Bob Herbert Op-Ed Columnist for the NYTimes
The most important thing the Democrats and President-elect Obama can do with regard to the economy is bring back a sense of fairness and equity.
The fat cats who placed the entire economy at risk with their greed and manic irresponsibility are trying to lay claim to every last dime in the national Treasury. Meanwhile, we’re nowhere close to an economic recovery program that will help the people who are hurting most.
Back in September, with the credit markets frozen and the stock markets panicking, the treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, was telling anyone who would listen that his $700 billion bailout package had to be passed with lightning speed — no time to look at it too closely, no time for dissent.
The package was modified, but hurriedly. Now we learn that while all eyes were focused on this enormous new burden for American taxpayers, Mr. Paulson’s department was also engineering — separate and apart from the bailout — what The Washington Post described as “a quiet windfall for U.S. banks. ”
With virtually no public attention, and without the input of Congress, Treasury made a change in an obscure tax provision that benefited banks to the tune of well over $100 billion. Was this good policy? In the absence of proper scrutiny, how is it possible to know?
We’ve also learned that the government bailout of the giant insurer, the American International Group — already more than $100 billion — is apparently insufficient. Tens of billions more are needed.
When the Champagne and caviar crowd is in trouble, there is no conceivable limit to the amount of taxpayer money that can be found, and found quickly.
But when it comes to ordinary citizens in dire situations — those being thrown out of work or forced from their homes by foreclosure or driven into bankruptcy because of illness and a lack of adequate health insurance — well, then we have to start pinching pennies. That’s when it’s time to become fiscally conservative. President Bush even vetoed a bill that would have expanded health insurance coverage for children.
We can find trillions for a foolish war and for pompous, self-righteous high-rollers who wrecked their companies and the economy. But what about the working poor and the young people who are being clobbered in this downturn, battered so badly that they’re all but destitute? Can we find any way to help them?
In an article on Sunday, The Times mentioned a young woman in Philadelphia, Kyuana Everett, who is 21 years old, has a high school diploma and is desperate for work. “I’ve tried everything,” she said, “retail sales, office work, but the employers all say they have too many staff and they’re not hiring now.”
The article noted that Ms. Everett cannot even afford to rent a room for herself. She stays with her grandmother, secretly, in a home for the aged.
This is no ordinary recession. With brokerage houses, banks and a mammoth multinational insurance company depending on the Treasury for resuscitation, and with automakers like General Motors staring bankruptcy in the face, it has the feel of a monster downturn, a recession on steroids.
That kind of downturn buries people at the bottom of the economic ladder. We have an obligation to look out for them as well as for the banks and the A.I.G.’s of the world.
If I could place a message on the desk of the incoming president, it would have just one word: Jobs.
With credit cards maxed out, the stock market in the tank, family savings depleted and home equity evaporating, that weekly or monthly paycheck has never been so important.
Congress and the new administration need to think big — bigger than the stimulus package of $100 billion or so, which is being kicked around. Now is the time for a coast-to-coast “Rebuild America” infrastructure program. Put people to work repairing and rebuilding roads and bridges, decrepit schools and ancient sewer systems. Get the construction industry back on its feet.
And now is the time to get going on candidate Obama’s promise to move the country as close as possible to a system of universal health insurance. Pump the money from that vast project into the economy and get those jobs up and running.
And let’s get some help, quickly, to the families who are suffering most from the housing crisis — the ones trembling and heartbroken in the dark shadow of foreclosure.
The naysayers will claim that all of this is too expensive, that we can’t afford it. Where were they when we invaded Iraq? And how do they feel about the staggering amounts being funneled, with nothing like the proper oversight, to the banks and Wall Street?
Let’s try investing in America and its people for a change, rather than just hurling our billions into the abyss.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company