It takes a million to raise an eyebrow

Richard W. Smith

March 22, 1991|By Richard W. Smith

A MILLION DOLLARS used to be a matter of awe and wonder. Now it is basic standard of measure. Anything less than a million is not worth mentioning.

A million dollars is the smallest prize cereal manufacturers dare offer these days. Mere automobiles and vacations in Paris are passe. No self-respecting state would offer a lottery prize of less than a million dollars, and small states unable to meet that target band together to make certain that the million-dollar standard is maintained.

A movie star who signs for less than a million dollars a picture might even miss the credits in the newspaper ads, and movie critics spend as much time discussing millions-per-week box office takes as they do on the artistic merits of a film.

If a sports figure signs a contract for less than a million, his signing is almost certain to go unnoticed.

With the median income of a four-person American family floating about $36,000 a year -- and a great many two-income families are included in that mix -- a million-dollar standard talking point looks remote indeed.

No wonder politicians, who have the capacity to raise their own salaries, are always booting their take. Governors and members of Congress, at a mere hundred thousand or so a year, fall short of the million-dollar standard. When journeymen professional football quarterbacks and failed bank managers get a million dollars a year, how can a governor or senator look his self-esteem in the face when his paycheck is but one-tenth that amount? (Senators' election campaigns, of course, cost millions, and no politician would think of launching a campaign with less than a million in the bank.)

Newspapers used to carry stories about average citizens, touched by fate, suffering untold anguish in simply trying to spend a million dollars within a given period of time. The moral of these seemingly harmless fables was that money doesn't buy happiness. Now, it turns out that it takes at least a million dollars just to qualify for the good life.

In the go-go real estate market of the '80s, million-dollar townhouses and condominiums became commonplace. Really top-notch automobiles began to sell for a quarter-million, and half-million-dollar wedding receptions became society page features. Pricing began to be expressed in fractions of a million dollars.

Even thievery has escalated. The savings and loan manager who did not steal at least a million dollars never made the wire services. Those who stole billions become national celebrities, with million-dollar book contracts awaiting their release from prison.

The federal government has even stopped talking about millions. Its standard has become the billion dollars. In national statistical terms, millions hardly matter. We have just concluded a war in which a single firing round of a missile cost $1 million. Airplanes cost billions, or, at least, substantial fractions of billions.

The average family scanning the food ads in hopes of saving 20 cents a pound on pork chops is made to feel very insignificant indeed. When all public discourse about governments and even individuals is carried on in terms of at least seven figures, the remainder of the population comes to believe that it is inhabiting a world that is substantially different from that of the movers and shakers who juggle millions and billions routinely.

Multiplying zeros in government reports have caused citizens' eyes to glaze over and, except for some ineffectual bleating about high taxes, most people have opted out of participating in the public affairs of the American democracy.

A million dollars used to be the stuff of pleasant fantasy. Now, it is all too routine. Government debt, escalating by hundreds of billions a year, is expressed in numbing rows of zeros and represents some vague burden that must be paid sometime in an increasingly vague future. The millions in salaries paid to the elite represent an insurmountable barrier to everyday working stiffs. The million-dollar standard has tuned out to be a rather bad standard for a democracy.

Richard W. Smith writes from Timonium.

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