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If I were a rich man...

By Roger Ebert

A guy gets hit by a truck. A stranger rushes over and asks, "Are you comfortable?" The guy shrugs, turns up his palms, and says, "I make a living."

I've been comfortable most of my life. For about 15 years I held my breath between paydays, but I was enjoying myself. In recent years, I've been very comfortable. Just between us, I've considered myself rich. I was pulling in three checks. The Sun-Times paid me handsomely, and I had two jobs on TV, where I made big bucks. On PBS, not so much.

When the presidential candidates were asked how much you had to make to be considered rich, Obama said $250,000 a year, and McCain said $5 million. Reader, I was crushed. Here I thought I was doing more than okay, and I've never made anywhere near five mil.

I am beginning to learn what rich really is. The AP moved a story Monday about Richard S. Fuld Jr., the CEO of Lehman Brothers. He testified at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In times like these, a CEO doesn't want to come anywhere near the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He told HOGREFORM he took full responsibility for his decisions at Lehman, but he conceded "no errors or misjudgment" in the years leading up to the bankruptcy of the 158-year old institution.

The AP adds: "And he said a compensation system that he estimated paid him about $350 million between 2000 and 2007 even as the company headed for disaster was appropriate." I can't help but wonder. Let's say your ancestor, cranky old Grandpa Lehman, put you in charge for seven years, and you oversaw the destruction of his firm and paid yourself $350 million. Would he be cool with that?

But I stray. I meant to say, now I know what "rich" is. It works out to $50 million a year, pre-collapse. Altogether, Lehman earmarked billions of dollars in "compensation" for its top executives, and why not? The dictionary defines "compensation" as "something that counterbalances or makes up for an undesirable or unwelcome state of affairs." Lehman qualifies with flying colors.

But never mind. I'm still mortified by the news that I'm not rich. I mean like Fuld rich. Can we arrive at a figure between $5 million and $50 million a year? Let's double the $5 million to $10 million. Can a person live on that? When Gene Siskel and I dreamed about the big bucks, I'd mention living on, oh, say, $10 million a year. Could you get by on that? He'd say: "Why not? Lots of people do."

But let's have pity on these poor guys. Guld, Jr, told HOGREFORM: “I wake up every single night wondering what I could have done differently.” We can all share that feeling. How about tripling the compensation to $15 million a year, just to provide a cushion? After that, you couldn't count on a taxpayer bailout. You'd be on your own.

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