For many Americans who could use a bailout just to balance their checkbooks and make it through the month, the thought of their tax dollars going to million-dollar bonuses for AIG executives is enough to make them furious.
"It's difficult to comprehend how screwing up gets you rewards," said George Padilla, a teacher in El Paso, Texas. "I tell my students that if they don't put in the effort and get passing grades, I will not pass them." He added: "I use the old `In the real world ...' line to point out that you would be fired if you didn't do well in your job. Well, I guess `the real world' proved me wrong."
Workers, business owners and taxpayers interviewed across the country this week fumed over the $165 million payout, with some questioning whether the government should even be in the business of bailing out Wall Street — an attitude that could dangerously undermine further efforts by the Obama administration to prop up the economy.
"Wasn't Obama supposed to fix this?" said Maria Panza-Villa, a mother of two in Hillsboro, Ore. She said she has lost three jobs since November as one employer after another folded.
The intensity of the populist fury became plain when a member of the Senate, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, actually suggested AIG executives should follow the Japanese warrior example and resign or commit suicide.
While many ordinary Americans said Grassley's comments were out of line, others weren't so sure.Video: AIG outrage
AIG executives are "not going to bleed to death because I'm not sure that they've got blood. I think it's ice water that runs through their veins," said Gary Jarvis of Herron, Ill., who lost his job as a forklift driver in a factory closing two years ago. "To me, it's just stunning to think they're not even ashamed of their disgusting greed."
AIG — teetering on the brink of collapse because it insured many of the toxic mortgage-backed securities at the vortex of the financial crisis — has mostly been an unknown quantity to the general public, in part because its business is so complex.
But paying bonuses to people responsible for nearly bringing the company, and the economy, to its knees may be even more incomprehensible to nearly anyone who runs a business or tries to balance a household budget.
Among those frustrated is Everette Clark, mayor of Marion, a town of about 7,000 in western North Carolina. The town has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, at 12.2 percent.
Marion's biggest industries, textiles and furniture, have shed thousands of jobs over the last few years. The people who used to work in those plants are struggling to pay their bills without any kind of a bailout or bonus.
Giving tax dollars to AIG to pay bonuses is "atrocious," Clark said. "You don't reward people in the private sector for doing a bad job."Video: Santelli: 'Deserved outrage' at AIG bonuses
David Ziegler, a long-distance trucker finishing breakfast at the Mother Load Diner in the old gold mining town of Idaho Springs, Colo., said the AIG bonuses had convinced him that the U.S. should stop bailouts altogether.
"I don't think they should be pumping more money to AIG. I don't think they should flush any more money down the Citibank toilet. I don't think they should flush any more money down any of these toilets. Tell them to 'sink or swim,'" said Ziegler, who is from Thornton, Colo.
Others interviewed were reluctant to place political blame and signaled continued support for efforts to fix the economy.
“We’ve created this mess. Everyone’s responsible for allowing executives to receive these bonuses,” said George Ayoub of Toronto, Canada, an American who was visiting Los Angeles. “Probably every company needs to be nationalized, and the government will own the corporations instead of the corporations owning the government.”
Tess Beauchamp, 58, owns Stein’s Coffee House, a small restaurant in Lubbock, Texas. She understands the insurance business, having worked for years in maritime coverage as a broker for fleets of ships. But that does not make her inclined to cut AIG any slack.
“I think this country has a serious problem with executive entitlement,” Beauchamp said as she awaited the arrival of Tuesday’s lunch crowd. “I think it’s outrageous. I think this country could stand a redistribution of wealth and not to AIG executives or corporate execs, for that matter."
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