AIG Bonuses: An Investment in Liberty?

“Populism,” as employed by the Democratic Party, is the political tactic of firing up public resentment against businesses, investors and the wealthy, to  deflect blame for government-caused misery away from the political establishment.

Last week when it became known that AIG employees  were paid some $165 Million in bonuses, the responsible politicians and officials in Congress, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury Department swarmed the  TV cameras to express their populist indignation.  President Obama saw a chance to join a populist stampede and went for it:

This is a corporation that finds itself in financial distress due to recklessness and greed…its hard to understand how derivative traders warranted any bonuses, much less $165 Million in extra pay. How do they justify this outrage to taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat…I’ve asked Secretary Geithner to pursue every single legal avenue to block these bonuses and make the taxpayers whole.

But it now appears that President Obama may have made a mistake.  A populist stampede, driven by emotion and intended to cloud over the facts and discourage reasoning, is hard to control and carries great risk of unpredictable, unforeseeable consequences.  Once in motion it can trample anyone, even the politicians who initiated it.  According to several media commentators, this particular populist outrage may derail the “Obama agenda.”

USA Today reports:

President Obama’s apparent inability to block executive bonuses at insurance giant AIG has dealt a sharp blow to his young administration and is threatening to derail both public and congressional support for his ambitious political agenda.,,But the damage control did not seem to satisfy incredulous lawmakers in both parties, who said the image of financial executives taking huge bonuses from a taxpayer-funded rescue puts the president in a politically impossible position.

The Washington Post said:

White House aides grasped for actions that could soothe sentiment on Main Street and in the halls of Congress, where the fate of the new president’s sweeping agendas on health care, climate change and education will be decided.

New York Times fretted:

The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street, worried that anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama’s agenda.

Our assessment:  If a populist backlash does derail President Obama’s plans for a massive escalation of government’s power and cost, the AIG bonuses will turn out to be a triumphant investment of taxpayer funds.

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