Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bewitched, Bewildered and Bonused...Wall Street had a great year apparently

I am a writer, not a business person. But in my career, I get to work with business people all the time - executives at Fortune 500 companies, lawyers, trainers, people who run mid-size businesses. That's why my work is so interesting - that's why I love doing what I do. I work with talented people to help them craft particular messages for particular audiences.

I am luckiest when I get to work with people who know exactly what their message is, who know exactly what they want the audience to take away from the communication. And I have to say that with most of my jobs, I'm a very lucky person - because most of my clients know what they want to say.

I confess I find the people on Wall Street to be utterly bewildering. I keep trying to figure out what they want us to understand about their business, but in all honesty, it is impossible to comprehend what they're trying to tell us - their story is ultimately too perplexing.

I grew up in the shadow of Reagan; in his first inaugural address, he famously gave us the line: "government isn't the solution - government is the problem."

Today, I see a flock of Wall Street capitalists racing as fast as they can to be beneficiaries of a rather expensive government solution to the problem of their fiscal irresponsibility. "Socialize our losses!" seems to be the mantra of the new free market.

Then I see the same Wall Street capitalists somehow congratulating themselves for the woeful year that was by paying themselves enormous bonuses. Check out this story in the NY Times: New York financial firms that have lost more than $35 billion in 2008, and have been the beneficiaries of at least $370 billion in federal bailout money, have also paid themselves $18.4 BILLION in bonuses! It's "the sixth largest haul on record," according the the NY state comptroller's office.

I wonder any number of things when I read those stats:

*Why do companies that lost $35 billion deserve ten times that amount in a bailout?

*How do business people, who I assume are devoted to making profits, justify rewarding themselves enormous bonuses when they've lost so much of their company's shareholder value through shoddy business practices?

*What do Wall Street financiers talk about when they talk about bonuses? I mean, really! When your firm goes belly up, the franchise is dead anyway - so why reward the people whose work helped the company die?

*What on earth did they do well enough in 2008 to deserve any reward at all?

What the message out of Wall Street seems to be these days is that "Wall Street isn't the solution; Wall Street is the problem."

And the government needs to step in and make sure that ANYONE who got a bonus this year at a company receiving a federal bailout gets fired.

To climb out of this terrible fiscal crisis, we need smart people in charge of the financial system who know how to make and sustain profit for the company. That's not what we have right now. Wall Street is filled with business people who are only successful, apparently, at lining their own wallets with astronomical sums of money. Certainly, their ability to operate a profitable operation is nonexistent. If you believe the story they're telling us, failed business leaders deserve to be bonused handsomely for driving their companies into the ground - and dragging the economy down with them. That's a bewildering tale with a very bad ending.

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