Here's a question for the SATs, or maybe one of those No Child Left Behind tests: There are two men. One of them was chased down by racists, then beaten and hanged for no other reason than that he was African-American. Another one took over a wealthy company that was part of the financial debacle of 2008, a mess that nearly destroyed the global economy, but whose executives ended up getting multi-million dollar bonuses anyway. What do these two men have in common?
The schoolchildren taking either of those tests would know the answer: nothing. These are people on dramatically different ends of the wealth/power/luck of birth circumstances spectrum. But AIG CEO Robert Benmosche sees a parallel. He told the Wall Street Journal recently that the widespread anger over bonuses:
was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses, and all that — sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.
It would take a team of professional psychiatrists to figure out the nexus between the victimization and the guilt – and it's likely rooted in basic narcissism. Never mind the deep insult of comparing lynching in the South to getting a massive, unearned financial bonus. The utter failure to understand why people were angry at Wall Street executives is stunning.
There's an us-vs-them mentality in Benmosche's comments, the idea that people like him have the right to live a certain way despite their performance in a capitalist economy. And the people at the bottom? They're just resentful that they weren't as good at playing by the rules of capitalism, which schoolchildren are led to believe has to do with competition, being rewarded for good performance and being punished for bad.
It's reflective of the 47 percent, makers-vs-takers view of the economy, one in which the wealthiest are held harmless for their risky behavior with other people's money because they are the "job creators." Those who actually do the jobs and lose the most when the job creators fail are, in that view, not entitled to anything – not even anger over the greed and lack of responsibility shown by the executives.
Even more insulting is the idea that somehow people would not have been angry if those in politics hadn't gotten them all wound up with reports about the bonuses. If he really thinks the executives are entitled to the money – after taxpayers bailed out the company – why didn't he come right out and say so?
Benmosche has apologized, but the "sorry" is so lame it's worse than saying nothing at all. It was "a poor choice of words," Benmosche said. "I never meant to offend anyone by it." That's not an apology for the outrageous statement. It's just regret that his sense of entitlement was exposed and made him look bad. There remains a terrible disconnect, with the proverbial 1 percent seeming to have absolutely no idea how most of the rest of us live. And Benmosche's comments indicate the gap hasn't narrowed since the meltdown.