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Mark Shields: What Joseph Heller Could Teach Wall Street

Very few of the arrogant and affluent in U.S. finance today have 'the knowledge that I've got enough'

The late Joseph Heller, the master of black humor, in 1961 published Catch-22, his hilarious classic on the insane brutality of war. He was a good friend of the late Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote his own 1969 masterwork on World War II, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

In 1998, Vonnegut gave the commencement address at Rice University, where he told a wonderful anecdote featuring Heller — an anecdote that ought to be required reading for everyone who is involved in or who aspires to be involved in this nation’s financial system.

After Heller’s death in 2005 — and just two years before his own — Vonnegut told that story again in The New Yorker. This is what he wrote:

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
To know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel Catch-22
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace.

I was reminded of this story while reading all the back and forth over the multimillion-dollar bonuses that, we are repeatedly told by the titans of Wall Street and their friends on the editorial pages, must be paid to keep on board those geniuses who steered the country’s largest financial vessels into the national shipwreck that required American teachers, firefighters, small businesswomen and waitresses to pony up $700 billion.

American International Group must qualify as the Wall Street poster child. In the last quarter of last year, AIG set a world record by losing $61.7 billion in three short months. Because AIG was, we were told, “too big to fail,” American families had to come to the rescue with $170 billion in loans to keep AIG afloat. That meant that we, the people of the United States, suddenly held an 80 percent share of the company.

AIG may have lost billions, but it never lost either its gall or its self-confidence. The company earlier this year had revealed its plans to award $165 million in bonuses to the very same folks who had been at the helm when the AIG ship hit the iceberg it had ignored and sank.

You might remember that when our same federal government intervened with emergency loans to save General Motors and Chrysler, the conditions imposed were that the $29-an-hour autoworkers had to surrender their rights under a negotiated contract with the company and accept major wage cutbacks. So, too, did the Detroit auto executives. But when citizens were universally outraged by AIG’s bonus plans, AIG had two stout defenders: the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Obama administration’s Treasury Department.

Is it any surprise that, according to a Time magazine poll, 62 percent of Americans want financial regulations to be tighter, while a whopping 67 percent want the government to force pay cuts on the income of the top people at the Wall Street firms that got federal bailouts?

Tragically, very few of the arrogant and affluent in U.S. finance today are able to say what the late and truly great Heller could: that I have “the knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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