The Banality of Outrage
By Al Giordano
Everybody’s "outraged," the media tells us, except that, um… we’re not.
The latest outrage-du-jour, we are told by a very loud chorus of powerful media and politicians, is the revelation that the troubled financial giant AIG - recipient of $170 billion in bailout funds and loans – has devoted 0.1 percent of that amount to $165 million in previously contracted bonuses for its executives.
Yes, it's wrong. And like most of capitalism, it's unfair. But does it surprise, or represent anything different than what has been happening for decades? Ask yourself: "Am I really 'outraged' by this piece of news?"
To note that corporate culture’s longstanding overpayment to executives, and the corresponding disparity with the pay for those who do the heavy lifting in the workplace, has ill-served society (I remember writing a paper on it in high school in the 1970s as it pertained to excessive oil company executive salaries) is not exactly a new or novel concept.
The only new angle on it is that for the first time in decades, the United States has a president who has vocally identified it as a problem. Back in early February, President Obama said, “For top executives to award themselves these kinds of compensation packages in the midst of this economic crisis isn't just bad taste - it's a bad strategy - and I will not tolerate it. We're going to be demanding some restraint in exchange for federal aid - so that when firms seek new federal dollars, we won't find them up to the same old tricks."
Now, I don’t know about you, kind reader, but while cheering that historic 180 degree turn in the direction of the US head of state’s attitude toward Wall Street greed, I sure wasn’t under any illusion that the corporate sector would immediately stop practices that became standard operating procedure, particularly under presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, at the president's first declaration that he'd tackle the problem. And so when I, along with many of you, learned yesterday that AIG is still up to its old tricks I confess that while, yes, it was bothersome, annoying, irritating, and many other adjectives, I did not feel “outraged.” Outrage requires a certain amount of surprise combined with magnitude before it rears its head from this corner. Otherwise, it's just the daily information highway road rage that some seem to need to get the adrenaline flowing.
I have felt outraged at key moments in recent years by various human events: Like learning, in 1999, that President Bill Clinton, when he came to Mexico for an “anti-drug” summit, stayed in the mansion of a drug trafficking banker (some similar outrage seems to be sweeping France right now over the same thing). But when something outrages me, I try to do something about it that goes beyond mere expressions of my angst via public tantrum (as I did then). Other things that have outraged me in recent years were the march to war after September 11, 2001, and the subsequent revelations that torture was suddenly back in the Pentagon’s playbook… I was outraged by the US complicity in the attempted 2002 coup d’etat against an elected government in Venezuela and continue to experience outrage that 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are kept under inhumane conditions by the refusal of Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as recently as 2007, to gather up enough votes to put them on a path to citizenship. We all encounter matters that shock our consciences.
Outrage can't be a daily constant except for the emotionally unstable among us. But when we do experience it, if we don’t then roll up our sleeves and do the heavy lifting of investigating and organizing a path out of the circumstances that cause it, the screeching just seems to be more attention-seeking and self-centered behavior.
And so when Reuters tells us, as it did in a headline today - Recession-weary Americans outraged by AIG bonuses - and reports that, “While U.S. President Barack Obama tries to claw back bonuses paid to AIG employees, Americans facing pay cuts and job losses are outraged that some refuse to share the pain of the recession,” I’m skeptical that “outrage” accurately describes the reaction from most working class and poor Americans. Once again, we are being told by those in power what we feel and think, and yet there’s the sense that those - most of them with university degrees - writing such words haven’t a clue as to how we feel – much less, how we live – even as they make such claims.
The Washington Post led an online chat today with a “Professor of Corporate Law, Corporate Finance and Securities Law” from Yale titled "Public outrage over AIG." Oh, right: a Yale professor must understand our plight enough that can now tell us what we are feeling and thinking, too.
Then comes US Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to suggest that he's so outraged that AIG execs should kill themselves.
Fox News conducted a panel on “Outrage over AIG bonuses” with such tribunes of the people as Mort Kondracke and Charles Krauthammer.
US Senator Sam Brownback, picking up on the theme, is also “Outraged” by AIG Bonuses.
All these talking heads are somehow reflective of the public? I don't buy it.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board titled today’s screed: “A financial outrage: Our view: Americans should be infuriated at bonuses awarded by AIG.”
The usual gaggle of bloggers that describe themselves as “progressive” have the nobs turned up to eleven on the AIG bonuses, and for them – in tandem with the big media correspondents – they want a scapegoat and are calling for the head of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – who was confirmed for that post on January 26, just fifty days ago. Chris Bowers at Open Left ended a blog entry this afternoon instructing the President: “Fire Geithner.” (I don’t mean to pick on Chris – he should take it as a kind of compliment that I still do peruse his headlines and read some of his posts long after I have given up on bothering with the predictable screeds of the Hamshers and Sirotas and Krugmans out there in whose tar pit he wades.)
When Obama nominated Geithner to Treasury I was glad for two main reasons: One, if not him, it would have likely been Larry Summers and, two, Geithner – despite his evident talents – never personally chose the big money corporate jobs offered him throughout his career. He’s always worked outside of the private sector, for less than his pay scale. He’s a public servant by nature, not a revolving door type (see Rubin, Robert, Secretary of Treasury under Clinton, Bill, for an example of the latter).
And I don’t see how anybody can make an accurate judgment on the job Geithner has done so far just 50 days into a flight that must cover a distance of 18 months to two years before you or they or I will know whether the moves he’s been making now will land the airplane in the terrain of economic turnaround.
And I can’t honestly say that I respect anybody that does claim to know that, because of the complexity of the problem created not just by George W. Bush’s policies, but by those of Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, too.
What I do see is that the moves by the new administration have been bolder than at any point in our lifetime: including a Stimulus that was the largest public expenditure on anything ever in the history of governments or capitalism, along with the rest of the steady output progressive measures already ordered executively or signed into law.
To me, gearing up the “outrage” to call to remove the pilot of the economic plane in what would be the first hour of a 14 hour trip reflects erratic behavior by those passengers: the amount of time and distance lost landing the plane all over again to get a new pilot (or Treasury Secretary) confirmed and saddled up into the cockpit would delay the eventual landing by even more time than we’ve already been in the air with this one.
The Obama administration, not surprisingly, has the same view, and is sticking with its economic pilot.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, during today’s briefing, used the words “outrage” or “offensive” in one form or another at least 14 times (that’s Lenny Bruce 101: if you use a word enough times it loses its drama) and also stood solidly with the flight plan and with Geithner in the pilot’s seat:
I do know that Secretary Geithner last week engaged with the CEO of AIG to communicate what we thought were outrageous and unacceptable bonuses; that Secretary Geithner received a commitment to lessen some of the bonuses for senior executives, a promise for the restructuring moving forward; that obviously this bumped up against a contractual deadline of March 15th, but that the Secretary of Treasury did as much in his legal power at the time to lessen the impact of what we all understand is outrageous…
I think the President and all of America are outraged about is the message that any bonus like this sends; that as I said yesterday, and as the President said, it offends our common sense. It offends our values. It sends the wrong message by giving and rewarding the very entities which took a company like AIG with a hedge fund placed on top of it, and ran the entire company into the ground to the point where taxpayers have had to inject $170 billion. I think everybody is offended by every aspect of that…
The President is satisfied that we are taking the steps necessary to recoup this money, but, again, is completely outraged at the entire process that has led us to this point, that has provided the very employees, AIG Financial Products, the very employees that have found the taxpayers on the hook for tens of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars, receiving the wrong message through a bonus -- he finds that offensive. That's why he's instructed us to take the steps -- all steps that we can, humanly possible, up to that deadline, and after that deadline to recoup that money…
Barack Obama came in and there was a new sheriff in town on executive compensation. He changed the way we did business here and the way Wall Street did business, by instituting the toughest executive compensation rules that had ever been entered into, changing the lawlessness with which all of this was governed prior to that announcement.
So I think it would bear some going back to any of the critics of the President's genuine outrage and ask them what they did or didn't do to change the way executives are compensated before Barack Obama got to town as President of the United States -- and in one of his very first announcements, financial announcements, argued for a change going forward in the way we compensate executives…
The President understands the outrage of members of Congress. The President understands the outrage of every single American that finds what has happened for AIG, what has happened to our banking and financial system -- that the American people find how we got here, why we're here, and the steps that we regrettably have to take to stabilize that system -- why there's great offense and great consternation about it…
The President finds it outrageous and offensive for any of these bonuses to exist…
And so “The Outrage Lobby” – from Chuck Grassley and Sam Brownback to the aforementioned Netroots bloggers – won’t be getting the inside track on the declarations of "outrage" this time around. Nor will those that imagine themselves with torches and pitchforks – but have never used either as work tools with their own hands – be able to harass Geithner out of the pilot’s seat (once again demonstrating their impotence at getting much of anything they want done). And I think that’s all good.
That said, are We, The People, really so “outraged”? And did the AIG bonus revelations that came out yesterday – no polling has been done on it as of yet – really raise the national rage-o-meter?
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post cites a poll that came out before the AIG bonus story that indicates that the public was already weary of the bank bailout signed last year by President Bush:
A Pew Research Center poll out yesterday found that 87 percent of Americans are bothered by the bank bailout -- and that was before word got out about the bonuses at AIG, which was rescued by an earlier federal bailout.
So far, so good, but then he joins the “pack journalists” and “pack bloggers” in assigning additional road rage to We, The People, while offering no evidence with which to measure it:
The rising anger helps to explain why Obama's towering support has slipped to mere mortal levels. The Pew poll put the president's support at 59 percent, down from 64 percent last month, while a CNN poll found Obama down 12 points from early February.
...the administration's bully-pulpit strategy isn't keeping pace with the spreading anger. Lawmakers erupted over the AIG news yesterday with demands for repayment and even a breakup of the insurance group.
Here are two relevant pie charts from a CBS Poll taken March 12-16 that demonstrate just how off-target Milbank and the rest are in their claims:
Now, compare that with this chart, from the same poll:
Get it? There is no connection between the majority of the public’s views about the bailout of banks, or automakers and those toward the President (and, it’s a safe presumption, that goes for his Treasury Secretary as well).
Yet Jim Vandehei of Politico, in the Washington press corps echo chamber (that so many bloggers put themselves into while claiming to be distinct from it) rails: "Why did it take so long for the president and senior lawmakers to get so worked up?"
In fact, as previously documented and linked above, it was the President that identified the problem back on February 4, after years of Republican and Democratic presidents alike that wouldn’t even speak of the matter of executive pay, much less the need to curtail it.
Nope, this is no more than the daily poutrage given an extra echo chamber by the very same corporate media that also overpays its executives while underpaying everyone else. Next week they’ll all be expressing their “outrage” about something else, and assigning it to the rest of us that simply aren’t shocked nor surprised nor blaming those that didn’t cause it – and are in fact acting to do something about it – for a bad situation that has been decades in the making.
For the rest of us, life and organizing go on. And we’ll look back at all this talk about our supposed “outrage” just as we have throughout the past year at the other manifestations of Chicken Littledom and faux-progressivism: just another tantrum by the usual suspects that got a day or two of news cycle from the corporate media led, itself, by greedy and overpaid executives.
Now, what was it that we are supposed to be outraged about today?