Steven Brill's account in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of how Kenneith Feinberg, grappled with the question of how much to pay executives at companies that received billions in Tarp funds is an interesting read. But the 8,500-word article doesn't answer the question posed in the headline, "What's a Bailed-Out Banker Really Worth?"  

Instead, Brill demonstrates how Feinberg balanced the competing demands from two constituencies, the leaders of the failed companies (as well as staff at the Treasury and officials at the Federal Reserve Bank who wanted to keep these executives from quitting), and the rest of the country, as represented by the members of Congress.

Feinberg sat down with the Tarp companies ahead of the Aug. 14 deadline for submitting compensation requests for their top 25 executives and laid out a series of guidelines, including no guaranteed bonuses, then told the companies he was open to their suggestions about fulfilling his mandate. 

"The stage was set," Brill writes. "These Aug. 14 proposals could shoot high, and Feinberg could cut them down, a lot, and look tough, while still giving these executives the millions they said they could not live without." 

In other words, the exercise was about managing perceptions.  

Brill writes that Feinberg's unique position as a regulator with the power to decide the paychecks at seven companies that failed so conspicously "would seem to offer a laboratory for concocting real reform But Feinberg's work instead became an experiment demonstrating just how entrenched and insulated Wall Street's pay culture has become ... what began that summer night turned out to be anything but a by-the-numbers process. It became a kind of proxy war between Main Street and Wall Street"

He concludes, "The fact that it required such elaborate staging just to rein in a portion of the payouts at companies temporarily controlled by the government also illustrates just how difficult systemic reform will be."