I’m as angry as anybody about the bailouts, but I don’t agree with the people who are perturbed about the TV commercial General Motors ran over the Thanksgiving holiday.
The ad has no narrator, just a gentle piano rendition of the Seventies Hollies hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” in the background. It begins with images of memorable failures – NASA rockets that crashed on the launch pad, motorcycle daredevil Evil Knievel injuring himself, the fraternity members in Animal House after Dean Wormer has informed them that he is shutting down their frat. But then John Belushi rallies the Delta House brothers, a rocket soars into the sky, a boxer down for the count gets back on his feet. “We all fall down,” reads a sentence on the screen. “Thank you for helping us get back up.”
I loved the ad - and was shocked to see it. After all, the Wall Street bankers, hedge fund operators and financial speculators who drove our economy and the globe into a ditch two years ago had to be dragged before Congress and the media before they would so much as admit that “mistakes were made,” to use Richard Nixon’s passive diction. Most of the companies that were rescued with no-strings-attached taxpayer dollars were quick to pay them back (on easy terms) and now behave as if they had never run into trouble in the first place. The newly resuscitated financial industry used its political might (and taxpayer money) in a massive lobbying campaign to kill any congressional legislation that might have prevented them from earning billions more on useless speculation. Bonuses are once again breaking records.
GM, at least, has some sense of obligation or appreciation for what we taxpayers did for the company, its employees and investors. It doesn't make our lives any better, but I, for one, find that refreshing.
There was a lot of similar hostility in evidence when GM executives went to DC to beg for a bailout back in 2009. Members of Congress criticized them for flying to Washington on corporate jets. The White House fired GM’s CEO as part of the bailout. Compared to that, the Wall Street titans were treated like royalty. No one demanded that they take the bus from New York, nor have the CEOs of Goldman, Citibank, Bank of America, etc. lost their jobs – much less been prosecuted – for their conduct.
The difference was striking at the time, and it remains so today, a reflection of the degree to which money is worshiped and wealth revered in this country, long past time when average Americans should know better. After all, GM employs people to produce things that people in this country actually use: cars. As a pointed piece in last week's New Yorker points out, "much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless." “The most profitable industry in America” – the financial industry – “doesn’t design, build, or sell a single tangible thing.”
Try driving a Collateralized Debt Obligation down the street sometime.