Friday, March 05, 2004

You Can Dress Up the Bars With a Nice Length of Ribbon
So Martha Stewart is going to the big house. She was convicted today of various charges surrounding the dumping of some stock on insider information, on which she made something like $229,000.

I am now about to say a word in Martha's defense.

The amount of money Martha made on the illegal transaction was about one percent of her net worth. If I made an equivalent profit, we'd be talking about what--a couple of thousand? (Probably less than that--most of my net worth is tied up in our home, and the bank still owns approximately everything but the doorknobs.) Would the feds come chasing after me for $2,000? Maybe, but maybe not. The point is that on the grand scale of sin, what Martha Stewart has been convicted of is not exactly, oh, I don't know, lying the country into a war.

The rich, it's said, are different. And they are. Rick Neuheisel was fired as football coach at Washington last summer partly because he bet $5,000 in an NCAA basketball tournament pool. For a guy with a salary of $650,000 a year and additional compensation that would have pushed his earnings over a million, how much is $5,000? One-half of one percent of his yearly earnings. An equivalent fraction of my salary (back when I actually made a salary) would have been about what you can blow on a long afternoon at the mall. And nobody would care if I risked that much in an office pool.

But then again, I'm not famous. So these people are catching hell not because they profited obscenely or spent lavishly. They're catching hell because they are famous, and they got caught. In the sports world, of course, Neuheisel's sin is perceived as enormous--gambling accusations strike more fear into the hearts of sports poohbahs than almost anything else. But he wasn't gambling on football. As for the Martha Stewart case, it looks like nothing so much as making an example of a prominent person to discourage anybody else from trying the same thing. There's probably some value in that. But let's not go making it a metaphor for anything. This story is big based on the irony of the ultimate homemaker getting involved in sordid financial dealings. It's irresistable, but as scandals go, it could scarcely be more minor. The amount of oxygen it's sucked up in the media is inversely proportional to its true importance in anyone's life, except for Martha herself.

Recommended reading: William Powers in The Atlantic's DC Dispatch on media coverage of the same-sex marriage explosion. Isn't a good analogue for this the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or the feminist movement of the 1970s? Powers says, "As filtered through the mainstream media, gay marriage seems not so much a righteous cause, inherently worthy of our attention and concern, as another strange, colorful chapter in the never-ending 'culture war,' a phrase that appears over and over in the mainstream coverage. The media, which are normally so good at creating heroes, have not yet given us a gay Rosa Parks or even a gay Gloria Steinem."

The closest thing we have to a hero in all this is San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. I share Powers' assessment that this guy is a rising star. Would that more of our politicians were so willing to do the right thing, and that they would find it so easy to do the right thing.

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