Today's big economic story is the testimony of eight banking honchos before the House Financial Services Committee, their first such appearance, somehow, since we the people gave them over $160 billion but forgot to ask what they planned to do with it. While the event has been rife with political theater – bus, train, humble pie anyone? – the big question remains: We all know they got it (the money) but do they Get It? We are, in general, hopeful. On this score, alas, we're not holding our breath.
Though it was LAST YEAR that the banks got all that taxpayer money via the justifiably-maligned Troubled Asset Relief Program, this will be the lawmakers' first chance to find out just what they did with it, and whether it achieved anything. It's a good question, but there so many of 'em it's hard to know where to start.
Faced with such abundance, legislators are taking different approaches. Some are focused on the reports of obscene spending, compensation and executive bonuses even as they take billions in bailout funds. "If they didn't get a bonus, would they knock off early on Wednesday?" asked Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, the committee's chairman. Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina said that while he's "as offended by the excesses as anybody," he's more concerned about the banks' competence.
That's an important issue here. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was succinct on the subject, asking the CEOS to show they have the ability to "(manage) any money you receive from...the taxpayer, and use it wisely, that you have a
plan to pay it back, you understand the nature of the problem and you have
a plan to fix it..."
This is an excellent place to begin. Still, some of us continue to wonder and worry about the world view of guys (to date, it seems, there are few if any women) who think nothing of pocketing $18 million in bonuses after totally blowing it, or spending $1.2 million on office renovations that include an $87,000 rug (Merrill Lynch), or defending a swank, 12-night Las Vegas casino junket – past ones featured camel rides! Jimmy Buffett! Presents on your pillow! – that Wells Fargo planned after getting $25 billion in bailout money and only cancelled after an inexplicable burst of public outrage.
Now, because politics is in large part theater, or in this case vaudeville, the bigwigs are scrambling to cover their extravagant tracks and prove they are just like us, only a teeny bit richer. Reports of their new-found frugality are flooding in. They are taking hybrids, busses, trains to their meetings. They are flying coach; no word yet if they're taking the middle seat.
Still, it's hard to believe that anyone who inhabits so lush a world can understand the essential inequities it represents to so many, especially now. When you spend $1,400 on a trash can (Merrill Lynch, again) it's probably tough to maintain a sense of perspective, a sense of scale about the world and your own relative place in it. Some time ago, a smart guy posited the notion, To each according to his (or her) need, from each according to his (or her) ability. That sort of rectitude, I imagine, would come hard: how, then, do we get our camel ride?
I wish my father, who died a few years ago, was still here to help explain it. He, too, was a capitalist, a builder of houses who made alot of money but then lost most of it in what is a famously unstable business. He was also a self-made man, a driven, conscientious, attention-to-detail guy who grew up in the Depression and started with nothing and worked hard for a long time to give his kids all the things he never had, a classic immigrant tale. He believed in work, in achievement, in earning what you get, and was contemptuous of silver-spoon "trust-fund kids" who expected something for nothing. No free ride here, camel or otherwise.
So it was that I wrote him once from college, outside of New York City, with a coy request. I was doing well, I said, but like all the affluent kids around me tooling off on outings in their late-model cars, I thought it would be nice to have a way to get around. No response; my father was not a talker. A few weeks passed.
Then I got a notice that a package had arrived for me. It was a pogo stick.
Bankers, profligates, profiteers, take note. The people are pissed.