Bailouts: Where Will They End?

“There’s no logical end to it,” Cato Senior Fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. said to Neil Cavuto on Fox Business. He’s talking about the incredible expanding bailouts. It started with Bear Stearns in March and then homebuilders in April. Then Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September, and after that the deluge. AIG, announced at $85 billion but quietly increased to $123 billion so far, and the $700 billion centerpiece and then money market funds and then bank nationalizations and an increase in the federal guarantee to bank depositors. Where will it stop?

Friday’s papers noted that the head of the FDIC said that the federal government might start guaranteeing home mortgages. On Saturday we learned that insurance companies want to get a piece of the money. Yesterday the Treasury said that automobile companies–which already got their own $25 billion program–might also be eligible for the general “financial rescue plan,” and their success might encourage other industries to try to get in on it.

As I noted before, Congress is talking about “a second economic stimulus package, totaling $50 billion in the form of money for infrastructure projects, relief for state governments struggling with rising Medicaid costs, home heating assistance for the Northeast and upper Midwest, and disaster relief for the Gulf Coast and the Midwestern flood zone.” And Transportation Secretary Mary Peters wants “an $8 billion infusion” for the federal highway trust fund.

Where does all this money come from? The total cost is hard to estimate, because we don’t know how many of these guarantees will actually result in payments. But some analysts are talking about a total bill of $2-3 trillion. Given the underestimate on the cost of the Iraq war, we shouldn’t have confidence in any claims that it will be less. So where does the money come from? Even Obama doesn’t want to raise taxes that much. And if you tax Americans to bail out as many Americans as we’re now talking about helping, eventually you’re going to be taxing people to bail themselves out. In fact, the government is likely to borrow some of the money and have the Federal Reserve create more of it. That process seems to be under way, as Greg Mankiw and Jeff Hummel have discussed. How can that astounding and unprecedented increase in the monetary base not lead to inflation, even hyperinflation? We’ve already decided to tax the prudent and thrifty to bail out the imprudent and irresponsible. Now the prudent may face a danger even worse than taxes: inflation that erodes their hard-earned savings.

Howard Baker famously called Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts a “riverboat gamble.” This is more like a “Celebrity Solstice gamble.”