If you have ever wanted to see three grown men be ritualistically berated on live television, tune into C-SPAN tomorrow. No, the channel won’t be replaying “American Idol.” It will be showing the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee’s questioning of Rick Wagoner, Alan Mulally and Robert Nardelli, the geniuses leading the Detroit Three.
Before I explain why this is bound to be a perverse, hypocritical display in which a few unsavory members of Congress handcuff Wagoner, Mulally and Nardelli to a wall, spank them a few times and tell them to squeal like pigs in exchange for a few bucks, let me say this: I’m no fan of corporate executives.
No matter how subjectively difficult, visible or risky someone’s job is, that doesn’t justify paying someone 344 times more a year than the average worker, which is how much more on average chief executive officers of public companies make. And something just doesn’t make sense when executives get caught swindling consumers out of millions of dollars and knowingly passing off dangerous products and only get a slap on the wrist while a shoplifter can do time in a jail or prison for ripping off a few groceries from your local Kroger.
Though my heart may be small, it has grown three sizes in the past few weeks for Wagoner, Mulally and Nardelli. Why? Because some members of Congress have looked at their companies’ plight (the same companies that are, whether I like them or not, an essential part of this state) and decided to use this as a political opportunity. That’s despicable, no matter what your position on the Detroit Three bailout is.
Take, for example, some of the questions (or more accurately criticisms) lobbed at these executives last month when Congress rebuffed their first request for aid. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D–N.Y.), getting close to asking a question, said there was “a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off them with tin cups in their hands. … It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo.”
Someone was looking to get on the evening news back home.
And that’s exactly what happened. The following days, the story wasn’t about whether these companies needed bridge loans, what would be the costs of not helping them and whether there are other options, it was about how three corporate executives took plane rides on corporate jets. The story was about how these three men didn’t come across as desperate enough to need the money. They really should have shown up in T-shirts and ripped jeans with dented tin cans, shining shoes and begging for change.
Because that’s what AIG did to get its billions of dollars in bailout money, right?
Oh wait, no. Chastising insurance companies and investment banks on television doesn’t translate into good news clips, so Congress didn’t do that. Instead, Congress has publicly shamed the easier target, the one everyone understands. I think I know how an assembly line works. I’m still not sure how mortgages get bundled into securities, collected into collaterized debt obligations, hacked up into different types of tranches and “insured” with credit default swaps. I’m especially not sure how so many people got rich or lost their homes because of that.
So what we’re left with is the circus that will begin tomorrow. The Detroit Three understand that they will need to kiss a lot of ass to get the money they need. They’ve already started ramping up the public relations stunts to get there, ditching the private jets for hybrid SUVs and promising to receive only $1 in salary next year. Chrysler even launched a campaign to “grab democracy by the horns,” whatever that means.
Inevitably, members of Congress will respond in kind, and the great Battle of Bullshit will ensue. A few representatives will grab the camera for a bit, blow off some steam about corporate pay and forget that they, too, are mostly rich white men who fly in private jets, have lucrative incomes and haven’t done their jobs particularly well (we wouldn’t be in this mortgage mess if they had, right?). Once that show is done, they will fork over the money to the Detroit Three, and everyone will be on their merry ways.
What will be lost in this debate is any legitimate concern about how to revive American industry (or effectively move away from it), protect workers and states like Michigan from economic shocks, limit executive compensation instead of grandstand about it and reduce the wealth inequality in this country. I blame Congress for not doing those things.
Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.