Taxpayers’ bailout money for AIG bonuses has rightfully provoked a massive backlash against AIG, Wall Street, President Barack Obama and his economic advisers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers. The U.S. public now owns 80 percent of AIG. The outrage is bipartisan: Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley even suggested that AIG executives “resign or go commit suicide.” New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo just released details on the bonuses, exposing AIG’s ridiculous claim that they are “retention bonuses” aimed at keeping key employees, since 11 of those who received bonuses of $1 million or more are no longer employed by AIG.
These AIG millionaires may need to return their unearned millions (Congress may pass a tax law aimed just at them, taxing their bonuses at 100 percent). But will the outrage help those who have been hardest hit by the economic meltdown? Will the hundreds of millions of dollars in various stimulus packages and bailouts find its way to regular people who are trying to get by, or will it go only to corporations deemed “too big to fail,” leaving behind millions of people who are, apparently, small enough to fail?
The Center for Social Inclusion has just issued a report on the economic meltdown and how best to solve the problem. It links race to the lack of opportunity and to the prevalence of the notorious subprime mortgages that triggered the economic crisis.
CSI Executive Director Maya Wiley told me, “We have to stimulate equality in order to stimulate the economy.” Access to education, transportation, housing and a clean environment give people a firm footing to respond to crisis and to succeed. Noting that “shovel-ready” stimulus jobs in construction will disproportionately favor those who are already in that industry, predominantly white males, Wiley is pushing for “community benefits agreements for construction jobs [that] ensure when the government has construction contracts, low-income people, people of color, women, are going to have their fair share of those jobs.” Since people of color are more likely to live far from available jobs and are less likely to have cars, Wiley says, “we must ensure that the way transportation dollars get spent go to transit … to connect people who need jobs to the places where there are jobs.”
The group United for a Fair Economy also highlights the racial wealth divide, noting that “24 percent of blacks and 21 percent of Latinos are in poverty, versus 8 percent of whites. In the corporate world, we are seeing the highest executive pay and the biggest bailouts in history. CEO pay is 344 times that of the average worker.”
Prevailing wisdom posits that freeing up credit will save the economy, thus these huge banks need hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts. But the crisis was initially caused by defaults on subprime mortgages. One option at the outset would have been to support the distressed homeowners, helping them avoid foreclosure. Wiley points out that “35 percent of subprime mortgage holders were actually eligible for prime-rate loans. … Most of those were people of color … communities of color did not have fair access to credit.”
The banks and the mortgage lenders pushed bad loans on poor and minority borrowers. The NAACP has just filed lawsuits against Wells Fargo and HSBC, alleging “systematic, institutionalized racism in subprime home mortgage lending.”
The banks bundled the bad loans into securities and sold them, then created derivatives based on these securities that are impossible to understand, let alone value. AIG insured the investment banks against potential losses from these complex derivatives. The U.S. Treasury bailed out the banks along with AIG. AIG then paid out tens of billions of its bailout money to the very large banks that already received billions in bailout funds: Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. Yet, despite the hundreds of billions being siphoned off by these megabanks, we are told that the credit market is still frozen. Many European banks also received funds this way, including Swiss bank UBS, which offers secret bank accounts that allow the richest Americans to avoid taxes. In effect, beleaguered U.S. taxpayers are bailing out wealthy U.S. tax dodgers.
Obama has surrounded himself with financial advisers who are too cozy with Wall Street, like Summers and Geithner. It’s time to direct the stimulus to the people who need it, to those whose tax dollars are funding it.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.