I watched this
week as the nation’s furor turned towards employees of insurance
giant American International Group (A.I.G.) and the $200 million-plus
in retention bonus payments recently doled out to executives. Executives,
who, as we already know are largely to blame for their role in A.I.G.’s
financial crisis that led to the country’s economic meltdown in
the first place because of its dealings in bad mortgage-backed securities.
This is also the same company that was given a loan in the form
of a bailout, using taxpayer money to the tune of $122.8 billion.
And even though Congressional members can’t seem to pass a universal
heathcare bill, raise the Federal Minimum Wage, or adequately fund
our public schools, in record time, U.S. lawmakers managed to create
a piece of legislation that would tax the bonuses for employees
at firms receiving federal funds in an attempt to show the public
“they care too.” Mind you, these are the same people who never return
you, the taxpayer’s and voter’s phone call, but all of a sudden,
“they’ve got your back.” Now whether this bill passes it or not
is a whole other story. I’m
more concerned with what I like to call “selective outrage” as demonstrated
by voters and usually triggered by the media and almost always used
as a distraction to keep our focus from the real issues.
Rewarding incompetence with
taxpayer money is nothing new for American voters, and I don’t recall
there ever being a national outcry of “off with their heads.”
Congress has raised its own
pay more than two dozen times, according to the Congressional Research
Service before finally just passing a law providing for automatic
annual cost-of-living adjustments unless they vote otherwise. Most
recently, they voted to forego next year’s pay increase because
of the recession but accepted this year’s increase of $4,700 bringing
congressional salaries to $174,000. That’s $174,000 in taxpayer
money…and that’s just the money we know
about. While it may seem like Congressional members are making off
like fat rats, let me remind you that we do the same for State and
local elected officials across the country.
Corporate executives may have
private jets, but our elected officials have Lincoln Town Cars,
the choice of many representatives who lease their vehicles at taxpayers’
According to an article published
last year in the Los Angeles Times, twenty-one of California’s
53 House members lease vehicles, among them Reps. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Laura Richardson (D- Long Beach).
In the article, Watson grew testy when asked recently about her
“You guys ask me such idiotic
questions,” Watson snapped. Her spokeswoman, Dorinda White, explained
that Watson chose the Lincoln because she is “over 6 feet tall in shoes”
and spends a lot of time driving around her district.
whose district includes numerous schools in the beleaguered Los
Angeles Unified School
District, including Dorsey
High School, where a recent district report
shows a graduation rate of 36%, an entire student body that is less
than 1% proficient in math, and only 21% students meeting the requirement
to attend a 2-year or 4-year university.
California Democrat Congresswoman,
Laura Richardson, who was voted one of the “2008 Most Embarrassing
Re-elected Member of Congress” by the Citizens for Responsibility
and Ethics in Washington (CREW), choose to allow the taxpayers to
foot the bill for her 2007 Lincoln Town Car at $1,300 a month. It
was the most expensive car in the House of Representatives. Richardson’s
district includes Compton,
where the jobless rate is up to 18.4%.
And even though pink slips have
been handed out to teachers in California,
due to the State’s budget crisis, in the neighborhood of an $8 billion
estimated decline in revenue, the average lawmaker still makes $113,000
a year plus a $173 living expense for each day they have to work
in Sacramento, which tends
to average out to $30,000 annually. Their living expense allowance
alone, which is taxpayer funded, is more
than some teachers bring home in a year.
Yes, taxpayers reward incompetence
with every paycheck issued to elected officials who continue to
represent districts filled with unemployed workers, families living
at or below the poverty line, and school districts in crisis. But
it’s not breaking news every time our money is automatically deducted
from our paycheck and electronically wired into their bank accounts
on the 1st of month. It’s only when we show up at our local County,
State of Federal building
asking for it back in the form of unemployment benefits, welfare,
or General Relief that it is.
why is it that American taxpayer’s are all bent out of shape over
the bonuses paid to unknown incompetent executives, who, bonus or
no bonus, are wealthier than most of us will ever be? The reality
is that the day to day actions of these executives, as wrong as
they are for accepting a bonus in any amount, don’t affect the majority
of us in comparison to the actions of the people we elected and
in most case repeatedly re-elected into public office to represent
our best interests. Sign me up for that crusade. Sign me up for
that crusade. Sign me up to stand outside of the airport on Thursdays
when lawmakers fly back into their districts, to meet them with
signs of protest for the continued social injustice faced by their
constituents. Sign me up to lead the recall of lawmakers who aren’t
doing their jobs. That’s how you reward incompetence.
The flap surrounding A.I.G.’s
bonuses is just another distraction in a laundry list of distractions
designed to keep the taxpayer from focusing on the real issues.
Ask yourself how much taxpayer
money went into funding last week’s Capitol Hill A.I.G. hearing
that resulted in Congressional members giving “Mad Men,” “30 Rock,”
and Alec Baldwin a run for their money for consideration in next
year’s Emmy Award nominations for the categories of Outstanding
Drama Series, Outstanding Comedy Series, and Outstanding Lead Actor
in a Comedy or Drama? After all the theatrics were over, those same
A.I.G. executives climbed back aboard their private jets and Congressional
members hopped into their taxpayer funded vehicles headed to their
daily evening fundraiser. The media got their sound bytes that they
will then dutifully repeat every hour on the hour making you think
something really happened in that hearing. And you, the taxpayer,
believe it or not, got screwed again.
hate the player, hate the game.” - rapper Ice T.
Jasmyne Cannick, is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the worlds of pop culture, race, class,
and politics as it relates to the African-American community. A
regular contributor to NPR’s ‘News and Notes,’ she was chosen as
one Essence Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World. Click here
to contact Ms. Cannick.