Each of us has a story.
My father, who passed away in 1999, was a dirt poor Lebanese kid who taught himself English, worked his way over to America (doing odd jobs including shining shoes), and got into Columbia's PhD program. He married my mother, a Barnard student, then quit the science and engineering track in the 60s to return to Lebanon, where he eventually devoted his life to organic farming and became well known in the Mideast as an environmentalist.
My grandfather, who passed away a half-decade after my father, was a dirt poor Jewish kid in Brooklyn, who worked his way up from having no shoes to building a multi-million dollar company. His daughter, my mother, raised six kids in a war zone, a Jewish-American married to a Christian-Lebanese living in Muslim West Beirut, forced to conceal her identity for fear of being slaughtered like so many others around her.
I've been a farmer in Lebanon, a military conscript at 15, a broke student in New York working two jobs, a musician struggling to make ends meet. And I've also been fortunate enough to enjoy financial success in music and then politics.
I say all this by means of an oblique introduction to the topic I'm writing about: excessive wealth and inherent personal value. My family and I have lived both sides of the money divide. Like many people, we've had good times and bad. But one thing I've always believed is that the moment you are on sound financial footing, it is incumbent upon you to devote a good portion of your time and resources to helping others who don't share that privilege. I've tried to do my small part the past decade as a progressive activist.
I fully appreciate that others may not agree with my personal directive and short of harming others, we all have a basic right to do whatever we want with our brief journey on earth. That said, now that the financial crisis has opened the floodgate of questions about wealth disparity, it is no longer verboten to ask why a CEO or a baseball player makes tens of millions of dollars a year, while a nurse or firefighter or teacher makes less in a year than the maintenance fees on some Manhattan apartments.
Two recent stories perfectly encapsulate the question of wealth, greed, and human value. They require no comment, so I'll simply juxtapose them:
A 36-year-old Swedish countess divorcing a former CEO says she cannot live on $43 million. Marie Douglas-David, a former investment banker, says she has no income and needs her 67-year-old husband, George David, to pay her more than $53,000 a week - more than most U.S. households make in a year - to cover her expenses.
Every day, unemployed men gather under the elevated 7 train in Jackson Heights, Queens. Many of them are homeless. All of them are hungry. At around 9:30 each night, relief comes in the form of Jorge Munoz's white pickup truck, filled with hot food, coffee and hot chocolate.
Douglas-David has filed court papers showing she has more than $53,800 in weekly expenses, including for maintaining a Park Avenue apartment and three residences in Sweden. Her weekly expenses also include $700 for limousine service, $4,500 for clothes, $1,000 for hair and skin treatments, $1,500 for restaurants and entertainment, and $8,000 for travel.
I thank God for touching that man's heart," says Eduardo, one of the regulars. Watching Munoz, 44, distribute meals and offer extra cups of coffee, it's clear he's passionate about bringing food to hungry people. For more than four years, Munoz and his family have been feeding those in need seven nights a week, 365 days a year. To date, he estimates he's served more than 70,000 meals.
In court papers, Douglas-David said she quit her job as an investment banker for Lazard Asset Management to travel and entertain with David, who still earns $1 million a year from United Technologies. While chief executive in 2007, David made nearly $27 million in salary and bonuses. [emphasis added]
Munoz was born in Colombia and his father died in an accident when he was young... Munoz began his unorthodox meal program -- now his nonprofit, An Angel in Queens -- in the summer of 2004. Friends told him about large amounts of food being thrown away at their jobs. At first, he collected leftovers from local businesses and handed out brown bag lunches to underprivileged men three nights a week. Within a few months, Munoz and his mother were preparing 20 home-cooked meals daily.
She's asking to be awarded about $100 million in cash and stock, plus $130,000 a month in alimony.
Munoz estimates that food and gas cost approximately $400 to 450 a week; he and his family are funding the operation through their savings and his weekly $700 paycheck.
Who would you rather be?
Read more about Jorge Munoz here