By Dave Lindorff
President Barack Obama is a relative newbie to Washington. He didn't even complete one term in the senate, and now he's just finished his first year in the White House, so it's stunning to see how quickly this one-time "community organizer" has lost his moorings in the marbled halls of power in Washington.
In an interview reported in the Bloomberg news service, Obama expresses no concern with the latest huge bonuses that CEOs Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase ($17 million) and Lloyd Blankenfein of Goldman Sachs (9 million) paid themselves, saying not only that they are "savvy businessmen" and that "success and wealth" are "part of the American system," but equating them with professional baseball players who "are making more than that who don't get to the World Series either."
Talk about being out of it!
Mr. President, we average Americans aren't stupid. We know the difference between a banker and a ball player. And we also know the difference between a guy who rewards himself, and a player, who negotiates a salary up front.
These greedy bankers like Dimon and Blankenfein are not "savvy businessmen," at least if we're talking about running a business and making a profit "by earning it, the old fashioned way" as the old Smith-Barney ad used to put it before that firm got eaten up. They are savvy con-men who know how to scam the government into bailing them out. And the money they are paying themselves as bonuses for their talent at extortion is taxpayer money, not profits from any "savvy" business decisions.
Professional baseball players, in contrast, negotiate contracts with owners, and are paid based upon what those owners perceive as their ability to win games and attract ticket-buying spectators. They may or may not live up to the expectations of the owners who pay them their huge salaries, but at least they are being paid based upon an expectation that they will deliver the goods.
Furthermore, when these bankers are paid fat bonuses, what is happening is they are being "incentivized" to engage in the most anti-social practices--namely steering their financial institutions into extremely risky investments that, as we have seen, have the ability to crash an entire global economy. They don't care if they put their enterprises in fatal jeopardy, they don't care if they put the US or global economy in jeopardy, they don't care if millions of people lose their jobs as a consequence of their actions. All they care about is that they walk away with these fat, self-determined bonuses.
If baseball players are paid fat salaries, and then don't deliver the goods, like the Phillies' big hitter Ryan Howard, who was virtually blanked in the last World Series contest against the New York Yankees, then nobody is hurt except the bitterly disappointed hometown fans. I'll admit that it was painful watching a guy who's getting $15 million just fan the ball over and over at critical moments last fall, but nobody lost a job over Ryan's failure to connect. Okay, maybe some people lost money on bets on the Phillies, but that was their own doing. In fact, I'll tell you what: I felt sorry for Howard, swinging away over and over at those Yankee pitches on national TV, and then having to walk back to the dugout to Bronx cheers. The fact that he had a fat paycheck didn't make me any less sympathetic.
Besides, we ordinary folks mostly don't begrudge our players their big salaries. We know they're just working stiffs who are making the most of some excellent skills they developed as kids, so we wish them well, and besides, we also know that they are racking up those bucks while they can, because athletes don't have long work lives. Many end up injured because they've pushed their bodies beyond the limit, and they deserve their pay as compensation for the aches and pains they will endure in middle and old age.
It's a different story entirely for guys like Dimon and Blankenfein. These guys don't burn out. They just keep raking in the money. When they finally leave their richly appointed CEO offices, they either move to a position as chairman of the board, or they just take all their ill-gotten gains and become behind-the-scenes investors in giant private investment firms. With bankers, it's all about power, and about figuring out ways to game the system in order to suck as much money as possible out of the rest of our pockets.
Ball players are just ball players. They're not seeking power, and they're not trying to rob the rest of us blind.
If the president doesn't get the difference here, he has truly lost his way.
DAVE LINDOFF is a Philadelphia-area journalist. His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net