The TARP and the deficit hawks

WASHINGTON (PAI)–When politicians demand the public do something because of the dictates of financial markets, it is best to hold on to your wallet.  Back in September of 2008, both GOP President George W. Bush and the Democratic leadership in Congress insisted that if we did not immediately hand over $700 billion to the banks, the whole financial system would grind to a halt.

The threat worked: The banks got their $700 billion from Congress and much more from the Fed, with few questions asked.  As a result, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and the rest are now as profitable as ever and once again paying out record bonuses to “top performers.”

If the market had been allowed to run its course, Goldman, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and many other major banks would have been bankrupt, leaving shareholders and creditors out of luck and their top executives walking the unemployment lines.

There are reasons this outcome would have been undesirable for the economy as a whole, but there is a big difference between the TARP blank check and doing nothing.  If the politicians and their accomplices in the economics profession had not overwhelmed the public with fear, we could have ensured bankers suffered from the crisis they had themselves created.

With the banks back on their feet, the Wall Street crew and their “amen chorus” among economists are again feeling their oats. They insist we have to put our hopes for economic recovery on the back burner. Instead, we must focus on deficit reduction.  The reason is that we have to “soothe financial markets.”

Their claim is that if we don’t act aggressively now to reduce the budget deficit then the “bond vigilantes” will start a run on U.S. debt just as they recently did to Greece.  This is supposed to make us so scared that we will accept large cuts in Social Security and other important programs.

There are three basic problems with this argument:

  • First, why on earth should anyone trust what the bankers’ economist shills tell us? These people completely missed the $8 trillion housing bubble. Is there any reason to believe their insight into financial markets is better today than it was two years ago?
  • The second reason not to follow their advice is the financial markets them-selves don’t necessarily reflect underlying reality in the economy. Are we supposed to twist ourselves into knots over whatever is fashionable in financial markets this week? Suppose we structure our policies to make the markets happy this week and then next week the Wall Street ditz brains decide something else is now fashionable? This leaves us forever chasing Wall Street fads.  That is not a sound basis for economic policy.
  • The third reason not to take the deficit hawks’ argument seriously is simply that it’s bad economics. The country needs deficit spending to sustain overall demand until private demand recovers from the collapse of the housing bubble. This is basic logic — and the prestigious positions of many of the deficit hawks will not allow them to repeal the rules of logic.

Furthermore, the United States is not Greece, as all serious people know. It has a huge economy that is still largely self-sufficient (imports are only 16% of GDP). The idea the U.S. is about to experience a run on its debt is absurd on its face. The Fed can and should buy the debt, if necessary.  Let’s hear the deficit hawks say this will cause inflation. With very few exceptions, they won’t dare make such an assertion because they know it is not true.

The deficit hawks are not concerned about national insolvency. They are not worried about soaring inflation. They are worried about how to take every last penny from ordinary workers and give it to the Wall Street crew. That is what the TARP was about and this is what the latest crusade to reduce the deficit is all about.

Now they want to go after workers’ Social Security because, as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke said, “That is where the money is.” (Wasn’t there a famous American crook who uttered the same words — about why he robbed banks?). The fact workers paid for these benefits doesn’t matter at all to the Wall Street crew.

So, if you feel like giving all your money to the Wall Street gang, then you should take the deficit hawks seriously. But, if you think that people who are not Wall Street millionaires have rights too, then get out the pitchforks and send the deficit hawks and their economist accomplices running.

Dean Baker is co-director of The Center for Economic and Policy Research, an independent, nonpartisan think tank.

Photo: Ninety percent  of the projected $9 trillion in deficits is due to Bush policies and the Bush economic collapse. (Speaker Pelosi Flickr/CC)