Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Obama, It's Krugman. Please Pick Up

I'm usually the last one to panic when things go from haywire to havoc. I'm the one who's out there directing traffic, shushing, patting shoulders, plumping pillows, digging in my pockets for chocolate--whatever it takes.

I don't see the tunnel, I see the light at the end. If there's a rainbow in the sky, I'll look past the dark clouds and find it. Pollyanna and I are almost BFFs, for God's sake. But when I see a Nobel-laureate in Economics practically self-immolating on the White House lawn in order to be heard, I'm not just scared, I'm petrified.

I don't know if Paul Krugman is right when he says the White House is going about this banking debacle all wrong, and that we're near the edge of the Cliff of Doom. One misstep, he seems to be saying, and it's all over. He's not the only one saying it, of course. If he were, I might go back to singing my comfort songs and handing out bonbons.

There are two camps now, each of them filled with "experts", each of them plucking ideas out of thin air and calling them "solutions". Their voices are ringing across a battleground, over our heads. We hear them shouting in a strange, incomprehensible language: "TARP bailout" "Zombie banks", "toxic assets", "Cash for Trash". . .

We want at least one of them to come over to our side and give us a heads up. What the hell is going on? What's going to happen? Are we or aren't we doomed?

This was the week it all hit the fan. Lots of voices out there shouting messages to Obama, and Obama, strangely, answers back with his version of "Heck of a job, Brownie". On "60 Minutes" last Sunday there was this exchange with Steve Kroft:
    Kroft:Your Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, has been under a lot of pressure this week, and there have been people in Congress calling for his head. Have there been discussions in the White House about replacing him?
    President Obama: No.
    Kroft: Has he volunteered to or come to you and said, “Do you think I should step down?”
    President Obama: No, and he shouldn’t. And if he were to come to me, I’d say, “Sorry, buddy, you still got the job.” But look, he’s got a lot of stuff on his plate, and he is doing a terrific job. And I take responsibility for not, I think, having given him as much help as he needs.
That was wince-worthy and I was wincing. One of those could-come-back-to haunt sound bite traps that Obama should know better than to fall into .

On Monday Paul Krugman wrote a piece in the NYT called "Financial Policy Despair" He said, " If the reports are correct, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, has persuaded President Obama to recycle Bush administration policy — specifically, the “cash for trash” plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair. "

That can't be good.

Non-economist Frank Rich wrote a column this week called "Has a 'Katrina Moment' arrived?". He said, "Bob Schieffer of CBS [asked Larry Summers] the simple question that has haunted the American public since the bailouts began last fall: “Do you know, Dr. Summers, what the banks have done with all of this money that has been funneled to them through these bailouts?” What followed was a monologue of evasion that, translated into English, amounted to: Not really, but you little folk needn’t worry about it. Yet even as Summers spoke, A.I.G. was belatedly confirming what he would not. "It has, in essence, been laundering its $170 billion in taxpayers’ money by paying off its reckless partners in gambling and greed, from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup on Wall Street to Société Générale and Deutsche Bank abroad."

(Money-laundering? Isn't that illegal?)

Even-handed Eugene Robinson--no economist, either, it must be said--doesn't think we've quite reached the cliff edge yet, but he's not ruling out the possibility. In the Washington Post today he wrote a column called, "The Repairman's Burden". He said, "Geithner's plan offers private investors the opportunity to reap relatively big gains by taking relatively small risks. Some of the risk is assumed by taxpayers. Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, said over the weekend that these private firms will be doing the government a favor by participating in the program. But that's wrong. Investors will participate because they think they can make money. The only entity that's doing anyone a favor -- make that doing everyone a favor -- is the government of the United States. "

Romer: "private firms doing the Government a favor". Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

When they're talking about billions and trillions they're talking way over my head. I barely understand the concept of millions. I don't understand economics, or banking, or bailouts, or almost anything to do with Big Money. But what I'm hearing these days is panic and frustration among the cognoscenti. They see things that we don't see, and we're counting on them to make sure we get this right.

Somebody has to have a handle on this crisis. So far, nobody does. I don't know about you, but I would feel a whole lot better if I knew that President Obama was at least willing to listen to those whose opinions differ from his chosen few. His Washington insider choices for top cabinet positions made little old me nervous right from the start. When the new "Change" president puts former Big Business people in charge of regulating Big Business, even the dumbest among us sees trouble ahead.

So give a little listen, Mr. President. It can't hurt. These are your friends, remember. They're all talking about you, anyway. Better to have them in front of you than behind your back.


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