A different kind of bailout

What a striking contrast between the urgency and dramatic action the government mobilized to meet Wall Street’s financial crisis last year and the continuing hand-wringing, half-measures and wishful thinking that have greeted the dire continuing financial crisis on Main Street.

Authorities met Wall Street’s cry for help with a commitment of cash, loans and guarantees worth more than $23 trillion of taxpayer’s money, according to the inspector general of the TARP program.

While “too big to fail” banks’ return to profitability, on Main Street, 29 million Americans are out of work, and foreclosures, along with state and local budget crises shredding the safety net continue to mount.

For Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Goldman-Sachs, all of this may translate into the beginnings of economic recovery.

But for millions of others, it translates into mounting debts, sleepless nights and insecure futures.

The Obama Administration has shown a troubling lack of willingness to fight for measures it says it supports but that face opposition from the financial industry, such as judicial cram-downs of mortages in bankruptcy court. Cram-downs would have provided the stick along with the administration’s carrots to encourage lending institutions.

The Obama Administration also didn’t lift a finger to fight for a provision of its financial reform package that would have required lenders to provide uncomplicated “vanilla” products that consumers could understand, without complex fine print.

What if the feds had shown the same urgency and dramatic sense of urgency to the problems of struggling consumers and homeowners that they showed too big to fail financial institutions?

Rather than writing a blank check to financial institutions with no question asked, government officials could have helped consumers with the same kind of commitment they made to banks – helping pay off consumers’ credit cards, loaning them money at low interest and guaranteeing the value of some of their assets.

This one-time bailout would have helped out consumers, homeowners as well as the financial institutions and consumer-oriented businesses.

Of course some critics would have howled socialism and ‘don’t reward bad behavior.” So we ended up with socialism for the rich, rewarding only their bad behavior.

According to the sales pitch at the time, we needed to hand over the keys to the Federal Reserve to the banks or else we would be headed for a meltdown that made the Great Depression look like a Sunday picnic.

It’s worked out pretty well for financial institutions, sailing to record profits, with little change to the risky schemes that landed us on the precipice, and continuing hefty  bonuses to the people running the show.

For many of the rest of us, not so much.

President Obama was elected with an unprecedented effort by ordinary people, making phone calls, knocking on doors, contributing their hard-earned money. They did it because they responded to his promise for a new kind of politics, and a commitment to ordinary people’s needs that’s been missing from our government.

Apparently, electing a president and a Democratic majority was not enough. The real work of making that change is just beginning.