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The Pseudo Stimulus | The Nation

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The Pseudo Stimulus

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First of a three-part series on the economic crisis.

About the Author

James S. Henry
James S. Henry is an economist, lawyer and investigative journalist, and former chief economist at McKinsey & Co....

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If it really is time for accountability, we should start by holding banks and financial institutions responsible for their actions and not allow them to rob us again with TARP II.

The US economy rewarded the finance industry at the expense of our most creative problem-solvers. We need an innovation revival to grow our way back to health.

You, telling me the things you're gonna do for me.
I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see.

   --Michael McDonald, The Doobie Brothers,
    "Takin' It To the Streets"

For what is the crime of robbing a bank, compared with the crime of owning one?   --Berthold Brecht

So now that President Obama is in office, his economic team is in place, the largest stimulus package in US history is nearly complete, real interest rates are negative and the Treasury is about to announce a "big bang" version of TARP that provides even more capital to private banks, we're good, right?

Lo siento, no, as shown by last week's steep stock market slide, even after his program passed the House. For once, the Republican wingnuts may be right. There really is much less to Obama's stimulus than meets the eye.

His new plan for ridding the banks of toxic assets--"cash for trash," as economist Joseph Stiglitz has aptly described it--is also likely to be way too kind to bank executives and shareholders, and he appears to be remarkably ignorant about the indisputable successes that capitalist countries like Norway, Chile, and Japan have had with temporary, partial bank nationalizations that make the taxpayers "owners of last resort."

There has been far too little debt relief provided to the growing number of homeowners facing foreclosure, small business owners facing bankruptcy, and other debtors. This step is urgently needed to stem the free fall in housing prices and the rising tide of layoffs among small businesses, where most of the country's jobs are.

There are rumors afloat that Obama's team may soon announce something like this, but the numbers that we've heard from key Congressmen--$50 billion to $100 billion--are far too modest. We need to pressure the president for a "People's TARP," no less generous than the ones that the banks are receiving.

Finally, while US policymakers have been throwing gargantuan sums of borrowed money at the wall, mollycoddling Wall Street, and dithering on debt relief for the rest of us, the global crisis has deepened. All across Europe and Asia--from Athens, Chongqging, London, Moscow, Paris and Prague, to Rekyavik, Riga, Seoul, Sofia and Vilnius--people have become completely fed up with their governments and are taking it to the streets.

So here's a message for our new president, from someone who worked hard for his election long before it was fashionable: if you dally and temporize, the very same thing could easily happen here--perhaps just in the form of a massive tax strike, in solidarity with Messrs. Geithner and Daschle.

While Americans are usually much less militant and certainly less well organized than our comrades around the world, the serious deficiencies in the first drafts that we've seen of Obama's stimulus and financial plans really do need to be corrected in short order.

We also need to see much tougher action with the financial services industry, which bears a disproportionate share of the responsibility for this nightmare. At a minimum, this means a return to a more orthodox and tightly regulated banking system, a renewed assault on tax havens and the anarchy of the world's financial order, strict limits on executive pay plans that reward unbalanced risk-taking, and a 1930s Pecora Commission-style investigation of the industry's misbehavior--complete with subpoena power.

In the words of FDR's first inaugural address in March 1933--which, by the way, was harder-hitting and much more memorable than Obama's--it is time for the "money changers" to be forced to flee from "their high seats in the temple of our civilization" once and for all. The only thing we have to fear is Obama's temerity.

THE CONTEXT

By now everyone has had just about enough bad economic news, but just to set the stage for the discussion, it is important to review the basics.

It's is already a cliché to describe this crisis as "the deepest global downturn since the Great Depression." Actually in many ways it threatens to become even worse--faster, sharper and far more global. Here at home there are already more than 11.1 million unemployed, close to the 11.4 million peak that was reached in 1933, when 20 percent of the population still lived on farms and, apart from the Dust Bowl and bank repossesions, could at least count on having a place to grow their own food. In 2008 alone there were already 2.3 million residential foreclosures filed and 861,664 completed in the US, compared with the 600,000 total that was recorded from 1930 to 33. Obviously, relative to the size and wealth of the economy, conditions were worse back then, partly because the social welfare system provided less help and more bank depositors got wiped out. But in absolute terms the sheer number of our fellow citizens who are already experiencing serious hardship is really disturbing. And we are only a few months into this.

Since October, growth rates have plummeted and unemployment has soared worldwide. Just last week, the International Monetary Fund cut its latest forecast for world growth in 2009 to .5 percent, and for the United States to negative 1.6 percent, as fourth-quarter US growth plunged by over 5 percent, apart from inventory accumulation. Other credible observers are far more gloomy.

Each day brings news of massive layoffs, corporate losses, foreclosures, the bankruptcies of well-known brands like Waterford Wedgwood and Circuit City, continuing house price declines, bank failures, abandoned projects, soaring government deficits and bailouts and widening spreads on loans to some First World countries, not to mention financial frauds, robberies, suicides and other indexes of deep financial distress.

This is the world's first post-globalization debt crisis, and the worldwide effects are catastrophic. From Labuan, Jakarta and Guangdong to Chicago and Detroit, London and Moscow, the ranks of the unemployed are expected to swell by 51 million by mid-2009, and of those living in dire poverty by at least 176 million. Beyond impersonal statistics, there are also innumerable tragic stories of personal hardship, involving people and families that have suddenly lost jobs, careers, businesses, homes, life savings, healthcare, scholarships and, most important, hope for the future.

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