Bonus Time

Bonus Time
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Mar. 22, 2009

The news that AIG chief executive officer Edward M. Liddy will pay $165 million dollars in bonuses to people in the very unit that has been blamed not only for the company’s collapse but for much of the current financial crisis has outraged almost everyone.

Over the last year AIG has received 4 bailouts for a total of $170 billion. Meanwhile the company has been reluctant to let anyone know how it is using the money. Only last week, under increased government pressure, did they finally give up information on how they have spent most (but not all) of the public bailout. Most of it went to prop up other banks and bad investment houses.

Now we are told that some 400 people will get bonus checks ranging from $1000 to $6.5 million. Supposedly the company is contractually obligated to pay these bonuses because it needs to entice people to stay on with them.

This latest outrage has brought a rare unity among commentators of the right and the left.

The Huffington Post, usually considered left leaning, declared, “AIG Hits the Tipping Point.” Conservative columnist Bill Kristol actually raised the question, “Can capitalism survive the behavior of some capitalists?”

This behavior is part of a long string of questionable activities. While claiming it needs to give the bonuses to keep the “best and the brightest” working for it, and despite receiving massive government money, AIG posted the largest corporate quarterly loss in history, $61.7 billion.

It has become a symbol of corporate excess as its executives grabbed the first bailout and ran off to a sales meeting at a luxury resort in Phoenix.

They have even managed to stonewall New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. On Monday, shortly after news of the bonuses broke, Cuomo sent a letter threatening to issue subpoenas by 4 p.m. Monday if AIG did not provide the names of the executives getting bonuses under what the company called its “retention plan.”

Cuomo demanded each person’s job description and performance report, contracts obligating AIG to pay the bonuses, and the names of those who developed the retention plan. “Covering up the details of these payments breeds further cynicism and distrust in our already shaken financial system,” Cuomo said in the letter.

At 5:01 p.m. AIG spokeswoman Christina Pretto, offering no information, released a statement that said, “We are in ongoing contact with the attorney general and will respond appropriately to the subpoena.”

In spite of expressing outrage, President Obama appears to have little legal recourse at this point.

At the heart of this outrage is the very real human need to find some one to blame for the crisis we are facing. AIG is leading the pack of possible suspects. They are becoming the capitalists we love to hate.

On one level, there is nothing more satisfying than righteous anger. But on a deeper level, focusing our attention on this corporate callousness becomes a convenient scapegoat for us. By aiming our anger at AIG and its cronies, we are able to avoid looking at our own complicity in this crisis.

Certainly corporate greed is responsible for much of this crisis. But just as the 400 employees of AIG have probably convinced themselves that they deserve these bonuses, most of us have convinced ourselves that we deserve our American middle class lifestyle. Like the tone deaf executives, most of us have turned away from looking at the suffering and devastation we have caused others in the world in order to maintain a standard of living in which we consume nearly 30% of the world’s resources while representing only 5% of the population.

It’s time to look beyond convenient targets and look honestly at ourselves.



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