WHY DO THE RICH live so well? Because, as I try to point out in this column, the rest of us subsidize them in so many ways. Take private clubs, for example. When you drive through the suburbs, you may pass a lovely golf course and glimpse, behind a discreet hedge, tennis courts and a swimming pool. Or when you're walking downtown, you may notice a doorman tipping his hat and opening a door to an elegant but unmarked building, and you may het a glimpse of well dressed men dining inside. Both are probably private clubs, and if they are "nonprofit," as most are, you are probably helping to pay for them. Usually they are exempt from property taxes, so you gave to help make up what they would otherwise pay. And their members are not content with only that method of taking you to the cleaners. They also like to deduct their club dues from their income taxes as a "business expense." Again, you have to pay more so that they can pay less. But consider what you could do with your money if you didn't pay those higher taxes. You could put it in savings bonds or a bank account, where the lower interest paid the average man makes it possible for the government and the banks to pay more to the rich.
One reason the Japanese consistently beat us in the game of international trade is that their businessmen learn the language of the country with which they are dealing. When they go to France, they speak French. When they come to America, the speak English. Our businessmen, on the other hand, adhere to the basic American principle of communication and simply yell a little louder.
Another secret to the success of the Japanese is that they are penetrating our culture at the Junior Chamber of Commerce level. When a congressman starts thinking about limiting Japanese car imports, he's going to have to take into account a lot of letters from enthusiastic Datsun and Toyota dealers in his district.
Generally I believe in forgiving the sins of the young. If I had read that Ronald Reagan had been caught shoplifting during his first years in Hollywood, it would not bother me too much. But when I read that his first wedding reception was given by Louella Parsons, that I could not forgive. For those too young to remember, Louella Parsons was a Hollywood gossip columnist who was vapid, vindictive and sanctimonious. If Reagan could bring himself to accept her as a friend in order to advance his career, one wonders about the other people whose support he has sought.
Something else that worries me about Reagan: When you've been in show business for 40 years, you've either done it with four Chinese girls and two gay midgets or you have two very close friends who have. While I grant that the latter is probably the case with Reagan, I still wonder how he can align himself with the Moral Majority. How can he be a friend of Frank Sinatra and of the Rev. Jerry Falwell? I suspect the answer is a double standard, that what is permissible for one's rich friends is not permissible for the people. Certainly that was the moral and philosophical plateau on which Louella Parsons operated; she would condone the same behavior by her rich patron, William Randolph Hearst, for which she would savage some young starlet.
Recently, after dining on a train, I got the check, and it read, "Food, $5.95, Bar, $8.50." I was embarrassed, and then I thought a lot of other people would be embarrassed, too, if they and their spouses and the employers to whom they submitted their expense records would see the amount of each check that went for booze. It seems to me that Amtrak has discovered a way of controlling the abuse of both alcohol and expense accounts. The IRS should immediately issue a regulation requiring all credit card receipts to list bar items on a separate line just as Amtrak does.
This is the season for advice to the new president, and here is mine:
Point number one: Don't be defensive. At least during the first year or so of your administration you can't fairly be held responsible for most of the things that go wrong. The bulk of them will have their root in prior administrations. So you can look objectively at what is wrong with the government without feeling that if you admit something's wrong, you are admitting some failing in yourself. The main problem with government administrators generally is their tendency to cover up what's wrong in their departments, because they fear it will reflect on them. You don't have to feel that way. Instead of fearing the powers of the press and the Congress, you can invite the press and Congress to help you find out what's wrong, to help you figure out what needs doing.
My second piece of advice is to take steps to overcome your insulation. For years now you have led the insulated life of a rich Californian. Now you are coming to the most insulated city in the world. Northwest Washington and suburban Montgomery and Fairfax counties, where you and the people in your administration will all live, make up one elegant country club. It's Rodeo Drive all over again, with fancy shops and scores of expensive restaurants and hundreds of new homes selling for $300,000 to $500,000. You can drive to work without seeing a single tenement, much less slum.
In that insulated world it would be very easy for you to cling to your Norman Rockwell memories of what life in the rest of America is like. That was a nice view; it's easy to understand why you are so fond of it. Those old Saturday Evening Post covers represented a world of simple but good values: family, community, church and country, united by warm affection, gentle humor and an engaging absence of pretension of any kind. There was and still is some truth in this picture of America. But it leaves a lot out -- like the race problem, the mud and blood of war, and the stairwells reeking of the urine smell of poverty. You can, in short, easily become a prisoner of Northwest Washington and the protected comforts of Air Force One and the White House and Camp David. The way to avoid it is through a determined effort to reach out, not only physically, by visiting the coal mines, the factories and the slums, but by seeking ideas and information from the people that your life has kept you away from and that your life in Washington will continue to keep you away from.
There is another kind of prisoner you can become in Washington, and that is a prisoner of events. This is the way most recent American presidents have failed. They have become victims of agendas of others, of events presented by the news ticker, of the bills to sign, of the ready-to-issue proclamations that the Congress and the bureaucracy always have prepared. The most conspicuous example is Carter with the hostages in Iran. He let the final year of his presidency be dominated by concern for but 52 of his fellow Americans. It was as if a general were to try to win a war while giving most of his attention to one beleaguered platoon.
The only way to avoid this fate is for the president to have an agenda of his own, of things he wants to do for his country regardless of events. If the president says, "No, I'm not going to be governed by the things that come up -- I'll do my best with them, but I've got these other things that I think are just as important or more important, and they are what I'm going to concentrate on today," he will not only avoid the fate of Carter and many of his predecessors, but he just might get something done.