US taxpayers are being enrolled in an economic chain gang

By Jeff Randall

Last Updated: 10:01pm BST 25/09/2008

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“To preserve their [the people’s] independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our selection between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude” – Thomas Jefferson

George W Bush
President George Bush addresses the nation on the financial crisis

There was a time, early in America’s history, when its leaders believed in financial discipline. No more. Perpetual debt, which Jefferson feared would enslave future generations, is clamped on Uncle Sam’s undercarriage like a ball and chain. US public borrowing is $9.8 trillion – and rising.

Jefferson, America’s third president (1801-09), is widely regarded as the White House’s most intellectually gifted occupant. He believed that “banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies”, and that “the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity … is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”

If Congress approves the Treasury Secretary’s $700 billion bail-out of dysfunctional banks, it would be hard to invent a better example of what Jefferson foresaw: authorised “swindling”. Tomorrow’s Americans and those who come after them will pay and pay for the grotesque excesses and self-indulgence of today’s flim-flam merchants.

As Jefferson put it: “If we run into such debt, as we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts … [we will have] no means of calling our mis-managers to account but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow sufferers.”

Having failed to deliver victory in the War on Terror, President Bush is hoping for better luck in the War on Error. His goal is to limit damage from the egregious mistakes of sub-prime mortgages; his tactics are to carpet-bomb the banking system with federal funds. The upshot, in Jeffersonian terms, is that US taxpayers are about to be enrolled in an economic chain gang.

The prospect is unappealing, but, we are told, there’s no alternative. Hank Paulson’s plan offers fewer details than his weekly milk bill, but now, it seems, is no time for nit-picking. Having collected sacks of gold at Goldman Sachs, this former champion of free markets wants to nationalise assets at a pace not seen since Che Guevara was lighting cigars with Batista’s legacy.

No wonder so many Congressmen look queasy. They must persuade constituents, many of whom are losing jobs and homes in the credit crunch, that it is a bright idea to rescue those who profited hugely from the creation of dark instruments. Not for the first time, Wall Street is bilking Main Street.

For those who work in the fast lane of finance, the speed of decline has been ear-popping. Less than a year ago, America’s investment banks were wallowing in record bonuses, totalling almost $38 billion. Yes, billion.

Their pool of monopoly money was greater than the GDP of Bulgaria. Split among 186,000 workers at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, it equated to an average of more than $200,000 per person, about four times the median US household income.

Goldman’s chairman, Lloyd Blankfein set a new standard in executive gluttony, collecting $68 million (about one third in cash), but at least his bank is still standing. Richard Fuld, Lehman’s chief executive, trousered $41 million. Nice work, except that he took the lot in the bank’s shares. Nine months later, when Lehman went bust, Fuld’s bonus joined his reputation, in the trash-can.

Banking’s bacchanalia has morphed into a therapy group for manic depressives. Those still in work look around the room and wonder how many will be flipping burgers by Christmas. In an interview with Fortune magazine, Mr Paulson admits: “Raw capitalism is a dead end. I’ve seen it.”

Now I have heard it all. What next?

In place of rip-roaring markets, according to a Wall Street trader, America has embraced “trickle-down communism”. This system involves the state paying “cash for trash” to benefit a few miscreants, and then hoping that some of the taxpayers’ largesse will trickle down to the masses.

Toxic rubbish will not be made to disappear by Mr Paulson’s proposals. All that will be different is ownership. It will be like removing nuclear waste from a failing business and parking it in a government building. The risk moves from private to public.

It is this form of regressive redistribution that Messrs Bush and Paulson are peddling as the road to redemption for Western finance. Excuse my cynicism, but would you buy a used derivative from either of them?

After Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, Mr Bush’s record on rescue missions does not inspire confidence. As for Mr Paulson, if he’s so insightful, why, when he was earning an $18 million bonus at Goldman in 2006, did he not spot the radio-active dump piling up in his industry’s back-yard?

Mr Paulson’s sales pitch is essentially: “American capitalism, I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!” In return for a promise to head off financial obliteration, he is demanding a cheque of disturbing blankness. It is to be a bail-out with precious few strings, plus immunity from review “by any court of law or administrative agency”. His legal team must have chuckled when they slipped in that one.

The scheme is under attack from right and left. George Soros, the investor who helped break the pound in 1992, is in favour of action to stem insolvencies, but insists that Paulson’s plan falls short. Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton, has little faith in Paulson as a fixer: “He’s making it up as he goes along, just like the rest of us.”

Outside Washington, in the real world, there is a growing clamour for something to be done. Ordinary voters are in pain. They want government to make it go away. But there is no magic powder.

Those who borrowed to buy assets at the wrong prices will have to suffer, as financial gravity re-asserts its downward pull. There is no policy yet invented that can make fifty cents worth two bucks forever.

Any long-term solution will have to recognise that contraction cannot be deferred in perpetuity. Having restored stability, it should punish those who created the mess. Where’s the retribution in Paulson’s package? It looks too much like a parachute for his chums at the back of a burning plane.

Finally, there needs to be an overhaul of banking governance. The rules of the game were, in effect, made redundant by the ingenuity of financial engineers. We do not need more regulation, but more appropriate regulation.

Which brings us back to Jefferson. Two hundred years ago, he demanded: “The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people to whom it properly belongs.” Twas ever thus.

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