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OPINION: Wall Street and Haiti put aid money in sharp focus

Ann McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

On Wednesday, I switched back and forth between watching the heartbreaking devastation unfold in Haiti and cold-eyed Wall Street titans making asinine statements on Capitol Hill. The juxtaposition was almost too much to bear.

Listening to the bankers in their fancy suits take little to no personal responsibility for the near collapse of the financial system was bad enough. Hearing them defend billions in bonuses while thousands of the poorest of the poor in Haiti were losing their families, friends, homes and belongings was dreadful.

President Barack Obama pledged $100 million to help the 3 million people in Haiti whose lives have been ruined or changed forever by the earthquake. It won't be nearly enough.

We spent billions on bailouts for banks, which still won't loan to people whose livelihoods depend on borrowing just small sums of money. The bonuses in at least one case equaled the amount of taxpayer money used to bail out the company.

The aid money we have given for years to the impoverished, struggling country of Haiti always came with strings so that most of it in some way benefited Americans. The bailout money basically was handed out with few strings. When it appeared Washington would cap the earnings of top bankers, some of them borrowed money to repay the bailout so they could keep their astronomical salaries.

And we still don't have tougher financial regulations to prevent the calamity of 2008 from being repeated.

The first day of hearings by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was stunning. Listening to the chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., explain risk management, the commission's chairman, Phil Angelides, was near apoplexy. "It sounds to me a little bit like selling a car with faulty brakes, and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars," he said.

Angelides also made the point that most of those hurt by the bankers' failure to understand the complexity of their manipulations were not professional risk-taking investors but police officers, teachers and pensioners. He remains skeptical that the bankers are grateful for their rescue.

The bankers did acknowledge some responsibility. "It has been clear how poor business judgments we have made have affected Main Street," said Brian Moynihan, the new chief executive of Bank of America Corp., who is too new to blame.

But overall, the bankers' obfuscations, defensive, lawyer-written statements and mealy-mouthed explanations failed entirely to note the human element of the financial meltdown. These guys really do live in a different world.

Lessons learned: Congress must regulate Wall Street properly and limit the size of financial entities. Left to their own devices, the financial "gurus" will screw things up again.

There should be legal prosecutions for malfeasance, negligence and corruption. The punishment should fit the crime.

We have to get our deficit down to mere billions instead of trillions. We must have emergency money readily available to help in catastrophes such as the Haitian earthquake. And aid has to be properly distributed.

As we struggle to fix the system, the very least the bankers at blame could do would be to eschew buying second or third homes, cooler watches and faster cars and donate their bonus billions to poor Haiti.

As Obama said, our government can't do the job in Haiti alone; we individuals must help. And that may be the biggest lesson of all.

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