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Susan Estrich
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The Price of Playing by the Rules


The president deserves the high marks he is getting from the public for his first month in office. Most presidents get to spend their first month putting up the draperies. This one had to spend his picking up the pieces of a collapsing economy. When the Republicans decided to just say no, he pushed ahead and got going without them. That the country is more united in its support for the president than is the Congress is not a surprise: Those who are not professional politicians find it easier to put politics aside.

Nonetheless, we are not all similarly situated with respect to this economic crisis, and if the numbers right now obscure that, the divisions are still looming. The critical divide is not, as in Washington, between Republicans and Democrats, but between those who are looking for or have received a government bailout and those who haven't. And that divide is defined, at least in part, by those who played by the rules and those who didn't, which is why there is real anger in America, as well as a desire for unity and action.

Everyone is affected by this economic freefall, even if you don't work for an automaker or a failing financial institution, even if you're still employed and didn't buy a house you couldn't afford, even if you're still paying your bills and putting food on the table.

I know lots of people who thought they'd retire in the not-so-distant future, and now they can't. "Safe" investments turned out not to be so safe after all, and money set aside for kids to go to college or for health care costs just isn't there. Seniors who thought they would be fine aren't. Kids who thought they'd have money for college don't. People whose biggest investment is their house — and that's the case for most of us — have seen the value of that investment plummet. In other words, no one is untouched by this crisis.

But some people are obviously in worse shape than others, and among those, some are more responsible for their dire straits than others. It's true that both parties share the blame for the deregulation of financial institutions that allowed people to buy homes they couldn't afford, and then allowed those mortgages to be packaged into what became toxic packages. But just because you are free to do something stupid and risky doesn't mean you aren't to blame for doing it.

No one forced anyone to buy a house they couldn't afford. No one forced banks and financial institutions to seek ever higher profits without regard to risk.

Some people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, because of decisions made by others. But many others are unemployed because of their own greed and the greed of their companies — after years of being overpaid based on "profits" that really weren't.

We may have to bail them out, but we don't have to be happy about it. The notion that they should continue to make more money than the president does is ludicrous. The idea that they need to be told that it's not a good time to buy a new corporate jet is insulting. Mad? Damn right.

Bill Clinton used to make a point of talking about Americans who "played by the rules," which in the 1980s and1990s was a sort of code for those who weren't claiming any special entitlement based on identity politics, who weren't asking the government to pay their bills or put them at the head of the line. The idea was that people who work hard and play by the rules should come first, not last. Clinton's understanding of the extent to which the Democratic Party was perceived to have strayed from that notion is one of the main reasons he won the presidency and every other Democrat during that period didn't.

There are a good many Americans — thankfully, still the majority — who get up every morning and work one or two jobs they may not love in order to pay the mortgage for the house that may not be their dream house but is the one they could afford, in order to pay off the credit card bills and live within their means. It's harder now than it was before, but most of us still do it. We're willing to help those who need help, but we're not willing to be taken for fools, or taken to the cleaners.

If the country is to remain united, it will be necessary for those who got us into this mess to bear their fair share of the pain it is causing, and by that I mean the highly paid decision makers who, freed from government regulation, made incredibly stupid decisions, as well as those who took advantage of the free lunch that wasn't free. I'm not saying people should be booted from their houses, but eventually, they should pay for them.

As for how hard it is for financial executives used to seven-figure incomes to live on a mere $500,000 a year — the limit proposed by the president for employees of companies that take TARP funds — the more you hear such complaints, the angrier the rest of America is likely to be. Staying together as we go through this crisis will be even more difficult than coming together, and it depends on the president being able to convince people who played by the rules that they aren't going to have to pay the price for those who didn't.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



8 Comments | Post Comment
Comment: #1
Posted by: MARY
Wed Feb 25, 2009 8:37 AM
Comment: #2
Posted by: MARY
Wed Feb 25, 2009 8:42 AM
Susan, you seem to be giving our political leaders (especially Congress) a free pass for the problems we are facing now. I believe it is time to start over and replace every member of Congress from both party's and see if it is possible to find people really interested in serving their constituents and not their own vested interests. When you listen to people say they want to tax the wealthy to help pay for new programs to help the less fortunate and you realize that the very people saying this are among the wealthiest in the country i.e. John Kerry, Herb Kohl, John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Chuck Shumer and others it has to make you wonder how stupid they think we are or how well they have their own assets hidden. No one in their right mind who has worked hard all their life and strifed to achieve is going to openly stand up and say "Tax me into oblivion, please" without having some way to maintain the life style they have grown accustomed too.
Comment: #3
Posted by: williamar
Wed Feb 25, 2009 11:40 AM
Susan, Just how much is Obama going to pay all of these people that he is installing in his administration? Why not start with reforming government and start making the people responsible (example US Post Office) for running a business. Let's start there!!!
Comment: #4
Posted by: Anne
Wed Feb 25, 2009 11:44 AM
Re: MARY;....I have it good authority that Mr. Obama is sending money to the devil in hell... It is only because he loves satan because the devil too is a life long communist.... And what are you going to do about it??? Are you going to stand by, and watch Mr. Obama give material support to satan??? Are you not enraged??? Are you not offended???There is that Hamas supporter on his throne in Washington D.C. , thumbing his nose at Mary and saying: Na, Na, Na Na Na!!!What are you going to do about it??? Have you got a plan??? Do you expect some man is going to take care of business for you??? Men are all cowards; Speaking from personal experience... So, what is your plan to deal with that hamas supporting devil lover??? Or are you a ipocrita too??? Thanks.... Sweeney
Comment: #5
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Feb 25, 2009 1:19 PM
Please. quit saying any President can pick up the pieces of any economy, any time. Presidents have very little power or control over the economy. Congress spends the money, the Federal Reserve sets monetary policy, the rest of world is in this too. All of these players exercise more control than a sitting President over the economy, at least the short term economy. Susan, you know this, but blame Bush for the economy as it is when many other factors, including Congressional negligence and Wall Street greed have played a much bigger role than Bush.
Congress would have done exactly what they just did with the stimulus if my dog were the President since the Democrats have a veto proof majority. Obama just signed on to the circus, which by the way I hope does work.
Our President needs to send clear, positive, signals on everything, including economy-related things, and he did so very eloquently last night. but, his real job is to protect this country from its enemies, and that should occupy most of his time.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Edwin Ham
Wed Feb 25, 2009 2:06 PM
Re: williamar... Sir; the Clintons became millionaires holding no other jobs in their lives, but in government....If those people are not rich when they are elected, they are rich when they leave office... Do I think they will vote to tax the rich??? Not a prayer... But that is what we need to do... You may know that when the income tax was first made contitutional it only affected a fraction; not more than 10 to 13 percent of the population... It was meant to tax the rich, but it has been used to impoverish the middle class... People do not want to help those who do not pay taxes... Why??? Are they criminals because their wages have been held so low they do not support the country???Does that mean that their labor does not support the country??? Let my offer you a piece of advice: The poor pay for the wealth of the rich with their poverty...Usually people work as hard and suffer more for their poverty than the richest people.... Is the wealth of the rich theirs??? Yes... This is a common wealth, and the country has to work for all people...Any public property in private hands, and all wealth was once common property; and All of it in private hands is held as a trust, ONLY, so long as it serves a public purpose...There is not reason what so ever that all the people should support your wealth if your wealth does not help to support all the people.... So; if some business man finds he can maximize profits by laying off 90% of his work force, that job has still got to support all those people... If it cuts people off from their support, from their job, and the needs of the people, and of the government- stays the same; that business man would find he has broken himself, and his business, because he has only raised his over head...The country has to work for all... We cannot throw people over board... If the country wants to make some people rich, the poor cannot be too poor, and they still need to be supported....The people are the law... The people are the government...The people who defend this land defend both wealth and poverty; but why should they, when so many of them are poor??? We are rich enough, and have enough resources that we can stand some rich... Should we let wealth pervert our political process.... Should we let people dump millions on elections when they evade paying every tax??? There are a lot of things the people of this land could do in regard to taxes and wealth; but all you have to know is that their desires, and their best interest is all they need to consider... I am certain we can afford some rich people... Some people should have their reward... But on the other hand, the people should have their due, and it is for them to decide what is their due... So pile up your loot... Don't think you will be able to defend that wealth without the support of your society..You try to remember that taxes on the poor have been used to build up great fortunes in this land that do not support government, or the population in the least... We have had top income tax rates in the 90% range, and can again, without hurting anyone but the top one half of one percent of the people...Isn't it better that a few should cry great big tears than for the whole people to suffer want and poverty??? .Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #7
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Feb 25, 2009 4:18 PM
Re: James A, Sweeney

Mr. Sweeney, I don't believe you have a true understanding of what I said. I agree with most of your statements the point I was making is that I don't believe a word of individuals such as those I mentioned in my earlier post when they say they are going to tax themselves into a state of poverty. If you believe John Kerry when he says he wants to raise the taxes on only the wealthest 5% of Americans and he and everyone he knows are in that group do you not find that extremely strange? It is rhetoric that sounds good for the evening news, however, you can be assured that most of the people with the money will find a way to insulate themselves from anything that will reduce their standard of living. I don't know what type of financial situation you are in but I can tell you that the recent stimulus package just passed with its 400 to 800 dollar one time check and 13 dollar a week increase in pay will not make a major dent in my current mortgage nor make me go out and buy a new car.
Comment: #8
Posted by: williamar
Wed Feb 25, 2009 5:47 PM
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