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My name is Edgar J. Steele.
I just can't help it.
This kind of thing gives me a big thrill. And a big chill.
It's not that often that you find the entire state of Jewish life today encapsulated in one place. So when you do, it's worth taking note of and learning from.
The place of which I speak is the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Vanity Fair is one of the most fascinating magazines around, one that every issue features an amazingly eclectic collection of articles, from the very serious to the completely frivolous.
Indeed, while the October issue features such stories as "How $9 billion in cash vanished in Iraq;" "Inside Bush's bunker;" "How the Media Gored Al Gore in 2000;" and more, the cover features Nicole Kidman wearing a sailor cap and opening her shirt to reveal her nautical necklace and her brassiere.
Vanity Fair is nothing if not on the cutting edge of where society is and is going. Vanity Fair is definitely not a Jewish publication.
And yet, in this one issue, it tells us more about the Jewish world as it is today than any lecture or book or class out there.
It does that in two ways.
The first is its annual list of what it calls The New Establishment, the 100 most powerful, most influential people in American society.
What is absolutely amazing, stunning about the list is how many Jews there are on it. Jews make up about 2.5 percent of the U.S. population so there should be two or three Jews on the list.
Guess again, bubeleh.
The list of the Vanity Fair 100 includes, get ready, 51, yes 51 Jews.
I say 51 because that's how many I'm sure are Jewish. There may be others on the list who are Jewish but who I don't know are Jewish and whose names are not obviously Jewish.
But let's say I got them all. That means that more than half the names on the list of the 100 people who are the most vital to this society are Jewish. And this is a list that includes Apple's Steve Jobs and Oprah and Bill Clinton and Warren Buffett, to name a few of the few non-Jews on the list.
That is absolutely nothing short of astounding.
Talk about us being accepted into this society, talk about us having power in this society, talk about anti-Semitism being a thing of the past, talk about Jews no longer needing to be afraid to be visible and influential.
And it doesn't stop there.
The magazine also has a separate list of what it calls The Next Establishment, younger people it believes destined to make the big list some year soon.
Of the 26 names on that list, 15 are Jews. That I'm sure of. 15 of 26. More than half.
And it doesn't stop there.
The magazine also has a separate list of what it calls The Pit-Stop Club, those who have made The New Establishment list in the past but who didn't make it this year but are fairly certain to make a comeback in a future year.
Of the nine names on this list, eight are Jews. Eight out of nine. Don Imus is the only non-Jew on the list.
I mean, it's just unbelievable.
This is a big country with lots and lots of very talented, highly educated, tremendously motivated people. And no one has its finger on the pulse of the people who make this country what it is more than Vanity Fair.
And when it came time to pick the 100 who most move and shake things in America, more than half-more than half-are Jews. And on the list of those who will one day be on that list, more than half-more than half-are Jews. Not to mention that almost 100 percent of those who were on the list and are poised to make a comeback are Jews.
Tells you so much about the place of Jews in this country, about the amazing people Jews are.
That's something we should never take for granted, something we should always be blown away by, feel very, very good about.
Instead, however, the Jewish world is so much about kvetching and worrying.
When will we learn to fight fights that matter. When will we learn not everything needs to be made a big deal of. Not everything we don't like is a threat, indeed some of the things we don't like only become a nuisance because we make a big deal out of it.
We are powerful, very powerful. We play a major, pivotal role in the life of this country. And yet we are always acting like scared little mice on the verge of annihilation.
And if you think how we are doesn't have consequences, please look at something else in this Vanity Fair issue, something that also tells us much about Jewish life today.
There is an article in the magazine called "Talk of the Town." It tells the story of the intense rivalry between two of the most powerful men on Wall Street, Henry Kravis and Stephen Schwarzman.
Both, as you may have guessed, are Jews. Both are at the very top of the private equity world, which is where the financial action is these days. Both control tens of billions of dollars worth of assets.
The first thing that struck me about the story is what jerks both are, each trying to top the other, destroy the other, outdo the other. Not to mention the abominable way that each treats their employees. Each acts in ways that are not very much in keeping with the teachings and values of Judaism.
That's sad, but that's not what got to me. What got to me is how much these two do, how much these two give, to all kinds of good causes-libraries and museums and hospitals and universities and on and on, all mentioned by name in the article. You read and see how much energy each puts into his charitable work, how much money each donates to charitable causes. Doing so, it is very clear, for the social status and clout it brings.
What is also clear is that it seems neither is involved in or gives to Jewish causes, at least not in any significant way.
That too tells you a lot about Jewish life today.
For they are not alone. The fact is that, as survey after survey has shown, most very wealthy Jews in this country do not give to Jewish causes. Certainly not the tens of million dollars they so eagerly give to a university or a museum.
The question is why they feel so little allegiance to their own community, their own people, why they so much look elsewhere to devote their resources and their energies.
I think it's because we have made Judaism such an unpleasant place.
Judaism has so many powerful people among us, as the Vanity Fair 100 list shows. We are such a part of this society, have such impact on this society and yet we're always unhappy, always feel victimized, always kvetch about this and that. It's always another Holocaust around the corner, there's always the next Hitler on the scene, Israel is always embattled, we're always worried, always scared, always sure the end is near.
Well, who the hell wants to join that little party?
Because we so squander all the good that has come our way, too many of us are simply opting to go their own way, to be part of things that don't involve guilt and neuroticism.
More than half those on the Vanity Fair 100 are Jews. And yet we don't feel powerful, indeed, the very fact of the list makes us even more nervous than we were before. Instead of being pleased and taking pride, we fret that it's not so good to be so visible, bad that the gentiles see how much influence we have. And so we take even an occasion for joys and make it one for oys.
Is it any wonder then that if we always make out that Jewish life, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a scary and dreary place, that those who have made it, want nothing to do with it?
The Internal Revenue Service issued a report last week documenting record levels of social inequality in the United States. According to the data released by the IRS, America’s wealthiest 1 percent accounted for 21 percent of all income in 2005, while the bottom 50 percent earned just 12.8 percent of the total national income.
While the share of income taken in by the wealthiest 1 percent rose steeply—up three points from 19 percent in 2004—the share for the half of the population at the bottom of the economic ladder fell during the same period by 0.6 percent.
The IRS data, published in the Wall Street Journal last Friday, are based on “adjusted gross income” reflected in tax returns for 2005. This measure provides a starker and more accurate picture than other indices of the staggering polarization between wealth and poverty in America.
It records individual income after deductions for such expenses as alimony or individual retirement accounts, and includes capital gains, a major source of income for the very rich. It also breaks down the figures relating to the wealthiest social layers, spelling out the obscene levels of income raked in by the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent, as opposed to other reports that lump this relative handful of multimillionaires and billionaires together with average figures for the top 10 percent.
The share claimed by this wealthiest layer has now surpassed the previous record recorded during the stock market boom of the 1990s. And, while the IRS has kept such data only since 1986, it is believed that the present percentage of the national income going to this layer is higher than at any time since the period that preceded the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
Even George W. Bush is compelled to acknowledge the prevalence of social inequality in America. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president said, “First of all, our society has had income inequality for a long time.” By way of explanation, Bush, the offspring of a family worth many millions, declared, “Skills gaps yield income gaps.”
The Wall Street Journal was more candid than the president, acknowledging that while the IRS did not spell out the source of rising income for the wealthy, the “boom on Wall Street has likely played a part.”
The newspaper went on to point out the enormous accumulation of wealth on Wall Street itself, citing a recent study from the University of Chicago showing that twice as many Wall Street executives count themselves in the top 0.5 percent income bracket as their counterparts in other sectors of the economy. One of the authors of the study, Joshua Rauh, told the Journal, “It’s hard to escape the notion” that the increasing monopolization of wealth at the top is a “Wall Street, financial industry-based story.”
Summarizing the study, the Journal reported that “the highest-earning hedge-fund manager earned double in 2005 what the top earner made in 2003, and the top 25 hedge-fund managers earned more in 2004 than the chief executives of all the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index combined.” The study also found “profits per equity partner at the top 100 law firms doubling between 1994 and 2004, to over $1 million in 2004 dollars.”
The data released by the IRS indicated that the minimum annual income needed to make it into the top 1 percent rose 3 percent between 2000 and 2005 to $364,647.
On the opposite end of the social scale, the median income of tax filers had fallen 2 percent between 2000 and 2005 to just $30,881, with fully half of the population struggling to get by on less than that.
Earlier data released by the US Census Bureau established that every section of the population outside of the top 5 percent saw their real income fall between 2000 and 2005.
According to one recent study, while real income for the bottom 90 percent of the population fell by 11 percent between 1973 and 2005, those in the top .01 percent bracket, comprising some 14,000 households with annual incomes averaging nearly $13 million, saw their take increase by 250 percent over the same period.
What emerges from the data are the effects of a long-standing social policy involving a massive transfer of wealth from working people, the great majority of the population, to a handful of the super-wealthy, who have enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of society.
This is not merely an American, but rather a global policy that has been carried out on the backs of the working class of every country. A study released last week by the Boston Consulting Group found that the world’s 9.6 million millionaires—comprising just 0.7 percent of the earth’s population—now control $33.2 trillion in wealth—roughly a third of all the wealth in the world. According to the study, the world’s wealthiest 0.1 percent—those with $5 million or more in financial assets—now owns 17.5 percent of global wealth.
Meanwhile, half of the world’s population—some 3 billion people—live on less than $2 a day.
The social cost of this vast accumulation of wealth by the financial elite grows daily. A report issued last week by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston found that 41 million working families in America—one in five—are unable to cover the costs of basic necessities with the money they earn working for low pay and no benefits.
The study found that many of these workers are ineligible for federal support in the form of child care assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Eligibility for such assistance has been steadily tightened by federal and state governments.
The demagogy of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates about defending the “middle class” notwithstanding, these policies have been enacted by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The growth of income inequality in America has continued unbroken since 1973, spurred by the high-interest-rate, recessionary policies enacted by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker—Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s appointee—with the deliberate aim of driving up unemployment, slashing wages and unleashing a big business offensive against the working class.
It was under the Clinton administration that the top 1 percent set their previous record share of the national income—20.8 percent in 2000, Clinton’s last year in the White House. This was up from about 14 percent when he first took office.
The increased concentration of wealth was fueled by the Democratic administration’s deregulation of the financial markets, which spurred the financial bubble of the ‘90s that gave rise to much of today’s financial elite. At the other end of the social ladder, the Clinton White House carried out a ruthless war against the working class and poor, carrying through its pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and slashing other areas of social spending.
From the beginning of the Bush administration, the Democrats have helped pass round after round of tax cuts for the rich, running into the trillions of dollars. Even a limited proposal to close a tax loophole that has allowed hedge and equity fund managers earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay a lower tax rate than a bus driver or an office worker was shelved earlier this month by the Democratic Senate leadership, in deference to the party’s well-heeled contributors on Wall Street.
The inequality that pervades every facet of American society inevitably finds its expression within the Democratic Party, which, while posturing as the party of the people, remains a political instrument of the ruling financial elite. Among the Democratic candidates, the three front-runners—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards—are all millionaires.
Roughly half of the US Senate is made up millionaires, many of them Democrats. The House, meanwhile, is led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in her latest financial disclosure forms reported that she and her investor husband conducted some 30 stock sales and purchases last year, many of them involving sums up to $1 million each. She also reported owning a California vineyard, valued between $5 million and $25 million.
The Democrats will do no more to reverse the growth of social inequality than they will to end the war in Iraq. In the final analysis, the explosion of militarism abroad and the destruction of working class living standards at home are two sides of a common political agenda aimed at funneling the wealth of the US and the world into the coffers of a financial oligarchy.
Copyright ©2007, Edgar J. Steele
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