Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Populist Outrage That Wasn't

Over the AIG Bonuses.

I was in Michigan last week, where nearly every conversation veers into the economy and jobs and whose kids have moved back in with them and who had to move in with their kids. The subject of AIG bonuses came up exactly...never.

Oh, people are mad. They're really mad. But they don't really distinguish between AIG executives giving themselves bonuses funded by taxpayers and J.P. Morgan spending TARP money on luxury jets and John Thain building himself a fancy schmancy bathroom. They're mad at the whole out-of-control business culture that doesn't even understand why these things might look bad, much less actually be bad. It's the business equivalent of why people often don't get riled up about political corruption. They assume all politicians are corrupt. And right now they assume all business executives are reckless and wasteful.

Why has the media decided this is the breaking point? It's certainly an easy hook to hang a story on. But Joe's also onto something when he posits that bonuses are the one part of this whole banking scandal that most journalists understand. It's a pretty poor way to decide what to focus your coverage on, but there you go.

It's not that the bonuses aren't a "deal," and it's not that people should be okay with it. It's that fixing the financial mess, and perhaps not letting Wall Street dictate the policy are a little more urgent and encompassing challenges when compared to these bonuses. It's a distraction that can be fun, yeah, and deserves a verbal beating, true. Taxing them at 90% doesn't fix anything more than media headlines. Next outrage, please...

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