The Generation Gap

By , 24 March, 2009, No Comment

Now that it all appears to have blown over, I want to say a few more words about the AIG bonuses, and the media role in stirring the pot of fury. We had a long discussion about this in my core business journalism seminar last night.

Here’s where I come down: it was and is good journalism to comb through the government’s agreements with AIG and the company’s SEC filings, to try to find out who was getting paid for what and to probe the possibility of backscratching when it came to Goldman Sachs. [Though, as we determined in my seminar, there isn’t actually any backscratching involved. GS, it seems, really was smarter than the others.] Anyway, it was good journalism to ask these questions. Once. And report the answers. Once.

It was and is bad journalism to report, on the top right hand column of the A1 page of every major newspaper over two weeks, what various regulatory and elected officials had to say about these bonuses as though it were ACTUALLY the most important event of each day’s news cycle, when any number of other items needed that space. This is info-tainment at work.

Such poor editorial judgment is pernicious. The bonus rage not only derailed politicians from doing the important work of sorting out a real bank plan and a budget; it squandered the political will to have a real bank plan. Now that everyone in the country is out with their pitchforks for the bankers, how is the administration going to sell spending more money on this industry?

If the press had been doing its job, the last two weeks might have produced stories explaining that Wall Street funds Main Street, that even venal AIG insurers are worth your tax dollar right now. Or we might have read on page A1 about the strange phenomenon of Americans ranting against the pursuit of profit and how absurd that is. Such circumspect and constructive items appeared, but only on the inside pages of our newspapers, and in elite pockets of the wonkosphere.

I have a hunch as to why it wound up this way: it’s generational. (Note: Dan Drezner is talking the generations meme today too) The bulk of voters are over 50, close enough to retirement that even a superhero’s bank plan won’t bring back their 401K’s. The bulk of editors are the same age. Most of the time, such people are capable of putting enormous national emergencies above their own interests when the national emergency is framed as securing the future for their children.

This weekend, my mother, generally the type to lie down before moving buses for my sister and myself, said leaving her children to careers in a depressed, deflated, Japan’s-Lost-Decade economy might be worth it to get a pound of flesh from those who destroyed her retirement. I post this not as an indictment of her per se but as an example of the level the rage has reached and an explanation for why young people I know, even soak-the-rich liberals, are far less incensed by the whole bonus question than their parents. Unfortunately, elected officials won’t take any real steps on the banks until such policy polls well among our parents’ generation.

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