Yesterday on ABC’s This Week, Larry Summers, head of President Obama’s National Economic Council, called insurance giant AIG’s plan to pay out $165 million in bonuses “outrageous” but insisted there was little the government could do about it. This despite the $170 billion in taxpayer funds that have been given to AIG. Summers cited the sanctity of contracts:
SUMMERS: We are a country of law. There are contracts. The government cannot just abrogate contracts. Every legal step possible to limit those bonuses is being taken by Secretary Geithner and by the Federal Reserve system.
Summers said that efforts by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had successfully “scaled back” the bonuses, but AIG chief Edward Liddy, defending the bonuses, told Geithner, “quite frankly, AIG’s hands are tied.”
Of course, not all contracts are sacrosanct. When Detroit’s Big Three arrived in Washington last year to plead for federal bailout funds, the right wing demanded that the United Auto Workers ignore their contracts and accept “steep cuts in pay and benefits” — on top of the cuts they already shouldered in 2007. The UAW agreed to “make major concessions in its contracts,” acceding to most of the right’s demands:
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger emerged from the meeting to say the union would rework a retiree health care trust fund, eliminate the union’s maligned jobs bank program…and cut additional measures that would loosen the union’s trademark job-security protections.
Along with other commenters, the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner pointed out the government’s double standard on contracts, telling George Stephanopoulos yesterday, “You don’t think when the auto workers come in as part of the auto rescue deal, they’re not being asked to abrogate contracts? Of course they are.”
The Obama administration also supports rewriting mortgage contracts. It “has moved aggressively to pressure lenders to renegotiate the terms of mortgages,” and Obama supports an idea to allow bankruptcy judges to change the terms of a mortgage to help homeowners stay afloat.
To his credit, Obama today ordered Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner “to use that leverage and pursue every single legal avenue to block these bonuses.” But it’s still clear that while workers’ contractual benefits can be eviscerated in the name of bailout eligibility, millionaire bankers’ bonuses are a more sacrosanct part of “a country of law” where “there are contracts.”
The Wonk Room’s Pat Garofalo explains why the AIG bonus debacle makes the perfect case for nationalization.
,Writing on Huffington Post, four economists aren’t buying the administration’s argument that its hands are essentially tied. It is “quite possible to abort this outrage by decisive exercise of public authority,” they write, adding, “Remember that this is a firm that is 79.9% owned by the United States government.” They argue that Treasury should order the payments halted, that Liddy be forced to resign, and that an investigation into AIG be launched.