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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Piano-Wire Justice

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It takes a lot for us to start feeling sorry for high-flying financial executives who, left unregulated by an administration that believed the free market should be free to do anything it wanted, destroyed our nation’s economy and wiped out our 401(k)s. But when politicians whip up such a frenzy of hatred against a few carefully selected scapegoats that Americans begin threatening to commit random executions with piano wire, things have gotten out of hand. That was one of the threats against the insurance executives at American International Group (AIG) who distributed perhaps as much as $200 million in bonuses after receiving nearly $200 billion in taxpayer bailout funds.

“All the executives and their families should be executed with piano wire around their necks,” read one death threat against AIG executives. “That is our only hope.” One Republican senator proclaimed that the honorable thing for AIG executives to do was to resign or commit suicide.

Even though a majority of Americans were repelled by the Bush administration’s inhumane torture of terrorism suspects being held without charges at Guantanamo Bay, it’s clear they have no such qualms against waterboarding Wall Street. If executions of financial executives receiving multimillion-dollar bonuses were to be carried out in public squares, cheering mobs would be only too happy to show up with torches and pitchforks.

Escaping Blame

The problem is that dishonest politicians are manipulating the people’s anger to divert attention from their own complicity in showering money on the wealthy.

Despite all the self-righteous political speeches we’ve heard in recent days, members of Congress knew about the planned bonuses at AIG at least since November when the bonuses were reported in a company filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It’s particularly amusing to hear Republican politicians trying to use the AIG bonuses against congressional Democrats and the Obama administration.

The bonuses are a direct result of the negotiations last November between President Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the Federal Reserve and AIG when the company bailout was restructured. Republicans who’ve accused President Barack Obama of being a socialist for planning to regulate out-of-control financial institutions are now accusing Obama and congressional Democrats of failing to stop the bonuses Republicans allowed.

It's the classic plea of a serial killer: "Stop us before we kill again."

Almost as disturbing as inflaming citizens to stalk AIG executives with piano wire is the plan approved by Congress to unleash the Internal Revenue Service to confiscate the money paid to AIG executives.

The last administration to use the IRS to punish people based on personal hatred was that of President Richard Nixon, who ordered IRS audits of journalists, rival politicians and anyone else he felt like adding to his secret enemies list.

But not even the corrupt Nixon, who employed burglars to conduct black-bag jobs out of the White House, dared to try to pass laws to retroactively take money away from specific people he didn’t want to have it.

The remedy for the culture of entitlement among Wall Street financial executives is not torture by the IRS or murder by vigilantes. It is common-sense reform to reverse some of the enormous tax breaks that have obscenely increased the wealth of the richest 10% over the last 30 years.

If you want to be really angry about something, forget about a few tone-deaf executives passing out big bonuses during the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes.

What you really need to concentrate on is what the guys at the top, along with their Republican and Democratic political allies, did to the rest of us when times were good.

According to David Cay Johnston of The New York Times, between 1980 (the year Republican Ronald Reagan was elected president) and 2005, the national economy, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled. Because of population growth, the actual increase in economic growth per capita was about 66%.

Incredibly, during those phenomenal boom years, the average income of the vast majority of Americans actually declined.

In fact, the peak income year for the bottom 90% of Americans was back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer was $33,000 (adjusted for inflation). That was nearly $4,000 higher than their inflationadjusted income in 2005, Johnston said.

What that means is that over the past 30 years, the richest 10% took every penny of the increase in the nation’s wealth and more.

By all means, stay angry over the robber barons and their outrageous corporate compensation. But don’t be distracted by cries for piano-wire justice aimed at a few designated scapegoats.

Demand the change America voted for. Restore regulation to corporate excess and fairness to taxation so democracy starts serving all Americans instead of just the wealthiest 10%.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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