As the furor over AIG bonuses fades, Paul Krugman today points to a real outrage: "pay at investment banks, after dipping last year, is soaring again--right back up to 2007 levels."
Such a symbol for unquenchable Wall Street greed may serve a political turning point just as did Ronald Reagan's Welfare Queen who drove a Cadillac three decades ago--with a number of added ironies.
Unlike the Great Communicator's character who was never found to exist, today's investment bankers are all too real and, in the 21st century, are ripping off taxpayers on a scale never imagined in Reagan's wildest dreams. The Welfare Queen's $150,000 has morphed into billions.
As Krugman observes, "Wall Street is no longer, in any real sense, part of the private sector. It’s a ward of the state, every bit as dependent on government aid as recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a k a 'welfare.'"
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the level of Wall Street compensation has always been disproportionate to achievement but turned astronomic only in recent years, as Krugman notes, as "a reward for their creativity--for financial innovation...new, improved ways to blow bubbles, evade regulations and implement de facto Ponzi schemes."
But the reemergence of such greed may eventually prove to be as powerful a symbol for a new populism as Reagan's Welfare Queen was for the rise of conservatism in the 1980's.
Almost 70 years ago, Fred Schwed in his Wall Street classic "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" noted: "The burnt customer certainly prefers to believe that he has been robbed rather than that he has been a fool on the advice of fools."
That feeling seems to be stirring again.