Immoral Inequivalencies

Chris LehmannSeptember 24, 2013

It’s hard to stretch the limits of historical hyperbole on the same day that Sen. Ted Cruz has declared that anyone skeptical about his cunning plan to filibuster an already ratified, signed, and Supreme Court-upheld law out of existence is akin to Nazi appeasers. Yet the gentleman from Texas may well have been one-upped. Behold American International Group CEO Robert Benmosche stoically recalling the monstrous public criticism his company endured all for the mere peccadillo of nearly destroying the world economy and then collecting a cool $182 billion in federal bailout money that underwrote a grand cornucopia of senior executive bonuses as though nothing ever happened: The outrage vented over the AIG bonuses in 2009 “was intended to stir up public anger, to get everyone out there with their pitchforks and hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.”

The fire-breathing, pitchfork-hurling masses failed to grasp certain bedrock facts of the case, Benmosche insisted:

Now you have these bright young people [in the financial-products unit] who had nothing to do with [the bad bets that hurt the company.] … They understand the derivatives very well; they understand the complexity. … They’re all scared. They [had made] good livings. They probably lived beyond their means. …They aren’t going to stay there for nothing.

So let’s just review: Junior financial hands at AIG were, like virtually every other working American circa 2009, overextended and terrified about the future. And that condition equates, in the minds of our Wall Street overlords, to being falsely accused of criminal acts, rounded up by vigilante mobs, and strung up by a noose solely on the basis of your skin color (or, one supposes, being burned alive or beaten to death, if this student of southern history is up on common early twentieth-century lynching practices).

Maybe it’s just me, but this outburst makes it a wee bit difficult to credit Benmosche’s airy dismissal of AIG’s critics as impressionable rubes acting out of “ignorance” of the financial markets’ storied “complexity.” From here it looks fairly simple: As Benmosche and his firm have made clear, there’s no apparent limit to the amount of ignorance that $182 billion in public money can fetch.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.