Forget the war for a moment: For anyone not yet worried about the swiftly changing American financial structure, last week offered a sobering hint about the extent of the problem.
While administration functionaries battled around the clock over the markup of a historic bill to reconfigure the American banking industry, Sears, Roebuck and Co. described plans to offer Visa cards to 6.5 million customers next month in a desperate attempt to batter down the door to become a bank. If the company wins the right to enter the market, in a remote Utah courtroom, General Motors Corp. is sure to follow it into the payments business.
Never mind the various insurance companies whose solvency has been threatened by falling real estate values. Do we really want Sears and GM protected by the Federal Reserve system and guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury under the doctrine of "too big to fail" when we don't buy their togs and cars?
The thought of these failing industrial giants scrambling to creep under the umbrella of government protection is sobering. Socialism may yet come to America -- by stealth.
For months the financial scene has seethed with behind-the-scenes tension. The mounting savings and loan losses, the strain on bank insurance funds, the credit crunch as banks seek to shed their less-attractive loans, the maneuvering for position at the start of the interstate banking derby: All are interconnected. Now a recession is accentuating the strain.
So George Bush, with yesterday's unveiling of the Treasury Department's long-awaited plan to reform the banking system, is making an attempt at restructuring. It's a moment as breathtaking as when the jeweler's hammer hits an enormous diamond. If Congress goes along with the reform plan, American banks will begin their long, difficult journey of return to the top of the pyramid of international finance, a position from which they've steadily declined for 15 years. If not -- well, it could be a mess, everything from a stampede of deposits out of small banks to a flight from the dollar.
It is true that doctors say that no single high-tech gimmick counts more toward the maintenance of good health than does continuity of care, and so it is in fiscal management. In this respect, the United States has been in good and stable hands since the crash of 1987. That was when Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady effectively took over American finance, first as chairman of a commission to investigate the 1987 stock market crash, then as Treasury secretary after the election of his good friend George Bush. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has been on the job just a little longer.
The good thing about Brady is that he is beholden to no one except his conscience, his obituary writer and Bush. A white-shoe investment banker from the Wall Street firm of Dillon Reed & Co., Brady brought a handful of good men with him to the Treasury -- and inherited a motley crew of other aides from politicians anxious to have their aides in key positions. Brady's team is a far cry from the Treasury that Douglas Dillon staffed for John F. Kennedy, from which nearly every officer subsequently would become a star.
The rap on Brady goes something like this: He is ineffectual, politically maladroit, lacking in personal force and he's still got the job only because he is the president's friend. There's been a lot of this kind of thing as the deadline approaches.
But when you look at who's doing the rapping, it turns out nearly everybody who has impugning Brady has some reason to wish he were doing things differently than he is. For example, in a Wall Street Journal piece last week, there was the University of Chicago's Merton Miller in the third paragraph, with all the lofty plumage of his recent Nobel Prize in economics. His quotation said, "I hope you will join me in my campaign to get an ambassadorship for Secretary Brady."
What the article didn't say was that Miller, a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, is point man for the futures industry that regulator Brady is trying to lasso.
Other vendettas that figured prominently in the sniping at Brady in the maneuvering over the current bill:
Turf wars among federal regulators (the Fed and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency don't like each other very much, for example).
Battles over exchange rates with other Group of Seven industrialized nations, whose governments have reasons to prefer higher or lower U.S. interest rates.
Competition to influence the fast-evolving banks, investment banks and non-banks of the Financial Services Council, a Washington-based coalition formed to promote structural reform in the industry.
Friendly fire from other players in the administration, including predecessor James A. Baker III, White House chief of staff John Sununu, budget director Richard Darman and presidential contender Jack Kemp.
Attempted fraggings from those junior officers of the Treasury Department who serve the various competing political factions in the capital.
Volleys from the Democrats, including House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who filed impeachment charges against Bush on the morning the gulf war began.
In the circumstance, who can tell what will happen to the Treasury's banking bill now that it has been delivered to Capitol Hill? Only one thing is certain. That is that H. Norman Schwarzkopf is not the only Bush administration general leading troops in a great and desperate battle for the future.
David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.