Jim Hightower

Bob Wills, the renowned leader of a classic Western swing band, would joyously call out mid-song, “Take it away, Leon!” bringing on a crowd-pleasing instrumental solo by steel guitar maestro Leon McAuliffe.

But now comes another Leon who’s such an off-key, screechy Wall Street billionaire that crowds are shouting, “Go away, Leon!” He is hedge fund huckster Leon Cooperman, who gained public notice nearly a decade ago when he compared Barack Obama’s election to Hitler’s rise to power, claiming Obama’s criticism of tax breaks for the rich was fomenting class war.

Then, in 2019, he was dubbed “Crybaby Cooperman” after he got all teary-eyed during a TV interview in which he decried “the vilification of billionaires.” The sad rich man was weeping about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to make the uber-rich money manipulators like him pay a modest surtax on their excessive fortunes. And no, “manipulator” is not unduly harsh — in 2016, Cooperman paid a federal fine of nearly $5 million for “substantial illicit profits” gained from insider trading.

For a while, Leon did go away, apparently chastened by the public ridicule heaped on his tearful claim to be a billionaire victim of tax policy. But in January, he was back on TV, this time blaming stock market gyrations on out-of-work five-and-dime players who are “sitting at home getting their checks from the government.” Then he plunged again into deep self-pity, deploring the likelihood that President Joe Biden will join Warren’s call for the rich to pay their fair share of taxes. “This fair share is a bulls—- concept,” he wailed. “It’s just a way of attacking wealthy people.” Then he appealed to those who’ve lost jobs, income, homes, health and loved ones in the pandemic to rally behind billionaires like him. Billionaires make the world “a substantially better place” with their donations to charity, he asserted, pleading for gratitude and exclaiming, “We all got to work together and pull together.”

Together? While the working class and the poor have been knocked down, cut off and stomped on in the past year, America’s 651 billionaires — including Cooperman — have collectively jacked up their wealth by a trillion bucks, an average of $1.5 billion each.

Shall we take up a collection and buy this guy a clue? Do yourself a favor, Leon: Go away for good.

What is it about billionaires and multimillionaires that makes them both clueless and careless about the impacts of their greed and self-entitlement?

Even when they occasionally take a stab at doing something right, they tend to stumble and bumble and get it all wrong. For example, while major corporations rushed out PR campaigns at the start of the devastating pandemic, loudly proclaiming all-in-this-together solidarity with their workers — shhhhh — most have quietly and quickly resumed their pre-pandemic policy of widely separating the rich fortunes of their top executives from the well-being of their workforce.

Take supermarket giant Kroger. Last March, as the pandemic spread across America, Kroger honchos publicly hailed its grocery workers for staying on the job despite the health hazard. They ran national TV ads announcing a $2-an-hour pay hike for employees and called it a “hero bonus.” Nice!

But only six weeks later — shhhhh — the honchos killed the bonus pay, even as the virus spread. Of course, they ran no ads to announce or explain the abrupt cutoff of pay for heroes. Not nice.

Well, you might think, the economy was collapsing, so maybe the bosses had to scrimp. Hardly. Grocery sales and profits have boomed during the pandemic, and — as the investigative newsletter Popular Information now reports — Kroger’s profits have zoomed up by $1.2 billion since the disease surged last year.

Where did that bonanza go, if not to workers? To top executives and the biggest shareholders. Last September, Kroger spent a billion dollars on a stock buyback program — a corporate manipulation scheme that artificially jacks up stock prices, thus enriching the already-rich handful of investors and executives who own most of the stock. How rich are they? One example: Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen’s 2019 paycheck was reportedly $21,129,648.

One man, one year. And, unlike the typical Kroger workers who draw only $27,000 a year, McMullen is not on the frontline putting his life at risk.

And yet those on top of America’s financial heap wonder why working families spell “boss” backward — double-S-O-B.

Jim Hightower is a columnist, political activist and author who served as commissioner of Texas Department of Agriculture.

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