Opinion

I'd like my CEO well-done, thanks

It's a 'public mood' moment, and the mood is ugly.



Oh, I want it. I want it bad.

Next week, when Barney Frank starts hauling fat-cat CEOs before his House Financial Services Committee, I want him wearing a barbecue apron. Instead of a gavel, I want him wielding a barbecue fork the size of a trident. By the time the grilling's over, I want ... I want a lot.

I want groveling. I want show-trial sweating and stammering. I want their nine-figure bonus checks endorsed over to the rest of us. I want my 401(k) money back. I want blood; I'm a vegetarian, but I'd make an exception for a smoking plate of CEO en brochette.

Political scientists call this a "public mood" moment, when a focal incident like the Olympics or 9/11 fuses a nation of hundreds of millions of identities into one public identity.

UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck tells me that, in this case, the public mood is outrage on the part of good citizens -- that's us -- over the misdeeds of bad citizens.

It's embarrassing to think that we share a country with these rich dimwits. As Frank told the bankers: "People really hate you. ... You have to help us deal with that. You have to avoid being stupid."

I don't begin to understand the complicated financial stratagems these men engineered. Even the SEC couldn't keep up.

But we all understand perfectly the flagrant arrogance of Citigroup planning to spend $50 million on a new corporate jet -- and a French-made jet, to boot -- after taking billions in bailout money from taxpayers who are getting pink-slipped. Citigroup backed away from the plane; now, can it still be serious about spending $400 million for naming rights for the New York Mets' field? Mets fans -- resist!

Collateralized debt obligations are beyond me, but I get the dunderheadedness of Wells Fargo booking a 12-night corporate bash in Vegas. The smartest person at Wells Fargo was the one who realized that a big party was itself a moral hazard and canceled the shindig.

People everywhere are fuming about their dismal fiscal futures at the hands of unregulated markets and firms run by chief executive officers who even now seem to be shining their shoes with hundred-dollar bills. President Obama used the word "shameful." Nice try, but words will never hurt them. Federal regulators are looking into Angelo R. Mozilo, the genius who made and unmade Countrywide Financial with its time-bomb subprime mortgages. But in the meantime, I'm thinking of giving myself the pleasure of driving to Thousand Oaks and TP-ing Mozilo's house. Single-ply -- I can't afford the good stuff anymore.

In 1991, Charles H. Keating Jr. was on trial in Los Angeles. His freewheeling savings and loan conned thousands of elderly depositors into investing in risky bonds. They lost millions. A few ruined investors committed suicide.

Outside the courtroom, one elderly woman grabbed Keating by his lapels and screamed at him to give her her money back; some Arizona politicians set aside a whole month in her honor.

This time, the CEOs will probably never see the inside of a courtroom. What they've been up to with the bailout money only breaks the spirit of the law.

Psychologically, perp walks and prison time aren't necessary, says UCLA's Vavreck. Our anger "has a value in itself -- being part of the community of people who hold this attitude is in itself some kind of benefit." In other words, forget it Jake, it's just catharsis.

I do feel consoled that Obama wants to cap the income of bank-bailout CEOs at half a million dollars. At the end of last year, as taxpayer money was being trundled to banks by the wheelbarrow-full, some CEOs turned down their annual bonuses. But they dealt out $18.4-billion worth to staff further down the food chain who, fail or prosper, had come to regard bonuses not as, well, bonuses but as a birthright.

What else can we get out of this?

I like the idea of a Fair Fair, a carnival roaming the country, bringing big-name, big-headed CEOs to a fairgrounds near you. For $10, you get three baseball throws, three chances to dunk the CEO into a big, cold, wet tank. For $5, you get a foam bat and a swat at CEOs running a gantlet of the newly poor. Half-price tickets for the unemployed.

No, wait. Let's put the CEOs in charge of that new "bad bank" being proposed to corral toxic assets. If they're as talented as they tell us they are, they can prove it by turning all that junk around.

No paychecks, let alone bonuses, until they do.

p att.morrison@latimes.com

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