Horatio Alger and the golden safety net

We don't know what you're doing Jan. 13, but we're celebrating the birthday of the first supply-sider, Horatio Alger Jr.

Just to recite the titles of those Alger novels is to feel your Laffer curve soaring. ''Fame and Fortune,'' ''Strive and Succeed'' - why, it's enough to make you reach for your shoeshine kit or your newsboy apron and get on with the job.

The only thing casting even the slightest shadow over our birthday party is a story we read in the Wall Street Journal a while back. The sobering headline declared: ''Top Executives, Though Well-Paid, Still Worry About Personal Wealth.'' The Journal, it seems, had engaged Gallup pollsters to sidle up to the Horatio Alger heroes of today's corporate America and ask them how it felt to be Rich, Very Rich, and Super Rich.

The parameters of inquiry were tactfully described: ''Salaries generally start well into six figures . . . salaries of $300,000 to $700,000 aren't uncommon, and when bonuses and other income are included, chief executives of many companies make more than $1 million a year.'' Indeed the presidents or chairmen of the board of 110 of the Fortune 500 were among those interviewed.

What possible reason did these chaps have to ''Worry About Personal Wealth''? This crowd had safety nets under their safety nets. Could the headline have been placed on the wrong story in one of those journalistic howlers that keep New Yorker magazine readers giggling?

We read on, looking, as it were, for our own Department of Further Amplification. About the fourth paragraph we learned: ''Many chief executives who are among the best-paid people in the US worry deeply about the adequacy of their personal wealth.''

There you are - no mistake.

The survey went specific.The chairman of a ''large industrial-products'' company complained about his ''inability to accumulate capital.'' The chief executive of a textile firm fretted about ''putting four children through college.'' A number of those polled characterized themselves as ''house poor.'' One Horatio Alger admitted his unaffordable need for ''more African trips.'' Another spoke, with some feeling, of the financial drain of country club dues.

Tote that yacht! Haul that Lear jet! And we had callously assumed all these years that nothing could be jollier than the view from the back seat of a limo.

But the hardship case who really got through to us was the chairman of a ''large manufacturing company.'' He told his Gallup interviewer: ''I see myself eating at Arthur Treacher's when I retire because of inflation.''

A stark scene, to be sure.

We like to imagine scenes too. When the chairman was visualizing himself at Treacher's, was he, in fact, at the Four Seasons, his forehead wrinkled in agony above the oysters Rockefeller? Did the Gallup researcher, touched by the confession, burst into tears and drop a spoonful of caviar on his $89.50 suit?

After lunch, the researcher - a young man with a reddish beard just out of graduate school - walked past the Rolls idling in a no-parking zone and took the subway home to his Morningside Heights apartment.

Did he tell his wife, ''The rich are different from you and me''?

Did she look up from spooning oatmeal into their baby daughter's mouth with a not-very-silver spoon and say, ''Yes, they have more money''?

We hope not. We hate it when our scenes turn predictable.

Perhaps the best scene of all, if we're looking for a fadeout, comes fittingly from Horatio Alger himself. Mark the Match Boy - now Very Rich, if not Super Rich - returns home to pay old obligations. Pulling out his ''neat'' wallet, he presents a couple of crisp bills to Bridget Flanagan.

'' 'A hundred dollars!' ejaculated Mrs. Flanagan, hardly believing her eyes. 'Does this good gentleman give me a hundred dollars?'

'' 'It's rich I am with so much money.' ''

With all respect to the Wall Street Journal and its millionaires, that's our idea of a great headline.

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