The infamous letter from AIG CEO Edward Liddy to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner–the one in which he informs the good secretary that whatever the administration’s preference might be to the contrary, the company will be paying $165 million in bonuses to its financial products division–is destined to be studied years from now as the perfect text for this strange moment in American capitalism. Facially supplicant yet substantively defiant, its rhetorical posture is that of a bank robber who calls the teller “ma’am” before asking her calmly to put the money in the bag. “On the one hand, all of us at AIG recognize the environment in which we operate and the remonstrations of our President for a more restrained system of compensation for executives,” Liddy writes. (Nice touch, the use of “remonstrations” to describe the president’s attempts to rein in Wall Street with moral suasion.) “On the other hand, we cannot attract and retain the best and brightest talent to lead and staff the AIG businesses–which are now being operated principally on behalf of the American taxpayers–if employees believe that their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury.” This is the language of someone who has sized up what an organizer would call “the power relations” and believes they are balanced in his favor.
The question is, Was his calculation correct? At this writing, Liddy is appearing before Congress, sitting in the proverbial hot seat. On Capitol Hill there is unanimous agreement that the proposed bonuses are an intolerable insult to taxpayers. They certainly are. But one learns to mistrust unanimity in Washington. There’s something vaguely redolent of the earmark foolishness in the dramatic expressions of anger from elected officials–what might be called the Law of Small Numbers. When it comes to money, trillions of dollars is a statistic, but $165 million is an outrage. Then there’s the fact that much of Washington, including, sadly, the Obama administration, was complicit in setting the stage for this drama. Ron Wyden and Olympia Snowe co-sponsored an amendment to the recovery act that would have required TARP recipients to pay back bonuses in excess of $100,000 or face tax penalties. It was mysteriously removed from the final bill just before passage. Geithner and Larry Summers, meanwhile, have both reportedly worked internally to water down statutory limitations on executive compensation for bailed-out firms.
I’d bet against AIG’s financial products traders keeping their bonuses: public outrage is running too high. But then what? The power imbalance is the fundamental problem, and it remains. At a Nation-sponsored panel on the financial crisis in New York City on March 6, an audience member asked, “Why aren’t people in the streets?” There are a number of answers: the capital-L, to-the-streets Left is withered. The absolute level of privation doesn’t begin to approach the mass starvation and immiseration of the Depression. The whole goddamned thing is so complicated, no one’s quite sure what to make of it.
Perhaps, though, AIG overplayed its hand. Perhaps it has catalyzed something. A coalition of progressive groups including MoveOn, SEIU and ACORN has announced Take Back the Economy protests at banks and corporate headquarters across the country on March 19. Another group of activists have set up a website, A New Way Forward (anewwayforward.org), to facilitate the organization of grassroots protests in favor of bank nationalization on April 11. Their slogan–Nationalize. Reorganize. Decentralize.–represents the first attempt to distill the intimidating complexity of the financial rescue into a straightforward popular demand. And power, as Frederick Douglass so sagely observed, concedes nothing without a demand.