Minority View

As I explained on Bill Bennett’s radio show this morning, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the AIG bonuses, and the people who got them should keep them. This is based on the testimony of Edward Liddy, who said yesterday:

* All of these payments, as to AIG’s troubled financial products division, are retention bonuses, not performance bonuses.
* The money is not going to anyone responsible for the implosion of AIG–those people, who were in the credit default swap area, are gone.
* These retention bonuses were promised to AIG employees who are responsible for winding down the company’s financial products division. At the beginning, this division had a potential exposure of $2.7 trillion. Winding down AIG’s book of business in this area was a dead-end job, and there was a great likelihood that the people responsible for the work, who knew the most about the products involved, would take jobs elsewhere.
* In late 2007 or early 2008, AIG made a deal with these employees: if they would stay at AIG until specified conditions were met, i.e., either certain business was wound down or a given period of time had elapsed, they would receive a specified retention bonus.
* As to all of the employees involved, they satisfied the terms of the bonus by wrapping up a portfolio for which they were responsible and/or staying on the job until now. As a result of the efforts of this group, AIG’s financial products exposure is down from $2.7 trillion to $1.6 trillion.

There is no legal principle that would justify not paying these bonuses. If you make an offer to someone along the lines of, if you do X I will pay you Y dollars, and he does X, it’s too late to change your mind. You’re on the hook for Y dollars, and you should be.

The legislation introduced by the Democrats today to tax these bonuses (and possibly a few others, although it isn’t clear that any others have been or will be paid that are covered by the statute) at a 90 percent rate is an outrage. It is, in my legal opinion, obviously unconstitutional. It is evidently intended to calm the current political firestorm and not to achieve any real objective.

The Republicans’ alternative, which basically just demands that AIG give the money back, somehow, is better but still silly. No doubt one could deduct $165 million from past and future bailout payments to AIG and thereby make the taxpayers “whole.” But that just illustrates the foolishness of concentrating on these bonuses rather than the larger picture.

The Obama administration has done a great many things about which taxpayers should be livid–one bailout after another, mammoth tax increases, the bogus “stimulus” bill, the $410 billion leftover appropriations bill, the multi-trillion dollar budget with a $1.7 trillion deficit. Paying employees of AIG money which they have earned and are owed is at the very bottom of the list of actions for which we should be enraged at the Obama administration.

The other lesson of this story is the futility of having the federal government running the world’s largest insurance company. When the salaries earned by derivative traders at an insurance company can become a major political issue, you know the government has gotten way too deeply involved in the private sector.

AIG, like GM, should have been allowed to go into bankruptcy. In bankruptcy, it could have wound down its financial products division just as it is doing now. Bankruptcy would not have affected the company’s international insurance businesses, distinct corporate entities which are both solvent and profitable. Those businesses could have been sold, which is what AIG now plans to do.

Why did the federal government prefer to bail AIG out rather than let the bankruptcy court unwind its business? Because of “systemic” risk; that is, the feds wanted AIG in business and funded with $80 billion in taxpayer money so that it could make good on its commitments to third parties, especially third parties to whom it had guaranteed the value of residential mortgage-backed securities. But if AIG had gone into bankruptcy, and there were third parties in danger of failing because AIG couldn’t pay what it owed, and it really was in the taxpayers’ interest to save those third parties, then the government could have paid the bailout money not to AIG, but selectively to the third parties it deemed important to the economy.

Why wasn’t that approach followed? Because of politics. Much of the money that AIG owed was due to European banks. For the American government to bail out European banks would have been a tough sell, to put it mildly. Other third parties were entities like Goldman Sachs, which said it didn’t need to be bailed out but received, I believe, $13 billion in taxpayer dollars that was funneled through AIG.

What is happening in Washington is a scandal and an outrage. Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should not be allowed to divert attention from the disastrous policies they are pursuing by focusing on the sideshow of AIG bonuses.

UPDATE: Ruth Marcus, who comes at the issue from a more liberal perspective but whom I respect a lot, takes a similar position.

FURTHER UPDATE: This, from Jennifer Rubin, is on the mark as well:

The lesson from AIG is that the entire premise of the Obama administration — we know better — is fundamentally flawed. The Obama team can’t effectively manage a single troubled company without getting itself and the whole country tied up in knots. The notion that we should invest the federal government with authority to control vast swatches of the economy can now be seen for what it is: madness. We should consider ourselves lucky that the public is getting a glimpse of its government in action on a (relatively speaking) low-dollar item of limited consequences.

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