Monday, February 16, 2009

How much is enough?

I promised myself I wouldn’t read the economic news, but both yesterday and this morning, I couldn’t help myself. One editorial in Sunday’s paper that really stood out was Iain Levison’s Washington Post op-ed piece, “The Blow the Working Class Saw Coming:”

Levison’s piece chronicled the experience of two North Carolina day laborers that traveled sixty miles to Raleigh, N.C. to lay carpet on a job, their first paid gig since early December. The article mentions how these two and way too many others have been living the economic retrenchment for several years now, well before the rest of us started to wake up to headlines about massive job cuts and stimulus debates. Levison then pulled back his focus to contrast the experiences of the working and middle classes (whose incomes have stagnated, if not declined, and who face an uncertain future) with the privileged Wall Street kingpins (whose $1,400 trash cans, multi-million dollar compensation packages, and golden parachutes ensure luxury beyond our wildest dreams.)

Levison sums it up pretty simply: “Stop taking so much.”

And he then asks: How much is enough? Or to rephrase it a bit, what does one person need?

Which brings me to a thought experiment, jokingly posed by a friend of mine when I mentioned an interview for a temporary contract position on Friday:

“If this was an episode of the Twilight Zone, you would be faced with getting a job, OR having the stimulus package pass and OTHER people all over the country and the world finding jobs and being ‘ok’.
Being so sweet and moral, you would choose the second one, and then you would live a life poor, possibly homeless, but happy inside, being the only one who would even know you had saved the world…”

Of course this scenario is counterfactual—this isn’t the Twilight Zone (though it may be the twilight of the American Empire) and the fate of the world does not hang on my temporary contract editing and project management job, which I did get, by the way.

But my “Twilight Zone” friend has often posed Levison’s question: how much does one person need?

Let’s assume for the moment that on Friday I had been offered a $20 million salary per annum (not that I ever would be, since even the best editors do not command these numbers).

At what point out of this obscene $20 million pay-out would my basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, health care) for a LIFETIME be met? At what point would my obligations--thankfully just a modest mortgage and student loans--be paid off? At what point would any and all of my insane desires to possess something beautiful and frivolous (a mint condition beaded 1920’s dress that actually fit me, a Margaux Lange Barbie doll necklace (, a trip to Prague, a Heywood Wakefield vanity, all the books on my Amazon wish list, knee-high buttery leather black boots) be met? Even with this list, I’d have a long way to go before I spent even a million dollars. What would I do with the other 19 million after I’ve satiated every reasonable need, want, or desire?

It’s all about rewarding greed—the same greed trickling down to the ordinary folk that fueled our consumption-driven economy. Think about how such obscene compensation insulates the recipients from the consequences of their bad decisions. Think about the consequences to their employees, to their shareholders, to their communities, to this country, to the rest of the world.

So think—on this brilliantly sunny but chilly February day—about the consequences of anyone taking a $20 million salary. Even to run a company. Because in the end, who has to go without for someone to get that kind of money? Who has to lose their job or livelihood? Who has to give up dreams of independence, education, security, stability, retirement?

Perhaps in the Twilight Zone, a Wall Street kingpin indeed actually faced the choice between himself or the rest of the world…

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