Deborah Hill Cone: Masters of the Universe no more

Bankers are the new paedophiles.

They might wear chalkstripe suits instead of dirty raincoats but just look at the words used to describe them. Their bonuses are obscene, shameful, grotesque.

It would be "morally and economically outrageous" to pay them, Britain's former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott says as he encourages people to join a Facebook lynch-the-bankers group against "raw capitalism".

President Barack Obama says bankers' bonuses are "disgusting" - his word - and has installed a cap of US$500,000 ($956,000) on executive pay in companies which have received Government handouts.

In Britain there is outrage that the 70 per cent state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland was planning to pay close to 1 billion ($2.8 billion) in bonuses, despite losing 28 billion and being bailed out by taxpayers.

The Guardian's Polly Toynbee says bankers are thickos: "Just deluded group thinkers harvesting bonuses in a rising market." They are lacking in intellectual curiosity, ignorant about ordinary life, breathtakingly selfish and have testosterone where their brains should be. "Ask the universities: those heading for the City are rarely the cleverest, just the greediest." Don't sugar coat it, honey.

Although I bet Toynbee and all the rest were quite happy to take advantage of the boomtimes when their houses were increasing in value, one can't help but wonder if they are feeling some self-loathing now. When the party stops it is much easier to blame the bankers for getting us drunk than admit we are lushes.

The string-em-high spluttering about bank bonuses, like any witch-hunt, reflects something dark and monstrous in our own psyche. There is a lot of hatred there, and I am not sure it is simply about pay packets. This is schadenfreude on an epic scale - we will cut those Masters of the Universe down to size. Not such big swinging dicks now, eh mate?

This is not to deny that some of the discretionary bonuses seem out of proportion. It is hard to see how Merrill Lynch's John Thain deserved the US$40 million he awarded himself for selling his failing firm to the Bank of America.

But for many bank employees, like salespeople on commission, the so-called bonus has been factored into their salary.

Why should bank employees in the humdrum low-risk areas of the business which were not fuelling the financial catastrophe have to forgo their legitimate remuneration because politicians are wallowing in the public's fury? Even the British Treasury team which put together the Government's bank bailout deals will get bonuses for their work.

As the Financial Times pointed out, if you call them "incentives" the payments don't sound nearly so nauseating. The average Wall St bonus was US$112,000 so "not all bankers are as rich as Croesus", the FT's Lex protested.

There are other good reasons why banks can't simply shut their chequebooks. There are those pesky things called contracts - breaking them is tantamount to admitting the normal rules of civil society no longer apply. And despite what Polly Toynbee thinks, banks still need to attract clever people; talent will decamp to better pay elsewhere.

Of course one option is to pay every staff member in a state-owned bank the same amount, or, better still, give them a ration of organic root vegetables, like the Cubans hand out coffee to demoralised citizens. That'll motivate them to pull their organisations out of the proverbial.

A few weeks ago I mused over whom leftists would throw their shoes at now Dubya had yahooed back to Texas. Now I know: any old capitalist will do.

deborah@coneandco.com

- NZ Herald

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