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.