I’m only over the past few days really coming to understand what’s been going on with AIG. But the long and short of it is that all this money we’re giving “to AIG” isn’t really going to AIG, it goes to AIG’s counterparties. These are mostly banks (many of them abroad) who bought insurance from AIG against the possibility of a global financial meltdown. It turns out that AIG can’t actually pay all the insurance claims. So were AIG to go down, all these firms who thought they were at least partially insured against catastrophe would find out that they’ve got nothing and they, in turn, would go under. Hence, the government is stepping in to, in effect, pay off AIG’s debts.
That seems reasonable enough. But the retrospective look at things is truly outrageous. The whole idea of the insurance industry is that if I buy insurance from you, you pay off the claims. Absent ability to pay claims, there’s no business there at all. It’s just fraud. Whether or not it meets the legal standard for fraud, I couldn’t say. But in ordinary language sense, it’s a fraud—you’re selling a service you have no capacity to deliver. And AIG executives made a bunch of money engaged in it. Felix Salmon says: “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hank Greenberg was still a billionaire, even as the policies his company wrote have cost the average American household some $1,600. It’s time for his wealth to be confiscated: it might be only a drop in the bucket compared to AIG’s total losses, but it would feel very right.”
I don’t think it would just feel right, it would be right. Thus far, there’s been an extraordinary aversion to actually punishing any of the people responsible. It’s true that most of them are less rich than they once were, but they’re still far richer than most people. And it shouldn’t be that wrecking your company and wrecking the world economy is a good way to become richer than most people.