[Marxism] NY Times columnist has double standards for AIG and GM

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 18 07:21:14 MDT 2009

New York Times columnist who demanded concessions from auto workers, 
“makes case” for AIG bonuses
By David Walsh
18 March 2009

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin "made the case" Tuesday for 
paying American International Group (AIG) executives some $165 million 
in bonuses. In the face of a public outrage that he acknowledges, Sorkin 
suggests: "Maybe we have to swallow hard and pay up, partly for our own 

It should be recalled that Sorkin, the Times chief mergers and 
acquisitions reporter and editor of the newspaper's daily financial 
report, called for the "government-sponsored" bankruptcy of General 
Motors in November 2008 and the slashing of auto workers' living 
standards. At the time, he described their benefits as "off the charts" 
and falsely claimed that at GM, as of 2007, "the average auto worker was 
paid about $70 an hour, including health care and pension costs."

Now, in regard to the AIG bonuses, the columnist suggests the 
fundamental question "is the sanctity of contracts." Imagine the mess 
"if the business community started to worry that the government would 
start abrogating contracts left and right."

Sorkin cites the comments of veteran compensation consultant Pearl 
Meyer, who suggests that failing to honor the contracts at AIG "would 
put American business on a worse slippery slope than it already is." In 
other words, the Times columnist asks someone in the business of seeing 
that executives extract every penny possible whether or not the AIG 
employees should receive their millions.

"If government officials were to break the contracts, they would be 
‘breaking a bond,' Ms. Meyer says." Sorkin reproduces this with what one 
takes to be a "straight face."

What sort of "bonds" are presently respected by corporate America? This 
is a country where workers are treated like dogs, routinely tossed out 
the door with barely a moment's notice and have essentially no rights in 
relation to their corporate masters. Companies lie to and cheat their 
employees as a matter of course.

The "bond" between a firm and its workforce in the US lasts no longer 
than a fluctuation in its share price. At every possible opportunity, 
senior and more highly paid workers are replaced by cheaper labor. 
Factories and offices are closed down, operations moved to more 
"business-friendly" environs, without a thought for the destruction of 
lives and entire communities. There is no God in corporate America but 
the accumulation of personal wealth.

Only a week ago, a bankruptcy judge in New York upheld his earlier 
decision that Delphi, the auto parts maker, has the right to end health 
and insurance benefits to 15,000 retirees and their spouses as of April 
1. The Detroit News noted, "Attorneys representing a group of the white 
collar retirees argued in the Southern District of New York court that 
Delphi's former owner, General Motors Corp., promised them lifetime 
coverage." So much for "bonds."

Numerous commentators have pointed to the glaring double standard. The 
bonus agreements with AIG are sacred, but autoworkers' contracts (and 
others) can be opened and altered at will. Sorkin has an answer for 
this, however: "The big difference is that there is a negotiation [in 
auto]; no one is unilaterally tearing up contracts."

The journalist is a sophist of the first order. There is no 
"negotiation" between the autoworkers and the companies in any 
meaningful sense. The corporations, the media, the government and the 
UAW line up on one side, threatening the most dire consequences: the 
destruction of massive numbers of jobs, bankruptcy, the closing down of 
the entire industry—for workers and their families, the loss of 
virtually everything—if the latter don't accept concessions. They face 
extortion of the most highly organized and vicious variety. And if the 
workers dared to reject the concessions, the political establishment, 
including the New York Times, would scream bloody murder and demand 
their firing.

On the other hand, the government owns 79.9 percent of AIG. It could do 
what it likes, replace management, invalidate contracts, launch criminal 
investigations and more. But, in this case, supported by the likes of 
Sorkin, a handful of corporate scoundrels hold society hostage and 
demand their blood money.

AIG is engaged in blackmail. Sorkin admits as much. Of the firm's 
complex role in world financial markets, he writes, "A.I.G. built this 
bomb, and it may be the only outfit that really knows how to defuse it.

"A.I.G. employees concocted complex derivatives that then wormed their 
way through the global financial system. If they leave...they might 
simply turn around and trade against A.I.G.'s book. Why not?... So as 
unpalatable as it seems, taxpayers need to keep some of these brainiacs 
in their seats, if only to prevent them from turning against the company."

The white paper AIG dispatched to the government making its case for 
paying the 400 executives includes other kinds of threats.

The document reports that AIG's derivative portfolio stands at some $1.6 
trillion "and remains a significant risk." It suggests that if, for some 
reason, AIG were to default on a major contract, this could trigger 
"other cross-defaults over the entire portfolio of AIGFP [AIG Financial 

The AIG white paper gives the example of a possible default set off by 
the resignation of an unhappy senior manager at a French subsidiary and 
the appointment of a replacement by the French banking regulator. "Such 
an appointment would constitute an event of default...and potentially 
cost tens of billions of dollars in unwind costs."

In other words, AIG officials might detonate a financial time bomb if 
their bonuses are not paid.

Professor William K. Black, a leading figure in the investigation of the 
savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, points to another side of the AIG 
extortion. "A.I.G. is holding a gun to their own heads, saying ‘unless 
you help us continue to have this incredible life in terms of bonuses, 
we're going to die and the taxpayers will be faced with a 
catastrophe'... It's too bad Marxists don't believe in god. Otherwise 
they'd be thanking him for having sent A.I.G. down to earth to destroy 

The various types of blackmail pointed to by Sorkin and others are not 
reasons for paying the AIG executives, but indicting them. The comments 
paint a picture, for all intents and purposes, of financial terrorists.

Sorkin has another argument in his pocket, one of the most popular with 
the American public at the moment: that AIG needs to pay the $165 
million in bonuses, and millions more next year, to retain the services 
of the "the best and the brightest." Yes, a crowd of real geniuses, 
whose unscrupulous activities have helped bankrupt the country and world 

The Times columnist cites the comment of another executive compensation 
specialist, Robert M. Sedgwick, who tells him that the AIG jobs "are 
terrible.... You have to read about yourself in the paper every day. 
These people are leaving as soon as they can." One can barely restrain 
one's sympathy.

Sorkin assures us, through Ms. Meyer again, that the AIG employees "are 
being heavily recruited."

Does Sorkin think anyone gives a damn? In what world do such people 
live? Safely distant from popular sentiment, and from the concerns and 
anxieties of broad layers of the people. Sorkin's defense of the bonuses 
provoked a flood of largely hostile and caustic responses from Times 

A few typical comments:

 From a reader in Minnesota: "The truth is, the government ought to be 
going after many of these employees with criminal fraud charges. Its 
pretty obvious they sold more credit default swaps than their company 
could afford to pay off. Those were contracts too."

 From Boston: "How can Mr. Sorkin argue that the forced breach of labor 
contracts (or the payment of bondholders) to GM and Chrysler is any 
different than AIG's? This boggles the mind!

"Because at GM this is a matter of negotiation? Please!!! Under the 
menace of bankruptcy if the negotiated terms are not acceptable to the 
new bankers, i.e. the US government? Is this truly a negotiation? With a 
gun to the forehead? At GM and Chrysler there is no negotiation, but the 
imposition of terms by the government...just what the government has 
lacked the fortitude to do at AIG."

 From California: "Mr. Sorkin, what is it that you don't understand? 
This is not about the government telling business how much their 
executives can earn. This is about what happens when a business fails on 
the basis of its own faults, and then, when graced with a taxpayers' 
windfall to help restructure the business, the executives' first thought 
is to line their pockets."

A business and commercial transactions attorney from Ann Arbor, 
Michigan: "It is particularly ironic that the government calls for the 
auto companies to cram down the pay of those overpaid autoworkers on 
Main Street in order to allow GM to qualify for a few paltry billions of 
bailout money—but when it comes to derivatives traders on Wall Street 
being rewarded with millions of dollars for playing dice with the global 
financial system—here, nothing can be done."

All thinking is social thinking, justice is class justice. Sorkin is a 
representative of the American upper middle class: insulated, selfish, 
arrogant. He lives and breathes in a world of wealth and privilege, 
rubbing shoulders daily with the "movers and shakers" of the financial 
world. This shapes his impoverished outlook and interests. Each of his 
pieces, in one way or another, returns to a central problem: how can 
this or that situation be turned to financial gain for the social layers 
he speaks for and embodies?

Under the present conditions of financial disaster and growing social 
tension, this is what fuels his animosity toward the autoworkers and the 
working class as a whole.

Last November 18, at the time of the bailout crisis, Sorkin lashed out 
at labor costs in the auto industry, which were "already coming down 
slightly because of a renegotiated deal with U.A.W. last year, but not 
nearly enough."

The Times columnist suggested that "part of the problem is summed up by 
comments" made by GM worker Kandy O'Neill, who had told the Detroit 
News, "I think we've given enough," about the cuts to her salary and 
pension plan. Sorkin then observed, "When you read a line like that you 
might sympathize with her, but then you realize that nothing can be 
accomplished without bankruptcy."

These comments came in the midst of the trillion-dollar bailout of the 
American corporate elite. For Sorkin, and others like him, the problem 
lay not in the insatiable greed of a handful or the evident 
irrationality of the existing economic system, but in the 
"unsustainable" living standards of autoworkers. On the WSWS, Ms. 
O'Neill, a fifth-generation autoworker from Goodrich, Michigan, answered 
Sorkin quite forthrightly. (See "Michigan GM worker answers attack by 
New York Times columnist")

On the Charlie Rose program in November, Sorkin sneered that a "bloated" 
GM was in "the welfare business," and "the health business"—in other 
words, that it was bound by contract to provide elementary benefits for 
its employees. All of this, he made clear, had to go. His solution, a 
month earlier, for a proposed GM-Chrysler merger, "everything that is 
impolitic...cut salaries and benefits, and lay off a lot of people, fast."

Here, in the liberal newspaper of record, is the brutality of the 
American elite. The working class will have to develop its own 
independent socialist program for the crisis every bit as ruthlessly.

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