Monday, January 29, 2007

If Moses, after spending 40 days and nights with the Almighty, had come down from Mount Sinai today bearing two tablets with the Ten Commandments, he would have been hard pressed to find a publisher.

The pornographic movie business rakes in yearly more than Hollywood ($12 billion vs. $10 billion). “Zoo,” not a pornographic movie, according to director Robinson Devor, pushes the envelope of today’s latest norms by breaking down “the last taboo on the boundary of something comprehensible.” It’s sex between men and animals.

“Spring Awakening” is Broadway’s latest hit musical, hailed by reviewers as “tastefully erotic” and “a straight shot of eroticism.” Its sex scenes range from masturbation and sadomasochism to abortion, homosexuality and abuse.

Television and mobile phones have pornified the Western world’s popular culture at an alarming rate, making sex more violent. An Internet search for “sex + toy + torture” yielded results by the thousands.

Beginning in the raunchy, anything-goes 1960s, the Ten Commandments quickly became multiple choice. Coveting something that belongs to another is now de rigueur. “Filthy Lucre for Dummies” would be a good title to chronicle the repeal of the Eighth (thou shall not steal) and 10th (thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s anything) commandments when communism was consigned to history’s oubliette.

Robert Kiyosaki’s “Retire Young, Retire Rich” is now must reading for aspirant billionaires. It took John D. Rockefeller 16 years to become a billionaire. Bill Gates did it in 10. Mike Dell in five. And Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page became multibillionaires in their late 20s.

The collective worth of the world’s 700-odd billionaires is now bumping $3 trillion. Their numbers grow by more than 100 new big ones a year. Some 50 countries now have them, including Kazakhstan and Iceland. In China, where the rule of business law is as ephemeral in the Wild East as it once was in the Wild West (as long as you keep your nose out of politics), there are already 30 billionaires.

Some make their billions so fast, one new member came in at $5 billion, another at $9 billion, all racked up in a year. Bill Gates still leads the pack with almost $50 billion (and has pledged $30 billion alongside second-wealthiest Warren Buffett’s $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce poverty, disease and premature death in the developing world).

In the mine-is-bigger-than-yours mega-yacht race, Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich, 40, the world’s 11th richest billionaire at $18.2 billion, is in the lead with a $330 million, 525-footer — the 40 knot “Eclipse” — that has a 40-member crew, 22 staterooms, a swimming pool, two helipads, a private submarine, and bulletproof glass. Annual running costs: $20 million, including $120,000 to refuel. He owns three other giant boats in the plus 300-foot class for his friends to tag along and recently gave a 370-footer to a friend.

The dizzying climb of the entrepreneurs has led some corporate CEOs to believe they can crash the club by leveraging gluttonous severance packages — e.g., Home Depot’s Robert Nardelli dumped by his board with a $210 million golden handshake. The Economist, in this week’s cover story on executive pay and the “glory days of global capitalism,” says the executive movers and shakers about to meet at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland have enjoyed a “Beckhamesque bonanza.”

Goldman Sachs’ golden touch delivered $16.5 billion in year-end bonuses, up 40 percent in a year, or $623,418 for every employee. But that wasn’t the way it was divvied among the 26,467-strong work force. Some star traders made $100 million as their reward for boosting Goldman’s stock 61 percent in 2006.

Winston Churchill once said socialism is the equal sharing of miseries whereas capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. That it could be this unequal was unimaginable in the immediate post-World War II era when wealthy Brits’ annual incomes were supertaxed at 90 percent.

A day of reckoning is now coming on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 2001, says the Economist survey, the pay of the typical American worker has been stuck, with real wages growing less than half as fast as productivity, while a typical top U.S. manager has seen his take-home increase from 40 times the average four decades ago to 110 times today. Overall compensation deals for CEOs frequently reach a multiple of 500 times the factory floor rate. Thus, a worker earns in a year roughly what the CEO on the top floor takes home each day.

Over the last 25 years, CEO compensation has increased 600 percent. Several CEOs were paid in excess of $100 million in 2006. One hedge fund superstar made a cool $1 billion. The pack of 25 top hedge wunderkinds averaged $130 million — in a year. Top traders clocked in at $40 million to $50 million while senior investment bankers had to settle for $20 million to $25 million bonuses. $10 million doesn’t get you a decent apartment in Midtown Manhattan. They range from $20 million to $40 million; single-family houses from $20 million to $100 million.

While the world’s most prestigious magazine said “greedy chief executives, abetted by weak sycophantic boards,” were not to blame, the ingredients for labor unrest and a liberal comeback are in place. After winning back the Congress, Democrats lost no time raising the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour from the $5.15 where it was stuck for a decade.

The culprit in the last 15 years, the Economist said, was too many share options to too many people on overly generous terms, along with “foolish accounting and tax policies supercharged with bull-market mania.”

The globalization of jobs that now go to China and India is only part of the problem. Fungible technology is automating tasks humans once did.

In the race to riches, companies came up with a scheme that awarded stock options to executives that were backdated to their highest price — equivalent to betting on the winning horse after the race is over. Some 120 companies are under investigation for giving their executives surefire backdated options. Home Depot had done this for the last 20 years.

The 100 largest corporations have replaced 56 CEOs in the last five years. The much-sought corporate directorships are no longer free rides with fat emoluments; audit committee members will have to spend some 300 hours with company spreadsheets.

There isn’t a day without some financial skullduggery in the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, two newspapers distributed in some 200 countries and territories. There are also stories that tug at the heartstrings. Home Depot’s turfed-out Mr. Nardelli with the $210 million severance package said he was now willing to give up a major perk: his personal use of the company’s six corporate jets.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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