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April 1, 2009

Attention angry mob: Focus!

One advantage to being outraged at all times is that when “populist outrage” like that currently aimed at Wall Street comes along, it barely registers a blip on your blood-pressure gauge.

The casually outraged seem like such amateurs. When I meet someone who’s angry over the AIG bonuses, I’m like, “Aw. Look at you. You don’t like how America’s spending your money. That’s adorable!” And then I pinch their huffy red cheeks.

I understand the indignation, of course. It’s infuriating that the very criminals who made the financial bailout necessary are getting bonuses out of the bailout money. It’s how your parents must have felt when you were in college and kept hitting them up for more lunch money because you spent it all on weed. What I don’t get is the amount of anger relative to the amount of pillaging. Where have the angry mobs been for the past few decades? The $165 million we’re paying AIG (Assholes In Gucci) executives to schtup us seems like a bargain compared to the trillions we’ve shoveled out to military contractors, agribusiness, energy companies, auto companies and countless other rat holes. Walmart has received more than $1 billion in subsidies to help ruin small towns across America. Walmart!

We pay billions to subsidize auto and road-construction companies to ensure that sensible transportation options like buses and trains don’t catch on. We subsidize coal and oil and scoff at wind and solar, while our very planet is on the brink of destruction. We pay billions in farm subsidies to ensure easy access to Ho-Hos, while the circumference of the average American buttock now measures 1976 on the Elvis scale. And, of course, we’re spending trillions more funding wars on nouns.

When it comes to hitting ourselves in the head with a dull axe, the AIG money doesn’t even show up on the Cheney-o-meter.

I must admit, I did feel like picking up a cat o’ nine tails and joining the mêlée when I read the public resignation of AIG executive vice president Jake DeSantis in last Wednesday’s New York Times. DeSantis quit rather than give back his bonus, which he says he will donate to “those in need” rather than see it “disappear back into the federal government’s budget.” I came to the story with an open mind. I could almost hear the violin music as DeSantis waxed poetic about being raised by schoolteachers in a world of closing steel mills. I sat still while he explained how his business unit was profitable and he shouldn’t be penalized for the shenanigans that brought AIG to ruin. Compelling stuff. And then he said this: “On March 16 I received a payment from AIG amounting to $762,006.40, after taxes.”

Screech. Perhaps this is one of the great divides in American culture, but who really deserves a $762,000 after-tax bonus — never mind the salary — for one year’s work? Not Jake DeSantis. (And not basketball coaches, either.) DeSantis’s taxpayer-paid 2008 bonus is more than most Americans will earn in their entire lives. And it is, of course, chump change. Elsewhere in the same issue, the Times listed the top-earning hedge fund managers in 2008. James Simons of Renaissance Technologies earned $2.5 billion. John Paulson of Paulson & Co. knocked down $2 billion. George Soros made $1.1 billion. All this, even though two out of every three hedge funds lost money.

Just think: If they wanted to, these men could buy Louisville two new bridges, Museum Plaza and the new arena, cover college tuition for every student in Kentucky and probably have enough money left to cruise hookers with Eliot Spitzer. All from just one year’s income!

But let’s keep it real, angry mobsters. The problem isn’t Wall Street greed. We Americans have a longstanding deal with Wall Street: They can steal from us all they want, so long as we don’t have to learn what derivatives are. In America, we shower money on our moguls, professional athletes and movie stars. If you want to do something noble like teach children or protect your city’s streets, you might be able to eke out a Jake-DeSantis-’08 bonus — spread out over your entire career. It’s a cherished principle that dates all the way back to the Magna Carta (which is Latin for “check returned for insufficient funds”).

So, angry mob, by all means enjoy your anti-Wall-Street tirade. Run the bums out of town. Just remember that you are raging against the symptom, not the disease.