Thanks to provisions in Tarp and the stimulus package, one man—the pay czar—gets a say on what bankers at firms receiving government aid get paid. But who is this pay czar? A moral grandstander like Eliot Spitzer? An Obama insider? As it turns out, Kenneth Feinberg is neither of those things.
He is up against a great deal of ire: As banks regain their strength in Washington, the pay czar job is looking like an increasingly dirty one. It’s a familiar environment for Feinberg.
From “The Calculator,” a 2002 profile of him in the New Yorker: “Feinberg, who is a lawyer by training, has spent most of his adult life immersed in disaster, and during that time has priced almost every imaginable form of human suffering, from birth defects and infertility to asbestosis and death.”
He was the lawyer charged with doling out settlements from the 9/11 Victims Fund and he negotiated payments with the families of Virginia Tech shooting victims. He has also dealt with payouts to people injured by Agent Orange, the chemical weapon used during the Vietnam War, according to the bio on his law firm’s Web site. Compared with these embittered groups, grumpy bankers must seem like a basket of puppies.
In 2005, Feinberg wrote a book, What Is Life Worth? The Inside Story of the 9/11 Fund and Its Effort to Compensate the Victims of September 11th. In the opening pages, he confessed to an early love of theater acting: “I relished the laughter and applause that reward a zestful performance,” he wrote.
He’s getting a lot of attention these days, not much of it is coming in the form of laughter and applause. Feinberg is preparing to set pay levels for around 175 executives at companies that still have Tarp money.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that Feinberg would share the philosophy that led in the first place to pay restrictions. But it turns out he’s the anti-politico, having now served both the Obama team and the Bush administration before it. So while executive pay curbs may be the most theatrical of the regulatory actions taken thus far in response to the financial crisis, Feinberg has shown himself to be no ham.