Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How Much IS $700 Billion?

This past Saturday I referred to $700 billion, the amount of money the Bush Administration wishes to allocate to bail out the bad debts of the current financial crisis, as "a quantity that most of us can barely (if at all) comprehend." Just how much is $700 billion? BBC News reporter Steve Schifferes has now provided us with one way to approach the answer to that question. Ironically, it is embedded in his article entitled, "The Politics of the Bail-Out;" but it is presented as the form of a useful comparison. Referring to the campaign promises that both John McCain and Barack Obama have been making about how they will manage the Federal budget, Schifferes wrote:

But with the size of the bail-out now roughly equivalent to annual government spending (excluding social security and Medicare) such claims are less and less credible.

There you have it: Take away Social Security and Medicare, and $700 billion is basically the amount of money our government spends in a single year. This is not to ignore the budgetary impact of either Social Security or Medicare, but it makes for a reminder that the Bush Administration wants to increase the national debt by a quantity that amounts for a major chunk of the amount of money our Government spends in a single year.

Is this realistic? Would you go into debt over the amount of money you spend in the course of a year? Would any sensible institution float you a loan for that amount of money? Isn't this just an exaggerated variation on those predatory lending practices based on convincing unwitting poor families to take out mortgages they could not afford? Is it any wonder that, as Schifferes put it in his report, "the bail-out is not playing as well on Main Street as it is on Wall Street?" On Main Street when you make a mess, you pay for the damage you have caused. (This is, of course, the "Pottery Barn parable" that Colin Powell tried to present to our President and ultimately failed.) Having acknowledged the lack of regulations that could have prevented any of these messes in the first place, does our legal system not have resources for fraud prosecution through which one could impose fines on individually specified defendants on Wall Street and apply the collected funds to solve the problems of the many plaintiffs on Main Street?

After 9/11 Gore Vidal was one of the first (and few) to call out the Bush Administration for misreading reality. He took (and probably still takes) the position that the destruction of an office building is a criminal act and should be investigated and prosecuted as such. Unfortunately, his efforts to expose criminality got blown away by a commitment to a Global War on Terror. Does fraud not provide us with a basis for addressing most (if not all) of the elements contributing to our economic crisis through legal machinery? Shouldn't any "solution" we consider begin by asking simple legal questions about liability, rather than obsessing over proposals for life preservers? (For what it is worth, it appears that Nicolas Sarkozy was asking similar questions last night.) Did I recently hear a pundit ask rhetorically how much more damage the Bush Administration could do before leaving office? Do we really want to know the answer to that question?

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