THE BLOG
01/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Make Wall Street Take The Same Deal The Autoworkers Get

Comparison shopping is big this time of year. As a consumer, you want the best value for your money, so you tend to compare different businesses and see where your dollar will go further. I'd like to apply this commonsense notion to the two most recent bailouts that all of us -- the American taxpayers -- have just "purchased" with our tax dollars.

The first was the bailout of Wall Street (known to wonks as "TARP"), which will cost $700 billion, half of which has been allocated by Congress and subsequently spent. The second is the bailout of the auto industry, which could wind up costing a little over $17 billion for the next few months.

I've been waiting for someone to intelligently compare the two, and finally read the article I've been looking for this weekend. It was written by Bruce Raynor for the Los Angeles Times. Raynor is the head of a union, and is also the chairman of the board of the only union-owned bank in America (according to the Wall Street Journal). So I would assume he'd have a pretty good perspective on both bailouts.

They [Republican Senators McConnell, Corker, and Shelby] claimed that they couldn't support the bill without specifics about how wages would be "restructured." They didn't, however, require such specificity when it came to bailing out the financial sector. Their grandstanding, and the government's generally lackluster response to the auto crisis, highlight many of the problems that have caused our current economic mess: the lack of concern about manufacturing, the privileged way our government treats the financial sector, and political support given to companies that attempt to slash worker's wages.

He goes on to provide some statistics.

When one compares how the auto industry and the financial sector are being treated by Congress, the double standard is staggering. In the financial sector, employee compensation makes up a huge percentage of costs. According to the New York state comptroller, it accounted for more than 60% of 2007 revenues for the seven largest financial firms in New York.

At Goldman Sachs, for example, employee compensation made up 71% of total operating expenses in 2007. In the auto industry, by contrast, autoworker compensation makes up less than 10% of the cost of manufacturing a car. Hundreds of billions were given to the financial-services industry with barely a question about compensation; the auto bailout, however, was sunk on this issue alone.

OK, comparison shoppers, let's pull out the trusty pocket calculator and do some math. The first thing we notice is that $17.5 billion is a miniscule two-and-a-half percent of $700 billion. That's right. When we talk about the Detroit bailout, it's always good to keep it in perspective -- 2.5% or one-fortieth of what the Wall Street bailout cost. I will even bend over backwards to be fair about it: since this is likely to be only the first installment for Detroit, I will only compare it to the money actually spent on Wall Street ($350 billion), making it five percent of the first payments to both.

Five percent. It's important to keep this in mind, to put it all in perspective.

The next math problem we have is figuring out the employee compensation for each. Now, ten percent of $17.5 billion is $1.75 billion. That's what the autoworkers are "costing" us from our taxpayer money. As for Wall Street, 60% of $350 billion is $210 billion. For employee expenses.

So which do you think Republicans are angry about, the part that is under $2 billion, or the part that is more than one hundred times as big, at $210 billion?

And remember, they've got another $210 billion lined up, unless Congress shows some backbone.

But Chris (you say), maybe those numbers aren't right. Maybe you should check the facts. Well, I'd like to. But I can't. Because even Fox News is suing the White House to get some information about how that $350 billion was spent, and George Bush is refusing to release any details. From the other side of the spectrum is Huffington Post blogger Gail Vida Hamburg, with the wonderful headline: "You Morons, What Have You Done With Our Money?" The Associated Press just ran a story that states the 600 top executives at the banks we just bailed out got over $1.6 billion just for their own compensation.

But the financial companies ain't talking, the Treasury or the White House ain't talking, so basically we have no idea what happened to that $350 billion. Or, to put it another way, we just gave twenty times what we're going to give the car companies, and we forgot to ask for a receipt.

Paul Krugman, who incidentally just won the Nobel Prize in Economics, had some choice words for what happened:

The financial services industry has claimed an ever-growing share of the nation's income over the past generation, making the people who run the industry incredibly rich. Yet, at this point, it looks as if much of the industry has been destroying value, not creating it. And it's not just a matter of money: the vast riches achieved by those who managed other people's money have had a corrupting effect on our society as a whole.

Let's start with those paychecks. Last year, the average salary of employees in "securities, commodity contracts, and investments" was more than four times the average salary in the rest of the economy. Earning a million dollars was nothing special, and even incomes of $20 million or more were fairly common. The incomes of the richest Americans have exploded over the past generation, even as wages of ordinary workers have stagnated; high pay on Wall Street was a major cause of that divergence.

But surely those financial superstars must have been earning their millions, right? No, not necessarily. The pay system on Wall Street lavishly rewards the appearance of profit, even if that appearance later turns out to have been an illusion.

Consider the hypothetical example of a money manager who leverages up his clients' money with lots of debt, then invests the bulked-up total in high-yielding but risky assets, such as dubious mortgage-backed securities. For a while -- say, as long as a housing bubble continues to inflate -- he (it's almost always a he) will make big profits and receive big bonuses. Then, when the bubble bursts and his investments turn into toxic waste, his investors will lose big -- but he'll keep those bonuses.

O.K., maybe my example wasn't hypothetical after all.

He also puts some numbers to the scope of the problem:

We're talking about a lot of money here. In recent years the finance sector accounted for 8 percent of America's G.D.P., up from less than 5 percent a generation earlier. If that extra 3 percent was money for nothing -- and it probably was -- we're talking about $400 billion a year in waste, fraud and abuse.

But the costs of America's Ponzi era surely went beyond the direct waste of dollars and cents.

At the crudest level, Wall Street's ill-gotten gains corrupted and continue to corrupt politics, in a nicely bipartisan way. From Bush administration officials like Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who looked the other way as evidence of financial fraud mounted, to Democrats who still haven't closed the outrageous tax loophole that benefits executives at hedge funds and private equity firms (hello, Senator Schumer), politicians have walked when money talked.

Once again, this man just won the Nobel Prize in Economics, so he's no slouch and probably knows what he's talking about.

So what is Congress doing about it all (Senate Republicans in particular)? They are forcing the CEOs of the car companies to give up their private jets, while the Wall Street companies are allowed to keep their fleets of private jets (and the news media doesn't even blink at the rank hypocrisy involved). They are trying to force autoworkers to take a huge pay cut, while at the same time refusing to even talk about the outrageous Wall Street salaries. And the Detroit bailout, remember, is five percent of the Wall Street bailout, so far.

Now, I am not arguing here for the righteousness of either Wall Street or Detroit's cause. American automakers made some horribly bad decisions over the past few decades, and are now paying the price. Wall Street made some horribly bad decisions too, and they are now paying the price.

Or, to put it more accurately, we are all "paying the price." But the debate is one-sided. If we're going to minutely examine autoworkers' wages, and dictate the travel plans of one industry we are bailing out, then it seems eminently reasonable to do the same for the banking industry. Because, as any smart comparison shopper will tell you, when one of these items costs twenty times as much as the other, that's probably where you can save more money. It's only fair, if we're going to micromanage Detroit, that we do the same to Wall Street.

I would suggest that no employee of any Wall Street firm getting taxpayer money can make any more than a union autoworker. That would be a good place to start from.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com