Fanning Populist Rage Over Wall Street Bonuses

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s report on Wall Street bonuses set off a firestorm last month, but it was ill-conceived. Now his incendiary words have unleashed a populist uprising that is infecting the national conversation with ill-directed anger and hatred towards the wealthy.

At the House Financial Services Committee hearing Wednesday, Chairman Barney Frank (D.-Mass) bizarrely asked the eight Wall Street CEOs sitting before him: “Why do you need to be bribed? … Why do you need bonuses?”

Bribes, bonuses, what’s the difference? Similarly, DiNapoli lumped Wall Street bonuses together with private corporate jets and dividend payments to shareholders. Broadcast, cable, and youtube do-it-yourselfers have all picked up on the theme.

In its most recent show, Dateline dwelled on Wall Street honchos who don't need to go through security when they hop on their private jets (I guess no one cares if they blow themselves up); Fox News anchors enjoyed chewing on a Wells Fargo defense of its corporate getaways for top-performing employees;  CNBC has launched a Wednesday night series called American Greed; and one very funny youtuber has created a mock commercial asking for funds to support the lifestyle of a down-and-out CEO: "For only $3,700 a day ... less than the cost of a thousand lattes."

It won't be long before we see barricades on Wall Street.

The original bonus news release is worth parsing. It is a study in middle-class rage, which the congressmen today are playing out as well.

First DiNapoli notes that the securities industry had slashed bonuses by 44% and that it "has already lost tens of thousands of jobs and the industry is still continuing to write off toxic assets. It's painfully obvious that 2009 will probably be another difficult year for the industry." He also states that the top managers aren't taking any bonuses, either because the government restricted the payouts or they volunteered to forgo them.