Whatever else anybody says, the real reason why nobody at Treasury pulled the plug on the AIG bonuses is simple: nobody thought the sums were truly outrageous or that the practice was completely outside the norm. Sometime over the last ten days, of course, everyone became a virgin again and proclaimed shock at the amount of money hedge funsters command. But those who didn't think payments on this scale were typical were those who weren't paying attention. And part of what they weren't paying attention to was themselves.
To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we have defined extravagance up. It's admirable that our leaders want to be frugal with the taxpayer's money and recoup the six- and seven-figure bonuses paid to these financial alchemists, but let's pause for a moment and look what the taxpayers themselves have been buying with money not rendered unto Uncle Sam.
Million dollar McMansions. $175 sneakers. Super Sweet 16 parties. Bridezilla weddings. Massive high definition television sets. $6,000 boob jobs. Handheld electronic devices that enable 24-hour-a-day twittering. $17 cosmopolitans. $350 tickets to a baseball game. Blackberries for pre-teens that are used to send hundreds of messages every month that read in their entirety "LOL," "OMG" and "WTF." Humongous SUVs for people incompetent to park them in fewer than three spaces.
Not too long ago we all got a pretty good wake-up call when we saw how much Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco and Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom and Ken Lay at Enron were scarfing down. There was a lot of talk about limiting executive compensation, but we let that fever pass. Instead, the payments floated up, dragging the compensation scales behind. So now we see Dick Fuld making hundreds of millions and John Thain redecorating , and the financial grunts getting multimillions, and the vast majority of us plebes getting the bread and circuses of our day, like cheap electronics and up-to-the-minute accounts of the peregrinations of pantyless pop stars.
Feeling angry about the AIG bonuses? Right on! But why stop there?