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Bring Down The Blade

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You have to love Wall Street. There is no place else in the known universe that comes close to it for sheer unmitigated brass, for an outsized and surreal sense of entitlement and for shrugging its shoulders when things go catastrophically wrong–as they do with the predictable regularity of bubbles bursting.

So much has happened in the couple of weeks since news surfaced about Wall Street firms, commercial banks and others now on the public payroll granting their executives nice fat bonuses for the year 2008 that you may have forgotten the sputtering outrage this news engendered in everyone from the politicos on Capitol Hill to the newly unemployed assembly line worker to the back office employee still (barely) holding on to her job.

In a single stroke that crystallized unbridled greed, these bonuses made the continuing bank bailout saga and the economic stimulus endeavor that much more difficult to pull off.

And what was Wall Street’s justification for this exercise in self-indulgence at the public’s expense? In a word, these firms said, if we don’t pay bonuses the talent will go elsewhere.

Now, to my mind, this is like one of those tests where you show a 5-year-old a drawing with certain things not as they should be and then ask: What’s wrong with this picture?

Most of the time the 5-year-old will be able to tell you what’s wrong. Not so for the Wall Streeters, who don’t think that anything is wrong with the picture they’ve drawn.

Just because we’ve lost billions if not trillions of dollars, doesn’t mean that we haven’t put in the same long hours we did when we were making billions of dollars. It’s only fair that we should be bonused for the long hours, not the results.

One response to the plaint that talent will go elsewhere is: Let them. It’s not as if investment bank type jobs are exactly a growth area amidst the miasma of unemployment everywhere else.

A second response is to question the use of the word ‘talent.’ If this is the caliber of the talent that got us into this calamitous situation, then perhaps we need to reassess exactly what such talent amounts to.

There’s no denying that some of these 20-somethings recruited from the best B-schools are whiz kids. And, indeed, it does take a certain talent to cut up a security into some 400 or so tranches and create something so mysterious that not even the smartest of financial bloodhounds can follow the scent all the way to the end.

But the fact of the matter is that this brilliance was able to shine as brightly as it did because it was simply a numbers game that for a while was divorced from consequences in the real world. How much easier it is to be a high roller with somebody else’s money.

And the people whose money it was, whose 401(k)s and IRAs are scorched, are justifiably outraged and want some payback. Thus President Obama’s $500,000 cap on salaries of execs whose companies feed at the public trough.

There’s a reason that Dickens’ Madame Defarge is such a memorable character. And the reason is that to a degree she exists in all of us. Yet our ways have grown gentler, so it’s not as if we want to see these execs dragged to the guillotine. We simply want to lop off the top $19.5 million of the $20 million in compensation they feel they so richly deserve.

Bring down the blade.


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