A Tsunami of Greed


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Despite Secretary of State Colin Powell’s insistence that the U.S. is not a “stingy” nation—a charge leveled Monday by a frustrated U.N. relief coordinator, then taken back Tuesday—American contributions to the tsunami recovery effort seem modest by any standard. Relief workers need to get help to 10 nations, where more than a million people are believed to be homeless, where whole villages were swallowed by the earthquake-induced tidal wave last weekend, and where the death toll has crossed 50,000 and is still climbing.

So far, the U.S. is sending $4 million to the International Red Cross and perhaps $40 million in other aid funds, along with a handful of planes, some bearing supplies and some to be used for patrols. The Japanese are sending $30 million for starters, and the EU $40 million.

Miffed at the U.N. official’s comment, Trent Duffy, White House deputy press secretary, said, the U.S. is “the largest contributor to international relief and aid efforts, not only through the government but through charitable organizations.” He added, “The American people are very giving.”

The money being put up by the U.S. is nothing when compared to what’s going on in the corridors of Wall Street, where year-end bonuses for the securities industry are the big story in New York. Readers of The New York Times were greeted Tuesday morning with above-the-fold images of destruction in Asia and below-the-fold accountings of personal riches.

This year the New York state comptroller reports bonuses are estimated to total $15.9 billion. In a press release, the comptroller reports, “The $15.9 billion to be paid in 2004 divided among the approximately 158,000 securities industry employees in New York City works out to an average bonus of $100,400. This is slightly higher than last year’s average of almost $99,700, and just short of the record of $101,000 paid in 2000 at the peak of the last Wall Street boom.”

And what are the rich financiers going to do with their money? According to the report in Tuesday’s Times, one senior investment banker said, “I have a sailboat, a motor boat, an apartment, an S.U.V. What could I possibly need?” Then he thought of something: “Maybe a little Porsche for the Hamptons house, but probably not.”

Another said he bought his wife a mink coat, but explained he wasn’t buying homes or boats. “We are more relaxed and generous on the small things,” he said.

For the plutocrats on Wall Street, who so often make millions shunting money in and out of cheap-labor Asia, the horrid catastrophe in the Indian Ocean must seem very far away. But one never knows—perhaps the disaster will turn into an enticing investment opportunity in the days ahead. And in any event, donations for the charity relief effort could spell a big tax break.