The financial collapse of Wall Street is the fiscal consequence of the economic philosophy that now governs America — that markets are always good and government is always bad. But it is also the moral consequence of greed, where private profit prevails over the concept of the common good. The American economy is often rooted in unbridled materialism, a culture that continues to extol greed, a false standard of values that puts short-term profits over societal health, and a distorted calculus that measures human worth by personal income instead of character, integrity, and generosity.
Americans have a love-hate relationship with government and business. The climate seems to shift between an “anything goes” mentality and stricter government regulation. The excesses of the 1920s, leading to the Great Depression, were followed by the reforms of Franklin Roosevelt.
The entrepreneurial spirit and social innovation fostered by a market economy has benefited many and should not be overly encumbered by unnecessary or stifling regulations. But left to its own devices and human weakness (let’s call it sin), the market too often disintegrates into greed and corruption, as the Wall Street financial collapse painfully reveals. Capitalism needs rules, or it easily becomes destructive. A healthy, balanced relationship between free enterprise, on the one hand, and public accountability and regulation, on the other, is morally and practically essential. Government should encourage innovation, but it must also limit greed.
Economist Paul Krugman has a few reactions to the proposed bailout:
. . . if the government is going to provide capital to financial firms, it should get what people who provide capital are entitled to — a share in ownership, so that all the gains if the rescue plan works don’t go to the people who made the mess in the first place.
That’s what happened in the savings and loan crisis: the feds took over ownership of the bad banks, not just their bad assets. It’s also what happened with Fannie and Freddie. (And by the way, that rescue has done what it was supposed to. Mortgage interest rates have come down sharply since the federal takeover.)
But Mr. Paulson insists that he wants a “clean” plan. “Clean,” in this context, means a taxpayer-financed bailout with no strings attached — no quid pro quo on the part of those being bailed out. Why is that a good thing? Add to this the fact that Mr. Paulson is also demanding dictatorial authority, plus immunity from review “by any court of law or any administrative agency,” and this adds up to an unacceptable proposal.
I’m aware that Congress is under enormous pressure to agree to the Paulson plan in the next few days, with at most a few modifications that make it slightly less bad. Basically, after having spent a year and a half telling everyone that things were under control, the Bush administration says that the sky is falling, and that to save the world we have to do exactly what it says now now now.
But I’d urge Congress to pause for a minute, take a deep breath, and try to seriously rework the structure of the plan, making it a plan that addresses the real problem. Don’t let yourself be railroaded — if this plan goes through in anything like its current form, we’ll all be very sorry in the not-too-distant future.