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Corporate royalty can sneer at their debt

I am putting myself on a diet _ not the kind where you count your starches and eat your fruit and drink eight glasses of water a day, but the one where you pick up the scissors and start cutting the credit cards.

I owe. I have to pay. It's that simple. There's no place to hide, no way to duck.

So tell me: If I have to pay, how come Scott Sullivan doesn't?

Sullivan was the chief financial officer at WorldCom, the telecommunications company that has just filed for bankruptcy, the biggest in U.S. history.

Before he was booted from the firm for the funny accounting methods that inflated the company's profits, Sullivan got a $10-million bonus from WorldCom. The company wants the bonus back. Nothing doing, says Sullivan. WorldCom has sued him.

Sullivan has other things on his plate. He is building an obscenely huge Palm Beach County manse, with 117 windows, 87 doors, and walk in closets big as living rooms.

Who has time to sleep in all those bedrooms, eat on all those terraces? Sullivan is one of those executives with personal appetites so bottomless Wall Street is about to be devoured. But it's a little late to be shocked. This train has been bearing down on us for a long, long time.

According to the New York Times, in 1985, top corporate executives were typically paid 70 times more than their employees. That year was about the time when the bland and clumsy word downsizing entered the dictionary. The downsized were usually factory workers. They were out of jobs and stripped of pensions, but they were union men, and unions were weak, easily ignored.

As of last year, the Scott Sullivans of America were paid on average 410 times more than their employees. The boss wasn't the boss. He was royalty, and he thought nothing of telling his underlings to eat cake. Then he moved on to other victims. Having chewed up the factory man, the next victims were white-collar workers, with their own 401(k)s and mutual funds.

We were the target of those serious-minded TV ads exhorting us to save and invest in retirement, telling us to become the captains of our fate. We did as we were told, and now our nest eggs are getting crunched as the prices of inflated stocks tumble.

The slide could continue for a good while. The phony accounting, the insider stock deals, the eye-popping perks that continued even while companies stumbled _ all this was a way of life. The length and depth of this institutional fraud will take time to fully reveal itself. Grand juries will be very busy. Certain barons of business will begin looking for cover in offshore accounts on balmy islands.

And certain language will fall out of favor. Political candidates trying to show themselves off as sober and responsible with the public's money will think twice before saying they intend to run government like a business.

The president tells us not to worry. I have a hard time not snickering. This is a man who profited, a la Martha Stewart, from insider trading just before disaster struck, shattering the value of his former holdings.

This must be what makes the rich rich: timing. Alas, like most Americans, I lack the timing or even a famous name. All I have is this debt.

I am going around with a book under my arm called Personal Finance for Dummies.

I am looking the other way at department store sales signs.

I am giving up my passion for new shoes.

I am learning that the numbers on the page do not lie, at least when calculated by ordinary, honest methods, the sort that is out of fashion on Wall Street.

_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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