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Dear Mr. President, A Bonus Isn't A Bonus

Bankers Bonus
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Bankers Bonus

A bonus by any other name would smell just as sweet.

The fury over the fact that Wall Street paid out $18.4 billion in bonuses in 2008, the "sixth largest" amount in history, is about words and nothing else.

This isn't a compensation issue, it's a diction issue.

Outside of lower Manhattan, a "bonus" is a special, one-off reward for performance above and beyond what's expected of an employee. And if investment bankers had gotten $18.4 billion worth of bonuses in that traditional sense of the word, then of course it would be truly outrageous.

But on Wall Street, and at many law firms as well, a bonus is simply part, often the greater part, of your regular compensation. It may vary from year to year, but when you take one of these jobs, the understanding is that you'll be paid a base-salary and once a year you'll also get a "bonus."

The bonus varies in size from year to year, but it's not actually a "bonus" in the way most people think of the word. It's an expected part of your salary, delivered in a lump- sum near Christmastime. Historically, for many people on Wall Street, the base salary is much less than they could be earning elsewhere, but because they know they're getting a sizable "bonus," it makes sense for them to stay at their jobs.

So a bonus isn't a bonus.

But since the vast majority of people don't know that, the public gets angry. And when the public gets angry, Democratic politicians who probably know better have to demagogue the issue. That's how you get the President saying, "there will be a time for profits and bonuses. Now is not that time."

I don't think this is class-warfare, although I wouldn't mind some of that, it's a simple misunderstanding. Obama wouldn't say, "now is not the time for paychecks." But that's essentially what a bonus is on Wall Street, just an expected part of your compensation. This is not crooked, greedy CEOs lining their wallets, although I won't deny that plenty of that happens.

The screwed up thing is that it's clear Obama wants to help these bankers, or at least keep their companies alive. But, as I see it, they're making it as hard on him as they possibly can from a PR standpoint, which is all that matters in politics.

We can't create a "bad bank" to relieve troubled financial institutions of their depressed assets if they're paying out $18.4 billion in "bonuses." It just looks terrible. So here's my advice to Wall Street: help us help you.

Stop paying bonuses.

Call them something else.

Think of something boring like "annual performance-adjusted block compensation."

I know "bonus" sounds sexy, but that's precisely what's wrong with the term.

A little verbal magic and this whole problem goes away.

Questions? Comments? Send them to millennialmoney@cnbc.com