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Wanted: A Perp Walk For Plutocrats

BY Susan J. Douglas

This whole meltdown has been so mystified with jargon that we’ve been persuaded we can’t get it. I bet we can.

My husband and I were engaged in our usual dinner table rant about politics and the economy. Having made the mistake of opening my latest retirement statement and seeing that I, like millions, will now have to work until I’m 90 (or dead, whichever comes first), I proposed that we needed the financial equivalent of the Nuremberg trials for all of the greedy, unprincipled bastards who got us into this mess. My husband -older, wiser and even less forgiving than I–suggested we deal with these guys the way the Chinese dealt with the melamine scandal: by sentencing two of its perpetrators to death.

So imagine my surprise when, later that night, on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” I heard Tina Brown propose the Nuremberg trial idea and Maher propose the melamine solution.

You know, people really want some accountability here. They also want faces and names attached to “subprime mortgages,” “derivatives,” “mortgage-backed securities” and “credit default swaps.”

Now, I’m one of the lucky ones. I may one day be teetering to work with a walker, but I still have a job, a house and healthcare. But millions of people are in desperate straits, their lives ruined, jobless, broke, homeless. And yet, could we have something like the Nuremberg trials, given that most of the rapacious swine behind this mess may not have actually committed crimes, what with the absence of regulations?

I imagine we still could. Lawyers can be quite creative when they put their minds to it.

We need this kind of legal-media event because the broadcast media in particular have been dreadful in unpacking this disaster for everyday people so we can understand what the hell a credit default swap even is. Yes, the news media covered the bailout debates (with precious little depth or analysis), the Wall Street Christmas bonus scandals (a story broken by the New York Times), and the housing meltdown.

But where are the prime-time documentaries and in-depth investigative reports about all this? Some honorable exceptions aside – see “Frontline’s” terrific Inside the Meltdown, available online, or CNBC’s House of Cards, also online – we’ve mostly been left shaking our fists at the cosmos and the generic concept of “the banker.”

Certainly at the top of most people’s list for such a Nuremberg-style tribunal would be Bernie Madoff. In addition to all the people and institutions he swindled, he even bilked Elie Wiesel’s Foundation for Humanity out of $15 million. Wiesel implicitly endorsed my Nuremberg idea when he told the New York Post, “Whatever [there] is to hurt him should be invented. … He should go before a group of judges who would imagine a punishment for him.”

But there are plenty of others who should squirm in the witness stand about whom we know very little. How about Edward Liddy, CEO of AIG, currently making the PR rounds on TV trying to do damage control? In fact, AIG founder Maurice Greenberg just filed suit against the company, alleging it perpetrated securities fraud. Liddy, in turn, claims that most of the problems besetting AIG happened on Greenberg’s watch. Then there are Liddy’s predecessors, Martin Sullivan and Robert Willumstad. Who are these guys? Why not put all of them under the klieg lights?

I think we’d all welcome some tough cross-examination of former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, the guy who gave $3.6 billion in bonuses to top execs this past December after his company lost $25 billion in 2008. After learning about Merrill Lynch’s staggering fourth quarter losses, Thain went skiing in Vail, Colo. Tell me this wouldn’t make great TV. **

How about all the folks at Countrywide Financial who, for starters, steered low income and minority borrowers to higher-interest and subprime loans? As the kings of the subprime disaster charged with making predatory loans, let’s put these guys on the hot seat. (And, by the way, we really need former Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on there, too.)

This whole meltdown has been so mystified with jargon, taken for granted as confusing and unfathomable, that we’ve been persuaded we can’t get it. I bet we can. We deserve a big, public tribunal with perp walks, outraged and preening prosecutors, constant media coverage and revenge. This is how you get to “never again.”

**CORRECTION: A previous version of this paragraph contained two errors: It incorrectly stated that John Thain had spent $1.2 million redecorating his office during 2008. In fact, he spent that amount redecorating his office in late 2007. It also stated that John Thain was in Vail when the news broke about Merrill Lynch’s fourth-quarter losses; in fact, he went on a ski trip to Vail after learning of the losses, but before news of those losses had gone public. We regret the errors.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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