THE BLOG

The New Robber Barons

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

The U.S. Department of Labor claims we have an unemployment rate of 4.9% According to "the Economist," however, the true unemployment rate in the U.S. is over 8%, or 12.6 million Americans. The difference is due to the fact that the U.S. Government doesn't count people as unemployed after six months without a job

I recently joined the ranks of our many unemployed citizens. The termination of my employment as a Vice President at Pfizer was subject to intense media interest, partly due to the fact that Pfizer notified the press before they informed me.

Contrary to press reports, however, I have received no severance payments and for the first time in my life I am eligible for unemployment benefits; $13,078. At this annual income level my family of four would actually fall below the federal poverty level,quite a difference from a year ago when my salary was over half a million.

I'm also uninsured for the first time in my life and I have to pay the full price for drugs, just like 67 million other uninsured Americans. Contrary to many others, however, I do have a choice. In accordance with federal COBRA law, I was offered the opportunity to continue my health care coverage for 18 months. There was only one hitch; I had to pay $15,269 per year to receive this benefit. I decided that with an income of $13,078 that didn't make sense.

Clearly the system we have today isn't just broke. The system is utterly and completely sick and our weakest citizens are paying the price, every day. And while I have belatedly been forced to share some of the experiences of our poor, uninsured, and unemployed, my situation doesn't even start to compare with people with no resources, no voice, nowhere to go and no one who listens to them. For those citizens we have something that's called the Government; a government that is supposed to look out for the people who can't look out for themselves, but instead focuses on "pay to play money."

Today's system is built on greed. Greed is defined as an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than someone needs or deserves. Greed is not a corporate executive who builds an organization such as Microsoft, creates a lot of jobs, and happens to get rich. Greed is to become CEO for a drug company such as Pfizer, be responsible for a stock price drop of 40% over his five year tenure, twice as much as the AMEX Pharmaceutical Index, secure a $80 million retirement package while firing 16,385 Pharmacia and Pfizer employees, and get a 72% pay increase to $16.6 million as his reward.

According to the New York Times average worker pay has remained flat since 1990 at around $27,000, after adjusting for inflation, while CEO compensation has quadrupled, from $2.82 million to $11.8 million. Our CEO's are in a position in which they can basically use public companies as personal piggy banks. And this is perfectly legal as long as they get someone else to sign their check. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage has remained at $5.15 an hour since September 1, 1997. In fact, after adjusting for inflation, the value of the minimum wage is at its second lowest level since 1955.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry spends over $100 million on lobbying activities to stop lower drug prices, according to the Center for Public Integrity. There are 1,274 registered pharmaceutical lobbyists in Washington, D.C. and during the 2004 election cycle, the drug industry contributed $1 million to President Bush. For an industry that makes $500 billion on a global basis, spending one million on a president or $100 million on lobbying is pocket change.

This money was well spent. It stopped legalized import of cheaper drugs and instead we got a new Medicare drug program. This $720 billion law includes $139 billion in profits to drug manufactures and $46 billion in subsidies to HMOs and private insurance plans. The program has been such a disaster for our poor that at least twenty-four states have enacted emergency measures to ensure access to medications in the last couple of weeks . That's what a million dollars buys in Washington.

So how could this happen? The answer is simple. The American democracy has been stolen by our new class of Robber Barons--the CEO's of our big corporations. A political system dependent on charity from rich men in hand-tailored suits with $100 million retirement packages is no democracy. It is a kleptocracy. It is not what our founding fathers envisioned.

But we have the power to change this; to free our corporations from sticky-fingered CEO's, to free our elected representatives from "pay to play money" and to free our people from all these tyrants. We have the power to be free, at last.

Can we change this? Can we build a new future? I believe that we can. I believe this because we live in a country that could rid itself of slavery, a country that finally allowed women to vote; a country that has come a long way in the short time since the civil rights movement began. But early on, each of those incredible changes was fiercely opposed by those in power, and none took place without great sacrifice. To free our corporations from sticky-fingered CEOs, to free our elected representatives from "pay to play money," and to free our people from these tyrants is going to take sacrifice and time. Perhaps a long, long time. In short, it will require a second American revolution. And I believe that one day it will happen.

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