By Marie Cocco
Hot tip to Wall Street: We don’t have Tom Daschle to kick around anymore. Or even Rod Blagojevich.
You may wonder what the now-withdrawn Cabinet nominee and the now-removed Illinois governor have to do with you. Well, a very good editor once told me that Washington can handle just two stories at a time.
She wasn’t referring only to the news media. She meant the whole, hyperventilating media-political complex of reporters, television shouters, members of Congress, gossipy lobbyists, talk-radio blabbers, writers of partisan talking points, and yes, sometimes even presidents. With the political soap operas that have been playing out since the November election in a temporary lull, this means Washington is going to settle on two compelling narratives. One of them is the drama of Wall Street versus Main Street.
The other is the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad economy that has everyone so scared that in the run-up to the Super Bowl the people who tell Americans what to cook were full of suggestions about how to feed a football crowd for 20 bucks.
The reason you are such a big story is that you’ve stolen our money. Or at least that’s how most of the country sees it. First you broke just about everything you touched: mortgages, 401(k)s, the kids’ college accounts, and even the employers who provide paychecks—the chump change that middle-class America counts on while you live high. Then we had to bail you out.
You think those auto executives looked bad when they appeared shocked, shocked to find that Congress didn’t really appreciate their traveling in corporate jets to come and beg for their bailouts?
Well, no one hates Detroit as much as they hate Wall Street. At least the Big Three make something people need to get to work and take their kids to soccer and pick up the groceries. What, exactly, do they do with a derivative?
I know that Wall Street is to New York what automakers are to Detroit and tourism is to Florida. I know that when your eye-popping paychecks plummet, the deli guy who rides the subway in from Queens to make your takeout gets hurt, and so do the waiters and bartenders and the owners of those black limos that idle at the curb and who have to make loan payments on the cars even when you cut down on your trips—or cut out the car service altogether.
I know that when New York state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced last week that 2008 bonuses were down 44 percent—to $18.4 billion—he did so in part to warn residents that the enormous loss in tax revenue was going to hurt the city and state. DiNapoli soberly reminded his constituents that the New York securities industry has shed about 20,000 jobs between October 2007 and last December—about 10 percent of its work force.
DiNapoli justifiably saw lost tax revenue. Washington saw a very big slush fund for some very incompetent people—and a powerful detonator of public resentment.
Now President Barack Obama wants to cap some of your executives’ pay at $500,000—but strictly require such a limit only if you’re doing as badly as, say, Citigroup and AIG, which would fall into the category of institutions that got “exceptional assistance” from taxpayers (about $450 billion between them). The limit applies only to companies that seek this much largesse in the future. And the “clawback” provisions require the return of excessive compensation only from top executives engaged in “deceptive practices”—not extraordinarily stupid ones.
Your golden goose so far isn’t cooked. It’s only seared.
So things will get worse. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri already has made clear she wants pay caps for all companies that get taxpayer money, not just “exceptional” firms. And there are hearings scheduled for next week where you will have to defend yourselves.
There is really nothing to be done except try not to do anything else that is incredibly dumb. Like get photographed at a glittery charity ball, thinking that this shows commitment to public service. Or try to justify bonuses as just compensation for long days and nights navigating through this crisis. Crisis is when you lose your job, your health insurance and your house.
And unless you’re planning to pilot a plane yourself and stage a miraculous landing in the Potomac, don’t even think about taking a private jet here. Try Amtrak.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group