NEW YORK – It’s the end of the world as we know it and the banks and airlines feel fine, because even in the midst of economic collapse CEOs can sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that the American taxpayer will bail them out. Again.
All they have to do is wait a respectable six to 12 months after the wire transfer clears to start giving themselves raises, renovating executive suites and buying back their stock.
That’s exactly what happened during and after the 2008-2009 global economic crisis that followed the subprime mortgage meltdown. In 2008 alone, banks that received government bailouts spent $1.6 billion on executive salaries, bonuses and benefits, including “cash bonuses, stock options, personal use of company jets and chauffeurs, home security, country club memberships and professional money management,” The Associated Press reported.
It has been a week since securities markets began a terrifying fall. Again, shamelessly, acting under the assumption that we have completely forgotten what they did last time, corporate lobbying groups like Airlines for America are already asking for a $60 billion bailout. Some people in the media are asking the right questions. Steve Inskeep of NPR’s “Morning Edition” asked an AFA spokesman about the $10 to $15 billion in profits the airlines have been raking in annually. Didn’t they save any of that? According to Bloomberg, the idiots spent 96 percent of their cash to buy back their stock even as they accumulated a mountain of debt.
As a society, however, Americans ought to be asking a bigger question: Are we going to allow ourselves to be conned by these corporate douches the way we have been in the past?
Clearly the U.S. economy cannot recover from the coronavirus shock without a viable transportation system. That includes airlines. Similarly, we can’t allow banks to fail. But we should not repeat the mistakes of the Bush and Obama administrations, who bailed out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.
The federal government handed more than $7 trillion interest-free, no strings attached, to the big banks in exchange for increasing liquidity in the credit markets — which they never did. It’s still too hard to get a mortgage or other type of loan. After 9/11 the Feds gave $15 billion to the airline industry, which has since treated U.S. airline passengers like garbage.
As with the bank bailout, much of the money was wasted and stolen. As U.S. President George W. Bush said, fool me once, shame on, shame on you, fool me, you can’t get fooled again. Or something like that.
I have little expectation that it will do this, but the Trump administration should target federal assistance toward ordinary citizens who are losing their jobs rather than corporations. Not only is this the right thing to do, you get twice the bang for your buck. If U.S. President Barack Obama had helped distressed and unemployed people pay their mortgages and rent, it would have kept them in their homes, propped up the underlying mortgages that tanked derivatives and therefore saved the banks indirectly. Reducing the number of evictions would have mitigated the real estate crash caused by the deterioration of vacant houses.
To their credit, White House officials seem to be considering direct payments to prop up the economy during the coronavirus crisis. There’s even talk of a $1,000 per person per month guaranteed minimum income reminiscent of Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal. Seems like a lot of money, but not when you compare it to the defense budget. Maybe we can take a break from killing Muslims?
But I would be surprised if they did that. The political class is just not that into us.
Trump should offer distressed corporations two options in exchange for being rescued from the financial downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Option one: Nationalization.
If we save your automobile company or your oil company or your airline, we own it. All your stock gets transferred to the property of the U.S. Treasury. If the bailout is partial, we take a proportionate share based on a discounted rate of your devalued stock prices. If you are a competent CEO, you get to stay, but obviously at a greatly reduced salary. Once you start to do better, we deserve your profits.
Option two: We get to tell you how to run your company.
I’m picking on banks and airlines because they are particularly mean to their customers, but you can extrapolate these principles to other lines of business.
If the U.S. taxpayer saves your bank, the U.S. taxpayer has the right to be treated like a human being when he or she does business with you. That means closing the gap between interest rates. It’s insane that banks pay out 0.5 percent interest on savings accounts while taking in 25 percent from credit cards. Before we dole out money to these institutions, they must promise in writing to do better.
The list of sins of our widely despised airlines is endless: seats packed so closely together that they would be difficult to evacuate in case of emergency, high fees to change flights and high fees to check baggage that have by themselves poured billions of dollars into airline coffers. As Columbia law professor Tim Wu says, “The (flight) change fees don’t just irritate; they are also a drag on the broader economy, making the transport system less flexible and discouraging what would otherwise be efficient changes to travel plans.”
The anti-American caste system — first class, business, coach, basic economy — should be abolished. If your flight gets canceled for a reason other than bad weather, you should be compensated. I’m tired of seeing my flights canceled because there would have been some empty seats. Even in case of bad weather, they should put you up in a decent hotel until it clears.
Big bailouts come with big strings. Not one dime of taxpayer money should ever find its way into executive salaries. And no stock buybacks.
Think I’m being draconian? If so, think of all the times you have asked an institution like a bank or an airline to cut you a break. How many times did they say yes? They had all the power and the used it to crush you. Thanks to the coronavirus the tables are turned. We, the people, have the power over the money that these jerks need to survive.
Let’s leverage the hell out of it.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist and writer.
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