"Outrage" is the word on everyone’s lips to describe the fat bonuses being paid with taxpayer funds to the failed executives at AIG — and it is an outrage.
It’s an outrage that the American people are being asked to pay for the bad behavior of people who should have known better, be they reckless traders on Wall Street or reckless borrowers on Main Street.
But the cure for our outrage is not merely, as President Obama is demanding, that AIG be prevented from paying its executives. The $165 million in planned bonuses — as manifestly undeserved as it is — is chicken feed compared to the $170 billion in taxpayer funds AIG has received so far.
Nor is it acceptable to ask Americans to keep throwing their tax dollars at failed companies and their leaders.
The answer is an old fashioned one: AIG should choose between receivership or bankruptcy. It should not be allowed to choose more bailouts from the taxpayer.
Restore the Rule of Law: Allow Failing Corporations to go Bankrupt
Under U.S. law, Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows a company to reorganize. Chapter 7 allows a company to dissolve itself.
The choices for AIG, as both an insurance and non-insurance company, are more complicated, but ultimately boil down to the same options. And for other companies either receiving or looking to receive a bailout from the taxpayers, the option should instead be bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy would send a needed message to U.S. investors: Don’t assume the government will bail you out when you do something stupid.
And most importantly, bankruptcy would replace the rule of politicians over U.S. financial institutions with the rule of law.
Geithner Didn’t Inherit the Policy of Throwing Billions at Failing Companies — He Helped Create It
Because when it comes to Washington’s handling of the financial crisis, so far we’ve had the rule of politicians, not the rule of law.
Most prominent among the politicians in question is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
As Americans’ level of outrage has risen, so has the level of finger pointing by Geithner and others for the mess we’re in.
But Treasury Secretary Geithner is disingenuous at best and untruthful at worst when he says that he “inherited the worst fiscal situation in American history.”
The truth is that Secretary Geithner didn’t inherit the policy of throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at failing companies — he helped create it.
Even before he was Treasury Secretary — when he was still head of the New York Federal Reserve — Geithner was so deeply involved in the government’s bail out of Bear Stearns, its take over of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and its bailout of AIG that this was the Washington Post’s headline from September 19, 2008:
“In the Crucible of Crisis, Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner Forge a Committee of Three”
The first meeting of the first bailout — of Bear Sterns — was held in Geithner’s office. And the first meeting of what has become a $170 billion bailout of AIG was held — where else? In Geithner’s New York Fed office.
Why Not Bankruptcy for AIG? Because Wall Street Wouldn’t Have Done As Well
From the outset, Geithner was central to the developing policy of having the taxpayers bail out ailing financial institutions like AIG rather than allow them to go bankrupt. And for months now, we’ve been told that these bailouts were necessary to avoid a wider, cataclysmic, financial meltdown.
But now it’s clear that other, less noble, considerations were at play.
As the Wall Street Journal editorialized yesterday, the real outrage over the AIG bailout isn’t executive bonuses, it’s that billions in taxpayer funds intended for AIG have been passed through to benefit foreign banks and Wall Street behemoths like Goldman Sachs.
And as former AIG CEO Hank Greenburg testified last October, these financial institutions wouldn’t have faired as well if AIG had filed for bankruptcy protection rather than do what it did, which was to negotiate a bailout with Timothy Geithner’s New York Federal Reserve.
Here’s how Greenburg put it:
“Although AIG stockholders could have fared better if the company had filed for bankruptcy protection, other stakeholders — like AIG’s Wall Street counterparties in swaps and other transactions — would have fared worse.”
For the Cost of Bailing Out AIG, Every American Household Could Have Free Electricity For a Year
So now everyone is outraged, and rightly so. But the lavish executive bonuses being paid with taxpayer funds are just the beginning of the story.
So far, the American taxpayers are on the hook for $170 billion to AIG — that’s an astounding $1,224 per taxpayer.
What else could we have done with all this money?
$170 billion would pay for more than doubling the Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers.
$170 billion would pay for a four-year education at a public university for more than two million Americans.
$170 billion would cover the electricity bill of every household in America for an entire year.
When You Reward Failure, All You Get is More Failure
What Washington should learn from all this outrage is to return to the common sense that should have guided it all along: When you reward failure, all you get is more failure.
A company that needs a $170 billion taxpayer bailout is a failed company. The executives that led that company are failed executives. But instead of having to face the consequences of their failure responsibly through bankruptcy or receivership, AIG and its Wall Street “counterparties” are being rewarded for their recklessness — with our money.
Thanks to the Bush-Obama-Geithner policy of bailing out failing companies, we now have the worst of all possible scenarios: A taxpayer subsidized, government supervised private company; an unsustainable public/private hybrid that is too public to make its own decisions and too private to be responsible to the taxpayers that are keeping it alive.
Outrages like the fat cat bonuses currently dominating the headlines will only continue as long as the rule of politicians supplants the rule of law on Wall Street.
Congress should rethink this entire process. The dangers of a domino-like financial meltdown are real. But so, too, is the danger that the outrage of the American people will reach the point that we no longer trust the dire warnings — or the righteous indignation — coming from Washington.
P.S. Historian William Forstchen and I have collaborated on many different works of historical fiction. I’m proud to announce that Bill has a new novel out, called One Second After. It’s a fascinating and disturbing account of what America would be like in the aftermath of an electro magnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Like everything Bill does, One Second After expertly combines human drama and geopolitical reality for a fictional look at what could be an all-too-real future. See it for yourself here.