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Cops and firefighters died while making annual salaries less than it costs to rent some houses in the Hamptons for the Fourth of July.

Change of Heart

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The gods of Wall Street these past days have been showing the respect we all owe to our betters. Page after page of financial ads — the gray blocks of bland type unfortunately known in the trade as "tombstones" — have been cropping up in the press of this small town. Usually they have a predictable text, along the lines of, "MorganLehmanSolomon is pleased to announce the Issue of 8 gadzillion series-B shares of Gigantico. We underwrote the offering."

This time, though, there was a needed modesty in their tone. In page after page of the New York Times, and even the Daily News and Newsday, the great financial behemoths proved that, for one week at least, they understand the proper order of things. The words varied slightly, but the tone was the same:

"PrudentialSmithAmEx thanks the fire and police and emergency personnel who risked and gave their lives to save ours."

At the turn of the last century, the town doctor might make twice as much as a farmer; the banker might make twice as much as the doctor. Each one had the same voice, and the same vote, in the town meeting — and the farmer was as likely as the banker to be elected mayor.

Something went mad in this country in the postwar years; some vile spirit infected us the way a fungus infects a tree at its roots. We sucked it into our system and made it part of our core. It made us forget the debt we owe to those who dedicate their lives to the rest of us. It was the belief that the talent for manipulating money, making mergers, gobbling up companies and skating along the edge of the law are the greatest skills of humankind, and the traits worthy of the greatest monetary reward.

Start off as a teacher, a police officer, a firefighter, an EMT in New York City, and your first-year-salary will be somewhere between $31,500 to $34,970. Hang on long enough to become Police or Fire Commissioner, you'll make it into the over-$100,000 club — about where the 25-year-olds from Yale start in their first Wall Street jobs.

For a moment — a cockeyed optimist would hope forever — it seemed that those economic inequalities were disappearing. Many of the multimillionaires at Ground Zero behaved with extraordinary valor; already, there have been dozens of stories of financiers who died helping others. When life offered the ultimate test of courage, many of those who risked and gave their lives were bankers and traders and brokers and analysts. Nothing can detract from their valor and nothing should. That morning, the executives in the Towers and on the airplanes were worth far more to this society than whatever they were paid.

But teachers in downtown and Battery Park City also risked their lives to get their kids out of the inferno; we pay them all of $31,500. And cops and firefighters died while making annual salaries less than it costs to rent some houses in the Hamptons for the Fourth of July weekend. Their heroes' deaths made them worth every bit as much as every other victim; if only our economy had valued them as much in life. And that must be a lasting lesson of Sept. 11.

Maybe those folks who measure their worth by how many millions more than their neighbor they make will change their minds; maybe now they'll judge themselves by how many millions they forgo to improve the lives of the people who risk their lives to make capitalism possible.

I don't say that it's likely. But stranger — and far sadder — things have happened.

Michael Ryan has written, directed and produced films, television, and theater, published several books of humor and satire, and worked as a Washington and foreign correspondent and editor for major magazines.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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