Columns 2008

CEOs paid to run companies into the ground

To the great amusement of friends and family alike, I am going to tackle the issue of our national financial situation. We will pause for a moment while they all laugh hysterically and then wipe the tears from their eyes.

You see, I managed to live through the entire Alaska pipeline boom without saving enough to assure I will never have to wear a paper cap and lean out a window to ask if you want fries with your burger. I did at one point have some money put aside. It was embezzled. Then I put some more aside and the federal government took it on the theory that I owed back taxes for the tax breaks I’d taken on the investments that never existed because the money had not ever actually been invested. Suffice to say that no one has ever accused me of having the slightest bit of financial acumen.

Here the thing though.  I know I am a financial idiot. That’s why I put what little money I have into very safe investments now, hidden from my view by those extremely complicated statements I receive every three months that mean nothing but a headache to me. Since I don’t understand it, I never touch the money.

Hey, you have your plans for old age financial security, I have mine.

Knowing what I don’t know causes me to be cautious about my money. This is not something many Wall Street CEOs felt compelled to be. I assumed they got their jobs because they had some understanding of financial markets and some expertise to put that knowledge to work and make money for shareholders.  I was clearly wrong. It seems that the only thing those CEOs needed to know was how to stash away the hundreds of millions of dollars they paid themselves while they watched their companies go down the toilet. 

Again, I’m not holding myself out to be any expert on Wall Street or stocks and bonds or IPOs or any of those other initials they use to hide the shaky financial ground on which they stand. But common sense seems to say that if you are so bad in your job that you take a company that has been around in some cases for over 100 years and run it so far into the ground that you can see China from there, maybe this year you shouldn’t get $100 million in compensation. I’m pretty sure that most of us work in a world where such spectacularly bad judgment would get us fired, even from government work. So why do these CEOs get to walk away with millions in their pockets while the feds use trillions of our tax dollars to bail out the companies they destroyed?

I’ve reached the point of being darned tired of the condescending attitude of so many financial “giants” that imply that you and I are simply too stupid to get what they do. I’m not too fiscally unsophisticated to say no to my deadbeat relative with no means of financial support when he asks for a loan that he swears he’ll pay back even though he has no assets. But these uber sophisticated money men and women all looked at poor credit risks, lack of collateral and generally sucky financial histories and said, sure, have a hundred thousand or two to buy a house whose payments are way beyond anything you will ever be able to manage.  And they call me financially challenged?

You and I work all year and at the end of that year pay taxes to the government to keep services operating and our national security safe.  Only this year, instead of the money going to buy better health care for returning vets or better educational tools for our children or assistance to people who won’t have enough money to heat their homes this winter, our taxes will bail out companies run into the ground by greed, stupidity, and lack of government oversight and regulation.

And while you and I shiver through the winter, the CEOs of those now defunct companies will be sunning themselves on some warm beach, living off the millions they made for doing such a heckuva good job.

What is wrong with this picture?