ESSAY- Shame on who: It no longer works, Mr. President

Obama on the AIG bailout: "Like they've got a bomb strapped to them, and they've got their hand on the trigger, you don't want them to blow up, but you've got to ease them off the trigger."

The president's have-you-no-shame offense against Wall Street is, at best, sputtering.

AIG and the other financial wizards who ran the economy into the ground are still using bailout dollars to pay bonuses to upper management, and President Obama's chief financial player, Larry Summers, says there is nothing the administration can do.

Shame, as Summers– President Clinton's secretary of the treasury– should tell his new boss, no longer slows the American rush to feather one's own nest. Summers especially, should recognize that most of the nation took to heart President Clinton's bully pulpit legacy: "It's not what you know, or even who you know. It's what you can get away with." 

Our society simply doesn't have any concept of shame anymore, Mr. President.

The examples are almost endless– check tonight's TV listings– but consider one from the Right, President Bush's flight deck arrival for the "Mission Accomplished" moment a few years back. There is little doubt the former president joined the Texas Air National Guard in the 1970s in order to ensure he wasn't snapped up by the Vietnam meat grinder. If he had any shame, he'd never have donned a flight suit 30 years later to present himself as a brave leader especially because his father's campaign had ridiculed an opponent with little foreign policy or military experience for wearing an oversized army tanker's helmet in 1988.

About that same time, Mr. President, not long after New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was attacked for "blaming the victim" because he pointed out that single, teenage mothers were a growing problem that might bankrupt the nation, morally and financially, I was startled to hear the founder of an organization fighting "black on black crime" say that the first step was ostracizing young mothers by throwing them out of high school.

"They wear that baby on their hip like a trophy today," she said. "And everyone wants a trophy." 

Bill Cosby, meanwhile, was almost hung about the time you got into the Senate, Mr. President, when he suggested that the problem with absentee fathers wasn't society, it was the lack of shame of those boys spreading sperm as if it were bail-out money. Today, we have one sports star trying to decrease child support to the seven different mothers of his offspring and another behind on payments to eight women for his 10 children.

Even in our latest election, your opponents, one of whom wrote a book titled Courage Matters, didn't have the courage to stand up to American voters and tell us the truth about our gasoline addiction, saying instead that we should be rebated our meager 18.4 cents per gallon federal tax. And you, yourself, don't forget– who had never had a "buck stops here" political moment until January 20– allowed your minions to belittle one governor and former mayor as having too little executive experience for the number two job. 

The future for shame doesn't look bright, either. According to one recent study, one in five American teens have texted or posted a nude photo of themselves on the internet, and 33 percent of the nation under 18 has received or viewed those nudes.

The bottom line is your shame offense will fail, Mr. President. Please, therefore, consider a couple ideas for dealing with Wall Street greed.  

Solution One: Take the CIA agents who gave us "extraordinary rendition" and put them in charge of monitoring bonuses. They, not particularly well paid by Wall Street standards, are being held responsible for their actions today and no doubt desire retribution for the collapse of their retirement portfolios. 

Certainly, the CIA guys can creatively redefine "is," à la President Clinton, and develop new methods which help bankers relate to shame. Call John Yoo, who wrote President Bush's legal opinions for producing a kind of sub-torture, out of academia to find a few legal loopholes in case financiers can stand the rigors of Guantanamo which, of course, you can now put to good use.

Even if the bankers don't cough up the bailout bonuses, at the very least, Mr. President, you won't have to pay unemployment benefits to the CIA's waterboarding experts. 

Solution Two: set up a reality show based upon how long the Wall Streeter's family lives like Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield in the movie Sounder. No TV, no iPhone, no Bloomingdales, no Lexus, no Blackberry, no glass in the windows, and no indoor plumbing.  The longer they live without whining, the higher the bonus with Main Street Americans who have lost their jobs voting on what constitutes whining. 

Even if Wall Streeters "earn" the taxpayer dollars they're already getting from the bailout, broadcasting this kind of a reality show internationally would aid our foreign policy.  When many across the planet see Americans in film and television shows complaining non-stop about what to them appears to be nirvana, they can easily learn to hate us and certainly think we have no shame. Many throughout the world live, still, without indoor plumbing, so a "Wall Street Bonus Reality Show" will help foreigners conclude that we are, at least, trying to understand their lives.

Mr. President, both of these solutions will help Americans return to a concept of shame, something you'll likely need in the future.


A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville and writes about transportation when his transportation ideas aren't being written about.