Steve Chapman

They demand that the bonuses be rescinded and, failing that, threaten to tax them away, at proposed rates as high as 100 percent. "Let the recipients of these large and unseemly bonuses be warned -- if you don't return it on your own, we'll do it for you," thundered Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

No one in the lynch mob wants to admit that the amount is piddling from the point of view of taxpayers. It adds up to less than 1 percent of the $170 billion the government has poured into AIG. The prevailing reaction amounts to swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat.

AIG could have refused to make the payments, but only by violating contracts it had made with employees. Officials at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York entertained this option, reports The Washington Post, only to realize that the spurned staffers would have sued and gotten not only the payments but "punitive damages that would make the ultimate cost perhaps two or three times as high as the bonuses themselves."

Refusing to pay would also have driven away any top employees with alternatives -- which would tend to be the better people, who might just be useful in restoring the company to health. Congress' approach brings to mind the sardonic workplace sign: "The floggings will continue until morale improves."

Expropriating property from people who did nothing more than accept money they were legally due sounds uncannily like a bill of attainder -- a legislative measure declaring someone guilty of a crime, and imposing punishment, without trial. This weapon was expressly forbidden by the framers of the Constitution because it is fundamentally unfair, at odds with the rule of law and driven by mass hysteria rather than dispassionate fact-finding.

Once upon a time, those were considered bad things.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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