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Grand Gestures…

HandingMoney.jpgSo today, Jake DeSantis of AIG publicly resigned, on the Op-Ed page of today’s Times. Publishing his letter of resignation, and describing what he would do with his “post-tax retention payment” (read: bonus) was an admirable act. But it made me mad anyway.

DeSantis rightly points out that he and people like him are being made into whipping boys by government officials with a need for easy scapegoats (read: Congress, Cuomo, Blumenthal) and by their own corporate officers (read: Edward Liddy).  It’s true: the bonuses offered to AIG employees – heinously disproportionate as they may be – are tiny droplets compared to the financial tsunami that has engulfed us all.

But as we all know, when the going gets tough, the finger-pointing gets going, and DeSantis’s letter eloquently summarizes what it’s like to be on the other end of the finger-pointing – despite his assertion that he and his colleagues had nothing to do with the credit default swap transactions that unhinged AIG and the financial industry. 

I feel for the guy; I really do. It can’t be enjoyable to hear yourself – even in the abstract – be pilloried by all and sundry; to know that you have become a symbol of excess and greed, even though your life story is, if not quite rags to riches, a real “American Dream” story. 

DeSantis admits that his hard work has allowed him to profit “more than most” in the economic boom, so that his family will be insulated from loss in a way that many others will not be. I’m sure that in the boom years, he and his family gave generously to a variety of variety of charitable and cultural institutions, so that those organizations too have benefited from his economic success: the “trickle-down” in practice.

And, in fact, his generosity will continue, now that the bust is upon us, because he’s going to give away whatever is left of his “post-tax retention payment” after the government figures out what it’s going to do with/to his money.

How much is that post-tax retention payment? He is very precise: $742,006.40.

Once he gives us that amount, however, whatever sympathy I had for his predicament (and it wasn’t much) evaporates like public support for financial bailouts.

He’s right: it’s not fair that he and his blameless colleagues have become public whipping boys for the excesses and dishonesty of corporate culture. It’s not fair that those who created this crisis seem to be skating away to their coastal villas and gated communities relatively unscathed. It’s not fair that Edward Liddy approved the bonuses for AIG employees several months ago and then last week said the bonuses were “distasteful.”  Hell, for that matter, it’s not fair that Barack is drawing so much heat for not being able to fix in two months what it took the Bushies eight years to create.

But why is it fair that DeSantis can feel entitled to a bonus check that is more than I will make in six years combined, before taxes? So he works “10, 12, 14 hours a day” – but so do many, many of the people I know and not one of them makes anywhere near that amount of money – and probably never will.

I do understand that railing at these AIG bonuses is really beside the point but, as I said in an earlier post, I love a metaphor, and these bonus checks create an irresistible metaphor: about corporate greed, about a society that values materiality rather than humanity, about capitalism’s inability to regulate itself…

And of course, in seeing this metaphor, I am forced also to confront my essential petty nature: I can’t feel bad for this guy, despite respecting his decision to give away the money and admiring the guts it must have taken to go public with this letter.

Because, c’mon, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to make such a grand gesture? To say, in order to make a point, that you’re going to give away close to three-quarters of a million dollars – of your own money? Not grant money, not foundation money, not money on some budget line somewhere. Your money. Just to make a point?

Seeing as how grand gestures are a bit beyond me at the moment (and not having access to the op-ed page of the Times to air my views), I have to settle for a little blogsophere sputtering and a confession: I have a bad case of populist outrage.

I’m not sure there’s a cure.

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