Why the Bailout Failed and What to Do About It

Long years ago, when I was first involved in politics, my mentor was a courtly political operative named, believe it or not, Robert Lee. Bob Lee had an impressive record of masterminding unlikely political success stories, but he understood the basics of practical politics better than anyone I ever knew. He provided two basic insights about politics, among others, that have stuck with me and seem particularly apropos to the current situation. The first was, “Don’t mistake money for results.” By that he meant that too many politicians and political operatives concentrated on fund-raising when the goal wasn’t to raise money, but to get more people to vote for your candidate. In the end, what counted was not how much money you raised, but how many votes you got. The second point was that to win any political race, “you have to give people something to vote for.”

The current bailout effort in Washington, D.C., failed Bob Lee’s tests on both counts. The question isn’t how much money you pour into the bailout effort, but how you get the people and their representatives to support it and vote for it, because without support, all the money isn’t going anywhere. The second point is even more important. The way the issue was formulated, it didn’t give anyone much to vote for, but it gave them a considerable number of things to vote against. The administration failed to make the point that our entire credit/banking system is at risk and why it is. Because it did not, those who opposed the bailout weren’t voting against a solution. They were voting against excessive executive compensation and Wall Street extravagance, against using tax dollars to bail out Wall Street at a time when Wall Street’s mistakes have pulled down the entire economy, against a finance system that requires poor or middle-class borrowers to pay escalating mortgage costs while rewarding financiers, against a system that is perceived as destroying American jobs while granting multimillion dollar bonuses to those behind that destruction, and against a system that rewards crooked financiers while underpaying teachers, police officers, firefighters, and hundreds of other vital and underpaid occupations.

If the current Congress and Administration really want to stop the crisis, they need to give people something to vote for, and a reason to support their “reform package.”

Here are a few suggestions. First, cap total executive compensation for any company being bailed out at a mere 100 times the pay of an average worker in the company[as opposed to the thousand plus multiple in some cases], and also make any compensation paid above that amount in any other company in the USA non-deductible for tax purposes. Second, not only continue the existing prohibition on naked short-selling [the principal contributing factor to a number of corporate failures], but require any brokerage firm which does so to be closed for violating the law and [in case future administrations decide to turn a blind eye, as has the present administration] make any violation a cause for civil recompense and quintuple damages. This will get the attorneys working for the public good instead of against it. Third, limit the amount of mortgage payment escalations in adjustable rate mortgages to something approximately realistic [perhaps no more than a 10% increase in payments annually] and eliminate excessive prepayment penalties. Fourth, eliminate the securitization/bundling of sub-prime mortgages with other classes of mortgages. If the bankers and lenders want to bundle mortgages, let them do so, but make them bundle like with like. That way the risks are out in the open. Fifth, enact specific reserve requirements for all classes of debt, including CDOs and other collateralized obligations. Sixth, make violations of these provisions criminal offenses.

I’m sure other thinking individuals could come up with proposals that both make sense and which would garner public support, but these are a few that should be considered. There are other approaches, including a government-backed restructuring of debt markets with more private investment that might work as well… but whatever solution is next proposed must explain the positive benefits.

As for the argument that the financial community won’t like these… well, aren’t you the ones asking for rescue? Shouldn’t the taxpayers who are underwriting the rescue be the ones setting a few terms, particularly since the financial community hasn’t shown much fiscal or moral responsibility lately?