It was probably inevitable. The AIG bonuses, followed by Congressâ€™ knee jerk response. The final straw. The tipping point that would convert economically frightened and somewhat paralyzed Americans into a raging group of Howard Beales. Remember him?
Howard Beale was the character in the 1976 movie â€œNetworkâ€?? who encouraged people to â€œget up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”
I am struck by the parallels here, both the economic conditions of the time (I was there. The economy at the time was worse than now.) and the helpless outrage of the people. We need to be angry now. There are very good reasons for our current outrage. My concern is that we direct it at the proper targets. Although many want to aim at the AIG execs themselves and castigate them as greedy SOBs, beware the mob mentality that sends death threats to their family members. As Americans, we can and must be better than that.
Instead, letâ€™s channel our anger into positive action. First, understand the causes and players here. Learn the facts. Then, consider actions that are more likely to make a difference. As business people, there are some real dangers looming as well as some real lessons to learn. Here are points I am focused on at the moment and I offer them for your consideration.
â€¢ The bonuses were huge and completely inappropriate, but they were contractual and legal.
â€¢ Key members of Congress and the administration were fully aware of the bonuses ahead of time. In fact, language they deliberately placed in recent legislation allowed the dollars to flow.
â€¢ The move in Congress to tax them at 90% is most likely NOT legal, or constitutional. (And this from our supposed lawmakers! Have they read the Constitution? I have. Havenâ€™t you?) It is also a dangerous precedent that business people need to watch very carefully.
â€¢ Not all corporate execs are greedy bad guys. In fact, most are not. As a business owner, I am a business exec, and I assure you that I place ethics and integrity at the top of my corporate principles. Corporations are not evil entities, but people like you and me, making a product or offering a service as a fair exchange for a customerâ€™s dollars.
â€¢ Actions have consequences, some of them unintended but still very real. Congress needs to study this principle, especially now that our Treasury Secretary is proposing a public/private partnership to address the toxic asset problem strangling our banks and lenders. Will private companies and their executives (some greedy, most not â€“ donâ€™t forget that!) feel comfortable participating if they fear punitive taxation, especially when it comes after the fact, essentially altering the rules of a game in progress?
I think our government should abandon their punitive mentality and go after these guys with simple, old-fashioned shame. Take the higher, principled road and use the bully pulpit to encourage greater integrity. For example, try returning all those campaign dollars they received from AIG. Perhaps then Congressional actions will be viewed as examples of the best in America, rather than political pandering.
Finally, remember that the profit motive is really a positive thing. It only becomes greed when it goes too far. A healthy profit motive, the hope of reasonable reward for effort, is what encourages Americans to innovate, build, become entrepreneurs, and ultimately drive our capitalist economy. It will not help our economy recover if our government keeps punishing success!