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Rights + Justice

Disgorge the Bastards!

Getting mad as hell at tycoon villains is the new buzz.

Vanessa Richmond 4 Feb 2009TheTyee.ca

Vanessa Richmond's 'Shlock and Awe' take on popular culture runs weekly on The Tyee.

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Mad as hell, and loving it!

Fill your Olympian lungs with bong smoke, throw an F-bomb tantrum on a movie set. Yawn. Dumb moves by celebs like Michael Phelps and Christian Bale just don't fire the public ire like they used to. Not since the recession sent people into a kind of confused shock, that's now maturing into collective rage targeted at villains like John Thain.

Thain, the CEO of Merrill Lynch who, after his firm sucked down millions in U.S. government bailout money, cut thousands of jobs while spending $1.22 million renovating his office. Little decorative touches like an $87,000 rug and a $1,400 parchment wastepaper basket were what sent people from tut-tuting to steaming. A final flourish was that he told underlings to cut expenses including car services, while he spent $230,000 on his own driver.

On Tuesday morning, with the blogosphere mob chasing him down the street holding virtual pitchforks and torches, Thain resigned.

To the gallows!

As the meltdown continues to drip, the temperature of the public reaction to titans' troubles has gone from cold smugness to hot blooded calls for revenge.

It got going with the news that Citigroup planned to go ahead with its order of a $50 million, 12-seater, luxury, private jet from France, despite having accepted $45 billion in taxpayer funded bailouts. A reportedly angry President Obama is said to have personally ditched that idea in the Hudson, phoning the bank's bosses and telling them to "fix it." Let's just say, readers liked that response.

Then we learned that executives at various bailed-out companies recently took home over $18.6 billion in bonuses. That's what really did it. I now am able to fill my day, if I wish, discussing with friends the virtues of bringing back the guillotine, and where might be the ideal public venue to begin lopping off corporate heads.

What might appease the growing rabble? For starters, any exec who's laying off workers in either Canada or the U.S. should first reduce his or her (though it's usually "his" of course) own salary to that of an average employee. Where companies have accepted any government help and execs have taken bonuses, governments should not only take back those bonuses, but claw back some of their salaries and perks (like, say, private jets), and pay the money out to the workers they've laid off. Execs of ailing companies (especially those responsible for the sub-prime and other disasters) should themselves be laid off, forced to apologize to their workers, and then replaced with "average" workers.

I and my wild-eyed mob are now laughing out loud at previously sacrosanct economic ideas like that companies can't attract the best without offering lofty financial rewards. Can anyone really say that execs' value (sometimes remunerated in the billions of dollars) is worth hundreds of times more than the front line worker, usually paid under $10/ hour? Let's run the experiment. Fire them. Then let's see how much worse off companies actually are without their super-powered and super-paid leadership. I'm just saying.

Disgorge 'em!

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wants nothing less than disgorgement. (I thought at first that meant a kind of disemboweling, but it's only of a financial type.) "The president's disgust at Wall Street looters was good," she wrote. "But we need more. We need disgorgement. Disgorgement is when courts force wrongdoers to repay ill-gotten gains. And I'm ill at the gains gotten by scummy executives acting all Gordon Gekko while they're getting bailed out by us. Anyone who gave bonuses after accepting federal aid should be fired, and that money should be disgorged to the Treasury."

On Tuesday morning, Obama officials announced plans to do some of that. Companies that accepted government severance packages penned under the Bush administration (Citigroup, American International Group, General Motors, Chrysler LLC) will face pay limits and reduced bonus pools.

It made me wonder how much money the Canadian government could go after Nortel execs or others for. I wonder, too, when the anger building in this country, so far aimed largely at the titans (Titanics?) of Wall Street who sent the world economy into the drain, will turn back on our own enabling politicians and financial leaders.

Meantime, all this white hot rage is having a certain cauterizing effect on our culture's obsession with celebrity. Brangelina's Japanese airport photo shoot -- just them and their six-kid elite preschool -- got some attention, then quickly dropped off the radar. Right now, actors aren't as interesting as the real thing.

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