If you read or listened to the news lately, you'd think Americans were out in the street with torches lit and pitchforks held high, marching on Congress and AIG headquarters, screaming for rich men's blood. As soon as details of the AIG bonuses got out, Americans started voicing their justified disgust, and media reports began the exaggerations: "Populist Rage," "Anger in the Heartland," "Populism On the March," "Populist Fury!"
Excuse me? "Populist fury"? Did I miss something? Yes, people are rightly madder'n a hornet, but surely I would have noticed if one of my fondest dreams had come true, and Americans were lining up to tar and feather the naked emperors of the corporate world who've struck us all a series of low blows.
"Populism on the march"? I wish. Granted, voters griped enough about the AIG bonuses that the House of Representatives -- including 85 Republicans, no less -- finally felt obligated to quell the "rebellion" by voting to impose a 90 percent tax on bonuses for employees of bailed-out companies. So, yes, Americans got mad enough to force Congress to actually do something. But "populist rage"? Not yet. If you want to see what populist rage really looks like, check out what's going on in Europe (which we'd know more about if American media hadn't all but abandoned decent foreign coverage, but that's a whole other issue).
In Scotland last week, angry citizens vandalized the home and car of Fred Goodwin, former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland. In France, a nationwide strike last week drew 1.2 million people who, thankfully, were peaceful -- oh, except for workers who marched on the presidential palace, set fires, and barricaded a 3M plant manager in his office until he agreed to better severance packages for laid-off employees. This week, rumblings over news of a French CEO's outrageous severance package -- after losing $428 million last quarter, taking a government bailout and cutting 1,600 jobs -- has French authorities publicly worrying about the possibility of violent civil unrest similar to that seen in Greece in December 2008.
Meanwhile, British police are girding for protests at the Group of 20 summit meeting this week in London, where world leaders will try to find solutions to the current financial crisis. Authorities have warned financial institutions in London to beef up security, and have even urged bankers to dress casually, "so as not to attract attention."
Now that is "populist rage." Americans may get mad, but in our current media-sated, medicated culture, we generally -- and to my mind, unfortunately -- don't tend to demand punishment for wealthy criminals. Just the poor ones.
Not that America's homegrown corporate "elite" doesn't deserve some kind of beat-down, whether judicial or physical. When you manage to take the world's strongest economy and bring it to its knees through sheer infantile greed and blatant dishonesty, you're really asking for it. For years, Americans have known, or had a good notion, that the economy's big boys were cutting ethical corners and getting more than their fair share, just as we knew that our own wages, adjusted for inflation, were stagnant or dropping. We put up with it, as Salon.com's Gary Kamiya points out, because our home values kept going up and up. Once that bubble burst, though, we started seeing through the smoke, enough to realize that, to quote Kamiya again, "our great wealth-generating system has become rotten to the core" and we "may never again be as well off as [we] were before."
Add to those outrages the fact, as pointed out in January by the Washington Post and again last week by the New York Observer's Joe Conason, that nearly all of America's top 100 corporations -- including several that are getting taxpayer bailouts, such as Bank of America -- have set up offshore subsidiaries that allow them to avoid paying U.S. taxes (BofA has 59 subsidiaries in the Caymans), and you have to start wondering when the torches and pitchforks will show up at American CEOs' offices. Or lawns.
Populism, though, doesn't simply mean anger and riding investment bankers out of town on a rail, although that's the only way the word is being used by today's media. At its core, populism is the belief that national economic policies and practices should focus primarily, and intently, on benefiting the vast majority of the country's citizens. You know, the way many of us, certainly members of my generation, were taught the U.S. economy actually works, and not as a high-risk casino for high-rollers.
Another term for that view of populism is "economic democracy," coined by the original Populist movement of the late 19th century. Those Americans revolted against the systematic rip-off of ordinary citizens by that era's controlling financial interests, and it seems high time today for more, not less, "populist" action, only for real this time, not just as attention-getting media hyperbole.
Unfortunately for all of us, there's plenty of time left to build up a head of steam. The outrage over AIG is one thing, but the more Americans find out about the rigged game that's been played by insiders for years, the more they're going to want to see real justice served. As the revelations of financial treachery keep piling up, that British idea of making every day "Casual Day" might catch on at some businesses in Uptown Charlotte.
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