Friday, October 10, 2008

A momentous Columbus Day weekend?

Krugman calls it a moment of truth:
What he should have proposed instead, many economists agree, was direct injection of capital into financial firms ... in return for partial ownership. When Congress modified the Paulson plan, it introduced provisions that made such a capital injection possible, but not mandatory. And until two days ago, Mr. Paulson remained resolutely opposed to doing the right thing.

But on Wednesday the British government, showing ... clear thinking that has been all too scarce..., announced a plan to provide banks with £50 billion in new capital — the equivalent, relative to the size of the economy, of a $500 billion program here — together with extensive guarantees for financial transactions between banks. And U.S. Treasury officials now say that they plan to do something similar, using the authority they didn’t want but Congress gave them anyway.

The question now is whether these moves are too little, too late. I don’t think so, but it will be very alarming if this weekend rolls by without a ... new financial rescue plan, involving not just the United States but all the major players.

Why do we need international cooperation? Because we have a globalized financial system... We’re all in this together, and need a shared solution.

Why this weekend? Because there happen to be two big meetings taking place in Washington: a meeting of top financial officials from the major advanced nations on Friday, then the annual International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting Saturday and Sunday. If these meetings end without at least an agreement in principle on a global rescue plan ... a golden opportunity will have been missed, and the downward spiral could easily get even worse.

What should be done? The United States and Europe should just say “Yes, prime minister.” The British plan isn’t perfect, but there’s widespread agreement among economists that it offers by far the best available template for a broader rescue effort.

I'd call for something bolder:
1. The firing of Paulson.
2. The nationalization of the financial industry.

Why 1? Paulson being a member of Wall Street would never agree to 2). Any Treasury plan that bails out current managers and shareholders will not sit well and just adds to uncertainty.
Why 2? It may help decrease uncertainty. At this point, even this outcome is uncertain. It satisfies the public's desire for some kind of retribution (which I think is more important than economists and polic makers think it is):
A couple of years ago, at the height of the boom, a friend in New York publishing described to me the indignities of being a five-figure employee commuting daily from suburban New Jersey on trains packed with traders, stock brokers and hedge-fund types.

“These were the guys who, in college, I used to step over on Sunday mornings when they were lying in a pool of their own vomit,” he said. “And now they’re earning millions and millions – in bonuses alone.”

The feeling of injustice wasn’t just about money, though it was partly about being more than solidly middle class and still struggling to pay the bills, as New York writer Vince Passaro captured so well in his “Reflections on the Art of Going Broke” (“Who’ll Stop the Drain?”) in Harper’s in 1998.

It was, rather, about a sense that the wrong people had inherited the earth.

They had taken over everything. Their salaries (and bonuses in particular) had pushed real estate costs and living expenses sky-high. Their values had permeated every aspect of life. And their choices seemed to have become the only acceptable — even viable — ones possible.

In the 1970s, even in New York, it had been financially possible for a middle class family to survive if parents — even one parent — built a professional life around something other than purely making money. In the 1980s — even in the “greed is good” (which was of course meant to be a damning phrase) 1980s — it seemed respectable, honorable and, dare I say, valuable to do things other than make a lot of money. But by the late 1990s, in New York, if you weren’t in the financial industry, it was hard to survive.

And thanks to a pointer from Half Changed World, how "ordinary" people are affected.

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