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Let's Put Down the Pitchforks

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Protesters chanted and marched against corporate excess and executive bonuses in front of the AIG building in Washington on Thursday, as Congress worked to pass a bill taxing such bonuses. Video by Kevin Clark/The Washington Post

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By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, March 20, 2009

We're angry. We're frustrated. We feel cheated and abused. We're not going to take it anymore.

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But then again, we don't have much choice, do we? Sure, we can demand that a few more heads roll on Wall Street, or at the Treasury, or that a few hundred million are clawed back from financiers who never deserved it. But the reality is that no matter what we do now, tens of trillions of dollars in wealth have been lost. All that's left is simply an elaborate exercise in settling up the accounts.

At the end of the day, the thing to get outraged about is not the $440 million in bonuses at AIG or the $10 million that Citigroup is spending to redesign its shrunken executive suite. These may seem like princely sums, but they are almost insignificant compared with the real outrage: the hundreds of billion dollars of taxpayer funds that have been put at risk to keep AIG and Citi from failing and taking the whole financial system down with them. Let's keep our attention on the elephant rather than the pimples on its behind.

I realize that collective expressions of public anger can serve a useful purpose. At times like these, it feels good and is a way for a political system to let off some steam before a more dangerous explosion occurs. More importantly, it builds political momentum for sweeping reform of the regulatory apparatus while scaring the bejeezus out of people on Wall Street, who will now think long and hard the next time they get the urge to take excessive risks with other people's money.

But there's a danger in letting this outrage get to the point that it undermines the effort to contain the financial crisis. And with Congress now rushing to pass legislation taxing away the bonuses of every banker at every bank or financial institution that takes government money, that point seems to have been reached.

A few things to keep in mind.

First, as I've said in the past, this isn't about fairness. There's nothing remotely fair about using taxpayer money to rescue a free-market financial system from the mistakes of the financiers. But the reality is that we can punish the bankers or we can save the banking system, but we can't do both at the same time.

Nor is it fair, as The Great Santelli has declared on CNBC, that homeowners who have paid their bills and have been careful not to take on too much credit are now being asked to provide relief to homeowners who have not. Unfortunately, the price of righteous indignation is a wave of foreclosures, a further decline in home values and billions of dollars of additional loan losses at banks that are already on government life support. Given the financial and economic hits they have already taken, that's a price that most "innocent" homeowners and taxpayers would probably prefer not to pay.

During a financial crisis, fairness is a luxury we cannot afford. During the 1930s, bankers and financiers lost everything, but the outcome -- a decade-long depression -- was hardly fair to the ordinary American. The key question is not whether something is fair, but whether it helps get us through this mess faster and at a lower cost.

At the moment, the Treasury is working (and working and working) on ways to entice private capital back into the banking and shadow-banking system by offering government financing and guarantees against losses. Every dollar of private capital that can be attracted back into the system is a dollar that the Treasury won't have to borrow or the Federal Reserve won't have to print. And only with the return of private capital will the government be able to get back the rescue money it has committed.

But how eager do you think private equity and hedge funds will be to invest those billions of dollars if they fear that their participation will subject them to front-page accusations, congressional inquiries and public outrage over how much they might be paying for bonuses or employee travel or office decoration? Will they participate if they think that Congress, in a moment of populist pique, will try to tax back their profits if they earn more than originally expected?

As the financiers see it, there's a big difference between the government that sets tough terms for participation in its financial rescue programs and a government that is a fickle and unreliable partner, that tries to micromanage their businesses and changes the rules of the game with every zig and zag of public opinion. That may be an exaggerated view, but it is the financiers' view and one we need to be mindful of, since at this point we need their money and cooperation as much as they need ours.

A final point on outrage: We need to save some of it for ourselves. While it was Wall Street that got rich by peddling new ways for Americans to live beyond their means, the decision to do so was ours. It was we who ran up the credit card bills, we who drew down the equity in our homes and we who refused to tax ourselves for the government services we demanded. Wall Street bankers may have been the pushers, but it was we Americans who became addicted to the easy credit.


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