My mother, for example, is just one of many, many pensioners - often widows - who counted on the sale of their homes to support them in assisted-living facilities when they could no longer take care of themselves. Not being able to sell their houses has stranded them in an unsafe environment they can barely afford. It's a very sad situation.
Also sad - in a schadenfreude kind of way - are the many mansions going for bargain prices at foreclosure sales. Bernie Madoff and his devastating Ponzi scheme had something to do with the fact that these days, less than $500,000 will buy you a five-bedroom, five-bathroom, marble-floored mansion with a media room, swimming pool and its own dock on the Intercoastal. Watch out for Chinese drywall in the newer homes, of course; it will make you sick. But some Florida real estate agents proudly specialize in foreclosures, bank sales and short sales. "Gary will find you a home for under $100,000... Guaranteed," says one such ad.
Speaking of Madoff, I went to an auction of his possessions while I was in Ft. Lauderdale. On my drive down to the oceanfront hotel where the auction was being held, I passed by thousands of lovely bobbing white yachts, many stunning Art Déco homes, and several large white cruise ships that would, if you stood them on end, be as least as tall as the Empire State Building. So there's still money down there, lots and lots of money openly shining white in the bright, bright sun.
It turned out that not all of the items had been owned by Madoff. These were the castoffs of many rich people. I've never been so close to so many diamonds. And I fell in love with a 9.71 carat emerald medallion ringed in gold. (Valued at $28,000, it was sold for $5,250 - and you won't see me wearing it any time soon.)
I wondered about the taste of the people who had bought the many large sculptures - dolphins, boys jumping over fences, mermaids (with large breasts), half-naked "oriental" dancing girls. There were hand-signed prints by Miro, Chagall, Dali and Picasso. Some Norman Rockwells. A lot of Pissaro's paintings - by the recently departed Katia Pissaro, who paints like Matisse.
This discarded wealth was strangely dazzling, yet it was hard to forget that large numbers of Americans suffer from both a lack of affordable health care and, sometimes, a lack of knowing where their next meal is coming from.
If you're curious about how the country was turned upside down and all the change was shaken out of its pockets and into the hands of millionaires, it might help to know that the finance lobby contributed $475 million during the 2008 election cycle - almost three times what the health care lobby spent, according to Mother Jones Magazine.
That's your government, bought and paid for by special interests. That's how democracy falls - not with a bang but with a whimper. We just take off our hats, shuffle our feet and bow our heads when the oligarchy, dressed in their Armani and Versace, pass us by in their slick Mercedes Benzes.
Why aren't we peasants sharpening our pitchforks? For many reasons. First, because the whole thing is much too confusing and diffuse. Second, because it's easier to blame the government than the corporations. (Think about the tea-baggers.) Third, because we're told over and over again that Wall Street is essential to our well-being. And fourth, because we think it's own damned fault. If we had just been born with more talent or worked harder...
This has been a horrible decade and I'm glad it's over. To recap: the most important trend? The upward movement of capital that is turning America into a Third World country (with nukes). The most successful presidency in American history? Bush and Cheney, of course. The result? An America that is damaged, broke, unbalanced and unhinged.
The solution? "What if, as Nobel-winning economist Joe Stiglitz suggests, we foreclosed on bankers and politicians who are morally bankrupt," write the editors of Mother Jones. "What if people started showing up at town halls demanding accountability from those who gambled away their jobs and homes? There is plenty of blame to go around. Let's start putting some of it back where it belongs."
May I wish you all a happy new year, and most of all, a happier new decade?
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.