Writing about anything other than the nation's financial hurricane right now would be a little like writing a review of "Our American Cousin" the morning after the Lincolns' visit to Fords Theatre. I'm guessing that the pace of institutional collapse these last two weeks has scared you and most people you know. That means you're paying attention. The apparent immensity of this crisis takes our breath away. So I come to you with just one plea: let's breathe. Then let's think.
That is just what the Bush administration seems to be counting on us not to do. They marched to Capitol Hill with one non-negotiable demand: Give us the money and shut up. Lots of money: a $700 billion blank check — some say it will most likely top a cool trillion — to the Secretary of the Treasury, to be spent exactly how he and his boss alone decide, without a trace of oversight by Congressional committees or anyone else. I am not, to use Dave Barry's phrase when he reported the truly stupefying, making this up. If Congress agrees, the "too big to fail" precept of corporate capitalism since the Reagan years, which has privatized profits for the enrichment of a few while socializing losses for all the rest of us to bear, will become official policy.
Here's what I want to believe: Whatever our differences, we can all agree that it's wrong to transfer money from all Americans (mostly from our children and grandchildren) to those who gained immense wealth through these systemic abuses. I want to think we'd agree to aim this torrent of public dollars at rebuilding our collapsed financial foundation instead of pushing off the day of reckoning another few months.
What's in our way? Two things: urgency and complexity.
Urgency is the Administration's high card, the only one in their hand. They can make their demand with a straight face only by triggering the same kind of panic that paved the way for the so-called PATRIOT Act and the invasion of Iraq. In the last seven years we've heard a flurry of regrets from Democrats and Republicans about the terrible votes they've cast, always pushed by manufactured emergency and bogus data they didn't take the time to verify. There are signs that they feel sufficiently burned to actually start asking the kinds of questions that the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created a Congress.
The other obstacle between us and a sane solution is the complexity of this mess. We know there are no magic solutions. But a stream of smart and principled alternatives has started to flow. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pulled some of them together this week, writing that "Any plan to clean up the mess on Wall Street must:
- Ensure that middle income and working families are not the ones who are paying for this bailout by imposing a five-year, 10 percent surtax on income over $1 million a year for couples and over $500,000 for single taxpayers to raise $300 billion in revenue over five years; by ensuring that assets purchased from banks are realistically discounted so companies are not rewarded for their risky behavior and taxpayers can recover the amount they paid for them; and by requiring that taxpayers receive equity stakes in the bailed-out companies so that the taxpayers' assumption of risk is rewarded when companies' stock goes up.
- Include a major economic recovery package which puts Americans to work at decent wages. Among many other areas, we can create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and moving our country from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.
- End the danger posed by companies that are "too big too fail," that is, companies whose failure would cause systemic harm to the U.S. economy. If a company is too big to fail, it is too big to exist."
Syndicated columnist Matt Miller (www.mattmilleronline.com) goes a creative step further: "Let the high rollers keep the loot they made wrecking the economy. All is forgiven! In exchange, though, Mr. Secretary, we just want one thing: boost your $700 billion rescue to $800 billion and enact universal health coverage this week, too."
You don't have to like all or any of those ideas; more are coming forward every day. All you need for the moment is the clarity to turn down the invitation to this latest catastrophic stampede. Visit http://votenobailout.org. Let the guys representing you in Congress know what you think.
Jeff Golden is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at www.unafraidthebook.com)