Next time, let's rely on either Chili Palmer or Jim Leach.
Next time we sink into something like the savings-and-loan mess, let's send for Chili, the Miami loan shark in Elmore Leonard's new crime novel ''Get Shorty.'' Seems Chili can get welshers to fork over by just saying three words: ''Look at me.''
Or we could avoid S&L messes by listening to the likes of Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who repeatedly said: "Listen to me."
On May 5, 1987, the House of Representatives was busy representing, doing the business of an interest group well-represented (meaning skillfully lobbied for) in Washington. At issue was the Leach amendment to legislation pertaining to the already fetid S&L industry.
His amendment would have limited investments by federally insured S&Ls to 100 percent of their capital or 3 percent of assets, whichever was lower. Those limits could be waived in any state where the legislature put the state's own resources behind S&Ls that breached those limits.
Leach thought there should be stricter limits on public liability for money put out in the pursuit of private profit. And he thought that states that wanted to license high-rolling should shoulder the risk. This common sense -- coming after many warnings (not least from Leach) -- lost, 17-391.
Leach guesses that passage of his amendment would have prevented 10 percent of the losses so far in the S&L debacle. So far the cost of the crisis, counting 30 years of interest on the borrowing for it, will be $500,000,000,000. Thus on May 5, 1987, Congress made a $50 billion blunder.
After that, the great game of gambling with taxpayer-insured money rolled along in high gear. It was not buccaneer capitalism by rugged individualists; it was the welfare capitalism of the well-represented speculators. It was yet another instance of no-fault entrepreneurship, wherein profits are private, and losses are socialized. The result is a perverse reward system: Foolish states have prospered in proportion to their foolishness.
States steeped in the ideology of go-go capitalism -- states such as California and especially Texas, where regulation of state-chartered (but federally insured) S&Ls was relaxed -- had fun. Money flooded in; houses and buildings were built that were not built in Pennsylvania or Iowa.
Then came the wringing out. Now taxpayers are being wrung out. The result is a fresh flood of their money to places like Texas and California -- where, by the way, the residue of the S&L mess is a lot of real buildings that are a substantial contribution to the local infrastructure.
Back in Washington, there is an obnoxious complacency about the lugubrious conclusion that ''everybody'' is to blame. How convenient. Such a lot of protective coloration. Misery loves company, but guilt loves it even more.
If it is everybody's fault, it is no one's in particular. From that conclusion it is a short slither to blaming the ''system.'' And from there it is but a hop, skip and a jump into sociology: The Zeitgeist did it!
You know: the 1980s, glitz, BMWs and Rolex watches, bury my heart in the Hamptons -- yuppies. In a word, the culprit was greed, which may technically be traceable to Adam's Fall but really got ripping only after Reagan's inauguration. There is nothing like a fine mist of sociology for obscuring responsibility.
The S&L argument has become an exercise in what Washington does best, or at least with most zest: recrimination. And it illustrates a law of public discourse: the more the subject is complex and embarrassing, the more intense the recourse to sociology. But the real S&L subject, as Robert Kuttner rightly stresses, is politics -- and particular policies, such as deregulation, produced by particular politicians.
Writing in Business Week, Kuttner says: ''Republicans at least embraced deregulation out of ideological principle; Democrats did it mainly because they were on the take.'' Leach, however, is different. He is a ''moderate'' Republican. (A student of ancient history, he calls himself a ''Wendell Willkie Republican.'') He is not given to the reflexive antigovernment non-thinking that produced the stampede to deregulation that produced the debacle.
And he is not on the take. He takes no PAC contributions and received only a pittance (less than 45 other members of the 47-member banking committee) from S&L sources.
Should we seize the S&L mess as a pretext for changing the campaign-finance rules (for which Watergate was the pretext)? No, voters should just look around for more candidates like Leach who, on May 5, 1987, said: Listen to me.