04/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Break Up These Banks

Excellent news from the NYTimes the other day: banks which are getting nervous about pesky government oversight are starting to ask to return government bailout money. As I wrote a while back in a fit of outrage when news reports indicated that Geithner wanted to go down the same sorry path that Paulson had been going down-- handing government money to bankers with no strings attached to make sure they weren't just pocketing it while doing nothing for the economy -- I think that if bankers don't want accountability, they shouldn't take our money. If they are in such bad shape that they have to take our money to survive, there needs to be tough accountability on how they do business.

I also fundamentally agree with David Sirota that if these corporations are too big to fail, then they are too big to exist: a proposition also agreed to by the populists and progressives of the late 1800s/early 1900s, by Abe Lincoln, by Teddy Roosevelt, by FDR, by Harry Truman. Progressives of all eras have understood that corporations that grow too enormous threaten our economy and our democracy, and should be woken up into smaller entities that can't do so much damage when they are mismanaged. The era of bank consolidation has to come to an end, and these monsters need to be broken into smaller companies just like Standard Oil was in the early 1900s.

Ironically, some of our tax dollars were actually used by these bank conglomerates to buy other banks, instead of, say, giving out loans to consumers and businesses trying to buy things or make investments that would create jobs.

The mess these big bankers have created for our economy is stunning, and it will take many years to work our way out of it. Every day dealing with the wreckage of all this is going to be harrowing. But we can start by doing what our progressive forbearers did: breaking up the big financial trusts, regulating them with vigor, holding them accountable. When a class of people has screwed up as terribly as big bankers have, we should take away their power and watch them like hawks for the rest of their time on this earth.