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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 05:36 pm

Hear the whine of Wall Street’s latest tune

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President Barack Obama speaks on the economy during a Feb. 9 press conference.
Chuck Kennedy/MCT

Listen intently, and you can hear the faint music of the band coming from over the hills. Their drums are pounding out a steady cadence, the bagpipes are wheezing mournfully and the fifes are trilling plaintively. Coming straight at you, it’s The Musicale Marching Pity Corps from Wall Street!

This big banker band — including a line of baton-twirling lobbyists and a chorus of right-wing talk show yakkers — is on the march because Obama and other dastardly Democrats have proposed to cap the outrageous pay, bonuses and perks that bailed-out Wall Streeters keep grabbing for themselves. The band’s whining refrain (note: You might want to reach for your hankie before reading this) is that these princes of high finance are being picked on.

Yes, trumpet the bankers, we make a lot of money, but we deserve it, and the system cannot function without such rewards for us. Indeed, sniffs a Wall Street consultant, “taxpayers should want banks to retain the cream of the crop.” Uh, sir — wouldn’t that be the same cream that has soured America’s entire financial system?

Well, they snap, you riff-raffers just don’t get it. “The pay scale for Wall Street is different (than) the pay scale for America, explained the chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable in an ABC News interview this month. “So these numbers look large, but consider the market value for these executives — there’s a very small talent pool of individuals that have the education, experience and knowledge to operate a global, international services firm in this day and age.”

The lobbyist then tried tugging at our heartstrings: “I don’t think the issue is a dollar amount. It’s being paid what you’re worth. Would you be willing to work for less than what you think you’re worth?” he asked.

If ignorance is bliss, this guy must be ecstatic. Most Americans are working for less than they think they’re worth! Ask a schoolteacher.

In a January New York Times op-ed, one investment banker conceded that there have been excesses in pay, but that the system itself is sound. “Without those bonuses,” he wrote, “firms simply couldn’t attract the best and the brightest.” Apparently, he counts himself as one of the B&Bs, noting that the yearly “euphoria” of bonus cash that he received was what “justified the days on end of working into the wee hours, the months on end without a single day off.”

Sheesh. Do they not look around and see that millions of us (from schoolteachers to farmers) are working the same long hours at a fraction of their pay? Do they actually think that “best and brightest” is measured in dollars? His op-ed drew a number of sharp responses from readers, including one who noted that he, too, has a job with “days on end of working into the wee hours,” yet — no bonus. “I am what is called a physician,” he revealed.

Mark Twain said it well years ago, “I am opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position.” Americans are not against making money, even great big wads of it. We’re against greed. That’s why there is broad public support for Obama’s proposal. As he rightly said when announcing the pay cap, the bankers’ shameful grab for their own enrichment in the midst of a national economic collapse is “exactly the kind of disregard for the costs and consequences of their actions that brought about this crisis — a culture of narrow self-interest and short-term gain at the expense of everything else.”

The only problem with the president’s compensation cap is that it has too many loopholes (it doesn’t apply, for example, to the outsized paychecks going to the honchos of Citigroup, Bank of America and other giants that have already ripped us off for hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money).

Congress should toughen it. But at least it finally lays an ethical marker that can begin to reverse the corporate culture of greed that has so severely harmed our country.

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