Published on WSWS, by David Walsh, 20 August 2011.
American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a short story, once famously noted that the very rich “are different from you and me.” In that same story, “The Rich Boy” (1926), Fitzgerald’s protagonist is made a partner in a brokerage firm in 1923 and earns $25,000 a year, or $325,000 in current dollars. Not a paltry sum, but hardly one that would put you in the category of the “very rich” these days, at least as the term is understood on Wall Street. The “very rich” today are a great deal more different “from you and me.”
On August 13, billionaire private equity investor Leon Black organized a 60th birthday party for himself at his estate in Southampton, on Long Island, that cost “millions of dollars,” according to an account at CNNMoney. Reportedly, pop singer Elton John, who gave an hour-and-a-half concert for the 200 guests, was alone paid $1 million for his services … //
… Those who work for the firms Apollo controls are not so fortunate as Mr. Black. Employees at Claire’s Stores, for example, the chain, a retailer of accessories and jewelry to girls and young women, does not pay magnificently. A “third keyholder” at Claire’s, i.e., an assistant to the assistant manager, with considerable responsibilities, reports one web site, earns or starts at $8.18 an hour, a yearly pay of $16,520. An assistant manager at Claire’s makes $10.23 an hour. A store manager earns $28,403 a year.
One anonymous employee wrote in June 2010 of “Extremely unreasonable sales expectations for our demographic (young girls whose parents have given them a few bucks),” and that employees are “held accountable for stolen merchandise that is way too small to keep track of” and have “too much responsibility placed on third key for not enough pay (think Assistant Manager work for Sales Associate pay $7.25-$7.75) … We nearly have to force products on customers just to meet sales goals in hopes of keeping our jobs.”
The anonymous worker goes on to say that management should address the overall problem so that “the company [can] run smoothly and ALL employees can be happy in their position—BETTER WAGES FOR OUR HARD WORK.”
Black is worth $3.5 billion. That would represent nearly $200,000 for every one of Claire’s 17,600 staff (as of January 2009).
The Times account of the August 13 Black birthday bash has a somewhat defensive tone. It compares the recent event to the “boom-era-defining 60th birthday party” that Blackstone’s Schwarzman threw himself in 2007, when “the global economy was soaring.” The article goes on: “Four years and one financial crisis later, the world looks very different. But not much has changed in the private equity world—at least when it comes to birthday parties.” The newspaper cites a critic, Michael M. Thomas, a former Lehman Brothers partner, who comments, “It displays a kind of moral bad taste given the vast economic problems in the country.”
These lavish, pointless, reckless goings-on bring to a great many minds—and rightly so—the examples set by the French and Russian aristocracies in the periods leading up to the great revolutions of 1789 and 1917. (The New York Post described another recent New York party, feting “pharma billionaire” Stewart Rahr, as including “a dessert table fit for Marie Antoinette.”)
Readers’ angry comments at the bottom of the Times piece on the Black affair give some sense of the widespread popular view. One reader from Milwaukee pointedly notes, “Well, I continue reading that history of the French Revolution.” Another, from Asheville, North Carolina, says, “Sounds like a lovely party. Early in the last century, it would have been one of the many causes leading to the Bolshevik Revolution—lavish lifestyles while the underling classes suffer horribly (otherwise known as an inequitable distribution of wealth).”
A Times reader in Wales, Massachusetts writes, “Disgusting. We middle-classers struggle to stay middle class and worry about our Medicare and Social Security. The President that I voted for is willing to give us up and protect Wall Street and people like Mr. Black.” Someone in Virginia comments, “Everyone at the top is having a party. Thank you Vera [Wang] for being such good friends with billionaires. Who wouldn’t love them dearly? Down on earth the mantra is ‘At least you have a job’ as big corporations and banks slash pay and layoff thousands to pile up more cash. This is going to blow up at some point. It will just take longer because the elites are well insulated from the street by gates, guards and guns.”
From Florida: “We are living in a world where white is black and black is white. The Wall Streeters are just rubbing it in the face of everyone else. I got mine and I don’t care about you.” A reader in San Antonio, Texas observes succinctly: “Betimes, I just applied for a loan at 27 percent interest so that I don’t lose my house and car. Happy birthday, Leon.” Another writes: “Personally, four years into this horrific slow-motion economic collapse, I’m amazed that there aren’t bankers hanging from lamp posts on Wall Street and torch-carrying, pitchfork-wielding mobs storming their mansions. Party on, birthday boy. Your day of reckoning is not far off.” (full text).