The Paulson bailout: Ever thrown away $700 billion dollars?

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A few months ago, I got into an argument with a couple of my fellow Walletpop writers. I found myself standing out in favor of a federal fund to help distressed homeowners refinance their mortgages, and my colleagues were arguing (with some justification) that it was unfair to make them foot the bill for other peoples' incompetence.

It was a difficult argument for me; I'm as selfish as the next guy, and I'm not really all that excited about shelling out cash for somebody else's failed mortgage. On the other hand, it seemed to me that defaulted mortgages would lead to a lot of empty homes, plummeting real estate values, failing banks, imploding financial institutions, and so forth. I figured that, if we could keep people in houses and keep them paying mortgages, many of these problems could be averted. Sure, it would be unfair to all the homeowners who played by the rules, not to mention the renters (like me), who won't even benefit from stabilized home values. Still, with the country falling into a hole and the mess splashing everyone, assigning blame wasn't going to get us out.

Even though I rent, this crisis affects me in a variety of ways. For example, my wife works for an engineering firm. If the current banking crisis continues, it isn't hard to imagine a point at which the projects that she works on will go bankrupt from lack of credit. No credit equals no paycheck and, before I know it, we're applying for welfare and emergency assistance. The sad fact is that, even apart from dire predictions of runaway inflation and the collapse of the economy, most of us are only one or two degrees of separation away from the banking mess.Still, as I watched Secretary Paulson and Ben Bernanke use scare tactics to push through the mother of all bad bailouts, I flashed back to the passage of the Patriot Act, the declaration of war against Iraq and all the other policies over the past few years that have been herded through the halls of Congress without sufficient debate.

Further, considering the long-term repercussions of these policies, it was all too easy to imagine the brutal hangover that this legislative binge is likely to produce. While Congress needs to act quickly, it's far more important that it acts wisely; obviously, giving a blank check to people who just pissed away billions of dollars isn't wise. It's vital to ensure that taxpayers get something for their money, that any program has both Congressional and judicial oversight, that we don't end up paying for some idiot's hefty retirement package, that homeowners get help with their mortgages, and that the program has a relatively short-term endpoint. Bottom line, if I'm going to spend the rest of my life helping to pay for a solution, I want to make sure that the solution works.

I have a reputation for harboring radical, even socialistic opinions. However, when Cokie Roberts is publicly stating that "I'd like to see the CEOs of these companies marched down Wall Street in sackcloth and ashes," radicalism is a matter of perspective. Similarly, when the Secretary of the Treasury is pushing the US to bail out several financial institutions, Socialism becomes a matter of degree.

As we stare down the barrel of the biggest crisis since the Great Depression (according to Barack Obama) or the greatest disaster since World War II (according to John McCain), it's worth considering how we got out of the last big mess. In addition to a lot of increased Wall Street regulation, FDR's government also developed the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, a New Deal program tasked with helping homeowners refinance their houses to avoid foreclosure. The HOLC didn't just help lessen the effects of a major economic crisis, but it also kept a lot of people in their homes and enabled them to keep pouring mortgage payments into banks. It might not have singlehandedly turned around the Great Depression, but it certainly helped. Also, by the time it closed, it had turned a tidy profit.

For years, I've been hearing Wall Street wizards talking about the outdated Depression-era regulations that kept the economy down. With that in mind, it might be worthwhile for us to take another peek at a Depression-era program that helped the economy recover!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's starting to feel nostalgia for the S&L crisis!

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