THE BLOG
03/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fix Geithner's Gaffes

I am banning everyone from making these two dumb points anymore about the financial collapse and the ensuing bailout. I'm sorry I have to impose this ban, but people keep making these points when they are so painfully stupid, it hurts me to hear them.

1. Expressing disappointment in the greed of the bankers.

People play within the rules you give them. Humans are almost infinitely greedy by our nature. What were these bankers going to say, "Golly, you know everyone is allowed to take massive risks and reap massive bonuses for their efforts, but no, I have no interest in all that money. I'll just play it safe because one day this might wind up hurting the American taxpayer."

On which planet would anyone, let alone a Wall Street CEO, say that? In fact, they would be fired if they had that attitude. How are you going to tell your board that all the other companies are a making tremendous amount of money but you have chosen not to because you think that risk might wind up in the taxpayers' lap? Not only would you be laughed out of the boardroom, but you would be removed from office.

It is the job of the government to set the rules by which we play this game. They are supposed to be the refs. They are charged with oversight and regulations that do not allow this kind of excessive risk taking. Because if you allow it, people will do it!

Don't you get it? The executives of these companies already took home the money in tremendous bonuses for all the years they showed a profit. They don't give a shit that it was a house of cards. That's your problem, not their problem. They already have the money.

Now, the controversial part - I don't really blame them much. If you set up a system where someone gets rewarded for doing the wrong things, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will. I would never take steroids because I value my testicles too much, but am I surprised that all of the top baseball players took steroids when Major League Baseball had no punishment for doing so? Of course, not. It's not the "right" thing to do, but it is the obvious thing to do.

Alex Rodriguez got two contracts worth over half a billion dollars for taking steroids and improving his numbers. What lesson do you think the other players are going to learn from that? If you don't set boundaries against it, you incentivize bad behavior. So, please don't pretend to be surprised when it happens.

The real responsibility is not with the players as much as it is with the league (and in this case, the federal government). So, when I hear John McCain (and many others, including some progressives) bemoaning the greed of the bankers and talking about how they should have voluntarily made less money, I laugh and laugh and laugh.

Yes, there is a real problem with greed. And that greed came into play when the lobbyists of those industries pushed for looser regulation and corrupt and/or stupid politicians allowed them to do that under the guise of "free and unfettered markets." The real greed is when they changed the rules of the game. But after that, it is tilting against the windmills to think anyone playing that game wouldn't do exactly what the bankers wound up doing.

2. Saying the banks might not take the bailout money if the conditions of the bailout are too tough.

Our Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner just said that and I lost all respect for him. More importantly, I lost all trust in him. There is an ironclad rule that we all know - beggars can't be choosers. Except, of course, unless you have your own guys on the inside.

In private industry, the borrower - especially a desperate borrower and one who is already bankrupt - does not get to dictate the terms of his bailout loan. If my company runs out of money, I don't get to go around telling people how they will give me a loan and how much money I will make going forward. No, they are the ones giving the money. They will set the rules. That's how capitalism is supposed to work.

But Geithner, and Paulson before him, told us that these financial companies will not take the bailout money if it hurts the personal, financial interest of their executives. That is certainly their prerogative. Well, then, they can piss off.

There are other ways to clean up that mess so it does not cause more damage to our economy. We can guarantee some or all of the money in those banks. We can take over some of their assets at reduced prices. That's what happens in a bankruptcy. But here the government can also back up the consumers and even other industries involved, so there is an additional layer of protection.

So, it's not like I don't understand the gravity of the circumstances or that these banks are connected to other parts of our economy. But it's also not right to pretend that the only solution is to make sure these particular banks - and their executives - survive and thrive.

In fact, I have some of top economists in the world on my side. Economists like Joseph Stiglitz who believes the better solution might be to nationalize these banks for a short period of time to stabilize the financial system and then sell them off.

But here's one thing we definitely do not have to do - kowtow to the demands of the Wall Street executives. We should put the most stringent pay caps on all of their executives and any other rule and regulation we think is necessary. You see, they can't demand more money when they bankrupted their companies! If they don't want the bailout, they can take a long walk off a short Wall Street.

So, when I hear our Treasury Secretary make this completely disingenuous point, it is impossible not to think that he isn't one of their inside guys. At the very least, he is a guy that has bought into the concept that business as usual on Wall Street must continue. The obscene profits, the complete lack of long-term accountability, the whole bubble of Wall Street is justifiable and must be maintained. Well, that's what I'm not buying.

When I read Geithner defend this broken system and beg the companies for their cooperation as he gives them trillions of dollars of our money, I get a clear sign that he is not one of us. He is one of them. This is an inside job.

So, if he is going to find ways to help them, he better get more creative than this. Because these two arguments aren't going to fly anymore. And these are not the days of the Bush administration where we have to leave everything in the hands of the almighty executive branch. If they want another dollar out of Congress, they have to fix Geithner's gaffes.

No more money for incompetent executives (or ones that purposely drove their companies into the ground while taking huge bonuses along the way). And no more regulation free zones on Wall Street. Let's set clear and fair rules, and make damn sure people follow them. Let's lay down the hammer before we lay down our money.

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