Tuesday, we were more skeptical than most about the "populist" backlash against the $165 million in bonuses that went to some employees of government-owned AIG. The events of the past 24 hours have only confirmed our view. We don't love the fact that the men and women of this disgraced company are insisting upon the compensation they signed up for before the company collapsed into the arms of the taxpayers. But whether they are being greedy, or simply human, is hardly relevant to what is in the public interest now. AIG's demagogic critics in both parties should keep that in mind.
For better or worse, the U.S. government — i.e., all of us — now owns AIG. The firm is hemorrhaging knowledgeable employees at precisely the time when it — and therefore we — need them most. No matter how morally satisfying, taking back bonuses now, as proposed this week in belated outrage by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would probably accelerate the exodus, with the likely effect that the country would lose much more money on AIG than it would otherwise. Yes, $165 million is a lot of money. But it is 0.09 percent of the total AIG bailout cost, $173 billion. The relevant question is not whether we feel like spending $165 million on bonuses; it is whether doing so will help wrap up the AIG rescue as cheaply and quickly as possible.
The company's chief executive, Edward M. Liddy, who was brought in from outside at $1 per year to unwind AIG on behalf of the government, seems to think that it will. Others who are not in his position of responsibility are fully exploiting their freedom to disagree. Thus, the attorney general of New York, Andrew Cuomo, among other Democrats, floated the argument that the AIG employees should get stiffed because "it is only by the grace of American taxpayers that members of Financial Products even have jobs, let alone a pool of retention bonus money." True. But the bonuses were set in motion well before the U.S. takeover of AIG, which was done to avoid a Lehman Brothers-like meltdown that would have cost taxpayers a lot more than $165 million, and the compensation plan has been public information for a year. And then there is Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who suggested that the folks at AIG should consider suicide — before saying he would settle for some "contrition."
Under the circumstances, we can understand why President Barack Obama feels that he must join this opportunistic chorus rather than resist it. Still, this has not been a stellar moment for the man who came into office arguing that "the time has come to set aside childish things." With hundreds of billions of dollars in necessary repairs to the financial system still to come, Obama must find a way to explain those costs in terms that neither inflame the public nor insult its intelligence. The best we've heard so far came from a nonpolitician, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. AIG's irresponsible behavior angers Bernanke, too, but he's not losing his cool. On CBS's 60 Minutes, he likened the firm to a neighbor who sets his house on fire by smoking in bed; the town has a choice between letting the place burn down to teach him a lesson, or dousing the flames to prevent them from consuming the homes of nonsmoking neighbors. "That's where we are now," he said. "We have a fire going on." This is no time to be throwing more fuel on it.