New Yorkers are angry, and turning on the financiers that made the city what it is. AIG is top of their hate list with one disgruntled Manhattan citizen even suggesting that all employees should be strung up with piano wire.
“Not so fast you greedy bastards” screamed the New York Post front page last Wednesday.
In bold white capitals on a solid black background, it referred to the efforts by Congress to impose punitive taxes upon the staff of AIG Financial Products that received $165m in bonuses. The use of profanity, or swear words, is far less common in the US, particularly in the media, than within the coarsened continent of Europe. What would be quaintly called ‘F bombs” in the US are never broadcast by the major networks. So when the best selling tabloid in New York chooses to put a bad word without apology on its front page, it’s clear that feelings are running pretty high. What’s more, the New York Post’s political bias is so far to the right that it makes the UK’s the Sun look like Pravda; it is in no way hostile to capitalism. But when it comes to bonuses paid to AIG FP employees — the very unit that wrote billions of dollars of credit protection without enough capital and wrecked the entire firm in the process — New Yorkers are hopping mad.
New York is engulfed in a wave of populist anger, focusing on the AIG bonuses which have become the most egregious example of what’s being called the greed and immorality that laid low the American economy. The company has received hundreds of emails in the wake of the revelations about the bonuses. One read “All the executives and their families should be executed with piano wire — my greatest hope.” In the midst of this hatred Andrew Cuomo, the New York attorney general, and Barney Frank, chairman of the House financial services committee, have promised to publish the names of those executives who received bonuses. Next week, Frank’s committee will hold a hearing featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner with only one item on the agenda: when did they know about the AIG bonuses and did they approve them? Rage is the dominant emotion in a city that has always been unashamed of its emotions. But rage like this isn’t particularly healthy for those that have it. In many ways, it seems, the soul of New York has been poisoned by the financial crisis to a greater extent than London. New York is, to a large extent, all about Wall Street. It is the engine of the city. New York belongs to the financial services industry far more so even than London — a significantly greater percentage of its work force is employed or depends upon the financial industry. So this crisis has plunged a stiletto into the city’s heart. Conversations in bars, in restaurants, over dinner, gravitate naturally and without much delay to what is now Wall Street, to what happened when Lehman went down, to what Ken Lewis said to John Thain, to how many more people will lose their jobs.
Jobs, moreover, fulfill a slightly different role in New York than anywhere else. What you do — and how much you earn — is the largest component of a New Yorker’s self esteem and the way in which you are viewed by the world. The self esteem and self image of many has been greatly tarnished in the last six months. The financial meltdown has come to many New Yorkers as a particularly personal crisis. Over drinks on the Upper East Side last week, this correspondent met an old acquaintance still (tenuously) employed as an equities broker. In the good old days, he needed little incentive to discuss the financial markets — in a voice like a megaphone, to anyone within a 30 yard radius. He religiously read the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Forbes. Like many New Yorkers, he lived, breathed and ate Wall Street, a Wall Street that has changed utterly. Sotto voce, he said: “You know, I’m the biggest @#!$ing moron in the world. I’m the biggest idiot who ever walked the earth. I know nothing. Why didn’t I get out when I could? I read everything. Why couldn’t I connect the !£*$ing dots? You know, I’ve always loved this country. I’ve always been the biggest ?%*#ing capitalist. Now I think I’m a socialist. It’s all >#!$ed-up.”