Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's time to bail out Americans, not their bankers

Would you invest your children’s inheritance in a new-fangled investment scheme on the basis of nothing but talking points? Would you invest your life savings in a mansion after seeing nothing but an architect’s sketch? And, in both cases, would you entrust the supervision of these funds to men and women who had lost oodles of their own and other people’s money already?

That’s sort of what Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the Obama administration seemed to be asking the American public to do on Tuesday. It’s insulting and, frankly, somewhat frightening. From what I read, while we awaited leadership, Geithner trotted out a tweaked version of his predecessor, Hank Paulson’s, reality. While we needed a fresh start, Geithner not only made it easy for the same failed bank officers to stay in place but pushed back efforts to limit their compensation. While we pined for money at the grass roots, to keep banks from foreclosing on American homes at a rate of 10,000 a day, Geithner put off to some undefined future time a plan to help homeowners restructure loans.

Surely, the Obama administration, must grasp this: The American people are not interested in propping up the fat cats of American finance. Nor will they be fooled with smoke and mirrors. Obama was elected to change business as usual. And it sure doesn’t look like TARP2 does.

I’ve always wondered about this “Troubled Asset Relief Program.” Even the name bothers me. Are we relieving the “troubled assets” – and the bankers who made a mess of them? Or are we relieving troubled Americans, lured into bad loans and worse debt by mortgage brokers and bankers who in some cases must have known darn well that the money they handing out could never be repaid in the manner it was supposed to be. If America needs a bailout, why not let Americans have a bailout?

Let’s stop to consider what $700 billion, the amount Congress voted for the financial bailout program during the campaign season, can buy. Using a ballpark figure of 100 million U.S. households, $700 billion is the equivalent of giving every homeowner or apartment renter $7,000. Per family or household. If every American household actually had been given that kind of money, I suspect it would have gone quite a ways toward stimulating the economy. Instead, half that money went to banks, which have hoarded the money. Geithner’s press conference was the roll out how the second half of that installment would be spent. And now there are suggestions the final figure could balloon above $2 trillion. If the United States is going to live off the largesse of Chinese loans – until they’re called due -- can the rest of us enjoy the respite and pay off some bills?

More of the same won’t work. Americans are still waiting for a real plan, with real oversight, real regulation and real chance of some of that money flowing downhill to strapped and increasing desperate citizens. We don’t need trickle down economics 2 -- without the trickle. We’re not economists but we do have a sense of smell. And something still stinks here.

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