(updated below - Update II - Update III)
The word being used most frequently to describe the bailout package that is about to pass is "extraordinary." That adjective may apply to the amounts of money being transferred from taxpayers to Wall Street, but the process by which this is all happening is anything but "extraordinary." All of the "principles" that drive how our Government functions in general -- what explain the last eight years at least -- are perfectly evident in what has happened here:
(1) Incredibly complex and consequential new laws are negotiated in secret and then enacted immediately, with no hearings, no real debate, no transparency. Nancy Pelosi has praised herself for decreeing that the new law will be online for 24 hours before Congress votes on it -- a full 24 hours for the American public to understand and assess a law that forces them to subsidize Wall St.'s losses in a way that may impact them for decades, if not generations. The most significant and consequential pieces of legislation over the last eight years -- the Patriot Act, the various expanded surveillance laws, the Military Commissions Act -- were the by-product of identical anti-democratic processes.
(2) Those who created the crisis, were wrong about everything, drive the process. Experts who dissent from the prevailing Washington orthodoxy, particularly ones who were presciently warning about what was happening, are simply ignored -- systematically excluded from the process. Professor Nouriel Roubini:
It is pathetic that Congress did not consult any of the many professional economists that have presented -- many on the RGE Monitor Finance blog forum -- alternative plans that were more fair and efficient and less costly ways to resolve this crisis.
Last week, Hank Paulson -- who bears responsibility for the crisis in numerous ways -- demanded that $700 billion be transferred to him in order to purchase toxic assets from his Wall St. friends, and while there was much howling of outrage in many quarters, no other framework was ever considered.
(3) Public opinion is largely ignored, as always, and public anger is placated through illusory, symbolic and largely meaningless concessions. Much is being made over the allegedly strong oversight provisions to limit the Treasury Secretary's power, accomplished through the creation of two oversight panels -- one that is composed of 5 administration officials (including the Treasury Secretary himself, the Federal Reserve Chairman and the SEC Chairman -- the definitive foxes guarding the hen house), and another that is appointed by Congress but which -- as is true for everything Congress touches -- has little real authority over what is done.
Identically, executive compensation limits -- used to bestow the plan with its populist bona fides -- are minimal and extremely limited. Worse, the public is being told that the financial services industry must pay for any losses to the Treasury still outstanding after five years, but the bill requires nothing of the sort, simply requiring that the president "propose" a plan for recoupment, not that Congress enact any such plan.
And, most of all, while not as absolute as it was in the original Paulson proposal, the Congressional plan still vests extraordinarily vast and centralized power in the Treasury Secretary -- just as Paulson demanded. As the NYT put it this morning: "During its weeklong deliberations, Congress made many changes to the Bush administration’s original proposal to bail out the financial industry, but one overarching aspect of the initial plan that remains is the vast discretion it gives to the Treasury secretary."
(4) The Government begins with demands for absolute power so brazen and absurd that anything, by comparison, seems reasonable. Thus, the law that will be passed does improve on the original Paulson Plan in certain ways -- equity shares under some circumstances, some oversight provisions and mild home-owner protections -- and people thus end up grateful for what is, by any measure, an extreme outcome, all because it's not quite as extreme as what the Bush administration began by demanding.
(5) Wall Street, large corporations and their lobbyists own the Federal Government and both parties, and (therefore) they always win. Professor Roubini:
Thus, the Treasury plan is a disgrace: a bailout of reckless bankers, lenders and investors that provides little direct debt relief to borrowers and financially stressed households and that will come at a very high cost to the US taxpayer. And the plan does nothing to resolve the severe stress in money markets and interbank markets that are now close to a systemic meltdown . . . . This is again a case of privatizing the gains and socializing the losses; a bailout and socialism for the rich, the well-connected and Wall Street. And it is a scandal that even Congressional Democrats have fallen for this Treasury scam that does little to resolve the debt burden of millions of distressed home owners.
Both parties depend on, are drowning in, the largesse of the very industries they are supposed to regulate, and the only possible outcome from the very beginning was that Congress would do what most helps Wall St. and their largest corporate donors. That's what they always do.
(6) The people who run the Washington Establishment are drowning in conflicts of interest. Hank Paulson let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt while intervening to save AIG, only for it to be revealed after the fact that Goldman Sachs -- Paulson's career-long firm of which he was Chairman until just a couple years ago -- would have lost $20 billion had AIG failed. Worse, Goldman's current CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, was present with Paulson when the decision to save AIG was made.
Beyond the litany of Wall St.-loyal government officials demanding this Wall St.-friendly bailout (Bush's Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten, is also a former Goldman Sach official), Congressional leaders are, with very few exceptions, all vested heavily in Wall St. As but one example, Nancy Pelosi's tens of millions of dollars are invested (.pdf) in firms such as AIG, AT&T and others. It only stands to reason -- as always -- that if Wall St. is both owning the Government and running it, it will prevail over the proverbial "Main Street" every time. And it does, and just did again.
(7) For all the anger over what Wall St. has done, the Government -- as it bails them out -- isn't doing anything to rein in their practices. Nancy Pelosi today said: "We sent a message to Wall Street -- the party is over," but to the extent that's true, the Government has done nothing to bring it to an end. To the contrary, by announcing -- yet again -- that there are never any consequences for recklessness and real corruption on the part of the ruling class, that behavior is only being further incentivized. If you were running a large financial services corporation whose failure would jeopardize many other companies, why wouldn't you continue to pursue extremely high-risk/high-reward transactions, comfortable in the knowledge that the Congress you own will protect you from any real cataclysmic failure (in exactly the way that high government officials know they can commit crimes with impunity and thus are incentivized to do so)?
(8) When the Government wants greater and greater power and wants to engage in pure corruption, it need only put the population in extreme fear and it gets its way in every case. Establishment mavens rush forth to assure the public that they have no choice but to submit to what the Government is demanding. The anger and impotence level of the citizenry increases further, further alienating them from their Government and ensuring even greater levels of submission in the future, grounded in an accurate perception of futility.
(9) On the most consequential and fundamental questions that define the country, the establishment/leadership of both political parties are in full agreement, and insulate themselves from any political ramifications by acting jointly. Democrats in particular jump eagerly into line when told they must cooperate with the White House to avert whatever the Disaster du Jour is (and in this case, House Republicans were most impressive in defying these orders until they, too, were basically whipped into line), but ultimately, the differences between the parties at the level of their leadership are impossible to detect.
(10) Whenever you think that the Government has done things so extreme that it can't top itself -- torture, theories of presidential lawbreaking, a six-year war justified by blatantly false pretenses -- it always tops itself. On top of the massive debt under which the country was already drowning, another $700 billion is now being added in order to save the nation's richest individuals from the consequences of their own recklessness, allowing many of them not only to remain enriched, but become further enriched, all while basically ensuring that the Government is incapable of spending any money for years, if not longer, on programs designed to improve the lives of the vast, vast majority of its citizens -- the same citizens who are forced to fund this bail-out. That seems hard to top, but the only thing certain is that they will find a way to do so.
UPDATE: Amazingly, the House just rejected the bailout, sending the Dow plummeting by more than 500 points. According to Kagro:
The bill is defeated. 205-228 -- there was a last, and I mean really last, minute switcher. A Dem, switching from yea to nay. Could have been a yea voter looking to move to reconsider. Partisan breakdown: 140 Dems for, 95 against, and 65 Rs for, 133 against.
The economy and the markets are clearly in severe distress, and some form of Government action is needed. I don't think anyone denies that. But this was the wrong deal, and in terms of market confidence and stability, there's probably nothing worse than announcing so definitively -- again -- that a deal has been agreed to, only for it to be defeated. Our political leaders are as inept as they are corrupt.
UPDATE II: House Republicans are blaming a speech Nancy Pelosi gave this morning for defeat of the bill, claiming that her "partisan tone" drove many GOP members to vote against it. That is really dumb. If House Republicans decided how to vote on this bailout based on a speech Nancy Pelosi gave -- rather than their views on the merits -- that is as potent an indictment of those GOP members as anyone else could make.
What seemed to happen is that enough members were afraid of the extreme public anger against this bailout bill and petrified of what it would do to their future job security. That's a good thing -- it's called responsiveness and accountability.
UPDATE III: Matt Stoller has some important revelations and observations about today's vote -- here. The "private" conference call which Treasury Department officials held with Wall St. analysts (and which bloggers infiltrated) referenced by Stoller is revealed in detail here.