Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rich is hard

One of my favorite movies is Black Widow with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell about an FBI agent, who is more of a geek than a field rep, and a woman who changes her appearance to trap and marry wealthy men and then kill them without leaving a trace. Her favorite poison, I believe it was methadone, is injected into bottles of liquor they would drink and they shuffled off their mortal coil in their sleep. Only one victim was murdered with penicillin; he was allergic and she was in a rush because she knew Debra was onto her.

What really struck me is what she said to Debra when they were together. "Rich is hard." I suppose anyone who is rich would think that rich was hard, but it doesn't seem like that to those of us outside the 6-, 7-, and 8-figure bank balance club. For us, rich would be very easy. No worries, able to buy what you want when you want, the ability to help friends and family, and live lavishly. Rich is easy for us -- until you get there.

The whole trickle down theory of economics was based on the idea that when you're rich you employ people, putting money into the economy and filled jobs on the roster. You have money that you spend so that other people can have money to spend and the economy booms. Not so with the current class of the wealthy who seem to want to find every possible way to keep their money while still buying whatever they want through tax loopholes and shell companies and all sorts of financial shenanigans. They aren't playing the game the way it is supposed to be played. After all, "Where is the noblesse oblige?" one friend asked me. That's what I'd like to know.

I believe in the idea that when you're wealthy you spread it around. There is no sense in having millions or hundreds of billions if you don't spend it. With that kind of money, it would be a major task to spend even the interest on the principle and still not have millions or hundreds of billions left. You can leave some of it to your children, but the best way to immortalize yourself and your money is to put it back into the economy. That's what it's for -- spending.

I'm of the opinion that should I be worth millions, I'd still live simply, but with some help around the house, and a little bigger house than the one I live in now. A housekeeper would be necessary and a gardener for the yard, and a handyman to take care of things around the house and grounds (and by grounds I mean a fairly substantial yard, but without the hedge maze, trout stream, and haha). A couple of cottages on the grounds to house the help if they want to live on the premises, someone to come in when there are guests and tend to their needs, and people on tap in the town nearby to service cars and do maintenance on any number of things that need taking care of. I would spend prodigiously on books and be able to help friends and relatives and still live comfortably. I'm not the ostentatious type and wouldn't need bodyguards, but I would need first class accommodations for travel and I would be traveling quite a bit. I have places to go and the world to see so I can have something to write about.

The point is that the people who have millions and hundreds of billions are stingy with their wealth as if they're afraid of spending too much money. They don't stint with paintings by masters and the finest food, furniture, and clothing, not to mention the odd Lear jet and fleet of cars, but they do stint with putting money back into the economy -- the U.S. economy. They wriggle and writhe and manage to get more than they spent back from the government that allowed them a bit of latitude in order to urge them to put money into the economy. How much of $200 billion dollars could they spend in a lifetime, really?

Trickle down economics doesn't account for stingy and greedy people who are determined to keep making their wealth grow because they're not sure they're really rich unless they can buy and sell a senator or two and buy options in presidents and governors, and buy mayors and judges, all so they can keep their money -- and some of yours, too.

What happened to noblesse oblige? They obliged themselves of more of our money and decided to keep it for themselves by buying homes in foreign countries and keeping their holdings in Swiss and off-shore banks so they don't have to report it. They fund few business and no manufacturing and strangle the economy with their morning coffee and croissant over the Wall Street Journal and coffee while planning a day of golfing and a trip to Ibiza with the latest mistress they have showered with furs and jewels, who is busy bedding the cabana boy while waiting for the fatted calf to arrive.

Instead, they should be buying up failing businesses and making them run again, hiring Americans to work on their various properties, and funding medical research, or even helping NASA to realize their goal of sending up something other than probes to Mars and the outlying planets in search of mining and terraforming opportunities. They should be funding shuttles to the moon and building space stations and finding a way to make the land grow food and support the poor instead of living it up on your and my dimes while we languish for lack of jobs and opportunities, while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. They should be shoring up the middle class and spending some of those hundreds of billions of dollars on something other than themselves since they didn't make the money without the help of billions of people in the first place.

Rich isn't hard. Nor is greed, selfishness, and self-serving meanness. Rich is easy. Spread it around and make yourself and the world around you richer. Trickle down economics works, but only when the wealthy stop hoarding all the money and sending it offshore to hide their worth. Put it back to work and send the economy booming again. It's not hard. It's easy.

The problem with being rich is that when things get really hard, the rich fat cats are first on the poor's menu. The hard part will be saving your life when the ravening hordes come crashing through your gates for a day of the locust.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

There are few things more confusing, awful, and wonderful than family, few places more dear than home; Chung brings them together in a heartbreaking tale made memorable by its simplicity.

Janie and Hannah have been at odds at some point in their adolescence, but when escapes Janie. They are Jeehyun and Haejin, the Americanized Korean daughters of expatriates forced to leave their home by their father’s actions.  Janie was born in Korea and Hannah in America, but their lives, colored by fairy tales of their homeland, are unmoored from their traditions and roots as they become more and more American.

Hannah disappears without a word and Janie, who was supposed to look after her so her sister would not die as her mother’s sister had died in Korea. One daughter from every generation is at risk, but Janie’s mother never said why or what happened to her. Janie must find Hannah and bring her back; it is her duty.

Catherine Chung writes simply about Janie, Hannah, and their family caught in a complex web of half told stories and family traditions that have lost their power in America. Forgotten Country carried me like a fast moving freight train through the lives of the characters, drawing me toward a conclusion that was brief and jarring. It was a seven-course meal with some of the courses left out, but does not suffer too much by the loss. The sparkling narrative carried me through my momentary questions.

Some of the mysteries were not explained fully, but what Chung does brilliantly is write the minutiae of life and give it power and presence. The clash of Western and Eastern sensibilities is as central to the story as the break between Janie and Hannah. It mirrors the struggle of sisters separated by loyalties, Janie’s to her parents and her filial duty and Hannah to getting as far from her family as possible.

While there were some questions left unanswered, Forgotten Country stays with you in the unique characters and the stunning depth of emotion, the lyrical descriptions, and the all too human emotions offered like priceless pearls. Forgotten Country will become an oft read treasure.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tilting at Windmills

I've been dealing with a claim against my former employer for unpaid vacation time. The telephone hearing was today, a hearing my employer attempted to stop on several occasions and was denied. I won the claim, not for as much as I should have had, but I was willing to give a little to get my point across. My ex-boss also has to revise her handbook, which was the crux of her case, because the NJ Dept of Labor rep saw it as I did. Vacation time earned/accrued is vacation time that must be paid. I see an overhaul in the future.

I didn't fight this claim to get anything back, other than the money owed, and I'll never see the tens of thousands of dollars I lost on the account I was stuck on, but to win a moral victory. I got that.

My mother always told me to take what I was given and not squawk about it. I've never been good at keeping my mouth shut when moral issues are at stake. I've been fired on a few occasions because I chose to take on the company, but I won my point and the policies were changed. I urge anyone who is faced with a similar situation to fight for what they believe, no matter the consequences. I also fought the IRS and won that, too, saving myself untold grief and several thousand dollars.

You can fight city hall -- and win. You may not win everything, but if you change a bad policy and it helps others, it's worth the fight.

Mom also told me that I should fight against the big guy, that I should knuckle under and keep my head down so that I was less likely to end up with a target on my back or my forehead. I wasn't good at following that advice either. There is really no point to living if living under despotic rulership or being afraid of speaking up is all you can do. Nothing get changed unless someone stands up and says loudly and clearly, "NO!"

What this judgment in my favor cost my employer is a pittance compared to what they owe me and what they owe every other employer they've cheated this way. She didn't like it, and she has 45 days to appeal, but I doubt she'll go that far. She doesn't want to have to pay her attorney only to lose again. Her own words tripped her up.

I could go after her for the double standard when it comes to page and an account that I worked on for 4-1/2 years, but dealing with this issue was strain enough and I know she'd fight harder to keep me from getting the $50,000+ she owes me on that score, just like she fought to keep me from getting unemployment, a case she won by default because I didn't receive the notice of the appeal hearing. I've made my point and will continue to make my point whenever I -- or anyone else -- is being cheated. I will not live my life in fear. I spent nearly 7 years at a company keeping my mouth shut about this issue, except for complaining that I was not getting paid for vacation time I had earned, because I was afraid she'd fire me, and a job in the hand is worth five on the proverbial bush, especially if there is no guarantee I'd get one of them.

I am luckier than most people because I have highly marketable skills and decades' worth of experience at the top of my field. When I was fired, I had a new job within 2 weeks, although it took nearly 6 weeks to get my first paycheck. It was worth it getting away from the stress, hassle, and lies I had to deal with every single day, and to not have to pick up the phone after a long shift and work another 2-3 more hours at regular pay as a favor. I cannot tell you how many times I had to do that, and there was no appreciation from my boss either, just more demands and more expectations for little or no remuneration.

Yes, I am glad I won the claim and I'm even gladder I thanked her for firing me, a thank you she actually used in the case in evidence against me. She missed the whole point. My stress level has dropped considerably, and even more so since the end of the telephone hearing this morning. I don't know how long I could've continued working for someone like that without doing something about it, something more than keeping records of how much money I was losing by being stuck on this one account. I understand why the company has such a high turnover in transcriptionists; it's issues like this one.

It's over now and I can happily take my check and cash it when it comes, hopefully before the 45 days in which they have to appeal. If they appeal, I'll know how to handle things the next time and we'll get this done with a whole lot sooner.

I've always believed in tilting at windmills and my favorite song is The Impossible Dream. What else would it be?