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Molly Ivins April 7


AUSTIN, Texas — It is incumbent upon the devout liberal's heart to bleed at any and all provocation, so imagine how disconcerted I was to find that not a single drop of sympathy could be squeezed out for a group of our fellow citizens in a pretty pickle.

The pleas and sad moanings of those who own and run our high-tech companies have lately been echoing around the halls of Congress. Their problem is not that business is not good and profits are not high — o contraire. Their problem, they say, is that there are not enough Americans trained in matters high-techian, and so they want Congress to raise the limit on the number of immigrants — skilled immigrants, those fluent in such computer languages as COBOL and Java — who can come here and take those high-paying computer company jobs that are just going begging.

It is, you perceive, enough to wring the heart of a stone, the sad plight of the high-tech company. Poor Michael Dell. It would be sadder still if we did not regularly read of older workers in the computer field who cannot find jobs; indeed, with astonishing regularity, older workers who have been at a company long enough to command a truly substantial salary are let go to make way for younger, and cheaper, workers.

Then, too, we learn that high-tech companies are in the habit of not hiring people at all, preferring the popular new practice of "contract workers" — i.e., glorified temps. Said temps may work for a company for years, but they do not qualify for such expensive benefits as health insurance and pensions.

And so you see clearly the dire need for Congress to take the limit off immigration quotas so a fresh wave of young high-techies from around the world can come here to work for these companies on the cheap. Otherwise (gulp) they might have to train their own workers, give more of them better jobs and pay them real wages.

Back when President Clinton used to sound like a populist — if anyone can remember that long ago — he talked about "good jobs at good wages" and wanted to invest a lot of money in worker training programs. His first labor secretary, Robert Reich, was quite keen on worker training programs and had an ambitious agenda in that regard.

Of course, it was shot down back in 1993, when the sacred need to balance the budget superseded all other considerations. No, Wall Street would not stand for it. The bondholders had to be placated. There was no money for such frivolous ideas as training American workers for good jobs at good wages.

Whatthehey — if you can't find well-trained Americans to work cheap, you just go lobby Congress to let in a bunch of foreigners who will do it.

Meanwhile, companies of the more low-tech variety are also complaining about a shortage of trained workers. The rather simple, obvious answer — well, train them — does not seem to have occurred to our captains of industry. And it does cost money.

Can the captains of industry afford it? It's not that their labor costs are high. According to The New York Times, the median weekly wage, adjusted for inflation, fell in each of the first five years of the current economic "boom." Quite a boom for the workers, eh? The median wage did rise modestly for the first time in 1997, but Americans workers are still not back to where they were in 1988, before the last recession.

Ah, but the bosses' pay, my friends, has soared — into the stratosphere, into the ozone, shooting past all previous known restraints. According to Bud Crystal, the reigning authority on "executive compensation," CEO pay went up 17 percent in 1997 over 1996 — more than five times faster than the average 3 percent raise given most rank-and-file workers.

Crystal said, in The Washington Post, that when the proxies are in, he expects that to be closer to 21 percent. For example, Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Co., made more than $575 million last year by cashing in stock options and adding that to his annual salary and bonus of more than $10 million. Now we know why Eisner sold my home paper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, last year — it wasn't making as much as he was.

And as we all know, the government is also on the corporate payroll these days, since politicians live on and for those generous corporate contributions in soft money that put them in office. How does this affect the rest of us? Why, look at this merry little report from Citizens for Tax Justice.

Remember when Clinton and the Republicans came to agreement last year and promised us a "middle-class tax cut"? The only tax cut that went into effect was the one in capital gains, with the happy result that only one in 17 poor or middle-class Americans will get any tax relief this year. On the other hand, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans will enjoy $1,189 of tax relief in 1997 for each dollar of tax relief that goes to the bottom 80 percent. As the legendary Prohibition personality Texas Guinan used to say to her audiences, "Hello, sucker!"

CROW EATEN HERE: Ooops. In a careless moment I put Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, down as a supporter of the flat tax. It's House Majority Leader Dick Armey who is the flat taxer — Archer wants a national sales tax instead. That's also a regressive tax, but at least it's the one Archer supports. Sorry, Bill.


Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.



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