Obama's Critical Early Test: Corporate Arrogance

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

This is Obama's air-traffic controllers opportunity.

In 1981, not long after taking office, President Reagan faced a strike by the nation's air-traffic controllers. He fired them, broke the union and set in motion a generation of anti-labor policies that were a tenet of Republican orthodoxy. Whether those policies were ultimately more positive or negative is still a topic of political and economic debate, (I think the aggregate outcome was damaging) but Reagan's decisive action made a huge difference that reverberated through his presidency and several more.

Today, we face corporate arrogance that is almost transcendent and vastly more damaging than any of organized labor's excesses. Wall Street's barons, and the people who have been running and allegedly governing many of the nation's biggest companies, have raised a collective middle finger to America even as they've forced us to bail out the enterprises they've run into the ground. When commentators fret about corporate leaders' tone-deafness, they are implying that the executives simply don't get it. Oh yes they do.

In coming to Washington for bailouts, they said: "This is a stick-up. Give us the money or we'll kill the economy."

In creating their disgusting compensation schemes, they said: "Pay us as usual, not for performance but because this is our just due as masters of the universe. And because we deserve anything we can loot from whoever has the money, whether it's shareholders, customers, taxpayers or anyone else."

The puzzle of the past week is not that Americans are furious. Only an idiot (or a Wall Street banker) wouldn't be angry upon learning of the unconscionable "bonuses" renegade ward-of-the-taxpayers AIG wants to pay to its employees — including well over $100 million to people in the same unit that completely screwed the company and then threatened to take down the entire global economy if we refused to subsidize (so far) to the tune of $170 billiion.

No, the mystery is why this outrage hasn't come to the surface sooner. And why it's not more dangerous.

Why, for example, didn't Americans take to the streets earlier this year when we found out that Merrill Lynch and its conniving buyer, Bank of America, had paid almost $5 billion in bonuses — a number that makes the AIG bonus money seem small — after taking tens of billions from taxpayers? Why didn't we scream bloody murder when the Bush administration flatly refused to disclose where the hundreds of billions in bailout money was going in any kind of detail?

One reason, perhaps, is that we are a soft and lazy and uncurious people. We are quick to being pissed off at relatively small things — typically minor but sensationalized stuff that tabloid TV news programs (i.e. CNN, MSNBC and Fox and local stations) decide to make into issues — but slow to grasp the significance of the really big and crucial stuff until it's so powerfully in our faces that we can't avoid it any longer.

AIG's bonus payout tipped the scales, or, maybe more accurately, removed another kind of scales from people's eyes. It demonstrated precisely what suckers the Wall Streeters have been taking us for.

How can we blame them for deciding that they were entitled to loot us, again and again? We were electing politicians of both parties who have been corrupted by and enablers of the very system that created the credit bubble and its catastrophic outcome. We weren't demanding accountability from anyone, including ourselves.

But now it's time. The American public is not blameless in what's happened. But we are finally waking up to the level of arrogance that dominates wide swaths of corporate America, particularly Wall Street. These transcendently greedy people, who aren't just indifferent to what the rest of us think but who actually believe they're entitled to loot the treasury and our children's futures, need a slapping down.

President Obama has a chance to turn this in a positive direction, but he's going to have to risk a lot of his political capital. He's going to have to admit that he, too, has been player in the corrupt system, albeit a relatively bit player.

Then he has to say, and mean it, that this crap is going to stop, right now — and explain how he's going to do something about it.

We have a chance to reform the corrupt political and corporate governance that has created a system in which the people at the top brazenly tell the rest of us to go screw ourselves. It's a small chance, but if we don't do it now we will never do it, and the market economy itself will have no real future.

One institution can most effectively lead the charge in a way that can create change that doesn't turn into a mob-driven frenzy: the presidency. Is this president up to it?