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"You can't be too rich or too thin." Is this going to be history's version of American aspirations in the glitzy '90s? It could be if the measurement-by-money trend continues along with the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the land where equality of opportunity is the promise - not equality of results.

The news is only partly in such findings as that the annual paycheck of the average chief executive officer at US companies is 120 times more than that of the average production worker. (The comparable figure was 35 times in 1974.)

And the news is only partly in the statistic that the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans control 67.2 percent of the national net worth.

These bits from The Washington Post's series on economic disparity are accompanied by surveys of the impact on individuals and their outlook under headlines such as "A Nation Divided: Growing Apart in a Growing Economy" and "Disparity Grows Wider for Winners, Losers."

Many people are hurting while many never had it so good. Their financial struggles are often accompanied by a sense of injustice.

In broad terms, the US of the '90s is among a substantial group of countries where the richest 10 percent have 5 to 10 times the income of the poorest 20 percent. These range from Australia to Lesotho, with Switzerland and Mexico in between.

There's less disparity in Canada, Britain, Ghana, Sweden, Spain, for example, all of which are in the 3-to-5-times category. Brazil and Botswana are among the few in the more-than 20-times club.

Thus the old formulas of "have" and "have-not" nations are seen within nations. The economic stresses and strains among countries are seen among people in the same country.

Few would doubt that the disparities in America could be ameliorated if equality of opportunity were fully achieved. This means nondiscrimination in education, employment, housing, and other realms crucial to equal opportunity.

To deter the divisiveness on which political demagoguery feeds, today's leaders and aspirants to leadership need not only to talk the talk of harmony but walk the walk of providing the conditions for all to become the best, if not the richest, they can be.

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