Tag Archives: sacrifice

On Sacrifice: Eliot Spitzer, Moral Leader?

Disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer has a great article in Slate about how Americans have lost their commitment to shared sacrifice, referencing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the exhortation to all Americans to work hard so that the soldiers of the Civil War “shall not have died in vain.” I know it’s ironic to be lectured on sacrifice by someone who couldn’t even sacrifice his own orgasm for the good of his family and his state, but he makes some excellent points.

Spitzer talks mostly about taxes and energy, discussing for example how reading the Gettysburg Address makes  investment bankers arguing for millions in additional compensation seem petty. But I would go further than Spitzer; the need for all of us to sacrifice to solve some pretty big problems could be extended from investment bankers to union members. Shared sacrifice should apply to those who sue for millions when they trip in the grocery store, those who are always looking for a government handout, those who hate sharing. During World War II women stopped wearing stockings because the silk was needed for the war effort. My guess is that we all have a metaphoric stocking we can give up for the good of the country.

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Obama: Greed is “Shameful”

This is the second in a series of posts about the need for Americans to step up and be more responsible. We all knew this need was coming – it has been a theme running through many of my posts – but when President Obama called it out during his inaugural address, I decided to address it more directly. My first entry in this series was about NIMBY attitudes preventing environmental projects from moving forward. Today’s entry is about greed, particularly among corporate executives and Wall Street bankers.

When Obama said during his inauguration that “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world,” my guess is that he meant businesspeople too. And yet just three days after the inauguration, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about companies using dicey calculations to boost the value of pension payments they are making to senior executives. I won’t get into the mathematical details, but the basic story is that instead of using IRS rates to discount the value of future pension payments, companies are using their own rates, to generate a higher payment.

For example, one of the executives profiled, John Hammergren of McKesson, is due to receive $84.6 million, rather than the $66.4 million he would be paid using the IRS rate. This man made $38 million in 2008, $25 million in 2007 and over $10 million per year for the last several years. And on top of all this money he gets paid, he is due a pension payment of $66 million. But that isn’t enough…he seems to need even more money, so he monkeys with the numbers to boost that pension by another $20 million.

Merrill Lynch is a steady source of greed. First you have John Thain (am I the only one who thinks he’s a dead ringer for Mitt Romney?)

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spending $1 million to redecorate his office. His excuse: the redecoration was done during better times. Dude, if you’re spending $1 million of shareholder money on office decorations, you are being greedy, no matter how well your company is doing. Then there is Thomas Montag, who Thain recruited to Merrill from Goldman Sachs with a guaranteed pay package of $39 million for 2008. Mr. Montag’s debt unit lost $16 billion in Q4 of 2008. Because of those losses, taxpayers have had to invest over $20 billion in Bank of America to support its acquisition of Merrill, and agree to share losses on $118 billion in assets. But has Montag (who, let’s not forget, after 20 years at Goldman is already rich) offered to take less of his bonus? No way. Why? Because he is greedy.

Of course, the ultimate symbol of greed was the recent news that Wall Street bankers paid themselves $18 billion in bonuses while taxpayers bailed out all their companies. It was this act of greed that President Obama called “shameful.” And he was right. For bankers to insist on getting their multi-million dollar performance bonuses, when their companies clearly had not performed, and were taking taxpayer money to survive, is the apex of greed. Companies claimed that they had to pay bonuses to retain employees. Where were those employees going to go? Bear Stearns? Lehman? I don’t think so.

Look, I understand people wanting to make money. I understand the desire to be rich. But rich people grubbing for the last dollar…I have to ask: have you no sense of decency? Responsibility and duty – to the nation, to our neighbors – means sometimes leaving a little money on the table. If we are to “begin again the work of remaking America,” as President Obama encourages us to do, reducing greed is a good place to start. How can we expect to solve problems like Social Security, health care, or global warming if everyone is grabbing as much money as they can? Whether the sacrifice is flying commercial instead of private, or buying a 30″ flat screen instead of 50″, if we are going to build America back up we must all change our attitude from “I want it all now” to “I’d like most of it, but I’m willing to share.” Let’s show a little restraint and try to come together to solve some really difficult challenges.

Saving the Environment – We All Need to Give

President Obama’s inaugural address has gotten me thinking about responsibility and sacrifice. The President said what we have all known for a long time: that Americans are too profligate – spending money we don’t have, burning energy we can’t afford – and that a day of reckoning would come. In fact, the President made clear that the day of reckoning is here: “our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.” As a result, I am planning a series of entries on this topic, on the theme of sacrifice. Today’s item: the environment.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (regular readers know I love my WSJ) discussed Cape Wind, which aims to put 130 windmills off the coast of Cape Cod, reducing greenhouse gas emissions an amount equivalent to taking 175,000 cars off the road. A no brainer project, right? Wrong, because the wealthy folks who have their weekend houses on that part of the Cape don’t want their views marred by windmills out on the horizon. They have been protesting the project and putting up legal barriers, enlisting the help of their most powerful neighbor, Teddy Kennedy, whose family has a fabled compound in Hyannisport.

Massachusetts is famously liberal, and based on my two years in Boston, the people who weekend on the Cape would consider themselves environmentalists. They recycle, they install solar power, they drive their Prius to Whole Foods to buy local produce. But when it comes to windmills in their expensive view, suddenly they aren’t so green. This is where they need to listen to our new president and stop protecting their narrow interests. They need to sacrifice a little for the good of the environment.

Broadening the scope of this discussion, if we are going to defeat global warming, everyone is going to have to chip in. The NIMBY (not in my back yard) protests that stall projects like new power lines, or wind farms, are going to have to stop. Of course, nobody wants a giant tower in their back yard, or a windmill right off their front porch. But nobody wants temperatures to go up several degrees either, or ocean levels to rise to a point where Cape Cod weekend houses are under water. Global warming is a major problem that affects everybody, and we are all going to have to sacrifice a little – give up our SUV, or allow windmills near our weekend house – if we are going to solve it. As theologian Sallie McFague put in her new book regarding climate change, “either we will all make it together or none of us will.”