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Tucson Weekly Scrooge Rules

It's the same old story: the rich get richer, and the poor get screwed.

By Jeff Smith

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  'Tis the season to get misty, and never let it be said that we of the fourth estate will let slide an opportunity to milk our audience of its last drop of human kindness.

Which is what accounts for the traditional front-page stories of families at society's margins left in the cold by a house fire or the other kind of fire, where Dad gets the boot from the boss on Christmas Eve. Hey, if this stuff was good enough for Charles Dickens, it's good enough for me. And Rhonda Bodfield.

Actually, Rhonda's contribution to the oeuvre is far less emotional and way more fact-filled than most, and the holiday timing of it can be blamed on the primary source. This was not something Rhonda or her editors at The Arizona Daily Star just went out and enterprised in order to ruin Christmas for the fat and complacent. The D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just released this huge report on where the money goes in America, and we all need to pay attention.

What the report tells us is something anybody with a lick of sense knew was true during the greedy '80s, but might come as a surprise to us here at the brink of '98, with a Democrat who feels other people's pain in the White House and the stock market dancing around 8,000, and unemployment at the lowest levels in years:

The rich are getting way richer and doing it way faster; the poor are getting way, way poorer, and doing it faster even than the rich are porking out, and the middle class--that great socio-economic ballast that has secured American political stability--is on the move. Where is it moving? Not the foothills, folks; the working class is moving to the slums.

Merry Christmas.

(That warm-hearted advice I offered last week about big wet kisses and unstinting generosity? It still holds: just don't waste your charity on, say, NBA basketball players, anybody named Trump, or major stockholders in Nike, Microsoft or corporations with workforces in offshore factories or domestic workers without union representation.)

We knew that Ronald Reagan was no friend to the poor and the unemployed, and some of us marveled at how he affected to stay chummy with the blue-collar crowd, who suffered unwittingly at Reagan's elitist economic policies. Must have been all those B-westerns he starred in. But we did not expect that Bill Clinton would preside over an economic boom that has proven a terrible bust for practically everybody but the rich. Sure, the stock market is bullish, but how many roofers do you know with stock portfolios? Sure, unemployment is at 2.9 percent--you want fries with that?

The point is that more Americans are working more hours at more part-time jobs, earning less per hour, or less in real earning power, than at any time in the nation's history...

...While at the other end of the stick--the one without all that brown, smelly stuff on it--the people who run the show are getting obscenely rich and, in fact, creating the conditions that are contributing to the widening gulf between haves and have-nots.

And just so you won't think this is something going on in Afghanistan and doesn't matter to you: Arizona is just about the worst state in the nation, in terms of the rich getting away from the poor.

Ah, but it's a dry poor.

Of course knowing these trends exists does not answer why they exist, let alone how to change them. Some of us don't even want them changed, and guess who they are. Kevin Garnett for one: he's making $20 million a year to play basketball, but he's not the real villain. The real villains are the guys who pay Garnett to wear Nikes while he's playing basketball. The people they pay to make Kevin's sneakers get pennies a day for working in sweatshops on Southeast Asian islands.

They're barely able to survive, even in a third-world economy where rice is cheap and expectations are low. You could make a case they're better off than the people they unintentionally put out of work, the American union members in the manufacturing sector, who were laid-off when Nike's executives earned the admiration of their stockholders (and huge cash bonuses and stock options) by taking their assembly lines offshore.

That, in a nutshell, microcosm, metaphor, whatever, is the story of today's domestic economy. Manufacturing has gone global--thank you, NAFTA and Pacific Rim--and taken the memory of the living wage for the middle-class worker with it. Corporate profits are up, the stock market is up, so the rich are getting richer, precisely because the skilled manufacturing jobs have gone to the sweatshops of Sri Lanka.

Unemployment is down here at home because everybody and his kid just out of college is flipping burgers at McDonald's, which is paying minimum wage, which, incidentally, when adjusted for inflation, buys fewer french fries than it did 20 years ago.

And our only Democratic president since Jimmy Carter (and 19 percent inflation during the late 1970s) is pushing global economic treaties like NAFTA and fast-track and others, both around the Pacific and across Europe and what's left of the British Empire, that only make it easier for American mega-corporations to go cosmic and enrich their brass and their stockholders at the expense of American workers.

At the risk of sounding isolationist, all we can do about it is vote agin' it. And buy American. And boycott professional sports.

Because eventually those poor wogs putting the little bladders in Air Jordans over in Bumfuck or wherever are going to go blind or get black lung or begin to glow in the dark from toxic waste or being cooped up in those factories for 22 hours a day, and an outraged army of oppressed working men and women are going to rise up in the righteous wrath and smite their wealthy overseers, and even the folks in the foothills don't want that...

...Do they?

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