Re: Populist Rage? …Never Mind

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Joe is absolutely right. (And JNS hinted at this last week as well when she reported that congressional switchboards aren’t exactly lighting up with angry constituents demanding the heads of AIG execs.) I was in Michigan last week, where nearly every conversation veers into the economy and jobs and whose kids have moved back in with them and who had to move in with their kids. The subject of AIG bonuses came up exactly…never.

Oh, people are mad. They’re really mad. But they don’t really distinguish between AIG executives giving themselves bonuses funded by taxpayers and J.P. Morgan spending TARP money on luxury jets and John Thain building himself a fancy schmancy bathroom. They’re mad at the whole out-of-control business culture that doesn’t even understand why these things might look bad, much less actually be bad. It’s the business equivalent of why people often don’t get riled up about political corruption. They assume all politicians are corrupt. And right now they assume all business executives are reckless and wasteful.

Why has the media decided this is the breaking point? It’s certainly an easy hook to hang a story on. But Joe’s also onto something when he posits that bonuses are the one part of this whole banking scandal that most journalists understand. It’s a pretty poor way to decide what to focus your coverage on, but there you go.

As for why we haven’t seen any demonstrations or riots, I’d suggest two answers. The first is that we did see a widespread public demonstration and it was called Election Day 2008. The second is that most Americans are willing to wait a little while to see if the administration’s actions work. I haven’t met anybody outside Washington who either expected results already or sits around reading Geithner’s plan with their head in their hands. Again, there’s plenty of anger out there–but there also seems to be a sense that the need for instant gratification is part of what got us in this mess in the first place.