The question of where to put the blame for the savings and loan debacle has taken a geographical twist and renewed hostilities in the war between the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt.
Not only are Republicans and Democrats pointing fingers at each other over responsibility for the nation's most costly financial scandal ever, but lawmakers from the Northeast and Midwest are complaining that their taxes are being shipped south to pay for the sins of Sun Belt savings and loans.
The man accused of single-handedly reopening this war is Edward W. Hill, a Cleveland State University professor who set out to put the costs and benefits of cleaning up the thrift disaster into terms that anybody could understand.
Every man, woman and child in Texas will get $3,510 in benefits from the cleanup, Hill calculated using a conservative $150 billion estimate of the total cost of the scandal. Add the $150 billion in interest on the debt and you can double that number; accept the General Accounting Office's $500 billion cleanup estimate and the figures more than triple.
Residents of 13 states in the South and West will be "winners" in the flow of funds, Hill said, while the "losers" will be taxpayers in 37 mostly northern states and the District. Every District resident will have to give $801 in taxes to pay the S&L tab, a burden second only to the $882 per capita cost to Connecticut residents. The loss will be $609 a person in Virginia, $363 in Maryland, $569 in the Middle Atlantic States and $719 in the six New England states, according to his calculations.
In what he called "the largest corporate welfare program since the Great Depression," Hill said, "individual and corporate taxpayers in 37 states and the District will be shipping vast sums of money to 13 states over the next 30 years."
Hill's most recent regional breakdown of thrift cleanup costs is an update of calculations he first put out last year in a publication of the Northeast Midwest Institute, an organization formed during earlier inter-regional wars over the distribution of government largess to provide an intellectual veneer for pork barrel battles.
Hill's studies were done on his own time, not paid for by either the institute or its Capitol Hill counterpart, the Northeast Midwest Congressional Coalition, which has done a similar study of its own.
Using Hill's statistical ammunition, lawmakers from the "loser" states have started taking shots at such succulent targets as the multibillion-dollar supercollider atomic research project planned in Texas, to say nothing of the White House and Sun Belt lawmakers.
Hill himself is drawing more than a little flak from fellow economists, who are attacking both his specific statistics and the overall premise of his work.
By claiming that taxpayers of 37 states are "losers" because their money is being used to pay off depositors of failed financial institutions in other states, however, Hill misses the point of why the government insures savings accounts, said Charles Schultz of the Brookings Institution.
"The whole purpose of deposit insurance since the 1930s is to protect the payment system," said Schultz. "If depositors get nervous" and start taking their money out of banks and thrifts in the Southwest, "that would ripple over the whole country" and produce damage far more costly than the S&L cleanup.
The same criticism comes from across the political spectrum at the American Enterprise Institute. If the government did not step in and cover the losses of failed Southwest financial institutions, "you would produce major panic," said AEI economist John Macon. "You would have a repeat of 1933," when runs on banks shut down the financial system, he said. "The big lesson of the '30s is that you have to prevent runs on banks."
Even New England economists dispute the suggestion that the Southwest states are "winners" in the thrift bailout. "If you have an insurance program and Boston has an earthquake that's covered by insurance, you don't think of the rest of the country subsidizing Boston," said Richard Kopcke of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
And Texans are downright nasty about Hill's claim that the cleanup has been good for them.
"If it was so good, we'd be happy to let Maine and Massachusetts have it," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) during a heated exchange with Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) on the Senate floor over an unrelated regional spending issue.
The "benefits" to Texans of the S&L scandal include seeing the value of their houses plunge by 25 percent to 40 percent over the last decade, several people pointed out. Being protected from such a devastating personal financial loss is one thing residents of the Washington area and other states got for their money.
Hill also draws considerable criticism over the allocation of cleanup benefits to specific states. A substantial amount of the deposits in failed southwestern financial institutions came from people in other parts of the country who were lured to the Sun Belt by high interest rates.
When a New Yorker is protected from losses in a Texas thrift, is it New York or Texas that benefits? When a California thrift goes broke because of losses in Arizona real estate -- as happened with Charles Keating's notorious Lincoln Savings and Loan -- should the cost be blamed on California or Arizona?
Hill conceded that there are difficulties in tracing out-of-state deposits and investment. He pointed out that several S&Ls in northern states have failed because of bad investments in the Sun Belt and that the costs in Florida in particular are hard to get a handle on because many out-of-state thrifts lost money on deals there.
As for the idea that the whole country benefits from protecting the financial system, Hill said: "I agree completely. The value of the bailout to the U.S. is that it preserves the payments mechanism. ... If people lost their savings, we'd be back in the '30s again."
But it is the magnitude and the direction of the flows of funds that is important, he said, defending his thesis that 37 states are going to suffer economically because of a financial disaster that was not their fault.
The money from Ohio, the District, Maryland, Virginia and other northern states that goes to Texas is money that cannot be invested in the local economies.
The congressional enthusiasm for calculating the cost of the S&L cleanup to individual states makes clear that pure economics may not matter as much as pure politics.
As a political issue, the thrift scandal seems to be far more potent in the states that are paying the bill than in the ones that are getting the money.
Texans tend to see themselves as victims of the disaster and not to blame either the bankers or the state or federal officials whose failure to regulate the industry was the most important single cause of the scandal.
Outside the Sun Belt, people are not so familiar with the situation nor so sympathetic. "Expressing the cost in per capita terms was a way of making it a real issue," Hill said.