The $10,000 grill is back in.
Actually, it never went out. In the economic shockwave that struck after the terrorists did, sales of $400 to $800 barbecue grills - trade-up types popular with the middle-class - dropped. Super grills equipped with built-in smokeboxes, cocktail carts, plate warmers, digital temperature probes - all meant for your custom "outdoor room" (with refrigerator, wet bar, pizza oven) - never slumped.
"High-end sales held up," said Donna H. Myers, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.
Also back is the $11,750 case of wine, a St. Emilion auctioned recently at Sotheby's. The $700 Yves St. Laurent shoulderbag with deer-horn handle is prancing off the shelves at Bergdorf Goodman.
Normal is back.
For months we wondered what it would look like. Now we know. Normal is the resumption of news about the rich-but-not-famous, the archetypes of the 1990s whose stock portfolios and self-absorption drove the decade. They're still in the driver's seat, not to mention the chef's station.
And why not?
The share of wealth owned by the richest 1 percent of Americans is more concentrated now than at any time since just before the 1929 stock-market crash, according to political analyst and author Kevin Phillips. Neither terrorist attack nor stock-market slump nor a recession that cost as many private-sector jobs as the 1991 downturn has diminished their out-sized influence over culture and politics.
When retailers sell one upscale grill in a neighborhood, Myers reports, "they feel confident they'll sell two to three more in a short period of time."
For all the post-terror talk about a shared spirit and a national coming together, there are whole neighborhoods full of people willing to spend more for a stainless-steel boy-toy than they are for the housecleaner's salary. They rule Washington as if it were their private cul-de-sac.
The most significant piece of legislation to be enacted since President George W. Bush took office was last year's tax cut, which provided $600 to most American couples - and millions for the very best off. Corporate lobbyists have unfettered access to the White House and to cabinet secretaries, a "penchant for corporate power," in the words of Republican analyst Marshall Wittman, that might one day become the Achilles heel of the Bush presidency.
"The American people don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, but at the same time there's a sense that there are different rules that apply to the big guys and not the little guys," Wittman said in an interview.
There's been virtually no progress on providing prescription-drug coverage for the elderly, promised both by Bush and Democrat Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign, nor on a bill-of-rights for patients in HMOs. Instead of word on how the president and Congress might try to provide health-insurance coverage for the 39 million Americans who lack it, there are stories about doctors dropping out of the Medicare program and executives dropping into boutique practices for personalized medical care that used to be available to everyone.
Remember the outrage over Enron, emblem of the anything-goes economy? It's frozen in a bipartisan outbreak of cold feet. Business lobbyists so far have stalled efforts to enact significant pension and regulatory safeguards.
Ordinary Americans are queasy about the economy. In recent public opinion polls, they rank it right up with terrorism as a problem they want the government to do something about. But unless you are a farmer (just bailed out with a big subsidy package) or a steelworker living in a presidential battleground state (bailed out with Bush's decision to back tariffs on some imports), help is not on the way.
The rich have always been different. But seldom in American history have they held our political leadership in such a tight embrace. There is something terribly wrong in this. Not even an attack on our shores has set it right.
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