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Holiday Shopping Season Highlights Increasing Economic Disparity

NewsHour Essayist Anne Taylor Fleming reflects on the growing economic gap that is highlighted by consumer spending during the holidays.

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  • ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour Essayist:

    The Christmas catalogs have been rolling in by the mail truck load: Williams-Sonoma, and L.L. Bean, and Smith and Hawken, also something from Texas offering smoked turkeys, because my husband once ordered one.

    Order one thing from any catalog and you are on their mailing list for life and, I suspect, beyond. And then somehow this came into my hands, this luxury catalog. I took it to bed with the others — my seasonal nighttime browsing — and ran headlong into this: This $26,000 Hermes ostrich Birkin purse.

    Purses aren't really my thing, but I know that the Birkin, named after an actress, has been the hot, have-to-have item for a stretch of years among the rich and beautiful. Slung casually around many a gym-toned arm in magazine and newspaper layouts, it has been the signal of insider acquisitiveness.

    But $26,000 for a purse? What kind of world are we living in?

    Since childhood, I have strolled the Christmas streets of Beverly Hills, all bedecked and shimmering at night. It was an annual outing, a destination, a thrill, like going to Disneyland. All bundled up, we'd stare into the opulent windows, amazed at the finery, the slithery evening gowns, and couture coats, and, yes, pricey purses.

    Was it always crazy outlandish, even then? Yes and no.

    It was always, for most Americans, a street of nose-to-the-glass, unrequitable longings. But the divide between haves and have-nots somehow didn't seem so huge, so surreal, as it does now, certainly here in this city.

    Of course, that's true all over the country: The rich are getting richer, much richer.

    Between 1990 and 2004, the bottom 90 percent of the population saw its average household income increase by 2 percent. It went up 57 percent for the top 1 percent and up 112 percent for the top .01 percent.

    What's happening is that the normally rich, people in the top 2 percent or 3 percent, feel poor relative to the really rich. They compare themselves up, not down.

    I hear it all the time, people making $300,000 a year saying they are having a hard time keeping their boats afloat, lawyers, doctors, professional people. In another day, such a complaint might have seemed unseemly.

    But we live in a world of stratospheric executive pay and $26,000 Birkin bags. And in such a gilded world, perspective tends to get lost, as do those who are really struggling.

    Nowhere is the split between the truly rich and the truly poor more apparent than in my home city, which has more millionaires than any place in the country. At the same time, there are 489,000 households in L.A. County that make less than $15,000 a year.

    A few miles from the fancy decorated shops on Rodeo Drive, there are ad hoc street emporia, selling second-hand clothes and patched-up furniture. It is a wild ride for heart and eye, and a chastening one this time of the year.

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