Let's invest where it counts most

September 22, 1998|By Stephanie Salter

SAN FRANCISCO -- The image has become almost cliched. Wall Street has a bad day, and the universal illustration is a photo of a trader, grimacing or pulling at his hair or slumping dejectedly with his face in his hands.

If one didn't know the context, one would assume the worst. Terminal cancer? Family wiped out in a car crash? War?

Each time I see such a photo, I find myself wondering what life in these United States will be like when Wall Street has many bad days in a row. And the days become weeks. And maybe months. Based on what so many of us have done with the unprecedented prosperity of the past few years -- how generously and graciously we've handled it -- just imagine our behavior when the going gets what Americans call "tough."

It could be really ugly.

Not just the layoffs, downsizings and wholesale closings -- all in the name of our unofficial national deity, The Bottom Line. Imagine all the justifiable selfishness.

Counting millions

Did you know that at the end of last year there were approximately 4 million millionaires in the United States? That's the same number of people who live in Alabama or who make up the greater metropolitan areas of Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., and Denver-Boulder combined.

In addition, there were 170 billionaires, individuals worth at least a thousand million dollars. In 1997 alone, the wealth of this country increased by $1.4 trillion, with half that increase occurring among families or individuals who make more than $200,000 per year.

And what of the rest of us, working stiffs who do our shopping at Wal-Mart and Grand Auto, thank you, not Neiman Marcus and Jaguar? Many of us look at the millionaires and billionaires and we call ourselves poor. Yet compared with most people in the rest of the world -- and too many people in our own midst -- we're swimming in wealth. Millions of us have more than enough to meet basic human needs -- so much more that we've embraced a national lie, believing with all our hearts that our wants are needs.

If ever there were a set of economic circumstances in which a nation's people were freed of need so that they might seriously mitigate the age-old social demons of poverty, hunger and ignorance, recent years in the United States should have seen circumstances change for many people. If ever a nation's public school and health systems, its arts organizations and physical -- infrastructure should reflect such boom times for so many, it should be ours.

Have we instinctively (and compassionately) cared for those who do not have enough? Have our lawmakers tried to level a severely slanted economic playing field? Have we invested lavish amounts of our good fortune in the most precious legacy a nation can provide, its guarantee of a fine public education?

Look around.

It's easy to think of the millionaires and billionaires as greedy, but few of the rest of us care to accept that mantle. Why, if we had $20 million or so, we say, we'd be generous as hell. We'd be in a position to share. Besides, we donate what we can afford -- which means we give until it starts to cut in on our ability to satisfy our wants.

Giving our share

In these past years of so many great days on Wall Street, millions of us have worked longer hours, willingly raided our savings or paid a bank 19 percent interest for plastic credit so that we could acquire more things and experiences. How many of us worked harder, used savings or paid 19 percent interest so that we could help feed the hungry, house the homeless, provide medical and psychiatric care for the destitute or ensure the survival of decent public education?

How many of us would have donated half as much to charity if our philanthropy were not tax deductible? How many of us would have given anything?

Want becomes greed, not when people buy and consume, but when they no longer can recognize that they have enough. And greed is an equal opportunity sin. Whether they make $50,000 a year, $500,000 or $5 billion, greedy people believe they need more -- to spend on themselves.

In prosperous times, when it should have been so easy to share, so natural to invest in the collective future, we have stigmatized and dehumanized the have-nots and allowed selfishness to reign. When the inevitable occurs, and those days of soaring Dows are the exception, how pretty do you suppose the picture will be?

Stephanie Salter is a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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