No one claimed that the banks and investment houses deserved the money. Their reckless bets (enabled by inadequate government regulation) had created the crisis. But here was a case where the welfare of the economy as a whole seemed to outweigh considerations of fairness. Congress reluctantly appropriated the bailout funds. Then came the bonuses. Shortly after the bailout money began to flow, news accounts revealed that some of the companies now on the public dole were awarding millions of dollars in bonuses to their executives. The most egregious case involved the American International Group (A.I.G.), an insurance giant brought to ruin by the risky investments of its financial products unit. Despite having been rescued with massive infusions of government funds (totaling $173 billion), the company paid $165 million in bonuses to executives in the very division that had precipitated the crisis. Seventy-three employees received bonuses of $1 million or more.
News of the bonuses set off a firestorm of public protest. This time, the outrage was not about ten-dollar bags of ice or overpriced motel rooms. It was about lavish rewards subsidized with taxpayer funds to members of the division that had helped bring the global financial system to near meltdown. Something was wrong with this picture. Although the U.S. government now owned 80 percent of the company, the treasury secretary pleaded in vain with A.I.G.’s government- appointed CEO to rescind the bonuses. “We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent,” the CEO replied, “if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury.” He claimed the employees’ talents were needed to unload the toxic assets for the benefit of the taxpayers, who, after all, owned most of the company.
The public reacted with fury. A full-page headline in the tabloid New York Post captured the sentiments of many: “Not So Fast You Greedy Bastards.” The U.S. House of Representatives sought to claw back the payments by approving a bill that would impose a 90 percent tax on bonuses paid to employees of companies that received substantial bailout funds. Under pressure from New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo, fifteen of the top twenty A.I.G. bonus recipients agreed to return the payments, and some $50 million was recouped in all. This gesture assuaged public anger to some degree, and support for the punitive tax mea sure faded in the Senate. But the episode left the public reluctant to spend more to clean up the mess the financial industry had created.
At the heart of the bailout outrage was a sense of injustice. Even before the bonus issue erupted, public support for the bailout was hesitant and conflicted. Americans were torn between the need to prevent an economic meltdown that would hurt everyone and their belief that funneling massive sums to failed banks and investment companies was deeply unfair. To avoid economic disaster, Congress and the public acceded. But morally speaking, it had felt all along like a kind of extortion. Underlying the bailout outrage was a belief about moral desert: The executives receiving the bonuses (and the companies receiving the bailouts) didn’t deserve them. But why didn’t they? The reason may be less obvious than it seems. Consider two possible answers—one is about greed, the other about failure.
One source of outrage was that the bonuses seemed to reward greed, as the tabloid headline indelicately suggested. The public found this morally unpalatable. Not only the bonuses but the bailout as a whole seemed, perversely, to reward greedy behavior rather than punish it. The derivatives traders had landed their company, and the country, in dire financial peril—by making reckless investments in pursuit of ever-greater profits. Having pocketed the profits when times were good, they saw nothing wrong with million-dollar bonuses even after their investments had come to ruin.
Excerpted from Justice: Whats the Right Thing to Do by Michael J. Sandel. Published in September 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Michael J. Sandel. All rights reserved.
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