With the recent stunning collapse on Wall Street, we can now add AIG, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch to the growing list of financial giants brought down by the burst housing bubble. They will almost certainly not be the last to fall. The rotten home loans at the center of the crisis have so metastasized throughout the worldwide financial system that no institution is likely to remain unscathed. The effects of the mortgage meltdown, however, were first felt not in the stock market but in the neighborhoods of Detroit, Las Vegas, Cleveland and everywhere else foreclosure notices popped up ahead of weeds on the front lawn. And it is there that the financial crisis--vast in scope but acutely personal in effect--has had its most wrenching impact. When rising and unstable food and gas prices are factored in, a trend driven by speculators in search of the next commodity bubble, it's clear that the very ability of many Americans to feed, warm and shelter their families is under threat. In the crucial swing state of Ohio, for example, Governor Ted Strickland has commissioned a task force to look into why a full third of Ohioans are unable to afford basic necessities.
But even as the presidential campaigns barnstorm across America, it seems from the press that they've barely set foot in that Ohio. For two weeks, the media reported the election as if it were The Sarah Palin Show, discussing at length baby bumps, Kawasaki eyeglasses and snowmobiles, oblivious of the unemployment rate's jump to a four-year high. If that grim statistic wasn't enough to concentrate their minds, perhaps the Fed's bailout, with billions of taxpayer dollars, of yet another near-death firm will do the trick. Only when the press decides to take its job--and the job of US president--seriously will this election see a debate about the crucial economic and foreign policy issues at stake (see "Ten National Security Myths Debunked" on page 13).
Only in a personality-driven, contentless climate will John McCain be able to pass off his two-faced promises of reform as a populist crusade. Railing against "multimillion-dollar payouts to CEOs," McCain now promises to bring "regulatory oversight" to Washington and "transparency and accountability to Wall Street." But his rhetoric is just lipstick on a pig. In March McCain told the Wall Street Journal that he is "always for less regulation," and in April--perhaps inspired by his longtime economic guru Phil Gramm, who said in July that a nation of "whiners" was in a "mental recession"--McCain described the country's economic crisis as "psychological." Now faced with a global financial crisis, McCain proposes a psychological solution--belief in his image as a maverick reformer.
Puncturing McCain's newfound Teddy Roosevelt persona will require brutal honesty from Barack Obama and his campaign. In his initial response to this latest economic breakdown, Obama called it "the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression" but then said, "I certainly don't fault Senator McCain for these problems...I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to." Obama's statement was gallant but missed the mark. In fact, Senator McCain--along with every Republican and Democrat who pushed financial deregulation--is responsible for today's economic woes. McCain voted for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1999, repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which since 1933 had kept a wall between commercial and investment banks. When that wall came tumbling down, and when the Internet bubble burst, the housing frenzy took off, as financiers sought new ways to create paper profits.
As for the press, its chance for redemption is here, in the presidential and vice presidential debates, the first on September 26. It must put questions about the economy center stage: What has caused this crisis? Does it signal the failure of market fundamentalism, and if so, what is the alternative? What role did deregulation play in it, and what role should re-regulation play in forging a way out? Why does the government intervene when financial institutions fail but do so little to help jump-start the real economy when there is deepening economic pain for ordinary people? What do you plan to do about America's spiraling trade deficits? How will you transform the economy to ensure that all Americans enjoy the benefits of sustainable economic growth?
With only weeks left before the election, it is late to begin this conversation, but it is not too late.