If his new plan remains afloat, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, from the Wall Street wing of the GOP, may well have doomed the November chances of John McCain, the presidential nominee of this month's Main Street-oriented Republican national convention. By promoting the mother of all financial bail-outs, Paulson has all but mocked McCain's recent anti-bail-out rhetoric, as well as whetting the Arizona Senator's slowly growing awareness that Wall Street misbehavior and greed and the year-long Paulson-Bernanke string of botched policy and rescue missions have been a disaster for 1) the United States and 2) what's left of Bush and Republican credibility.
McCain has never been much on economics, but Paulson's indicated arrangement with the Democrats -- financial firms will get to turn in the toxic debt and financial instruments they can't peddle for reimbursement by an American taxpayer-funded entity -- is so bad that if the former Navy pilot grins and accepts it he will look like a wobbler and a Grade A sap. He's already lost the edge he had coming out of the Republican convention. Barack Obama, by contrast, can get away with being evasive because the Democrats look like they're accepting a measure principally authored and promoted by Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Now for a little bit of background. We're not just looking at a real estate mess. Over the last quarter century, the total of public and private credit market debt in the United States -- most of it, in fact, is private -- has more than quintupled from $8 to $48 trillion, the biggest such orgy in world history. Over that period, domestic financial debt - the money borrowed by the financial sector for expansion, consolidation, empire-building, leverage, exotic mortgages, gambling, you name it - swelled from just $1 trillion to some $14 trillion. Employing these economic steroids, the financial sector ballooned itself from 14-15% of what back in the mid-1980s was the Gross National Product to 20-21% in 2004 of the newer Gross Domestic Product calculation. In the meantime, the once-dominant manufacturing sector fell far behind, dropping to just 12% of GDP. In a nutshell, the economy has been hijacked in recent decades by the very groups who now purport to have remedies - Wall Street, from whence Paulson emerged, and the money-bubbling, don't regulate the dangerous practices Federal Reserve Board, from whence Bernanke comes.
The public is finally starting to understand what's been going on in this perverse milieu of Wall Street socialism where private individuals get the profits and the taxpayers underwrite the bail-outs. It has a long history; in Bad Money I have a chart that lists fifteen or so rescues over some 25 years. Finance has now grown into an octopus, with dozens of debt, speculative, credit card, mortgage, interest group and Washington lobby tentacles that will lock onto any new bail-out proposal and turn it into another food supply. Even as the new "legislation" is being drafted, you can bet all the lawyers, lobbyists and big donors are already on the phone to key people in Congress, the White House, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve. Anybody with a good nose can almost smell the fixes and corruption, and of course, political critics and the public will be told that there's just no time for debate, no time to go over the details. Don't pass it tomorrow, pass it yesterday. We can assume that George W. Bush will sign it, possibly with a fleeting smirk.
Will this bail-out solve the current mess? Of course not. For the last year, Paulson and Bernanke have been Fumble and Bumble. They won't strike at the roots of the problem - indeed, one could almost say the two men represent those roots - so their rescue gimmicks fail and the crisis extends and deepens.
Ironically, the best hope for resistance comes not from the left but from free-market elements of the Republican Party. I have not had much good to say about the GOP for years, but recent events may hint at their political and ideological renewal. Sometime back, when Congress passed the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bail-out program, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, ultimately voted against it. He had worked on its early stage, but ultimately voted no because seeing a pay-off to "Wall Street and K Street (the Washington lobbyist corridor)". Then the Republican National Convention, in a rejection of Bush, Paulson and Bernanke, put an anti-bailout section in its 2008 platform. A few days ago, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, Richard Shelby of Alabama, called on the Fed to reject bail-outs and allow the markets to work even if the consequences are "brutal." And on September 18, a hundred Republican members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Paulson and Bernanke requesting that the two men "refrain from conducting any additional government-financed bail-outs for large financial firms."
I suppose there's a chance that McCain could decide to oppose the administration and truly fight this latest round of Wall Street socialism. Maybe instead of asking George W. Bush to fire SEC Chairman Cox, McCain could come out against Paulson and Bernanke. But the odds are much greater than an embarrassed McCain will flounder toward November defeat.
That would mean that the anti-bail-out forces in Congress and at the grassroots will take over the national party helm in 2009, and it's not too late to start right now. If they strike a tough stance in the next few days, they could expose, delay, amend and even block -- by any available means -- what amounts to a massive mutation and even perversion of the U.S. economy. The leader of the hundred House Republican conservatives, Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, summed it up quite neatly: "Enough is enough. It's time to bail out the American taxpayers from bail-out mania." Hopefully, we're looking at a September battle cry.
Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, published by Viking in April.