All The Rage

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“Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to,
the more ought law to weed it out.”

–Francis BaconLate in the pre-Google age, an Edenic time when the economy was growing and leveraging involved the mechanical advantage of a lever, LA Weekly, of which I was publisher, boasted two Boards of Directors. Sparring over who controlled the company had erupted into civil war, with each faction declaring victory, kind of like that period in the 1400s when there were three Popes.

When paralysis threatened to become chaos, a compromise Board was fashioned and met in a neutral location — aka a lawyer’s office — where, after hours of stormy language, threats, and screaming, new member Oscar Janiger rose and demanded the floor. A superannuated psychiatrist who couldn’t tell newspaper from flypaper, Janiger’s claim to fame was treating Cary Grant by prescribing LSD. His pearl of wisdom for the clashing titans: “I’m sensing anger in the room.”

Anger can be a good thing if channeled with intelligence, but Americans aren’t sure how to handle their anger at the super-rich for fiddling with billions while ordinary workers and investors got burned. Raging at the villains of the moment — corrupt hedge funders, incompetent auto execs, Madoff and company — is warranted, but doesn’t accomplish much. Does anyone even remember what became of that ludicrous bill demanding a 90 percent tax on AIG bonuses?

But something has to be done. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that nearly half of Americans want federal prosecutors to be more aggressive in pursuing criminal charges against corrupt business leaders, compared to only ten percent who favor a less aggressive stance.

The disgraced Masters of the Universe argue, self-interestedly, that focusing on prior conduct, awful as it may be, will take up time and energy better focused on current crises. It’s a silly claim; we can do more than one thing at a time.

The real question is, what do we want to achieve — justice, or revenge?

Like a traumatic injury that’s initially numbed by delightful painkillers, the enormity of the economic damage caused by eight years of laissez-faire Bushism is only now kicking in with full force. (To be fair, the pro-business, anti-regulatory Reagan and Clinton administrations more than set the stage.) With a steady stream of new revelations keeping the outrage in the forefront — the student loan scandal is now heating up — the understandable temptation is to go for the schadenfreude of seeing the bullies get their comeuppance.

Reactions to the Wall Street crash careen from devastation over staggering personal losses to bewilderment about what the hell happened. William D. Cohan’s gripping book “House of Cards” details the incompetence and outright negligence that brought down Bear Stearns in 2008. It turns out that the billionaire egomaniacs running top Wall Street firms didn’t understand those wacky CDSs, bundled securities packages and CDOs of CDOs of CDOs (this is not a typo) any better than the rest of us!

But the book reveals that execs at Bear Stearns and elsewhere knew at least one thing: it was only a matter of time before the system would unravel. And they took advantage of that knowledge by cashing in early.

Bottom line: No one will have confidence in new regulations and oversight unless the powers that be show the strength of will to prosecute all the criminal behavior they can unearth. To do this, a no-nonsense, anti-greed figure needs to emerge. (Note to Elliot Spitzer: Americans can be a forgiving people!)

Of course, in the victim-blaming universe of Wall Street apologists, wealthy whites are white with anger about being less wealthy. After all, they “played by the rules” — and never mind that they themselves wrote those rules. New York Magazine blares “Rage of the Rich” on its cover, and showcases the pain of former Masters of the Universe thusly: “In a witch hunt, the witches have feelings, too. As populist rage has erupted around the country, stoked by canny politicians, an opposite rage has built on Wall Street and other arenas where the wealthy hold sway.”

Besides, according to CNBC anchor Erin Burnett, if we just stop using that pesky word “bonus” to describe all that extra money taxpayers are forking over, everyone will feel so much better.

Dr. Janiger’s soothing notwithstanding, LA Weekly’s compromise Board failed to tamp down the rage between factions; before long the company was sold at a huge discount, which benefited no one except the lucky buyer.

As we grapple with how best to channel our rage, it’s worth taking a deep breath and reminding ourselves how different revenge and justice are from each other. The former tends to produce heartache and the perpetuation of anger, but only the latter — pursued with passion but without the need for the often fleeting satisfaction of seeing the bad guys suffer — can lead to enduring reparation.

The great philosopher Pete Seeger, who just turned ninety, is a non-violent peacenik who nevertheless urges tough justice. He’s known to sign off by saying, “Take it easy. But take it.” Yeah!

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