Earlier this month, the New York State comptroller's office announced that the bonuses that Wall Street expected to hand out for 2005 would total $21.5 billion.
That's twenty-one-and-a-half billion dollars! It was the biggest amount ever gifted to the big money men and women in the securities industry. It was a 15.5-percent increase over the previous year and the biggest increase since 2003. Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi calculated an average year-end bonus at $125,000. That means 172,000 men and women shared in the bonus pool of $21.5 billion.
Now I do not begrudge the bonuses or the amounts. That's the way it works, and as long as shareholders think it's OK, that's how it will continue to work. I once got a $300 bonus for just a week's work in Beirut in 1986. (According to the New York comptroller's office, the year-end Wall Street bonuses for 1986 averaged only $13,950 that year, which actually works out to less than $300 a week. So I shouldn't complain - I guess.)
But, seriously, something's wrong with this picture. According to the CIA's ranking of gross domestic products (purchasing power parity) around the world, $21.5 billion is more money than the GDP of each of two-thirds of the world's countries. The 2005 bonus amount distributed among 172,000 people was exactly the same as the 2004 GDP of Afghanistan, population 30 million.
My view of the unbalanced picture comes from a year spent traveling to some of the world's most troubled countries, countries that are beset by wars, food shortages - famine even - poverty, lack of education, lack of health care and a variety of other enormous disadvantages.
They were countries such as Angola (GDP $27.6 billion), Madagascar (GDP $15.8 billion), Niger (GDP $10 billion) and Haiti (GDP $12.9 billion).
Other countries I visited had GDPs much higher than the 2005 Wall Street bonus total, but the level of poverty among many of their citizens is stunning. One of these, India, has a GDP of about $3.7 trillion, but about 300 million Indians live on less than $1 a day.
Colombia has a GDP of more than $303 billion, but as a local Catholic priest told me, "the rich are very rich and very few, and the poor are very poor and very many." In Sudan, where the GDP is $85.4 billion, thanks mostly to oil revenue, the casualties of wars inflicted on the people by their own government are vast. In Uganda, the GDP is almost $50 billion, but the whole northern region of the country is besieged by an enduring civil war, hunger, lack of education and widespread insecurity.
I have spoken with women in Niger and the Darfur area of Sudan who have fed themselves and their emaciated children on weeds, women in places like Madagascar and Angola who have to walk miles to get to a source of usable water, farmers and their families in Colombia who can't farm because they keep on having to run away from the war and the U.S.-supported fumigation programs that kill legal crops alongside the illegal coca crops.
In Haiti, one of the poorest, most violent lands in the Western Hemisphere, a school principal speaks of parents who do not have enough to pay the tuition for their children, and the tuition is $15 a year.
Americans, including, I'm sure, many of those who received those big bonuses, are among the most generous in the world when it comes to responding to highly publicized emergencies like the Asian tsunami or the Afghan-Pakistan earthquake. But most of the enduring tragedies, the ones that require long-term attention and development assistance, get less attention than a pregnant actress or a $5 million-a-year baseball player.
Incidentally, the U. S. GDP for 2005 was $12.37 trillion. In such an economy, the $21.5 billion Wall Street handed out in bonuses seems like a drop in the bucket. But it means that in 2005, Wall Street handed out more in bonuses than the U.S. government distributed worldwide in development aid, except in the countries we've invaded.
That's what's wrong with this picture.
G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor at The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.