Wren: Shame and justice

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(HOST) Commentator Chris Wren says that the latest news about the financial crisis has quite unexpectedly reminded him of events he witnessed years ago – in communist China.

(WREN) The latest  taxpayer bailout for the American International Group to the tune of  60 billion dollars has left me with a sense of déjà vu – all over again. Hadn’t this insurance giant already wallowed in the taxpayers’ trough?

I checked around, and sure enough, A.I.G. had sucked up 120 billion dollars since September. In fact, we taxpayers now seem to own nearly 80 percent of it, though its executives won’t tell us how they spent our money, beyond some really great parties at spas in California and Arizona and a tally-ho hunting trip to England.

Silly me! I’m old enough to remember when an insurance company sold insurance, just as the banks about to go belly-up for their recklessness once took pride in safeguarding your money and lending it back to you.

Now we discover that A.I.G. was porking about with a fairy-dust derivative called credit default swaps. And when it couldn’t cover its bets, we taxpayers were summoned to clean up after their greedy incompetence, because it was deemed too big to fail.

What really burns me is not just the obscene bonuses these prodigal C.E.O.’s awarded themselves, or their high-flying lifestyle, down to the private jets, but the absence of any shame over the mess they created. I’m not talking about weasel statements crafted by public relations lackeys, but an admission of the disgrace that they should have brought upon themselves. Why do I feel that they’re privately snickering at millions of us Americans who were sucker enough, as the cliché goes, to play by the rules?

When I worked as a foreign correspondent in China twenty five years ago, its Communist government had a draconian ritual to focus the mind of offenders. The Chinese call it, "Killing the chicken to scare the monkey." The condemned were forced to admit guilt, usually in a kangaroo court. Then they were paraded through town in the back of an open truck, wearing a wooden placard that announced their names and crimes. Sometimes they were forced to confess all over again in a sports stadium before thousands of jeering spectators. Finally, they were driven off to some desolate killing ground – and you can imagine the rest.

It was grisly punishment, and unworthy of any democratic society, except for the centrality of shame to the process.

Having said that, I submit that we’re entitled to some genuine apologies from all these masters of the universe who trashed our economy – and stuck our grandkids with the bill.

I know the causes of the financial crisis are complex, but when I wake up at 3 in the morning and stare at the ceiling, wondering where my retirement savings went, the Chinese practice of linking shame to justice no longer seems quite so inconceivable.

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