Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Last week, TMQ asked why no one was paying attention to the fact that the national debt ceiling was quietly raised by $800 billion during the summer. Well, toss that column: The White House just asked the national debt ceiling be raised another $700 billion, for the proposed financial-sector bailout. If that happens, in 2008 alone, $1.5 trillion will have been added to the national debt: every penny borrowed from your children and their children. Stated in today's dollars, in 1979 the entire national debt was $1.5 trillion. George W. Bush and Congress have in a single year added an amount equal to the entire national debt one generation ago. And the year's not over!
It took the United States 209 years, from the founding of the republic till 1998, to compile the first $5 trillion in national debt. In the decade since, $6 trillion in debt has been added. This means the United States has borrowed more money in the past decade than in all our previous history combined. Almost all the borrowing has been under the direction of George W. Bush -- at this point Bush makes Kenneth Lay seem like a paragon of fiscal caution. Democrats deserve ample blame, too. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leaders of the Senate and House, have never met a bailout they didn't like: Harry and Nancy just can't wait to spend your children's money. Six trillion dollars borrowed in a single decade and $1.5 trillion borrowed in 2008 alone. Charles Ponzi would be embarrassed.
If you borrowed, borrowed, borrowed, you could afford to live high for a while -- then there would be a reckoning. Hmmm … that sounds a little like what many Americans did with gimmick mortgages in 2005 and 2006. They were only imitating their political leadership! Why is it both parties in Washington think the United States can borrow, borrow, borrow without a reckoning ever coming? Bush, Reid and Pelosi seem poised to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars of borrowed public money to political insiders on Wall Street and in banking, whose bonuses will now be tax-subsidized. The capitalist maxim is, "She who reaps the gains also bears the losses." Now Washington wants those who reaped the gains to shift the losses to those who lived humbly. The young will pay and pay for these cynical ploys to insure the luxury of the powerful old. Why aren't the young outraged?
TMQ's pal Isabel Sawhill, among the leading public-policy economists of our day, says Washington does indeed need to intervene in the financial system -- the harm to the average person of letting credit markets freeze would be greater, she thinks, than the harm caused by more public debt. Fair enough. But it doesn't inspire confidence that on Sept. 12, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said the financial system had been fixed and "under no circumstances" would there be further bailouts; on Friday, Paulson said the system was collapsing and another $700 billion was needed. Suddenly Paulson is insisting the country has no choice other than immediately to hand over $700 billion to Wall Street fat cats, with barely any debate or even explanation of the plan. Why should anyone believe this guy, when just one week previously he said no further bailouts would occur? It seems clear Paulson had no idea what he was talking about then, while if the problem is really as bad as Paulson says now, his past delay in facing the problem has made the cost far higher. With such a poor track record, why is the treasury secretary suddenly viewed as a superbrilliant genius whose marching orders must be followed?
It is not public intervention that is objectionable. University of Chicago Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, among the top conservative economists, just said, "I have reluctantly concluded that substantial intervention was justified." Rather it is size of the bailout, and the hurry-up-give-the-money-don't-stop-to-think aspect, that are troubling. Much of the $700 billion will flow to investment-community friends of Paulson, Bush and other administration figures. Average Americans who behaved irresponsibly by signing gimmick mortgages may get some taxpayer aid from the Paulson proposal, and maybe they should get none. But in the end, average Americans will still be liable for most of what they owe -- that is, will still be held responsible for their actions. Wealthy, politically connected insiders who run banks and companies such as American International Group will be exempt for responsibility for their actions, and will stuff taxpayer-subsidized millions into their pockets.
On Sunday, Paulson called the self-serving actions of top Wall Street figures "inexcusable" -- yet the plan is not only to excuse them, but to shower them with free money. Paulson said Wall Street pay levels were "excessive," but should be discussed later, after the bailout is done. Now is the moment of maximum leverage! Once they are holding the public's money and laughing about how easily they got it, financial executives will have no incentive to compromise on pay. Here's an idea: Any company that participates in the bailout agrees to limit its top-tier executives to the federal minimum wage. That is, after all, the amount Washington says is enough to live on. Meanwhile, of the two jokers who drove Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into the ground, one was paid $19.8 million in 2007, the other $14 million; each will get nearly $5 million in taxpayer-funded "retirement" bennies.
Yet there's scant outrage. Maybe this is because in an era of fiscal irresponsibility by both parties, everybody wants a bailout. Wall Street, bankers, homeowners who lied on their mortgage applications, Detroit automakers, farmers -- gimme, gimme, gimme! Rather than asking whether the $700 billion giveaway is too large or being structured in a way that benefits the rich, numerous members of Congress are instead demanding more bailouts be appended: for seniors (see below), cities, states, more "stimulus" checks, you name it. Give money to whoever will fund my re-election! The money is being forcibly extracted from the pockets of our children and their children. Every dollar borrowed today by the irresponsible old of Washington will subtract two dollars from future economic growth, leaving our children and their children a legacy of stagnation.
The 1980 Chrysler bailout, which was nationally debated for months before happening, cost $3.2 billion, in present-value dollars, and was financed by revenue rather than by borrowing. Here is the borrowing that's happened in 2008 alone, with precious little public debate:
• $29 billion to bail out Bear Stearns.
• $40 billion in the first mortgage-holder bailout.
• $80 billion for an additional year of Iraq war operations. (Another $150-$200 billion in war costs such as future veterans' disability benefits were incurred but not funded.)
• Up to $85 billion to bail out AIG.
• $153 billion to households for "economic stimulus."
• $200 billion, and possibly more, to bail out Fannie and Freddie.
• $290 billion in farm subsidies, despite agricultural prices and grains profits being at record highs.
• $700 billion general bailout of securities backed by bad debt. (The International Monetary Fund estimates this figure will rise to at least $1 trillion.)
That comes to $1.6 trillion, explaining the debt-ceiling rise, and does not include roughly $300 billion in essentially interest-free cash issued to banks by the Federal Reserve on an emergency basis, which may or may not be repaid, but which in any case make all existing money somewhat less valuable. Why is the debt aspect of the splurge barely being remarked on by the mainstream media and by politicians? Why are the young not furious? And about that $700 billion about to the shoveled to the Wall Street elite -- in 2007, George W. Bush vetoed an increase of $7 billion per year in health care spending for the poor, saying the country couldn't afford it.
And on a related note:
Yet Another Federal Giveaway: Here's another giveaway on which the media have been silent. Tossed into last summer's bailout bill for people behind on their mortgages -- many of them freely signed something-for-nothing gimmick loans, and don't deserve subsidies any more than Wall Street does -- is a tax favor for senior citizens. The break allows seniors to deduct their property taxes, even if they have paid off their homes and thus do not itemize deductions because they no longer have any mortgage interest to declare. The senior citizens' lobby has long wanted retirees exempt from the property taxes everybody else must pay, even though seniors are, as a group, the best-off American demographic. Property taxes are deducted on Schedule A, where home mortgage interest is deducted; those who lack home mortgage interest generally benefit by not filing Schedule A, instead claiming the standard deduction. Now seniors can claim the standard deduction and write off their property taxes, while people below age 65 can do only one or the other. This new tax favor quietly slipped into the summertime bill helps only those seniors who have paid off their homes, which in most cases will be well-to-do retirees. Not only is this yet another favor for the well-off at the expense of the average -- the new handout has nothing to do with the distressed-mortgage problem the bill was supposedly about. The seniors receiving the new handout don't have mortgage problems, because they don't have mortgages! The summertime bill was simply another gimme, gimme, gimme situation. Congress was giving away money borrowed from future generations, and well-off seniors wanted to grab some.