By William Kristol
A friend serving in the Bush administration called Sunday to try to talk me out of my doubts about the $700 billion financial bailout the administration was asking Congress to approve. I picked up the phone, and made the mistake of good-naturedly remarking, in my best imitation of Oliver Hardy, "Well, this is a fine mess you've gotten us into."
People who've been working 18-hour days trying to avert a meltdown are entitled to bristle at jocular comments from those of us not in public office. So he bristled. He then tried to persuade me that the only responsible course of action was to support the administration's request.
I'm not convinced.
It's not that I don't believe the situation is dire. It's not that I want to insist on some sort of ideological purity or free-market fastidiousness. I will stipulate that this is an emergency, and is a time for pragmatic problem-solving, perhaps even for violating some cherished economic or political principles. (What are cherished principles for but to be violated in emergencies?)
And I acknowledge that there are serious people who think the situation too urgent and the day too late to allow for a real public and Congressional debate on what should be done. But — based on conversations with economists, Wall Street types, businessmen and public officials — I'm doubtful that the only thing standing between us and a financial panic is for Congress to sign this week, on behalf of the American taxpayer, a $700 billion check over to the Treasury.
A huge speculative housing bubble has collapsed. We're going to have a recession. Unemployment will go up. Credit is going to be tighter. The challenge is to contain the damage to a "normal" recession — and to prevent a devastating series of bank runs, a collapse of the credit markets and a full-bore depression.
Everyone seems to agree on the need for a big and comprehensive plan, and that the markets have to have some confidence that help is on the way. Funds need to be supplied, trading markets need to be stabilized, solvent institutions needs to be protected, and insolvent institutions need to be put on the path to a deliberate liquidation or reorganization.
But is the administration's proposal the right way to do this? It would enable the Treasury, without Congressionally approved guidelines as to pricing or procedure, to purchase hundreds of billions of dollars of financial assets, and hire private firms to manage and sell them, presumably at their discretion There are no provisions for — or even promises of — disclosure, accountability or transparency. Surely Congress can at least ask some hard questions about such an open-ended commitment.
And I've been shocked by the number of (mostly conservative) experts I've spoken with who aren't at all confident that the Bush administration has even the basics right — or who think that the plan, though it looks simple on paper, will prove to be a nightmare in practice.
But will political leaders dare oppose it? Barack Obama called Sunday for more accountability, and I imagine he'll support the efforts of the Democratic Congressional leadership to try to add to the legislation a host of liberal spending provisions. He probably won't want to run the risk of actually opposing it, or even of raising big questions and causing significant delay — lest he be attacked for risking the possible meltdown of the global financial system.
What about John McCain? He could play it safe, going along with whatever the Bush administration and the Congress are able to negotiate.
If he wants to be critical, but concludes that Congress has to pass something quickly lest the markets fall apart again, and that he can't reasonably insist that Congress come up with something fundamentally better, he could propose various amendments insisting on much more accountability and transparency in how Treasury handles this amazing grant of power.
Comments by McCain on Sunday suggest he might propose an amendment along the lines of one I received in an e-mail message from a fellow semi-populist conservative: "Any institution selling securities under this legislation to the Treasury Department shall not be allowed to compensate any officer or employee with a higher salary next year than that paid the president of the United States." This would punish overpaid Wall Streeters and, more important, limit participation in the bailout to institutions really in trouble.
Or McCain — more of a gambler than Obama — could take a big risk. While assuring the public and the financial markets that his administration will act forcefully and swiftly to deal with the crisis, he could decide that he must oppose the bailout as the panicked product of a discredited administration, an irresponsible Congress, and a feckless financial establishment, all of which got us into this fine mess.
Critics would charge that in opposing the bailout, in standing against an apparent bipartisan consensus, McCain was being irresponsible.
Or would this be an act of responsibility and courage?
By William Kristol
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