THESE ARE wonderful days in America. Forbes magazine brings us our annual list of the richest 400 citizens and Fortune magazine, not to be outdone, brings us "Really Young, Really Rich" - the 40 wealthiest Americans under 40. It's enough to make you drive over to Northeast Baltimore and inform the residents that they're ticked off at the wrong people.
Bill Gates isn't knocking on their door, but a bunch of poor people are. Gates is too busy cross-fertilizing his money, but the poor are looking for a place to live. They are such an annoyance, aren't they? I do not mean this facetiously, and I do not mock the people of these good neighborhoods who are complaining of plans to move former residents of public housing developments into neighborhoods that: a) are mostly (but not all) white; b) are mostly middle class; and c) do not want them.
The principle behind the move is quite noble: to break up the concentration of poverty in certain city neighborhoods, and to end the isolation of poor black families cut off from the rest of America. With two-thirds of the state's poor living in Baltimore, the city supports them by breaking its back - while the surrounding counties turn their backs.
Who could argue with the unfairness of this - not to mention the stupidity and self-destructiveness of throwing such a crippling burden on the business and cultural hub of the state? As City Council President Sheila Dixon said last week, "We can't continue to house all the poor in Baltimore City."
Where we wind up fighting is the business of how to change it. Many ask: Why should the poor get financial support nobody else gets? And, why should they get it at other people's expense?
To dispense with the first question: Anybody who asks why the poor get all the breaks just hasn't been paying attention to corporate write-offs, tax breaks for the wealthy, government support of entire industries that are essentially welfare for the rich, multimillion-dollar golden parachutes for wealthy executives (does the name Dick Cheney come to mind?), and George W. Bush's income tax plan whose average tax break for the richest 1 percent of the country would be 100 times that for middle-income people.
To dispense with the second question: The poor are already living at our expense. They frighten us so much that we spend a fortune on police, on burglar alarms, on drug bureaucracies, on defense mechanisms of every kind.
Where we delude ourselves is imagining the expense is less when we keep the distance greater. The poor live in a different America, where even children discover the system has been tailored to exclude them. In the era of technology, they attend schools with outdated textbooks; in a time of economic greenery, they are still manipulated into choosing up sides by black and white; in a time when we celebrate the Forbes 400, and the Fortune Youthful 40, they are considered ungrateful not to opt for a minimum-wage job at McDonald's.
It is a culture that has turned in on itself, and beaten itself up in alarming proportions, and takes hostages from the outside world. Moving small numbers of the poor here, and small numbers there, is an attempt to break up that culture, and its isolating effects, and its self-destructiveness.
The country's economic gap, already the biggest in history, continues to widen. In my hands, I hold a wire service story from May 9, 1942. I relate it here merely for perspective. It says, "Income payments will probably rise above the $100 billion mark in 1942 for the first time in the history of the United States, the Department of Commerce predicted yesterday."
A hundred billion for the entire country - and, while we all understand the nature of the changing dollar, we now have the brand new Forbes 400, and here are a few things it says: Bill Gates of Microsoft, despite taking something of a financial bath last year, is still worth $63 billion. That is a million dollars - 63,000 times.
Lawrence Ellison of Oracle Corp. is worth $58 billion. Thus, two men - $121 billion in assets. The average net worth on the top 400 list: $3.4 billion. That is a million dollars - 3,400 times.
Then we have the Fortune "Really Young, Really Rich" list, which asks, "But are they really happy?" And answers, in a word: Yes. The list is topped by Michael Dell of Dell Computer, who is worth $17 billion. He is 35. The youngest on the list is Paul Gauthier of Inktomi. He is 27 and is considered such a pauper that, until last summer, he lived with two roommates.
He could have found smarter housing in Northeast Baltimore. Initial plans call for 10 poor families to be moved there, and residents have expressed their concerns. Why us?
Here are two more questions: If the poor are to be moved into a more mainstream, more prosperous America, why doesn't that mainstream include a fair percentage of suburban America, instead of rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic Baltimore?
And, when do we say to ourselves: Money is nice, but when does it become so abundant that it seems not only vulgar but obscene? Next year, maybe Forbes can list the 400 poorest people - and let 'em move into Bill Gates' neighborhood.