This article was updated on October 16 to reflect events on Wall Street.
American capitalism is having a nervous breakdown, losing confidence and acting out in self-destructive ways. Let’s try talk therapy. No, wait, it’s more serious–a case for high-powered drugs. No response? Maybe high finance has a brain tumor. Time for surgery! Cut out the bad parts and things will stabilize. Hold on. The patient is swooning now, gasping for air and trembling with seizures. Oxygen! Blood! We need a massive transfusion to rid the body of toxins. Doctor, the patient is flat-lining. What’s next? Shock therapy?
My mordant medical metaphor sounds a trifle cruel, given the massive losses people are suffering, but it roughly describes the stages of diagnosis and cures with which the government has hesitantly attempted to heal the collapsing financial system. Each new cure revives hope that the worst is over–at least until the symptoms start darkening again. The doctors in Washington changed their diagnosis once more when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced his latest magical medicinal potion–a $250 billion relief package to be invested directly in stock shares of the nine largest banks and spread more thinly among hundreds of smaller banks. The stock market cheered wildly with a 900-point rally in the Dow, as well it might have. Wall Street had just secured a fabulously well-heeled investor. Oops. Two days later, the magic wore off and share prices plunged again disastrously.
This time Paulson is much closer to a genuine solution, but hold the celebration and keep your eye on the patient. The government’s new outline is deliberately vague about how exactly the Treasury and Federal Reserve intend to execute the details. The proposal implies but does not say that the government is taking charge of the banking system and will use its emergency powers to compel bankers to restart lending to restore the real economy of producers and consumers. Maybe that’s what Paulson has in mind, but he made no promises. The public money gives a comforting tonic to the bad boys of Wall Street, but it’s still packaged as a voluntary approach–not to be confused with the genuine nationalization that Britain and other governments have undertaken.
Nationalization is the “shock therapy.” We may yet see it before this turmoil is ended. Naturally, it is ideologically offensive to the Bush administration, and especially to Paulson’s old colleagues and rivals on Wall Street. Taking control would impose on the government the daunting challenge of reshaping these large and overbearing institutions, winnowing out banks that deserve to die and instilling in the survivors formal obligations to serve the national interest they have willfully betrayed for a generation. That task will probably be left to Paulson’s successors.