When the chief executive of a collapsed investment bank testified before a Congressional hearing, he said, "I feel horrible about what has happened to the company and its effects on so many."
He defended the compensation system that rewarded him with what lawmakers said totaled $485 million since 2000 (although he put the figure at $350 million.) After all, there was a compensation committee in place that put its imprimatur on those packages.
I have to ask the foolish, simpleminded, naïve question that proves I dont have the sophistication I always craved: "Does anyone deserve that much money? Anyone?"
One of my daughters, who works as director of communications for a fashion company, was driving to New Hampshire with me a few weeks ago. We were desperate for something to eat and pulled into McDonalds in a small town off the interstate.
She went in to buy a few burgers and some fries, against my wifes protests, but I figure you need some junk food in your stomach every so often.
While she went in, I listened to news radio and the agonizing debate about the $700 billion bailout, which did nothing to restore our confidence or calm our anger.
A few minutes later, she came out, paper bag in hand, and got into the car, stinking of fast food, with a troubled look on her face.
"Whats wrong? No Big Macs left?" I asked.
"I cant explain it," she said. "There was a girl behind the counter who was my age. She had a wedding band on and I think she was pregnant."
"So? Thats a good thing."
"But I was sad that she was there, working for a few dollars an hour, while I have so much."
Good thought. Healthy guilt. Some compassion. Does such a thing occur to our corporate leaders?
Shouldnt we all have a little guilt if our lifestyle is self-indulgent and materialistic? Once in a while, it doesnt hurt to think about the person in Haiti who subsists on a few dollars a day.
Besides the guilt, I hope my daughter has a little gratitude because God has given her so much. And maybe a little compassion for everyone who doesnt have as much.
At least she doesnt suffer from the spiritually debilitating sense of entitlement that seems to be shared by executives in the collapsed financial services industry.
Is anyone "entitled" because of breeding, education, social status, salary level, executive position or for any other reason?
I thought of the day laborers who stand under the bridge waiting for work and how much they incense some people because they earn a few dollars a day. Shouldnt we be more distraught when people earn hundreds of millions?
Theres a vastly inequitable distribution of wealth in the world. We all know that. But the first baby step toward change is being able to look at the Latino woman behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts and wish she had a larger piece of the Wall Street pie, not to mention the same for ourselves.
When I was a young man in college in New York City, Id occasionally visit the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on the Bowery, not far from the financial district where brokers and investors were thinking great thoughts and making great deals worth millions while Dorothy Day, in her simple-minded Christian obstinacy, was ladling out soup and making peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless and hungry.
And she always reminded me of the story Christ told about the sheep and the goats, and the King who will come again and separate us and send some to a heavenly reward and others to perdition because we didnt feed the hungry and clothe the naked or visit the imprisoned.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.