04/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What to Do About "Mad as Hell"

People are incredibly angry these days. The governing class in America fears a "populist backlash," as the New York Times dubbed it. They are worried that if ordinary Americans get mad enough, they will derail recovery plans. But this isn't only a Joe Six-Pack phenomenon. Anyone with a decent sense of morality knows that the bad guys are being rewarded. Fat cats earning bonuses for demolishing the economy seem like thieves being paid to rob banks. Only in this case the bankers were the ones who robbed the bank.

Morality is founded upon taking responsibility. In the normal course of things, wrongdoers don't get to celebrate over champagne for ruining other people's lives. Much less does the ruined party have to pay taxes toward buying the champagne. But the financial elite shows no sign of contrition. Top executives at some companies like General Motors and AIG have renounced or greatly reduced their bonuses. Still, countless bonuses are being paid out at lower levels of these companies. Rationally, for AIG to hand out $165 million in bonuses is less than a thousandth of the bailout money they received from the government. But it's still an outrage. Anger isn't rational, and neither is morality.

Morality is intuitive. You know in your bones what's right and what's wrong. Yet morality is also learned, and it has a huge social component. No two people and no two cultures agree all the time on touchy moral issues. Relativism has to stop somewhere, however. Bernie Madoff's last-minute contrition doesn't remotely ease his massive immorality. Wall Street types sneaking their bonuses in under the wire are part of a general moral collapse. The social element counts for a lot in this case, because the ethos of Wall Street gleefully permitted runaway greed, reckless disregard of other people's risks, and general anarchy in the pursuit of profits. In the crude lingo of trading, customers were mooks who existed for one purpose only: to be promoted out of their hard-earned money.

This is a roundabout way of saying that populist anger is moral and right. It's not simply a glitch that needs to be smoothed out. A system of morality cannot exist without accountability. In this case, Wall Street needs to be pulled back into the social contract. Traders pride themselves on being gunslingers, but when there are too many gunslingers, they outnumber the law. That is still the prevalent situation. (The fired-up CNBC reporter who ranted against Obama's plan to rescue distressed homeowners turned to traders on the floor and screamed, "Any of you guys want to bail out your neighbors?" The frightening part wasn't the arrant selfishness on display. The frightening part was that he and his kind feel righteous.) The financial elite don't want to change their ways. After grudgingly accepting a slap on the wrist, they fully intend to go back to business as usual.

What would it take to change a whole subculture that has escaped all ethical boundaries?

The Obama administration needs to face this question head on. Sad to say, the brilliant minds that were recruited to make up the president's economic team all come from the same financial elite that wants to escape responsibility. No reckless CEOs have been fired. No ill-gotten gains have been confiscated (except for Madoff's). No financial "truth commissions" are in the offing. It's a blessed turn of events that adults are now in charge of the government. Officials from Obama on down offer one sensible, confident policy after another. The change from the feckless Bushies is like night and day.

But being an adult has its limits, and we are in danger that technocrats will solve the meltdown with bland expertise. The human element needs to count for more, much more. I'm not talking about anger run amok and show trials to destroy scapegoats. But people need to have their anger addressed straight on, not sideways, and issues of healing, justice, and truth-telling must be given high priority. Being irrational, anger doesn't compute for techies. It's not a variable they can punch into an algorithm. No matter. The claims of morality hold a society together. There will be no trust until we have somebody to trust in, and whoever that may be, they must rise to moral leadership on the order of a Lincoln or FDR. The main problem isn't economic collapse, it's a warping of values -- not just on Wall Street but among right wingers, militarists, rigid Christian fundamentalists, and the apathetic majority. Obama gives every appearance of being immune to this warping. Now he needs to straighten out millions of other people who feel betrayed and abandoned.

Published in the Washington Post