A raw nerve was struck this week. Reports that employees of the insurance giant AIG—the recipient of four federal bailouts totaling more than $170 billion—were now receiving $165 million in bonuses, caused an explosion of public anger, even bloodthirsty rage. The death threats sent to AIG employees included lurid fulminations, such as recommendations that bonus recipients be "executed with piano wire around their necks,” and “I’m looking for all the [executives’] names, kids, where they live, etc.” Politicians vied to see who could feign the most apoplectic indignation, with Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) getting swept up in the bloodlust by recommending that AIG employees consider suicide.
Let’s take a deep breath, calm down, and analyze this startling turn of events.
Point number one: AIG, as a company, deserves no sympathy. Its overinvestment in toxic derivatives is central to the global economic contraction that so far has vaporized $50 trillion of assets worldwide. AIG may be Enron on steroids, possibly the perpetrator of massive fraud. This is for a court of law to decide, one way or the other, and the sooner the better—so that justice may be served and uncertainty dispelled. At the same time, some AIG employees deserve respect, if not gratitude. CEO Edward Liddy, for example, came on board six months ago to help clean up AIG’s mess for a $1 per year salary and no bonuses. A number of AIG’s recent bonus recipients have voluntarily returned the entire bonus that they are contractually entitled to receive. To characterize everyone at AIG as a greedy crook is ugly and unfair.
Point number two: Big Business in general and AIG, in particular, have alienated themselves from the American sense of fairness by paying generous bonuses to executives even when the company loses money. Most Americans accept bonuses as a well-deserved reward for success. What Americans find unfathomable is when executives think they deserve to be rewarded when the company goes into the tank on their watch. This latter-day version of golden parachutes is obscene to hard-working Americans of modest incomes who are footing the astronomical bill for the AIG bailout, and especially to citizens who have lost jobs and/or houses. Corporate America’s boards of directors should voluntarily rectify this grotesque insult to middle America’s values before the government presumes to dictate executive compensation.
Point number three: News flash! President Obama made an economic statement that I wish to endorse. This may be a rare occasion, since I believe in free markets and Obama often prefers government intervention, but I think the president deserves credit for stating, “The business models that created a lot of paper wealth but not real wealth in the country and have now resulted in crisis can’t be the model for economic growth going forward.” Amen. Less than 24 hours before I read those words, I had made the same point to an audience of Christian college students. Capital needs to be valued and respected as a tool for lessening poverty, uplifting standards of living, and creating goods and services that bless one’s fellow man. But if capital becomes a plaything to be packaged into exotic instruments of dubious security, and then sold to unsuspecting investors to generate commissions and fees—an elaborate scheme to create “a lot of paper wealth”—then something good and worthy has been corrupted into something ignoble and pernicious.
Point number four: As important as the previous points have been, by far the most significant aspect of this uproar is that it serves as a diversion from larger problems—a convenient diversion for many politicians. How dare congressmen piously denounce the scandalous waste of $165 million in AIG bonuses after having wasted billions of taxpayer dollars in recent pork-laden spending bills? How dare the choleric Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) try to lord guilt over all AIG bonus recipients (even those that returned the bonuses) when he himself thwarted needed reform at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, resulting in taxpayers being saddled with $5 trillion of liabilities. (Speaking of Fannie—which, like AIG, was generous in contributing to Obama’s political career—why doesn’t the president demand that his friend, former CEO Franklin Raines, return the tens of millions in bonuses that Raines received by cooking the books at Fannie?) How dare Sen. Chris Dodds (D-CT)—dubbed by one wit “the senator from AIG”—act indignant about AIG bonuses when he apparently undid congressional attempts to curtail such bonuses by slipping into the “stimulus” bill the provision that “There is an exception for contractually obligated bonuses agreed on before Feb. 11, 2009.”
Without a doubt, AIG deserves criticism, blame, yes, even anger, for its role in bringing our economy to its knees. But let’s not allow slick politicians to use AIG as a scapegoat that diverts our attention from the fact that many of our country’s most powerful elected officials have done as much, if not more, than AIG in bringing about our present precarious predicament, and that those same politicians now threaten to drown us all in a deluge of ill-advised government spending.