AIG: Why I Can’t Be Bothered To Be Bothered

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum

I have a confession to make: I’m having a hard time getting worked up over the taxpayer-funded retention bonuses handed out to executives at AIG, the huge, failed, insurance company that remains solvent only because the federal government has picked up the tab for their foolhardy business practices.

I may be the only person I know who isn’t irate over the AIG compensation scandal. While I don’t like the idea that the some of the folks who sent the world’s markets into a tailspin are making more in a year-end bonus than I’m likely to earn in my entire professional career, I’ve come to expect such things at the place where business and government intersect. The simple truth is that American taxpayers have been making well-connected financiers rich for a very long time, and usually we’ve had miserable returns on our investments.

The American taxpayer has been particularly generous to those businesses who extract our nation’s natural resources. Through our inability to elect politicians willing to act as guardians of American resources we’ve more or less given away our nation’s oil and gas, minerals, forests, water, and air without just compensation in return. The resulting loss is far greater that what has been given to AIG executives.

My childhood bedroom had windows that looked out over about fifty miles of redwood forest. It was a great view that took in three ridges and parts of the Albion River, Big River, and Russian River watersheds in Northern California’s Mendocino County. From the vantage point of my bedroom I had a balcony seat in the opera of forest management, and from time to time I’d look out my window and see that a new patch of forest had been clear-cut.

Technically, it was illegal to clear cut redwoods, but the logging companies did it anyway because the fines weren’t large enough to make it unprofitable to clear-cut the forest.

The resulting erosion from clear-cut stands of redwoods in the watershed destroyed the native salmon spawning grounds, critically diminishing the yearly salmon runs and decimating the local fishing industry and culture; because a clear-cut forest cannot be sustained as a working forest, the practices of the lumber companies ultimately destroyed the local timber industry and culture as well.

The lumber company executives all got very rich destroying the forests and streams, laying waste to the local timber and fishing economies and to the culture and knowledge particular to them. The logging industry accomplished all this destruction without much in the way of legal trouble. County, state and federal laws provided great financial benefits to big shots living in places like Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles; there were no taxes enacted to rectify the economic devastation suffered in the communities where I grew up.

This is a story that continues to be replayed all over the country. Every time an American mountain is destroyed by strip mining, every time an oil well is drilled in a marine ecosystem, every time toxins are dumped into American lakes and waterways, every time American air is polluted, or a fragile desert habitat is sacrificed for a golf course, we the people are giving of ourselves to line the pockets of the already wealthy—not always with our tax dollars, but often with something far more valuable: the beauty and health of our nation’s natural resources and the wellbeing of the very earth that gives us life.

But where is the outrage, the taxpayer uprising? Americans are justifiably upset that AIG executives were paid 165 million in bonuses, yet the government always can print new money if it needs to. The government cannot print an old growth redwood forest, it cannot replace a strip mined mountain, it cannot recreate a lost habitat or decontaminate a poisoned stream.

It’s long past time for American citizens to demand an accountability for the destruction of America’s irreplaceable natural resources and the communities they have supported for generations. Until we get the government to stop giving away the very ground beneath us, our outrage has worthier targets than those who have the pilfered the public’s bailout money.

Or, if we cannot forget the thievery on Wall Street, let us at least be mindful of the infamous tradition in which it stands, in which well-connected captains of industry and finance manipulate our government and its laws to get rich at the taxpayers’ expense; let us demand an end to that tradition for the good of the economy and of everything we hold dear.

8 thoughts on “AIG: Why I Can’t Be Bothered To Be Bothered

  1. Pingback: Insurance Blogger » Blog Archive » AIG: Why I Can’t Be Bothered To Be Bothered

  2. Great article!
    I agree with your focus on other than the AIG issue. It is my opinion that “Government” creates issued that take our eyes away from the real crisis to deal with the mundane rather than the focus on the problems our electorate either don’t want to address or think are unpopular. Our only recourse is to elect “real people” who are willing to do the “right thing” rather what the party dictates.

  3. Ben, I absolutely agree with your observation that Americans have permitted the theft of many more valuable (because they cannot be replaced) resources than the AIG bonuses. But what’s also true and disturbing is that citizens feel powerless to stand up to this sort of thing, a tradition that really does have to end, as you say.

  4. HN,it is amazing what we, the people, end up caring about. I’ve always felt it odd, for example that Bill Clinton was impeached because he lied to a grand jury about his infidelity, while G. W. Bush lied to the American people about Iraqi WMDs and faced no legal accountability for it. It is an American weakness that seems easily exploitable.

    Lily, I agree. The feeling of powerlessness is very real. American laws protect and empower the public, but they can do nothing to enable the kind of organizing and education needed to help ordinary citizens make change. (He says somewhat sheepishly, knowing he is addressing a lawyer.) Interestingly, the one way I’ve seen ordinary citizens become empowered is through community organizing–a process that was derided by the Republicans last summer.

    Thank you both for stopping by and leaving your thoughts!

  5. In the churches I’m familiar with we were more concerned with strippers than strip mining. We wanted to eradicate the growth of marijuana but didn’t focus on the eradication of our giant redwoods.

    AIG executives are merely playing the corporate compensation games that are legally done everyday. It is very American to become rich. We seldom ask how it happens. Corporate types do it in their salary negotiations; blue collar types buy lottery tickets.

    I still can’t fathom how a company can lose money while management can get a bonus….even while workers at the same company are having their salaries negociated downward. Ask any United Air Line worker how they feel about their Management Team that took them through bankruptsy, garnered huge bonuses, and left their flight attendants in aisles in the undies.

  6. I too deplore wholesale destruction of our Earth’s assets, Ben, not just the redwoods but also other treasures like granite (who really needs granite counters anyway?). But I am not aware of any scale that says one evil is worse than another. (Please do let me know if I’m wrong on this.) I do agree that some evils are more final than others. But even the evils that don’t have final consequences have at some point the possibility of developing into finality should they not be recognized for what they are at the time and corrected.

    I’m willing to bet that some of the funds at AIG were invested in deforestation. That reality is where problems start — if you can make more money supporting evil than good, nothing stops you. The actual entity that is cutting down the trees is only part of the picture.

    So how can we “rank” the executives at AIG as less of a problem than the executives at the companies that are deforesting our globe? They are both evil. Both behaviors result in many layers of injustice toward people and our habitat. If you’re the one being wiped out by one of these and not the other (or by some other atrocity that your essay didn’t raise), you likely think that it is very much worth being bothered about.

    In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I am unemployed due to a reduction in force by a large company that needed to reduce costs. Why? Last year its CEO was paid more than $11 million, even though during his tenure as CEO the company’s stock price has declined about 80%. The company is about ready to implode for its final time, and I’m betting that when it does, this person will walk away with even more millions.

  7. S.A.–

    Thanks for the post. You make a good point, and I really don’t disagree with you. I wrote this column at a time when it looked to me as if the compensation of the AIG executives might derail support for Obama’s recovery program, which seemed like a shame to me. I have no idea if Obama’s plan is the best way forward, but I feel as if we need to try it, to see it through to the end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will our economic recovery happen overnight.

    The whole thing also made me feel extremely cynical because those who seemed to be complaining the loudest have stood silently by for years as the American corporate world has fleeced the taxpaying public.

    I limited my comments to the ways in which big business has gotten rich off of the public’s natural resources, but I also could have written about Halliburton in Iraq, or about the several countries the United States has invaded at the behest of the United Fruit Company. Etc., Etc.

    Ben

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