The Coming Economic Storm
When Americans aren't shaking in fury, they are quaking in fear. The anger is at the bankers; the fear is of losing their ability to earn a living.
Say the word "bank" or "AIG" and some people get apoplectic. Our tolerance has expired for giving either entity sums with more zeros than fit on a calculator's display screen. Nor has it contributed to public eupepsia that each gift has been accompanied with a statement that another will soon have to be forthcoming.
New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, known as Wall Street's Washington representative--or pimp, depending on your politics--has been hitting the airwaves placating the public with promises that banks will get more taxpayer money, but bankers will get none. He says that there will be no more bonuses, no more Las Vegas weekends and that, truly, really, absolutely, the banks will soon make loans to small businesses and consumers.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who may be President Obama's biggest mistake, has not been able to inspire confidence or convince a frantically anxious public that he knows what he is doing. The man, whose TV personality is that of a slightly sneaky, know-it-all-ish technocrat, is overwhelmed and understaffed in what at the moment is the second-most-important job in the American government.
Geithner's performance thus far makes Henry Paulsen, his immediate predecessor in the Bush administration, look like a man with a coherent, doable plan to save the banks and the nation's financial system. Whether or not it is doable, the public has not bought it, but Geithner and Obama have made the Paulsen plan their own.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, who has a Nobel Prize in economics to match his PhD, says the plan will not work and that the banks have to be nationalized. Others with impressive credentials disagree and say that nationalization will bring on a horrific mess. Disagreement reigns.
While the economists are at odds on this, people are getting ready to throw stones through windows. Another request for a new corporate bailout, and there will be unshirted hell to pay.
But a typhoon may be preparing that will blow the bank problem off into the far corners of national attention. The fear that has scared rich and poor alike into staying out of the stores and socking away every available penny is costing jobs. If there are no jobs, there is no business, be it retail, manufacturing or anything else, nor anyone lining up for a bank loan.
You do not have to be a prize-winning economist to know a terrifying cascade of layoffs, closings and firings is a real possibility. Whether the odds are one in six or five or four, we could be looking at a 20 percent unemployment rate in ten months' time. The atmospherics are right for a typhoon of misery on a scale of that which Americans suffered in the early 1930s.
Thanks to such New Deal programs as Unemployment Compensation and food stamps, the typhoon may have been delayed. But even with this assistance, the longer people are out of work, the more they use up their resources, spending their savings, pawning their pawnables, borrowing from whomever until Zero Day comes. On Zero Day, people will double up with relatives until Zero Day arrives for the relatives--and the whole extended family is out on the street.
Should the economic Katrina hit, the government has to be ready. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) was set up for catastrophe. The organization failed in New Orleans, but cannot fail if and when this storm hits. Quietly, so as not to cause panic, plans must be laid now to keep our people in their homes with food on their tables. We cannot have a repetition of the Hoovervilles and bread lines that damn near destroyed the nation in the 1930s.
With a little luck none of this will happen--but we can't be sure. We do know that the leading economists cannot agree on a course of action. We know that every optimistic prediction by every public and private figure of note these past two years has been wrong. The scary part is that every worst-case scenario envisioned so far has come to pass.