I was reminded, this week, of what it was like when my Mom and Dad separated; my Mom had to sit me and my sister down and explain, patiently (and I remember, with some emotion) that things would have to change. We would be fending for ourselves. There would not be as much money. We would have to economize, and adapt, and do unfamiliar things.
What made me think of it - aside from the general nostalgia of birthdays - was the passion and incoherence of so much of the outrage this week. I didn't like the idea of having to give anything up; I didn't understand why any of this was happening... and I was mad. Mad at someone, something... I couldn't quite put my finger on it. For years.
Don't worry about me - I've had therapy and worked out a lot of issues; I love my Mom and Dad, and I know why the things that happened had to happen. But going through it all has helped to understand better when anger is helpful... and when it isn't.
Let's be clear up front: I'm not happy about the AIG bonuses; nor am I happy, more generally, with the way we've "bailed out" AIG, throwing bad money after worse, trying to prop something up that probably can't be saved and isn't worth saving. But I think the anger this week's news unleashed - and the rather shameless way some have tried to capitalize on it - is about much more than bonuses, and indicates a moment of choice for us as a nation, a question of what we can live with... and what we can't.
I've been writing for weeks, months, years even on our economic woes, and I think this week was, for me, a reminder that I'm early to realizations that others need to play catch up with to get up to speed; I don't mean that to sound boastful, because it messes me up writing (and in other ways), assuming people "get" things when they need more information.
If one follows the idea of stages of grief - and while I agree with my mom that these things shouldn't be seen rigidly, I do think the idea applies to our economic woes - then this past week marked the movement from "Denial" to "Anger." It wasn't just AIG; I realized, as I started making the connections, that this was what had bugged me about Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer: the anger, as expressed by Stewart, just seemed so much, er, larger than anything about Cramer. It was anger, really, about the loss of an entire way of life, an entire notion of what to believe.
The anger at AIG bonuses is spectacular, out of proportion to the event, and incoherent; nothing underlined that as much as the absurd, knee-jerk decision in the House to pass an ill-considered, hasty tax bill in an attempt to "confiscate" the bonuses. This, despite Edward Liddy - himself an appointee, drawn out of retirement and put in place by the government - testifying that many of the recipients had already returned bonuses to AIG, and more were expected to, voluntarily.
Moreover, what's really undiscussed is that almost no one pontificating this week was an especially knowledgeable expert - people who work in compensation, benefits, and other Human Resources issues for corporations were essentially ignored, despite he expertise which would have put the bonuses into context, and suggested ways to really deal with the underlying issue. Of course there's a compensation problem in the financial industry, and clearly, the bonus structures that have been in place for years incentivized troubling behavior; but changing them is complex, especially when, for many in the industry, they do not know of another way to do it. And, as I've tried to patiently explain to anyone who'll listen, in our capitalist system you want businesses to have the flexibility to reward people who perform well or above expectations (this is the whole idea in the debate over "merit pay" for good teachers, also a complicated subject); the idea of micromanaging compensation decisions of private businesses through federal involvement is something I'm especially leery about supporting in any way.
More fundamentally, though, the biggest problem with this week's outrage was its incoherence: people used the AIG moment as a chance to vent on a million different issues, often unrelated, often with no real hope of solving them. People wanted to rail about the waste of bailouts, the problems with stimulus, the failures of government, the greed of bankers, getting rid of Tim Geithner or Larry Summers (just for starters)... it was everything and the kitchen sink and it tended to come back to what was, really, a realization I thought we had in October or November last year: that things are really bad, that we have a lot of problems... and not a lot of good answers about solving them.In that sense, AIG and its bonuses were really beside the point: we could confiscate bonuses, flog people in public squares... but what people were really yelling for was to have back what can't be returned: a way of life that was easy, that got us anything we wanted, and where paying the bills could be put off until another day.
It's not surprising that many in government, even the Administration, were caught off guard; they too are the people who processed what has happened sooner, and had moved past the initial stages of grief. Why would some bonus payments become an issue now? Why would, suddenly, the sheer size of bailouts, and the question of who gets them, become a deal breaker? This moment was coming - anyone thinking ahead should have noticed that the "Tea Party"/Rick Santelli populist wave was growing too - and a lot of things were coming together; this, too, was the week that rage went bipartisan - we may not agree on much... but we're all angry. At somebody. We're just not sure who.
The dangerous part, of course, is that not all of this rage is being checked; I heard too many mutterings of wishes for imminent death and destruction for my comfort level. And too many calmer heads were slow off the mark in trying to calm things down; I worry that we won't pull back from this moment until someone is dead or something is in flames.
Nor do the next steps of grief look much better. Bargaining - which I think can be seen as what the budget process is about to become - will be painful. And "depression", I think, could be the watchword of this fall when predictions that the "worst is over" will meet up with some grim realities, and send things downhill. In the end, though, I'm mostly feeling sympathy for people who - perhaps like Liam Neeson - are discovering that their notion of a perfect life has been shattered by events beyond their control. The bewildering turn of our economic events, the way our past mistakes have come home to roost... it is a lot to take in, a lot to process. We can be forgiven, I think, as a nation for processing it slower than some (even me) might have expected. But here we are. And the time for anger has come... and is starting to go. The point of what we're dealing with now isn't the rage... it's what you do after. That's what my Mom taught me. That's all I think we can teach each other, now.