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Hey, Wall Street: Get Off Your High Horse

MitchIf a bank gives you money to buy a house, it gets to determine the mortgage, right? If a credit card company issues you a Visa, it tells you the terms, not the other way around, correct?

Then why do financial institutions bailed out by the government cry foul when that same government -- i.e., their bank -- wants to set the rules?

Isn't that how they do business?

Look. I am not one who thinks that limiting the pay of CEOs is going to make America solvent. But I do expect people to play by the same principles they impose.

So I'm a little amused (at least before I get furious) that banks are whining when the people who lent them money -- you and me -- insist on some responsibility. Think about it. If these same Wall Street firms buy your company and start making slashes -- sell off this division, close down this office -- your complaints fall on deaf ears, right?

Yet the folks at Citigroup, AIG or Bank of America now are wailing at the idea that their top dogs may get their bowls downsized. That instead of making hundreds of millions, they may be able to make only hundreds of thousands.

Hey. Like these same firms tell us. Be grateful you still have a job.

Remember, when places like Citigroup got in trouble, it wasn't over a $50 late payment -- the kind of mistake for which they routinely sock you or me with a fee or a raised interest rate.

No, when they tripped up, it was billions. Hundreds of billions. They had one place to turn, the government, or it might have been doomsday.

So the government gave them money. Our money. Lots of it. So much, for example, that the United States owns 34 percent of Citigroup. That's a huge chunk. Enough to have a say in how that money gets paid back, right?

So let's take a peek at how Citigroup pays its people.

Take the case of Andrew J. Hall. He is a top Citigroup trader. Exactly what he trades is hard to determine, since his little corner is very secretive; so secretive, according to the Wall Street Journal, that it operates out of a dairy farm in Connecticut. This much we know. Hall trades in the energy field.

Now, if two words ought to make people run and dive they are "secretive" and "energy." Wasn't secretive part of the problem with the mortgage crisis? And wasn't energy betting what sank Enron?

Yet Mr. Hall is one of Citigroup's prized employees. And last year he was given a $100 million pay package. This year, reportedly, he is likely due the same.

That's $100 million. One man.

I don't care how much business he generates. In today's world, in this economic quagmire, in a company that had to be bailed out, that can't go on.

Of course, bankers will insist you don't understand. You don't get it. This is the world they move in. If they don't give monstrous pay packages to guys like Mr. Hall -- who according to the Journal owns a 1,000-year-old castle in Germany where he can display his renowned art collection -- he'll jump ship.

And?

These places act as if nobody will do it for less, nobody will be as good, or that they can't possibly afford NOT to be in these risky, high-bet businesses because, well, how else could they afford 1,000-year-old castles in Germany?

The thing is, when your high-prized talent makes those same risky bets the wrong way -- i.e., the mortgage crisis -- or abuses its power -- i.e., the Enron scandal -- you lose your right to a high horse. If you were like the rest of us, you'd be out of business.

Instead, the government bails you out. And yet, in many cases, as soon as possible, you make a beeline back to doing things the way they used to be done.

The worst part of this whole debate is the hubris Wall Street types evoke toward the rest of America, a belief that they are special because they are rich and always have been, that their lobbyists can and should finagle out of any government intervention.

But you can't live off the wallets of common people then act is if you're above them. If Wall Street can't understand why Main Street has no sympathy for its pay problems, it might want to spend a little more time down here. You know. Where its bank lives.

(C) 2009 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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