“Get the bonus, we will get your children.”
“I don't hope that bad things happen to the recipients of those bonuses. I really hope that bad things happen to the children and grandchildren of them! Whatever hurts them the most!!”
“You f***ing suck. Paying bonuses to the d*****s that made bad bets losing your company billions of dollars. I want to f***ing puke. Publish the list of those yankee scumbags so some good old southern boys can take care of them.”
These emails are just a sample of the hate mail that AIG has gotten in the wake of the AIG bonus controversy. Granted, many of these writers are just cranks (the sort of people who post nasty comments in blog comment threads), but some aren’t—AIG CEO Edward Liddy feared to release the names of the AIG employees who received bonuses out of fear for their safety, and many AIG employees have hired security firms to protect their homes.
The attitudes in these letters are extreme—but they are simply lunatic fringe expressions of attitudes that are shared by many, many people, both average citizens and politicians. And this is worrisome.
Andrew Cuomo is waging a war to try to get the AIG bonuses back, and will apparently do whatever it takes to do so. He’s trying to find a way to take back the bonuses of British AIG employees, in spite of the fact that a) those employees were entitled to them, and b), he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in Britain. (Cuomo allowed that he had a “very aggressive theory about our jurisdiction, but we don’t have a theory that gets us to London yet.” He is, however, looking for a way in)
Thuggishly, Cuomo is threatening to release the names of those employees who refused to return their bonuses. However, regarding those who did return their bonuses, Cuomo said “I don’t believe there’s a public interest in releasing their names.” The message is clear: return your bonuses, or face public humiliation—or worse.
Cuomo is hardly alone in his attitude—he just presents a convenient example. There are plenty of other examples: Michael Moore accusing the rich of staging a coup, Barney Frank calling the bonuses “extortion,” or Obama saying that the financial crisis was caused by “Wall Street greed.” (The financial crisis was caused partly by “greed,” but that explanation is incredibly inadequate, and imprecise. It’s like saying that since money was involved in the collapse, the crash can be traced back to money).
This attitude is pervasive—and worrisome. Not just for its effects on these particular AIG workers (in the long run, they’ll be okay), but for our society at large.
This stance many seem to be taking against the business class (the banking class in particular) seems to me to be perilously close to class warfare. It’s true that Wall Street bears a great deal of blame for the predicament that we are in. But so does Washington. And so do all those hundreds of thousands of people who abused their credit. This crash was a long time coming, and its causes extend far, far beyond Wall Street greed.
Wall Street makes a convenient scapegoat, since it produces nothing tangible and relatively few people work there. But scapegoating Wall Street is both wrong and dangerous—wrong, because our economic problems go far beyond anything Wall Street could do, and dangerous, because it divides Americans, and sets one group apart as villains destroying the American way of life.
This blame game is destructive, if for no other reason that it is impossible to know who will be next. Maybe it will be doctors being blamed for our health care system, or maybe auto workers being demonized for the plight of General Motors and Chrysler. It’s unfair to blame any one group for our country’s problems—but it is convenient to try.