As easy a mark as Wall Street bonuses have become for those critical of corporate greed and corruption, President Obama's calling them "shameful" and citing Wall Street's actions as the "height of irresponsibility" may signal a significant shift in the government's tone towards corporate culture. For all his Christian bluster and talk about the axis of evil, former President Bush rarely had much to say on the morality of corporate America and the financial services industry. As the scandals at Enron grabbed headlines and predatory lending poisoned the financial well of this country, there was little executive outrage to be found.
Still, it's hard for me not to respond with cynicism to the media's and government's sudden religion regarding the unseemliness of year-end Wall Street bonuses. The financial meltdown didn't begin yesterday. Why didn't Congress and the press express similar outrage a year ago, when I and a group of activists huddled around the Wall Street bull and challenged the leading investment banks to forgo their end of 2007 bonuses and put their ill gotten gains towards foreclosure prevention? What may have seemed to some as protest gimmickry, turns out to have been an act of poetic prescience. Barely months after that protest, the big five investment houses went out of business, leaving all Americans to pick through the dust and nuclear fallout of credit-default swaps and mortgage-backed securities.
There is no joy in being able to say "I told you so" as this country stands on the precipice of an economic free fall. But as the President and Congress stand "shovel ready" to pour more TARP billions into the black hole coffers of financial institutions, there remain no measures that ensure corporate accountability. And homeowners remain, after almost two years of twisting in the wind, in foreclosure distress. The shame, my friends, lies not just with Wall Street, but with ourselves.
This entry is cross-posted on DMI Blog.