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Moral Outrage Redux March 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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I wrote last week that moral outrage is a cheap emotion—easy to generate but demanding very little from us.

Robert Reich provides the evidence:

In a rare show of bipartisanship, members [of Congress] are eagerly registering shock and outrage at AIG’s bonus payments by coming up with an assortment of ways to reclaim the bonanza…But much of this is for show. When the public isn’t looking, Congress reverts to its old ways. The Obama-supported plan to allow distressed homeowners to renegotiate their mortgages under the protection of bankruptcy has run into a Wall Street wall. Although Citigroup temporarily broke ranks… the rest of Wall Street has remained adamantly opposed, and apparently Democratic leaders have decided not to push back.
Meanwhile, Obama’s plan to limit itemized deductions for the richest 1.2 percent of taxpayers (including the top 1.9 percent of small business owners) to 28 percent, starting in 2011, is also in trouble on the Hill. Wealthy contributors and friends of congressional leaders involved in setting tax policy have balked. So Congress is telling the White House to look elsewhere for the $320 billion it needs over ten years to finance half of the tab for health care reform. Congressional leaders have also informed the White House that they don’t have the votes to pass Obama’s proposal for treating the earnings of hedge-fund and private-equity managers as income rather than capital gains.

The bonuses paid to AIG executives are small potatoes with minimal impact on the public compared to the package of reforms contained in the budget. Yet, when it comes to the stuff that really matters, changes in policy that would make a real difference, Congress will roll over for their Wall St. patrons.

And why are Congress critters so easily bought off? Because they know the public is interested in cheap emotional payoffs and lacks the sustained attention required to follow through on holding their feet to the fire.

Outrage can be readily manufactured when you can point to easily identifiable villains in the spotlight of a media-driven narrative that demands of us only punching the TV remote. It is much more difficult to sustain outrage when knowing who the villains are requires more complex judgments about systematic abuse of power.

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