不太懂经济、又特别想懂的时候，我一般都去读华尔街日报的评论版。今天读到的《Bail Out Ourselves》是我近期读到的、关于华盛顿bailout plan的文章里最清晰和有说服力的。当然我很少发现该报纸的社论不清晰和有说服力的，所以很可能只是臭味相投而已。
Bail Out Ourselves
"If banks, in spite of every precaution, are sometimes betrayed into giving a false credit to the persons described, they more frequently enable honest and industrious men of small and perhaps of no capital to undertake and prosecute business with advantage to themselves and to the community."
So wrote Alexander Hamilton in 1790, amid an earlier populist backlash against American bankers. Hamilton didn't hesitate to use the powers of the Treasury to calm markets amid a speculative panic for the good of the larger community. The U.S. is at another Hamiltonian moment, if Congress has the nerve to act in the national interest.
We are told this is a "bailout for Wall Street." But if Americans are honest with themselves, they will admit that bankers are far from the only cause of our current predicament. The U.S. is living through the aftermath of a classic credit mania, one that all of us enjoyed while it lasted. We don't remember many protests when home prices were rising by 15% a year, or when interest rates stayed at 1% for a year and real interest rates were negative for far longer. Some of the loudest voices now invoking "free markets" to denounce the Paulson plan were most opposed to tighter money. We know because their complaints were often aimed at us.
Our point isn't to absolve Wall Street or Washington -- far from it. The point is that credit manias are by their very nature societal, which is why the panics that follow can do so much damage to Americans outside the financial arena. They are part of a larger psychology that sweeps everyone up in euphoria for a time, only to send everyone into a defensive crouch when the credit stops.
The challenge at such a moment is to prevent a panic from becoming a crash that does far more extensive damage. This is where we are now, and this is why the House should pass the bill that passed the Senate last night, even with its flaws. The government needs the power to use public capital to defend and stabilize the financial system. In that sense, we are really bailing out ourselves.
The critics who believe that talk of a crash is merely a scare-tactic must not be paying attention. The stock market's gyrations are the least of it. Credit markets are ceasing to function by any normal standard, with banks refusing even to lend to one another, much less to credit-worthy borrowers on Main Street.
Wednesday's Youngstown, Ohio, Vindicator carried a story with this lead: "The national credit crisis is squeezing Mahoning Valley manufacturers." The story quotes Herbert Schuler Sr., the boss of General Extrusions, that "Unless you have more cash than you need to borrow, they [local banks] won't do business with you." His company has already laid off 70 of 350 workers as its auto-supply customers reduce their purchases of its aluminum products.
A mere anecdote, yes. But September sales for Toyota and Ford fell by 30%, as auto buyers find credit harder to come by. Yesterday, the Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing index reported its largest one-month drop in 24 years. While at 43.5 the index remains above the recession level of 41, the credit vise may soon guarantee one.
A special word is in order here for Congress. Today we're running a collection of greatest Member hits in defense of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The guilty deserve such attention because those two government-sponsored enterprises did so much to turbocharge the credit mania. By providing subsidized rates of return to global investors, they helped fuel the bubble in housing and mortgage-backed securities that is now haunting so many financial institutions.
As the quotes make clear, the Members fought furiously against any attempt to make Fan and Fred less dangerous. The Bush Administration was on the right side of this debate for eight years, as was the late Clinton Treasury. This was a scandal in plain sight that all but a few ignored.
And now, having done so much to create this mess, many of the same Members who protected Fan and Fred are denouncing the "bailout" as a favor to Wall Street. Who do they think were Fannie Mae's business partners? Who marketed mortgage securities to the Chinese, for a tidy fee? Main Street investors also loved Fan and Fred while they were making private profits by taking inordinate risks with a taxpayer guarantee.
The real heroes of the House are the Members who tried to reform Fannie when that was unpopular and are now trying to defend the financial system while that too is difficult. We have in mind Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, who has had the guts to support the Paulson plan while his GOP colleagues in safe seats, like Jim Sensenbrenner, run for cover.
The Paulson plan isn't what we would have drawn up. It will not by itself inject capital into troubled banks, and it carries risks in how Treasury will price toxic assets when it buys them. But it is one more policy tool at a time when something needs to be done, and it is the only one currently up for a vote. Passing it won't by itself revive the banking system, but defeating it will guarantee far more damage to far more Americans.
Mr. Ryan and some other stalwarts are proof that political leadership does exist in Washington, albeit not always at the highest ranks. In this sense, too, the votes this week in Congress are about bailing out our political class from its own embarrassing performance. Americans are anxious, even frightened, about the financial system. They are looking for leaders who will act to defend it.