Culture Has Changed About Sexism - When Will It Change About Greedy Billionaire-ism?

We're going after lecherous men; when do we also go after parasitic billionaires?


In 1983, Louise and I started a travel business in suburban Atlanta. Travel had recently been deregulated and the industry was like the Wild West; we invented the first “frequent-flier program” for a travel agency, and it got us on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Business was good.

Louise ran the front end of the business with our travel agents, and I’ll never forget the day one of our better customers came in and said to her something like, “Hey, honey, can you get me a decent ticket to Dallas?”

Her reply was simple: “I’m not your honey.“

“Well, sweetheart,” he replied, “I still want a trip to Dallas.“

Putting up with this kind of sexist crap was usually just part of the job for women in the service industry in the 1980s, although it was less acceptable then than in the 1960s (when she put herself through college working as a waitress at Howard Johnsons) when talking back to a man’s misogynous language would get you fired.

What Louise was telling our customer in 1983, and he still wasn’t hearing, was that culture was changing. The norms and standards for interactions between men and women in the workplace were well into a transition process that began in the late 1960s with the Women’s Movement.

Part of Louise’s and my “keep your sanity” program during the pandemic has been to watch old TV shows as a break from the news and the pandemic. The last week or two, we’ve been watching reruns of the old Cagney and Lacey TV cop show from the mid-1980s.

Sharon Gless, who played Cagney, was a young woman in the police squadroom who was constantly being hit on by the men who worked there. Everybody took it as a joke or just shrugged it off, including Cagney herself, although you could see how much and how often it upset her.

That was also the world that Andrew Cuomo came of age in, and, if reports are true, he has failed to realize that culture has changed. Or he simply doesn’t give a crap and truly is one of those people who thinks he can get away with just about anything. In either case, in 2021 he most likely has no business being Governor of New York.

Which raises a larger issue: how does a culture decide which changes are acceptable and it’ll keep and which to ignore or even push back on?

In just the past decade, American culture has grown to accept and even celebrate gay marriage and reject joking about or harassing (or worse) LGBTQ Americans. Even the acronym was pretty much unknown at the turn of the century. This is a great example of positive cultural change, just like the positive cultural change we see Cuomo bumping up against (and ultimately losing to) of women being respected as peers and equals in the workplace.

We’ve also stopped vilifying people with drug problems as criminals or “bad people” and started seeing them as folks with a medical condition. This hasn’t gone as wide or as deep as needed, although Oregon recently decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all drugs and redirected policing funds toward medical addiction treatment, a critical first step toward this goal.

Superstition has also taken a nosedive. In 1963, a survey found that only 1% of people admitted to not having a “religious preference” and fully 50% of Americans had attended church in the previous week. Today it’s generally acceptable to be an atheist, agnostic, Wiccan or whatever other practice, belief, or non-belief a person wants to hold. Melding beliefs, like keeping Sabbath but also sitting Zazen, has become common and acceptable.

Police used to get a pass on pretty much whatever they did, but today they’re being held accountable — or at least we’re trying to hold them accountable — with ever-greater frequency and ferocity. The BLM marches protesting George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, for example, were the largest in American history.

Public opinion is also changing quickly with regard to wealth and how it should be distributed in our society, although that change hasn’t yet really hit a tipping point. It has in the past, though.

Crystia Freeland, now Canada’s Finance Minister and a Member of Parliament, writes in her book Plutocrats about how, in February of 1897, Bradley Martin (a billionaire in today’s money) held a lavish ball for his wife, Cornelia, at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.

“The opprobrium,” Freeland writes, that “the Martins faced as a result of the ball prompted them to flee to Great Britain, where they already owned a house in England and rented a 65,000-acre estate in Scotland.”

It was right at that point in American history that being rich ceased to be celebrated; indeed, that ball and the outrage it sparked led straight to President Theodore Roosevelt imposing an inheritance tax on people like the Martins in the following decade.

Today we have billionaires and CEOs regularly feted by politicians and the media as if they were royalty. Billionaire Gates, for example, holds forth in public about the wonders of nuclear power, and media personalities hang on his every misinformed word.

Billionaire Zuckerberg was invited to Trump’s White House for private dinners, along with other billionaire buddies of the former president, and some American billionaire philanthropies are held up as examples to the world (while others fund rightwing think tanks and groups openly working to re-write our Constitution to be more billionaire-friendly).

But, as Cuomo is ruefully discovering, times change. The Biden administration is rumored to be working out tax increases on the super-rich, and Elizabeth Warren’s proposal that billionaires should pay a “wealth tax” on their money-bins just like you and I do every year on our main store of wealth (the property wealth tax on our homes) is getting more congressional support day by day.

As Republicans warn of increasing the national debt (as they always do when a Democrat is in the White House), raising taxes on the uber-rich is the perfect solution. And every bit of evidence indicates American culture is finally again following the Democrats, agreeing it’s time to tax the rich and big corporations and rejecting the GOP’s hysteria about “taxing the ‘job creators’.”

American culture is, indeed, changing. We are becoming more intolerant of harassment of women and minorities of all types, and more inclusive socially and politically. We are embracing political and economic policies that protect all Americans and leaving behind previous eras when the rich and powerful were celebrated as if they were blessed by the gods or possessed superpowers.

Just a bit more than a decade ago, Americans were horrified by the outrageous excesses of Tyco Chairman Dennis Kozlowski’s Roman Orgy-themed birthday party for his wife, paid for with millions in company funds. An ice sculpture of a naked gladiator dispensed Stoli vodka from his penis to guests holding elegant crystal glasses. When Kozlowski ended up in prison for the crimes motivated by his greed, America collectively cheered.

Our nation is becoming more progressive socially, while men who abuse their power and wealth, like Donald Trump has at every opportunity throughout his life, are increasingly seen as dinosaurs and even criminals.

It’s about time.

But increasingly the media applauds efforts to make America more inclusive so long as it doesn’t cost billionaires anything. It doesn’t hurt your average billionaire if gay people can marry, cops stop killing Black people, or men can no longer harass women in the workplace.

But when will we start — as a society, and in a way applauded by our media — holding the wealthy parasites in our culture to account? When will banksters stop being treated like rock stars at Davos and instead be seen as the parasites they’ve become?

Such cultural changes happened in a big way in the 1890s and the 1930s. It’s time for American culture to make one more big shift…