There used to be an old saying that Hollywood studio bigwigs told script writers who let a message get in the way of entertainment: “If you have a message to send, send it Western Union.” Now, in the 21st century, you could revise it: “If you have a message to send, send it in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.”
Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president of the American International Group’s financial products unit, did just that in an open-more-than-ever letter published in the NYT aimed at Edward Liddy chief executive of A.I.G. It speaks to the frustration of AIG execs who felt they served their company well, did what they were supposed to do, and now they’re under fire from politicos who are trying to get ahead of the bipartisan, angry mob streaming out into the streets holding lit torches. DeSantis says he’ll donate what ever is left of his bonus money to charity. He explains where he’s coming from — and where he thinks elected officials are coming from. He starts out:
DEAR Mr. Liddy,
It is with deep regret that I submit my notice of resignation from A.I.G. Financial Products. I hope you take the time to read this entire letter. Before describing the details of my decision, I want to offer some context:
I am proud of everything I have done for the commodity and equity divisions of A.I.G.-F.P. I was in no way involved in — or responsible for — the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung A.I.G. Nor were more than a handful of the 400 current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. Most of those responsible have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage.
After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company — during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009 — we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself.
And then he gets into it:
I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down.
You and I have never met or spoken to each other, so I’d like to tell you about myself.
He gives some of his work history and then details how he feels he and others have been treaty unfairly and poorly by both his former company and politicos:
The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my
compensation. I never received any pay resulting from the credit default swaps that are now losing so much money. I did, however, like many others here, lose a significant portion of my life savings in the form of deferred compensation invested in the capital of A.I.G.-F.P. because of those losses. In this way I have personally suffered from this controversial activity — directly as well as indirectly with the rest of the taxpayers.
…But you also are aware that most of the employees of your financial products unit had nothing to do with the large losses. And I am disappointed and frustrated over your lack of support for us. I and many others in the unit feel betrayed that you failed to stand up for us in the face of untrue and unfair accusations from certain members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that you didn’t defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut.
He makes the case that they have been shoved into one category, stereotyped and demonized by a company that wants to protect what’s left of the company name and by politicians who will do and say what they need to do and say to keep themselves in office:
As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.
Many of the employees have, in the past six months, turned down job offers from more stable employers, based on A.I.G.’s assurances that the contracts would be honored. They are now angry about having been misled by A.I.G.’s promises and are not inclined to return the money as a favor to you.
The only real motivation that anyone at A.I.G.-F.P. now has is fear. Mr. Cuomo has threatened to “name and shame,” and his counterpart in Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, has made similar threats — even though attorneys general are supposed to stand for due process, to conduct trials in courts and not the press.
….I’m not sure how you will greet my resignation, but at least Attorney General Blumenthal should be relieved that I’ll leave under my own power and will not need to be “shoved out the door.”
This isn’t a letter to be dismissed lightly. The Obama administration is going to need to work with business, so it’s more important than ever that if there’s wrongdoing when it’s stated its accurately stated — as accurate as a laser — which means getting a full reading on the chain of command and how precisely how certain things happened. Demonization or generalizations won’t do.
A mob with torches that gets its way often wind up burning down a castle — and all that remains is ashes. The castle here is not just a company or officials but the interconnected megacastle called the economy.
Andrew Sullivan adds this:
The letter from Jake DeSantis in the NYT today is a very powerful reminder that bankers have human rights too. We are very used to understanding the idea that judging a person on the basis of unjust and untrue generalizations about the color of their skin is wrong. We call that racism. But when we make broad-brush accusations against all bankers, or even all bankers at a particular company, no such ethical restraint is required. Of course, this is not entirely nuts. The experience of bankers in human history is a little less oppressed, to put it mildly, than most African-Americans. But the core moral point is the same: we should always try to judge the individual, not the group.
The relatively privileged are often excused from this rule. And maybe this is fine most of the time, given their wealth and power. But it remains true that the individual obliterated by his fellows in this way is as human as anyone else. He or she is not worth less than someone in far less comfy circumstances. If we prick them, do they not bleed?
Of course, the problem today is that a widespread –and growing — perception is that the pricks aren’t what is done to many of the privileged, but are the privileged. Sullivan goes on to write:
Hatred of those with more perceived power than you is still hatred. It is different than the contempt of the strong for those they they view as weak. In its structure, anti-Semitism is constructed differently than racism in the human psyche. But hatred out of envy is no less wounding or dangerous than hatred out of contempt – as we’ve seen with the horrifying consequences of anti-Semitism in recent history. And when it is wielded by mobs and ginned up by elites, it can be very dangerous.
Which is why Obama has tempered some of his rhetoric: he can’t afford to have huge parts of business resign from his plan to repair the economy.
Think of all the New York Times op-ed pieces.