Bailed-Out Bank CEO: Public Criticism of Wall St. Bonuses is Just Like Lynchings

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AIG CEO Robert AIG CEO Robert Benmosche is interviewed by Neil Cavuto on the Fox Business network. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

In an interview published Monday in The Wall Street Journal, AIG chief executive Robert Benmosche compared the American public’s outrage at bailed-out Wall Street execs grabbing bloated bonuses to African-Americans being lynched in the Old South.

No, really. Here’s the quote (brackets are in the original):

The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.

In 2008, AIG received $85 billion from American taxpayers on top of the funds made available from the TARP program. Less than a week later, a bunch of AIG executives went on a “retreat” to the luxurious St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, Calif., where they ran up a bill of almost a half-million dollars, including $150,000 for meals and $23,000 in spa charges.

Now, with Wall Street employees pocketing average cash bonuses of $121,900 — while most families’ incomes stagnate — Benmosche thinks the public should have more sympathy for the plight of these good people. “They’re all scared,” he told the Journal. “They [had made] good livings. They probably lived beyond their means. We wouldn’t be here today had they not stayed and accepted … dramatically reduced pay…It is a shame we put them through that.” One can almost hear the sad strains of a violin playing softly in the background.

This is not the first time a Wall Street titan has unintentionally revealed a mind-boggling degree of entitlement. Apparently, it’s not enough that high-level bankers have all avoided jail for crashing the economy through widespread fraud. It’s not enough that they are enjoying record profits once again, that they have effectively captured the regulatory agencies that are supposed to police them or that the “too big to fail” firms have only grown larger since the bailouts. When politicians call them “fat cats,” or the public expresses outrage at their insatiable appetite for material wealth, they respond like a powerless minority facing the cruelest oppression.

In 2011, Harvey Golub, the former CEO of American Express who believes corporations shouldn’t be taxed at all, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that he “deeply resent[ed]” Obama’s call to hike the top tax rates by a few points (to the level they were during the Clinton administration). Golub also needed to share with the American people his further resentment about investor Warren Buffett writing an op-ed titled, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” “I don’t feel coddled,” wrote Golub, before making the implausible claim that he would fork over 80-90 percent of his income in taxes — and then complaining about how public employees receive “outlandish benefits.” In a perfect angry old man pitch, he concluded by asking, “Do we really need an energy department or an education department at all?”

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon rarely stops whining. At Davos in 2011, Dimon said, “Not all banks are the same and I just think that this constant refrain ‘bankers, bankers, bankers’ is just unproductive and unfair. People should just stop doing that.” He’s right — not all banks are the same. Dimon’s bank just paid a billion dollars in fines for bilking customers and allegedly manipulating markets, and according to The New York Times, JPMorgan “is now facing investigations from at least seven federal agencies, several state regulators and two foreign nations.” Dimon would tell a Chamber of Commerce audience that same year that the Dodd-Frank regulations would be “a nail in our coffin for big American banks.” He also lamented the “anger and the shrillness” poor Wall Street executives had to face.

Stories of the financial community’s ultra-thin skin have proliferated since the crash. In fact, they’ve become a genre of their own. Jonathan Chait and James Downie dived into Politico’s archives and found 28 variations of the “business upset at Obama” story in 2009 and 2010 alone – pieces with headlines like, “Bankers to Obama: stop trashing us,” “Regulation War: business in crosshairs,” “Wall Street plans payback for reg reform” and “Obama’s words sting CEOs.”

A study by UC-Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff found that people with high socio-economic status are more likely to harbor a sense of entitlement and display narcissistic personality traits than are those of lesser means. And powerful Wall Street executives continually substantiate his research every time they decide to share their hurt feelings with the media.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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