The trickle-up economy

The same day an inside page of the New York Times carried the news that unemployment in Rockford, Ill. had soared above 19 percent, the front page reported that the Atlantic City casinos had enjoyed a record month. Total revenue for July: $159.2 million.

Are we trying to prove, in this recession, the unbearable old bromide that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

According to Census Bureau statistics, the number of Americans living below the poverty level reached 14 percent in 1981. (The figure for blacks is 34.2 percent.) Meanwhile, the salaries of chief executives were behaving as if the boom had never stopped, according to the rather shocked headline in the business magazine Industry Week: ''Fat Pay in Lean Times.'' For example, the editors noted that the earnings of Mobil dropped 25.6 percent in 1981. But the chairman of Mobil did not tighten the belt on his $1.48 million salary.

Henry Ford II, it has been observed elsewhere, declared an income of $1,056, 000 - more than three times as much as the chairman of Toyota.

All in all, the chief executives of 105 of America's supercorps averaged $919 ,000 a year, including customary bonuses as rewards, presumably, for that red ink.

If things get really awful, of course, chief executives are fired, just like everybody else. Well, not quite like everybody else. When the president of Avco Corporation was put out in the cold last year - after earnings fell 39.1 percent - he carried with him a contract calling for $900,000 over a five-year period, then $35,000 a year for life.

Recession? What recession?

The odd two-tier effect prevails among consumers as well. Volkswagen, the original manufacturer of small, fuel-stingy cars, is in trouble. But Jaguar dealers are reported to be prospering, and Mercedes-Benz models sell like hot cakes with real maple syrup at around $40,000. Broadway tickets are up to $40 - a $12.50 jump in two years - yet the Standing Room Only signs do not disappear. And at this point in history, a motorcycle manufacturer has seen fit to introduce a two-wheeler - the Bimota KB2 Laser - that peddles for $12,000.

As the climactic enchantment, we have had this extraordinary stock market, rising like an Indian rope trick, with no visible means of support.

It is as though the credo of prosperity were being asserted as an act of will - even an act of faith. If the stock market goes up, if the Concorde jet can sell rides for $3,976, if Wayne Newton can earn a reputed $500,000 a week in Las Vegas for singing ''Bill Bailey,'' can things really be so bad?

It is not just the very rich who are involved here. We proles may grumble about million-dollar-a-year baseball players and take our revenge in shouting from the back row of the bleachers: ''Play ball, yah bum!'' But we also tend to feel a secret pride in all these financial extravaganzas. Where else but in America . . .?

We have, it seems, a need for daily cake, almost as urgent as the need for daily bread - and this includes those of us who never get to taste the frosting.

The world's peasants, we are told, no longer think American streets are paved with gold. It is we natives who are not able to live without the dazzle. We cannot quite believe we survive unless we know that somewhere, somebody survives lavishly. It is what we have instead of Buckingham Palace.

Whatever else a recession may be, it is our opportunity to redefine the Land of Opportunity as something measurable by more than money - big money. But for the moment, a cartoonist might still be justified in drawing us as a collective caricature of Diamond Jim Brady, ready to give up everything before he gives up his diamond stickpin.

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