“I Want Your Money” is the cover story in this week’s Economist magazine. The Economist’s position is that yes, $700 billion is an awful lot of money to spend on this financial bailout/rescue, and that taxpayers (and the parents of future taxpayers) have a right to question who is being “saved” here, but that it has to be done:
SAVING the world is a thankless task. The only thing beyond dispute in the $700 billion plan of Hank Paulson, the treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, to stem the financial crisis is that everyone can find something in it to dislike. The left accuses it of ripping off taxpayers to save Wall Street, the right damns it as socialism; economists disparage its technicalities, political scientists its sweeping powers. The administration gave ground to Congress, George Bush delivered a televised appeal and Barack Obama and John McCain suspended the presidential campaign. Even so, as The Economist went to press, the differences remained. There was a chance that Congress would say no.
Spending a sum of money that could buy you a war in Iraq should not come easily; and the notion of any bail-out is deeply troubling to any self-respecting capitalist. Against that stand two overriding arguments. First this is a plan that could work (see article). And, second, the potential costs of producing nothing, or too little too slowly, include a financial collapse and a deep recession spilling across the world: those far outweigh any plausible estimate of the bail-out’s cost.
If the economics of Mr Paulson’s plan are broadly correct, the politics are fiendish. You are lavishing money on the people who got you into this mess. Sensible intervention cannot even buy long-term relief: the plan cannot stop house prices falling and the bloated financial sector shrinking. Although the economic risk is that the plan fails, the political risk is that the plan succeeds. Voters will scarcely notice a depression that never happened. But even as they lose their houses and their jobs, they will see Wall Street once again making millions.
And the Economist goes on to warn that we don’t get carried away with policies that would outlast the temporary justification for them:
In retrospect, Mr Paulson made his job harder by misreading the politics. His original plan contained no help for homeowners. And he assumed sweeping powers to spend the cash quickly. He was right to want flexibility to buy a range of assets. But flexibility does not exclude accountability. As complaints mounted, Mr Paulson and Mr Bernanke buckled—agreeing, for instance, to more oversight. Now that Messrs McCain and Obama have returned to Congress to forge a deal, more buckling may be necessary. Ideally, concessions should not outlast the crisis: temporary help for people able to stay in their houses, a brief ban on dividends in financial firms, even another fiscal package. They should not be permanent or so onerous that the programme fails for want of participants—which is why proposed limits on pay are a mistake (see article).
That “concessions should not outlast the crisis” especially applies to the cost of all the policies we may be spurred into adopting as “part of” (however tangentially) the rescue plan. The financial crisis is just one part of the broader problem the American economy suffers from–the “living beyond our means” one. I worry that in frantically bailing out the troubled water from the Wall Street boat, all of us may end up falling overboard.