Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Portraits of Economic Parallels - Part 3

For Part 1, please click here.
For Part 2,
please click here.

It has been said of New York that there are eight million stories in the naked city. At least.

These two, however, stand out to me as exemplary portraits of opposite ends of the economic spectrum, over which heated arguments are being waged across the United States. On the one hand, right-wing websites and blogs overflow with vitriol against people who don't champion the profit motive, while on the other hand, their liberal counterparts claim they're the only people who truly care about humanity.

To hear some right-wingers tell it, the poor have no business expecting any protections since they didn't have enough common sense to get wealthy in the first place. And left-wingers say that profits stay in the hands of too few people, which means the government is the only entity able to help everybody else.

If this isn't the scenario you see, then please tell me what I'm missing. Because the closer we're getting to election day, I'm seeing very little common sense among extremists on both sides of the political and economic aisles.

Evaluating Leona Helmsley

Economically, Harry's second wife started out with very little. Through hard work and gritty tenacity, before she'd even met him, Leona had become a respected Manhattan apartment broker during a time in the city's history when more people were moving out than in. That, my friends, is strong testament to the value of personal initiative.

Even if she hadn't vamped Harry to claim half of his prized real estate portfolio, she served his business interests well by the way she built up the Helmsley Hotel chain. She focused on customer service and amenities, as well as solid advertising savvy, to re-cast the profile of a previously little-known brand. She also encouraged Harry to ditch his rental apartment properties and focus on commercial real estate, which proved to be a wise financial move.

She helped him better market his iconic skyscrapers to the point where many New Yorkers continued to hold the firm's premiere property, the Empire State Building, dearest in their affections, regardless of any other additions to the skyline. And the Helmsley's provocative Flatiron Building became recognized world-wide as the gateway to Manhattan's burgeoning high-tech corridor.

Would the Helmsley's business empire have blossomed into an estimated $8 billion powerhouse without Leona's input? Perhaps. But to her credit, nothing she touched lost money. After Harry died, she sold most of the Helmsley holdings at the top of the market. Not bad for a Brooklyn hatmaker's daughter, huh?

Yet didn't Leona also personify the worst of capitalism? Money and the power to make more of it ruled her life. She held an egregious contempt for what evangelicals should consider to be the Biblical imperative of taxation; namely, that you "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." She got what she wanted however she could and despite whomever's career or personal life she had to destroy. And her Darwinian hubris regarding the survival of the richest actually convinced her that helping to build a multi-billion-dollar empire proved she was right.

Interestingly enough, her trial and incarceration for tax evasion met with tepid amusement - and even faint admiration - by conservatives. It wasn't so much that she broke any laws, but that she got caught doing so. Billing the company for clothing you wear in your apartment, which also happens to be located in a company property? How wonderfully cunning!

But her ethical rap sheet runs even longer than her criminal one.

She devalued her business partners' shares in the company by billing it millions of dollars worth of upgrades to her country home.

She exposed her business partners to unnecessary financial risk after arbitrarily firing two employees because of their sexual orientation, incurring two indefensible lawsuits.

She allegedly defrauded company shareholders of an estimated $83,000 monthly in secret "consulting" fees.

She held no mercy for her son's family after he died. We won't even talk about the casualty of Harry's first marriage in Leona's scheme for advancement.

And as if to mock the justice system, she forced her staff to perform some of the community service punishment she was expected to do herself. Indeed, it seemed that in every area of her life, Leona assumed only chumps play by the rules.

Evaluating South Street Annie

At the end of the day, Gloria Wasserman was no better than Leona.

Apparently, although she provided well enough for her family throughout her life, she rarely worked jobs where she paid income taxes. Not that income taxes are a good thing, but not having taxable wages suggests only one thing: she earned everything - literally, even - under the table.

She got so much money panhandling, selling counterfeit goods, and prostituting herself in the Fulton Fish Market that her family claims she sent as much as $4,000 a month to them. She lived in welfare housing and ate at soup kitchens, instead of trying to pay for her living expenses.

She stubbornly refused requests from daughters in both New Hampshire and California to move closer to them so they could look after her. She prized her independence, initiative, and gutsy intuition more than moral integrity, honest labor, and family responsibility. Sure, she bought a granddaughter a used car and helped pay her college education, but whenever family visited New York, she furtively ordered them to call her Annie. She enjoyed the game of deceit and free money.

Because that's what she got, wasn't it? She managed to procure illicit cigarettes and Chinatown junk (which is really saying something about how bad it was) from the black market to sell along South Street. Even her family concedes she probably was a prostitute for years. She apparently "earned" a decent amount of money, yet never bothered to give up her rent-subsidized apartment to a more needy family and get an apartment on the open market - or move to a less expensive place to live, like her daughters kept encouraging her to do.

She took full advantage of the clothing room at her local Catholic charity, sending boxloads of used clothes to her daughters who simply handed them out to needy folks where they lived. Everything, it seems, was hers for the taking and she didn't have to pay for it if she didn't want to.

Leona and Gloria Shared More than a Manhattan Address

By now, the differences between uptown Leona and downtown Gloria can be readily seen. Yet surprisingly enough, a number of similarities also exist between the two. Yes, both were Jewish, approximately the same age, and from humble origins. But they also both assumed the rules only applied to other people. Both saw their individual wiles as a way to get men - and money: Leona saw Harry, and Gloria saw the boys at the fish market. Neither one paid taxes, they both placed their own personal agendas over family concerns, and both have been celebrated because of their fierce independence and ingenuity.

Not that they didn't have their soft sides: Leona for Harry's care, and Annie for other women on the streets. But something tells me neither one of them would have tolerated competition: Leona of another mistress for Harry, for example, or Annie of a younger woman making moves on her fishmongers.

Can it be that capitalists and socialists are more similar that they like to think they are? Can it be that both poles of the economic spectrum reflect narcissistic, self-aggrandizing robots, simply rooting their snouts in the trough of greed? They say they want different things out of life: Leona wanted the high life, while Gloria reveled in the low life. And they both had to take different directions to get where they were headed. Even though something tells me Leona would have been a lot less happy being middle class than Gloria would have been, they both eventually got to where they wanted to be.

So I guess maybe it all depends on what you want your greed to pay for? Either way, the folks in the middle get left holding the bag. We're the "little people" Leona left to pay the taxes, fluff the towels in her hotels, perform her community service sentence, and even be minority partners in Harry's company. We're also the "boys" to whom Annie sold her "creatively acquired" collection of trinkets and vices, all while enjoying welfare programs being paid for by, well, taxpayers and kind-hearted Catholic parishioners.

Meanwhile, neither extreme actually benefits society in the long run, does it?

So why do pundits on both sides of the aisle rant as if theirs does?

Is it because the capitalists' love of money really is the root of all sorts of evil? And the socialists' love of appearing as though they're better than money still puts money at the center of their existence?

Sure seems that way, at least from the lives of these two iconic New Yorkers.

And maybe even more people than that.

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