Q Let me ask you this. Now, I heard them say, well, one of the problems is it’s contractual and if we don’t pay these bonuses, well, they can sue us. All the time people say, so sue me.
THE PRESIDENT: So sue me, right.
Q I mean, the federal government is in debt a trillion dollars. We’re broke — sue us. Sue me. (Laughter and applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: In fairness, I think that part of the calculation they were making was the way the contracts were written said, if you don’t pay us immediately, then we can claim three times as much as we were owed under the bonuses. And so they were making a legal calculation, and their legal judgment was not necessarily wrong.
But there’s a moral and an ethical aspect to this, as well. And I think that’s what has gotten everybody so fired up. The main thing — we’re going to do everything we can to see if we can get these bonuses back. But I think the most important thing that we can do is make sure that we put in a bunch of financial regulatory mechanisms to prevent companies like an AIG holding the rest of us hostage. Because that’s — that’s the real problem.
The problem is not just what’s happened over the last six months. The problem is what was happening for years, where people were able to take huge, excessive risks with other people’s money, putting the entire financial system at risk — and there were no checks, there were no balances, there was nobody overseeing the process.
And so what we’re going to be moving very aggressively on — even as we try to fix the current mess — is make sure that before somebody makes a bad bet you say, hold on, you can’t do that.
Q Well, here’s something that kind of scared me. Today they passed this thing that says we’re going to tax 90 percent of these bonuses. And the part that scares me is, I mean, you’re a good guy — if the government decides they don’t like a guy, all of a sudden, hey, we’re going to tax you and then, boom, and it passes. I mean, that seems a little scary as a taxpayer, they can just decide — you want to take a break and answer that when we come back? Okay, hold that answer.
THE PRESIDENT: I will. I’ve got a good answer, too. (Applause.)
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Q Welcome back. We are talking with President Barack Obama.
Before the break I mentioned that they had just passed this new bill which will tax them 90 percent — and I said it was frightening to me as an American that Congress, whoever, could decide, I don’t like that group, let’s pass a law and tax them at 90 percent.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I understand Congress’ frustrations, and they’re responding to, I think, everybody’s anger. But I think that the best way to handle this is to make sure that you’ve closed the door before the horse gets out of the barn. And what happened here was the money has already gone out and people are scrambling to try to find ways to get back at them.
The change I’d like to see in terms of tax policy is that we have a system, going back to where we were back in the 1990s, where you and I who are doing pretty well pay a little bit more to pay for health care, to pay for energy, to make sure that kids can go to college who aren’t as fortunate as our — as my kids might be. Those are the kinds of measured steps that we can take. But the important thing over the next several months is making sure that we don’t lurch from thing to thing, but we try to make steady progress, build a foundation for long-term economic growth. That’s what I think the American people expect. (Applause.)
Q I just read today about Merrill Lynch. They handed out $3.6 billion — it’s not even million anymore, it’s billions in bonuses. I know it would make me feel good — shouldn’t somebody go to jail? (Laughter and applause.) I say that because I watch those people in New York, even people who had lost everything — when Bernard Madoff went to jail, at least they felt they got something.
THE PRESIDENT: Right. They got some satisfaction. Here’s the dirty little secret, though. Most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal. And that is a sign of how much we’ve got to change our laws — right? We were talking earlier about credit cards, and it’s legal to charge somebody 30 percent on their credit card, and charge fees and so forth that people don’t always know what they’re getting into. So the answer is to deal with those laws in a way that gives the average consumer a break.
When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there’s a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there’s no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you’re going to be protected.
So this is — the need for getting back to some common sense regulations — there’s nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there’s enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren’t taken advantage of, and taxpayers, after the fact, aren’t taken advantage of. (Applause.)
Q Yes — because when I was a kid, we would — banks or credit cards would lend you money so you would pay it back. Now they lend you money so you can’t pay it back. (Laughter.) It’s like we were talking before, I mentioned we all saw A Wonderful Life — Mr. Potter, the meanest man — remember he owned the whole town? You know what he charged on a mortgage? Two percent. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: He’s like Mother Teresa now. (Laughter.)
Q Like Mother Teresa now. (Laughter.) He makes VISA look like ohhhh —
THE PRESIDENT: Well, and part of what happened over the last 15, 20 years is that so much money was made in finance that about 40 percent, I think, of our overall growth, our overall economic growth was in the financial sector. Well, now what we’re finding out is a lot of that growth wasn’t real. It was paper money, paper profits on the books, but it could be easily wiped out.
And what we need is steady growth; we need young people, instead of — a smart kid coming out of school, instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide they want to be an engineer, they want to be a scientist, they want to be a doctor or a teacher. And if we’re rewarding those kinds of things that actually contribute to making things and making people’s lives better, that’s going to put our economy on solid footing. We won’t have this kind of bubble-and-bust economy that we’ve gotten so caught up in for the last several years.