GOBS OF MONEY


In 2002, I discovered  to my chagrin that I wasn’t going to get served a meal on a four hour flight.  That was an annoyance, but it was only a minor harbinger of the future.

A recent spate of articles in The New Yorker has alluded to the difficulties the average traveler has flying.  Those who fly frequently pay for certain conveniences: $85 for TSA pre-check, faster and friendlier, and not in stocking feet, $25 per bag check-in, so I go carry-on with a day pack crammed with everything I may need, and early boarding (Zone 2), which is a $89 annual fee on a credit card for which I can get a free flight in maybe a decade.  Zone 2 allows me to put my carry on in the overhead early, before it is full.  There are $6 “snacks” and $6 Internet, too.  I now bring a lunch.

First Class round trip from LAX to Australia is $13,000, and people pay it, either with their money, or corporate money, which is all of our money, since “corporate” got it by selling somebody something, and probably got a tax break on it, too.  Fly from Seattle to Amsterdam round-trip costs about $1200;  another $7000, you go first class.  I paid $7000 to take a course on quality in medicine that changed my life, although I never got rich from it.  I’m retired, should survive, but I can’t comprehend paying $7000 to sit in a different seat.  My wife says, “If you have gobs of money, why not?”  She’s right.  Economy seats have shrunk; the largest seats are about the same size as the smaller ones two decades ago. Why sit in the back if you can afford to sleep lying down up front, if you got the dough and you’re old?  It just seems ostentatious to me.  I know several not for profits who would be thrilled to have that $7000.  It would be life changing to seven students at a community college I support, if each of them got $1000.  I know.  I’ve read their letters.

Jet Blue finally bit the bullet, the last airline not to charge for what were once called “frills,” giving the airlines a huge profit.  What is not surprising is that fares have not recently declined, despite the fact that the single biggest cost—fuel—has become far cheaper.  But as soon as there is a rise in the price of crude, it is immediately translated into increased prices.  It was like the price of silver and film years ago.  When silver became expensive, so did film, immediately.  When silver became cheaper, well…….

The only thing that still hasn’t changed is that we economy folks get to the same place at the same time.  Now, we don’t get inside that place at the same time, but the arrival is still equal.

Gobs of money.  That’s the term.  There are people with gobs of money.  Not $3650, which puts one in the richest half of humanity, but gobs.  The richest one percent in the US own more wealth than the bottom 90%.  The top 1% make $519K, the top 1.5% make $250K.  The richest 1% pay 24% of federal income taxes, and they state that isn’t fair.  I counter with Willie Sutton’s Law:  When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton replied, “That’s where the money is.”

Wealth management pays well.  I was turned down for a trust company because my net worth hadn’t reached their minimum.  They mentioned (and they had no business saying it) that one of their clients had a net worth of $350 million. That is gobs of money.  It is incomprehensible, I don’t know who makes that kind of money, but to me that screams “charges too much,” “ought to be giving a lot to support poorer people, public education, scholarships” “ought to be taxed on it,” “drugs?” and other socialistic statements.  Really, $350 million?

High end stores survive recessions well, because there are always those with gobs of money.  Five thousand of these folks got more than $1 million in bonuses in 2009, ($20 billion total were paid in bonuses) after the economic disaster they created starting in 2005 came home to roost.  What has changed is that many have become more ostentatious with their houses, cars, and the right schools.  I’m not talking about a good college, I’m referring to the right kindergarten.   When I practiced neurology, we had to make a rule that only four times a year could somebody take their salary early, because some of those earning $400,000 a year were asking for it because of “needs”.  The day we discussed that topic, I thought I was on Mars.

“I earned my income,” I could say.  “I studied hard through high school, college, medical school, and residency.  I did it myself.”  Well, yes and no.  I lived in a country that gave me free public education, good teachers, cheap medical care, infrastructure, subsidized college education, both by alumni and by the government, paid for defense (and I had to serve), and had a progressive tax code.  That’s all gone now.  Most of these people are white, male, and have connections.  I had two out of three.  The rest often work just as hard and aren’t as lucky.  The people on the bench spend just as much time working as the starters.

There is something wrong with a country where employees need food stamps and health insurance, while their employers have $125 billion ($125,000,000,000) net worth.  There is something wrong when 20% of the homeless are veterans.  There is something wrong when people traveling with children can’t board before first class passengers, where an airline is going to proffer “economy minus” seating (stay tuned), where Germany offers tuition-free education, while our students are saddled with huge loans, and the outgoing (read: fired) president of the University of Oregon got nearly a $1 million severance package for his subpar leadership.  Personally, I would have been embarrassed to take it, slinking away quietly.

There is something wrong in a country where quarterly earnings matter more than long term thinking, where hitting financial targets are more important than public health targets: reduction of teen pregnancy, domestic violence, gun violence, obesity, smoking, and numbers of uninsured, to name a few.  There is something wrong in a country where the CEO/worker pay ratio was 20 when I was in college, 60 in 1990, now well over 200.

There is something wrong with a country where we have $1.1 trillion in student loan debt, not dischargeable through bankruptcy, has 11% default, changes what jobs people get, and is a tremendous burden.  A 0.125% tax on all stock trades ($1.25 per $1000) would generate enough money by 2026 to pay off current student loan debt.  That’s the America I’d like to see.

There is something terribly wrong in a country where the political party that brought Civil Rights (and African-American sports stars) loses almost every election in the South. There is something wrong when trying to insure a few million more people medically was met with devastating defeats in both chambers of Congress, where the other side has offered nothing.

America gave the world three gifts, all in danger:  liberty, the national parks, and public education.  There is a fourth gift, also in danger: a large middle class losing faith in the system.  Gobs of money are not trickling down, and they never have.  The direction of the trickle is upward, defying both gravity and logic.

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