Bailout Nation

The four top business headlines in the Washington Post the other day were:

More Homeowners Getting Aid, but Demand Keeps Rising

AIG Could Repay U.S. in 3 to 5 Years, Chief Tells Congress

Treasury Clarifying Rules for Bailed-Out Firms

Small Auto Suppliers Seek Help in Wake of Giants’ Woes

It’s certainly true, as BBC and other journalists have noted, that the center of American business and finance is now Washington, not New York.  The headlines above (in the paper edition, but some of them can be found here) indicate that all sorts of businesses and individuals are looking to the Obama administration for bailouts and loans and “capital injections.” And one could find similar stories about federal money for states, cities, big insurance companies, and more. Money and credit were once allocated by owners of capital, who stood to gain or lose on the strength of their decisions. Now capital is being allocated by politicians and bureaucrats, who have none of their own money at risk and who may well see their own power enhanced by an economy that remains slow.

Back in September, as the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ushered in a new era of federal help for failing companies, I wrote a blog post titled “Bailout Nation.” I didn’t know the half of it; still to come were the AIG bailout, TARP, federal subsidies to banks and automobile companies, and more. But I warned then:

Capitalism is a system of profit and loss. It works because each person and each company, in seeking its own interest, is led “as if by an invisible hand” to supply goods and services that others want. Companies that satisfy consumers prosper. Companies that can’t produce goods that consumers want–like Chrysler, repeatedly–suffer and sometimes go out of business. The failures are often painful. But as Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie wrote in their book Failure and Progress (or at least in this column based on the book), “Economic failure is to the economy what physical pain is to the body. No one enjoys pain, but without it the body would lack the information needed to maintain its health.” Government subsidies to prevent business failure simply keep pouring money into businesses that are relatively unsuccessful at satisfying consumer desires. They are, among other things, censorship of vitally needed information. Employees, entrepreneurs, and investors need to know where their money and talent are most valuable. Profits and losses are key indicators of that.

Turns out that David Ignatius had warned of a “Bailout Nation” in a column a few months before that:

As every parent knows, the danger of cutting a special break for one child is that all the other children will demand the same thing. “It’s not fair,” goes the inevitable refrain. “You said Susie could eat ice cream and watch TV until midnight, so why can’t I?” The parents start caving, and family discipline is shot.

We’re now in a comparable cycle of bestowing special economic favors on members of the national family who have been hurt by the credit market crisis. “It’s not fair,” argue the housing interests and consumer advocacy groups. “Bear Stearns got a financial bailout, so why shouldn’t we?” And they’re right, by the simplest schoolyard definition of fairness.

So the line grows of people demanding breaks on financial obligations they can’t afford.

Neither of us is very happy about being so prescient. And what no one seems to discuss is, Where is all this bailout money coming from? Much of it is just being created on the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve, which portends rising inflation. Certainly it’s too much to be paid for in taxes, even in the fondest dreams of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.  Is Bernie Madoff advising the Treasury these days?

How much money is it? CNNMoney estimates that the federal government has now committed $10.5 trillion. Christopher Barker at the Motley Fool concludes that ”the combined total of existing, announced, and potential outlays from the Federal Reserve and U.S. government agencies that are directly attributable to the financial crisis will breach $13 trillion!”

This is nuts. Would Paulson and Bernanke have acted differently last April if they’d known where we would be in a year? They’d have known if they’d read David Ignatius’s column. Or if they’d read some history; when governments start handing out money to troubled institutions, there will be no limit to the number of troubled institutions. And in barely a year, you get small auto parts companies coming to Washington saying that if automakers and large suppliers are getting government help, they should too. President Bush and his Treasury secretary started this process, but Obama and the Democrats own it now. Do they have a plan that doesn’t end in inflation and bankruptcy?