During Bowling for Columbine Michael Moore suggests to Dick Herland, a former producer of Cops, that he find new villains.

Rather than screening mostly black and Hispanic men being chased by law enforcement, why not have a show called Corporate Cops, where police hunt down white-collar criminals?

“I’m telling you, everyone in America who’s got just your basic, everyday job…is gonna love watching the boss being chased down the street with his shirt off, thrown to the ground and a knee to the neck. I’m telling you, that is gonna get ratings,” says Moore.

“Yeah, I’m with you,” says Herland. “And if I can find a police outfit that would prosecute corporate criminals appropriately and would go after them appropriately…. But…when police go after the guy who’s just stolen $85 million [as opposed to one who’s lifted a purse with $85], they treat him like he was a member of the city council–as he may or may not be–and it’s not exciting television. If you could get that guy to take his shirt off…yeah, and throw his cellular phone at the police as they come through the door, try to jump out that window, then we’d have a show.”

There have been moments over the past few weeks when it’s seemed as though that day had nearly come. The celebrity website TMZ, which once brought you Britney Spears exposing herself, recently uncovered how Northern Trust bank, which received $1.6 billion in bailout funds, threw a lavish Hollywood party. Meanwhile, the entertainment channel Extra had crews outside the Madoff trial, and ABC, the Disney-owned channel, is stalking failed-bank executives to catch them alighting from their corporate jets. “The corporate jets never…disappoint,” Rhonda Schwartz, chief of investigative projects for ABC News, told the New York Times. “It’s like they never get the message.”

Such is the mood of the moment. To what extent it is driven by the media instead of being a genuinely popular political force is not clear. Either way, the AIG bonus furor reveals the degree to which such episodes are a distraction from the urgent issues in this period, as opposed to a rallying point to broaden the audience that might discuss those issues.

In a country where the left rarely gets to choose the conditions on which it fights, the appeal of trying to capitalize on AIG’s woes isn’t difficult to fathom. The symbolism of the government essentially handing over huge sums to wealthy people who have screwed up is indeed a teachable moment. Rarely do things get as blatant as this. While perfectly competent minimum-wage workers are being laid off because of the economic crisis, the people responsible for creating the crisis are being paid millions to stay on. Executive pay can be a useful means of raising awareness of a broader corporate culture that treats workers with contempt. As a trade union organizer, I have used it myself.

The trouble is, before AIG we were already in a teachable moment; the hubbub over the bonuses just interrupted the lesson. We had been learning about the systemic flaws in capitalism, the need for it to be regulated immediately and the need to find an alternative in the future. With nations like Iceland and Ireland, previously hailed for their open economies, on the brink of default, our longstanding critique of neoliberal globalization was heading from the margins to the mainstream. We had been addressing the abuses of an entire system; within a week we’re reduced to abusing people at their addresses in Connecticut.

The problem isn’t just that the sums involved in the AIG bonus crisis are less than one-thousandth of the amount of bailout money being paid out. It is that by concentrating on them so completely the focus shifted from the institutional to the individual, power to people, and in the process, from class struggle to class envy. The former targets the system that makes some people rich by making others poor; the latter is rooted in the popular resentment of the rich for their wealth. Envy can lead to struggle. But while the two may, in the right circumstances, be symbiotic, they are by no means synonymous.

This is not a question of ideological purity but of strategic, savvy politics. If the left is going to be opportunistic, it at least has the responsibility to concentrate on the right opportunities. This was not one of them. First, the populist rage was, while not a media invention, certainly a media construct. Proclaimed before it was ever proved, it had the lack of depth of other call-in topics like gas prices and flag pins. Politicians performed “outrage”; news anchors shook their heads in disbelief, as though we had never heard of private companies ripping off the government and thereby exploiting taxpayers. A few days after the story broke, polls showed 59 percent of Americans were indeed “outraged” while 37 percent were “bothered.” A few days later, even as the media furor swelled, the “anger” subsided to 50 percent. These were pretty much the numbers of Americans who were peeved by the bank bailout in the first place. People were angry. But AIG didn’t make them angry.

Second, just like AIG’s Edward Liddy working for a dollar or the Detroit CEOs forgoing their jets to drive themselves to Washington, these particular matters can be “solved” with little more than a gimmick coated in fudge. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo got fifteen of the top twenty AIG employees to give back their bonuses and then pledged to work his way down the list, while the Senate indefinitely delayed acting on House legislation to inflict punitive taxes on the bonuses.

Meanwhile, as everyone claims victory, nothing really changes. Geithner rolls out another inadequate, invidious bailout plan that shovels far more money to the rich than AIG has done. “This is perhaps the first win/win/win policy to be put on the table,” Bill Gross, founder of bond fund manager Pimco, told the Financial Times, “and it should be welcomed enthusiastically.”

Roll cameras. Send up the chopper. Call 911. I feel another chase coming on.