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Those Wall Street Bonus Baby Blues

August 10, 2009

Let’s all extend our handkerchiefs to the weeping wizards of Wall Street. It seems that Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration’s official pay czar (I love that title, don’t you?) has started reviewing the salary and bonus programs at seven Wall Street firms. Not just any Wall Street firms, mind you: these Magnificent Seven own the distinction have having received, since the ignominious Financial Meltdown of 2008, multiple bailouts from the benevolent people of the United States.

The gentlemen who run these firms are wheezing and muttering about the possibility that Mr. Feinberg might downsize the multi-million-dollar bonuses they customarily award their top players. Cue the violin music. (“I weep for you,” said the Walrus to the oysters as he sorted out the largest ones for eating.)

There’s no telling how many beautiful bonuses Feinberg might gobble before he’s through. Rumor has it that he might challenge the guaranteed bonuses that most of these firms have been promising their most indispensable underlings. That’s right — guaranteed bonuses, without regard to actual performance. Not even the Yankees would be that extravagant… would they?

Feinberg is reviewing the pay packages for the top 25 bonus babies at each firm, and he has 60 days to decide whose bonuses get nibbled away — and to what degree. Since the gifts will be coming out of taxpayers’ pockets, even some of the performance-related bonuses might have to be miniaturized. (Oh, the pain!, cried Dr. Smith.)

I have a question. How can a bailed-out basket case like Citigroup even dream of promising a $100 million package to one of its traders after last fall’s fall from grace? That’s right: $100 million for one employee, which translates to roughly $300,000 a day. As Dave Barry used to say, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

The cool arrogance wafting about those secret corridors simply defies belief. Surely these folks must be immigrants from another galaxy.

We the People have taken temporary proprietorship of these damaged firms, and we don’t like to see them reward greed and recklessness any more than is absolutely necessary in a capitalist republic — especially with our money. In short, not to put too fine a point on it, WE OWN THEIR BUTTS — at least until they repay us for having delivered them from the gaping jaws of doom.

Furthermore, I don’t think any of those pathologically self-entitled reptiles deserves to earn 2000 times more than the average citizen of these states. Nobody does, not even immortal American icons like Miley Cyrus and Ashton Kutcher. 

The heads of the seven indigent firms are sniffling and whining. They insist that federally imposed restrictions on bonuses would compromise their ability to attract and retain the best “talent.” (Talent? Of course they’re referring to the “talent” that invested trillions of our money in derivatives, credit default swaps and other nightmarishly arcane “financial products,” nearly bringing down the economy of the Known World in the process.)

These firms could hire newly minted MBAs straight out of Wharton and beat the sorry records of last year’s top “talent.” Hell, they could hire my five-year-old son and do at least as well. He’d probably advise them to invest in SpongeBob futures — clearly a more prudent choice than mortgage-backed securities.

I hope I don’t sound like a raving socialist. I’m not. (Raving, yes; socialist, no.) I’m not advocating that Obama’s pay czar oversee compensation practices throughout corporate America, even though those practices need serious reforming. (Golden parachutes, anyone?)

What I’m advocating, ultimately, is a return to the relatively sane salary scales of the 1950s through the 1970s. We had rich people and poor people back then, but even ballplayers and movie stars earned salaries that reasonably reflected their value — without mocking the honest toil of your average Joes and Janes. The fortunes of today’s top earners bring to mind the excesses of Bourbon France — just before the storming of the Bastille.

Back in 1970, on a trip to California, my family and I took one of those self-guided tours of celebrities’ homes in Beverly Hills. I remember noting that even megastars like Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart and Jack Benny (all of whom were neighbors on the same street) resided in unostentatious comfort rather than grandiose splendor. Their homes were roomy, respectable, tasteful and somehow adequate for their purposes. These good people contributed infinitely more to our lives and culture than the Wall Street traders ever will. Yet they didn’t need to live like 18th-century French aristocrats or Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe. They lived the way successful Americans deserve to live — nothing more or less. They had enough, and they were content.

I’d love to know what changed in America between then and now. Somebody should write a book.

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