Is capitalism caput? The laissez-faire variety is badly wounded and on life support. Adam Smith and his brand of "let the good times roll" and "a rising tide lifts all boats" is in bad health. Just now the tide is out and we are stranded and frustrated. Beware these tides of March, Mr. President and Congress. The anger is no joke. It is real and more potent than the anxiety over the economy.
The disgust burbled up at the callousness of Enron; it has been simmering ever since, and with AIG it has boiled over. When we are cheated, we are dangerous. So, Washington, have a care. Storming the Bastille is not an option anymore but taxpayer revolt is. Thin ice surrounds the White House and the Capitol.
Passing the buck and the bonuses will just no longer fly. When we first propped up the banks under Mr. Paulson, we swallowed hard, understanding the need for financial stability. When GM and Chrysler flew in on their separate planes with their begging cups out, we groused at obtuse management and manufacturing recidivism but swallowed our doubts again. We feared pain and unemployment for workers and suppliers. But when we see AIG giving taxpayer dollars to executive bonuses and party animals, common sense says to shut off the funding faucet.
Republicans did not really believe in accountability. "Trickle down" was the central tenet of their credo. "Trickle down" just morphed into meltdown. And we are left fighting the flood.
Laissez-faire does tend to pile up wealth. The bad news is that without surveillance, all the peas end up under one cup. Human greed messes with that "rising tide" theory when one clever fellow builds a lock in order that only his boat floats up. This story always ends with anger at the villain who does not pay his share. In the end, he usually pays a price, sometimes with his life; Madoff is the most recent example.
Asking for money back from AIG is like closing the door after the horse...well, you know the rest. What needs to happen is for the Treasury Department to study carefully a detailed account from the debtor and allocate appropriately. Keep the company going but eliminate the frills. Our government should not be giving out get-out-of-jail-free cards. We need an Accountant in Chief. Maybe we need an agency of accountants. Isn't that one of the Treasury Department's charges?
The greatest wealth in history has been amassed in the last 30 years. We have lost a large amount in a short time. But we still have the important things: our beautiful country, our brains, our humor and values. Recovery is coming.
But anger at unfairness foments. Government does not want to take over banks and businesses anymore than we want them to. So, shareholders unite. Go to meetings. Take back control. Elect new officers and directors. Demand accountability. Let them know we are here and paying attention. Throw out the slackers and the spendthrifts. Laissez has hit the ropes. Now it is time for us to hit the stockholders meetings.
A new version of humane capitalism is in the works. One that does not equate success with buying one more toy or building one more McMansion. Our new path will be to underdo: smaller, clean energy houses and smarter buying habits. New fortunes will be made again from new energy sources and cleaner transport, just the way they were at the turn of the 20th century. Back to a new future.