Which America will prevail
Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, January 20, 2010
I am having trouble accepting the stunning dichotomy between the "two Americas" in which we live. There is the America, on the one hand, in which "fat cat" Wall Street executives greedily award themselves millions of dollars in bonuses after causing the economic chaos that threw taxpayers and the economy into chaos.
On the other hand, we see an America where its president and two former presidents from rival political parties unite in a common cause to launch a national campaign to donate money to help hundreds of thousands of distraught Haitians in what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called an earthquake of "biblical" proportions.
It is an incomprehensible paradox which, I am certain, many of my fellow Westporters of all political and economic standings are struck by. It clearly shows how badly divided our nation is today when it comes to the financial industry's effort to continue to enrich the few over the nation's historic tradition of working together to improve the lives of the many -- both at home and abroad.
I fear the worst and yet, also paradoxically, I pray that by joining Pres. Barack Obama, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have sent a clear and unmistakable signal to all Americans that they should listen to their better angels and open their hearts and their pocketbooks to help our neighbors to the south
The anger that has been generated among millions of Americans over the nation's banks -- symbolized by best perhaps by Goldman Sachs's CEO Lloyd Blankstein, who stupefied taxpayers by boasting last November that, as a banker, he was doing "God's work" -- is palpable. My reaction at the time -- and it still remains -- is that this CEO and all employees who work for that firm should be seriously questioning their own values and patriotism.
This reminds me of the most famous incident in the Army vs. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisc.) hearings in the 1950s when the Army's chief legal representative, Joseph N. Welch, chided McCarthy for going after a little-known individual for allegedly having Communist ties. "Until this moment, Senator," Welch declared, "I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness." When McCarthy resumed his attack, Welch interrupted him: "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
That is precisely how I feel about Blankstein and his colleagues at the helm of Goldman Sachs. Have they no decency? Shouldn't they be demonstrated some humility after joining in with other financial institutions to take wild, unregulated risks that resulted in millions of taxpayers losing their homes and in many cases, their life savings?
As The New York Times explained it in an article last Sunday: "We know now that much of what once seemed enviable economic progress in jobs and real estate was a mirage. It was the product of too much borrowing based on a collective buy-in to two fantastical notions--that the Internet justified endless appreciation of stocks in the 1990s; and later, that home prices could rise forever."
Obama, while seeming to cozy up to the financial industry at the outset of his bailout plan, recently came down hard on the bankers branding them as "shameful" for giving themselves nearly $20 billion in bonuses as the economy was deteriorating and the government was spending billions to bail out some of the nation's most prominent financial institutions.
"There will be time for them to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses," Obama said That was followed by a plan announced by the White House to tax the banking industry's profits; while others outside have talked of taxing the executives who receive bonuses. Either way, the bankers must be made to pay for their fatal flaws and, equally important, recognize that they wrecked the economy. Moreover, they must agree to legislative changes by Congress that will guarantee the regulators a great deal more power to police the industry.
Compare the bankers' display of arrogance and entitlement with the unity and compassion demonstrated by the three presidents Saturday. It was inspiring. As the death toll in Haiti grows, Obama said, the American response, both private and public, must grow with it. Obama, who earlier pledged $100 million in aid from the U.S., said Bush and Clinton "will ensure that this is matched by a historic effort that extends beyond our government, because America has no greater resource than the strength and the compassion of the American people." The news conference marked Bush's first visit back to the White House since he left office.
In describing the phone calls he made to Clinton and Bush in the aftermath of the earthquake, Obama said: "They each asked the same simple question: `How can I help?' "Many Westporters are asking themselves this same question. The answer is simple: There are numerous organizations accepting donations, but the most direct way to contribute would be to sign on to the following address, and then to give whatever you can: www.clintonbushhaitifund.org. Won't you join millions of others across America in showing our country's generations-old tradition of compassion?
Maybe some of the more prominent bankers could partially redeem themselves by shipping some of the billions they made in profit to save the people of Haiti. This catastrophe could give them a window of opportunity -- although it will probably take generations before the banking industry's collective image can be salvaged -- even if individual players do the right thing from here on out.