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They Just Don't Get It

Congress approves a massive plan to shore up the U.S. financial system, despite a stunning early defeat. The Senate passed the legislation on Wednesday evening, and the House passed the legislation on Friday afternoon.

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By Steven Pearlstein
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Oy vey.

That is the technical economic term that best sums up a day in which the House of Representatives refuses to pass a $700 billion rescue plan pushed by the White House and congressional leaders from both parties, Wachovia is taken over in a deal that will have the government potentially owning 10 percent of Citigroup, a few European banks fail, the Federal Reserve and other central banks are forced to inject an additional $300 billion into the global banking system, the Dow Jones industrial average plunges 778 points, and investors everywhere rush to the safety of gold and short-term Treasury bills.

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The basic problem here is that too many people don't understand the seriousness of the situation.

Americans fail to understand that they are facing the real prospect of a decade of little or no economic growth because of the bursting of a credit bubble that they helped create and that now threatens to bring down the global financial system.

Politicians worry less about preventing a financial meltdown than about ideology, partisan posturing and teaching people a lesson. Financiers have yet to own up publicly to their own greed, arrogance and incompetence. And leaders of foreign governments still think that this is an American problem and that they have no need to mount similar rescue efforts in their own countries.

In the coming weeks and months, all of these people will come to understand how deep the hole really is and how we're all in it together.

They'll come to understand that the giant sucking sound they hear is of a massive deleveraging of the global economy and the global financial system as households, governments, businesses and investment funds adjust to living in a world with less debt and more inflation.

And they will come around, reluctantly, to the understanding that the only way to get out of these situations is to have governments all around the world borrow gobs of money and effectively nationalize large swaths of the financial system so it can be restructured, recapitalized, reformed and returned to private ownership once the crisis has passed and the economy has gotten back on its feet.

In the next few weeks, the center of attention here in the United States will shift from the Congress and an exhausted Treasury to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which will now have to rescue any number of failing banks, either by taking them over directly or managing their transfer into stronger hands. It will also shift back to the Federal Reserve and other central banks, which will have to step up their efforts to maintain liquidity in money markets and prevent the credit crunch from taking down hedge funds, businesses, and state and local governments.

These will, alas, be only holding actions. Restoring real stability to financial markets will require the kind of systemic approach and extraordinary government interventions that the public has refused to authorize and finance. In better times, the public might have put aside its reluctance in response to the strong and unified recommendation of political and business leaders. But it is a measure of how little trust remains in both Washington and Wall Street that voters are willing to risk a serious hit to their wealth and income rather than follow their lead.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.


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