Are the barons of high finance ever called to account for their avarice, or for the billions squandered by their schemes?
I own a San Francisco real estate firm with more than two hundred million in assets. But had I made dumb choices that destroyed my equity in my properties, I would have lost them or gone bankrupt. The financial elite, it seems, plays by a different set of rules. And that's what has people shaking their heads today.
Three years after Wall Street collapsed in a greed fueled conflagration, people from all classes, all ethnicities, and all generations are camped out at Liberty Square in New York City to protest the continued fleecing of America by big banks and corporate chieftains.
Other demonstrations built on the same highly-organized model have sprung up in 70 other American cities, including San Francisco, Portland, Memphis, Louisville, Miami, Sacramento and Boston.
The protesters bill themselves as the "Other 99 percent," in contrast to the 1 percent of Americans who account for 25 percent of all income earned in the United States and 40 percent of the country's wealth.
Yesterday, I was able to hear the protest from my office at the Merchants Exchange, just down California Street from the Bank of America building, where people across the socioeconomic, ethnic, occupational and ideological spectrum had gathered in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.
They are protesting a culture which concentrates money and power in the hands of a tiny elite, all while allowing corporate executives of public companies to achieve monumental pay packages without investing a dime of their own money.
I recently talked to the 45-year-old retired CFO of a famous Silicon Valley company who justified his $250 million stock package by saying that he had worked six days a week for five years. I thought of my father, who worked six- and seven-day weeks for 40 years as a deliveryman for Berkeley Farms and Dreyer's Ice Cream.
The astonishing thing is that you don't even have to succeed at the upper echelons of corporate management to "earn" dramatic cash windfalls. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported on the return of the "golden goodbye," outsized severance packages for failed corporate executives.
Want to make a cool $10 million? Get fired! For a failed 11-month run at the top of Hewlett Packard, Léo Apotheker last week took home $13.2 million in severance (on top of his $10 million signing bonus). Still, it's not as good as former Merrill Lynch CEO Stanley O'Neal's $161.5 million parting package in 2007, the year the firm's net losses totaled $7.8 billion. $161.5 million. That's 3,244 times the median annual household income in the United States.
Who knew that getting fired could be so lucrative?
Business leaders, portrayed as omnipotent gurus, are usually quick to blame social ills on a recalcitrant government bureaucracy and a self-dealing political class. The myth of the meritocracy of financial genius is perpetuated by horserace coverage of wealth, such as the Forbes 400 list.
Here the accumulation of money is more than lauded; it is mythologized. Success has become so equated with money that critical professions such as teaching, journalism, medicine, public health and government service, which require a spirit of sacrifice, are made to seem less important than pure capitalistic endeavors.
It is a wonder that this paradigm remains intact after the humiliating corporate downfalls of 2008, but here we are again, listening to yet another field of Republican presidential candidates demagoguing onstage about the evils of government and the wholesome judgment of corporate "job creators."
Have we forgotten the catastrophic banking losses that drove the world economy to the brink of ruin? Do we fail to see the irony in disgraced former Merrill Lynch chairman John Thain being interviewed once again by an obsequious Maria Bartiromo on CNBC? Are we consciously averting our eyes from the continued housing crisis, where underwater homes and hopeless "For Sale" signs dot the landscape?
Make no mistake; little has been done since the 2008 financial firebombing of America to change the underlying fundamentals of an economy rent asunder. Americans who pinned their hopes on an artificially bullish stock market to repair the damage to their retirement funds are now plummeting back to earth. The country is wracked by staggering unemployment and more than one in four American homes is deeply underwater.
But this is only a problem for the bottom 99 percent of the country. If you're a high-ranking corporate executive of a failing company, you might get fired, but you can still look forward to a severance package in the tens of millions.
It would do us well to remember the rebukes to business elites delivered by two great Democratic Presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. When he assumed the presidency in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt condemned the sordid results of capitalism without values:
The rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure and have abdicated... they have no vision and where there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Thirty years later, President John F. Kennedy slammed the country's steel barons who violated a public agreement not to raise prices:
The American people will find it hard as I do to accept a situation where a tiny handful of steel executives -- whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility -- can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.
Unlike the breathless national media coverage of the incipient Tea Party protests in 2009, the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters in New York and across the country have so far been relegated to sidebar status. But that shouldn't diminish the importance of their cause.
In the wake of a continued corporate sycophancy from the country's hard right, it is encouraging to see an organized counter movement brave enough to address the problem of American inequality and pragmatic enough to include all those who suffer as a result -- the other 99 percent.