Stupid, Greedy, and/or Delusional

Yesterday the House and Senate passed budget bills with no Republican votes whatsoever. Yet even without the GOP the bill passed the House with the biggest majority for a budget in 12 years. Carl Hulse writes for the New York Times,

Democrats said the two budgets, which will have to be reconciled after a two-week Congressional recess, cleared the way for health care, energy and education overhauls pushed by the new president. The Democrats said the budgets reversed what they portrayed as the failed economic approach of the Bush administration and Republican-led Congresses.

Of course, spending on health care, energy, education and other long-neglected matters is vital to any meaningful economic recovery. So what did the GOP offer? Tax cuts for the rich and a domestic spending freeze — during a recession, mind you –which is so breathtakingly wrongheaded one can only assume most congressional Republicans are either extremely stupid or extremely delusional. Or both.

I considered a third alternative, that they are extremely invested in protecting the wealth of the wealthy and don’t care if the rest of the nation turns into a third-world sinkhole. However, I think anyone who doesn’t understand even the wealthy eventually would suffer if the nation turns into a third-world sinkhole is either stupid or delusional.

The passage of the budget is particularly good news because all segments of the House Dems supported it, including many of the Blue Dogs. On the other hand, 38 Republicans voted against the GOP Clown Alternative.

Two Senate Dems voted against the budget — Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Evan Bayh of Indiana. Steve Benen: “Yes, Bayh is the new Lieberman.”

This CNN story has more details on the budget; see also Media Matters. Also note that in many ways passing the budget was the easy part. Crafting the health care, education, energy, etc. programs will be a fight. But maybe the Dems are learning they can, you know, do stuff without worrying about what the GOP thinks.

Which brings me to today’s David (“If I only had a brain”) Brooks column, titled “Greed and Stupidity.” Brooks writes that there are two competing explanations to the crash of the financial sector, which he calls “the greed narrative” and “the stupidity narrative.”

The greed narrative, he says, is explained in Simon Johnson’s Atlantic article “The Quiet Coup,” which many of us read this week. Brooks encapsulates Johnson’s article pretty well. “The U.S. economy got finance-heavy and finance-mad, and finally collapsed,” Brooks writes. (See also Thomas Geoghegan’s “Infinite Debt,” which you really can read online here.)

But then Brooks says, nah, that can’t be right. It’s more likely the captains of finance were just stupid.

The second and, to me, more persuasive theory revolves around ignorance and uncertainty. The primary problem is not the greed of a giant oligarchy. It’s that overconfident bankers didn’t know what they were doing. They thought they had these sophisticated tools to reduce risk. But when big events — like the rise of China — fundamentally altered the world economy, their tools were worse than useless.

Yes, Mr. Brooks, and what made them “overconfident” and “stupid”? To me, it’s obvious much of their hubris came from the fact that they had become such a force of power — a true oligarchy, as Simon Johnson says — that they felt untouchable. And much of the “stupid” was a by-product of greed. They didn’t see how fallible they really were because they didn’t want to see it.

Brooks likes the “stupid” narrative because, he thinks, the stupid problem doesn’t require a big-government regulatory solution, whereas the “greed” problem does. “Instead of rushing off to nationalize the banks, we should nurture and recapitalize what’s left of functioning markets,” he says. “To my mind, we didn’t get into this crisis because inbred oligarchs grabbed power. We got into it because arrogant traders around the world were playing a high-stakes game they didn’t understand.”

Brooks fails to explain why those causes are mutually exclusive. I say they’re both true.

Update: Reuters on unemployment:

The U.S. unemployment rate soared to 8.5 percent in March, the highest since 1983, as employers slashed 663,000 jobs and cut workers’ hours to the lowest on record, government data showed on Friday.

In a report underscoring the distress in the labor market, the Labor Department also revised its data for January to show job losses of 741,000 that month, the biggest decline since October 1949.

Yes, a domestic spending freeze is just what we need right now. And we can see how much Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy “trickled down.”

Make the World Safe for Tax Increases

E.J. Dionne has another good column today. Last two paragraphs:

The larger problem is the emptiness of all the howling over the long-term deficits. Nibbling away at bits of Obama’s proposed budget will do very little about them. Talk of “entitlement reform” is empty unless we have health-care reform — and unless we acknowledge that we will never cut Medicare and Social Security enough to close the budget gap. In fact, Social Security is more important than ever, now that the value of so many 401(k)s has plummeted.

The task of those who genuinely care about deficits is to make the world safe for tax increases. Under current conditions, it’s a whole lot easier for politicians to talk a lot about deficits, and then just let them grow.

Congress Does Something

The House actually did something. Reuters reports,

Responding to public and political outrage to the bonuses after the insurer received a government bailout up to $180 billion, lawmakers voted 328-93 for a bill to impose a 90 percent tax on bonuses for executives whose incomes exceed $250,000.

The tax would apply to executives of any company that received at least $5 billion in government bailout money.

From the Associated Press:

In all, 243 Democrats and 85 Republicans voted “yes” on the bill. It was opposed by six Democrats and 87 Republicans. . . . although a number of Republicans cast “no” votes against the measure at first, there was a heavy GOP migration to the “yes” side in the closing moments.

The six Dems who voted “no” were Bean, Kissell, McMahon, Minnick, Mitchell and Snyder. If any of those congress critters are your’n, tell ’em what you think.

As I keyboard, the 85 Republicans who voted “yes” are drafting a letter of apology to Rush Limbaugh.

At the Washington Post, Brady Dennis writes about the bonus babies of AIG, huddling in their office building feeling misunderstood.

The handful of souls who championed the firm’s now-infamous credit-default swaps are, by nearly every account, long since departed. Those left behind to clean up the mess, the majority of whom never lost a dime for AIG, now feel they have been sold out by their Congress and their president.

“They’ve chosen to throw us under the bus,” said a Financial Products executive, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. “They have vilified us.”

They say what is missing from this week’s hysteria is perspective. The very handsome retention payments they received over the past week were set in motion early last year when the firm’s former president, Joe Cassano, was on his way out the door. Financial Products was already running into trouble on its risky credit bets, and the year ahead looked grim. People were weighing offers from other firms, and AIG executives feared that too many departures could lead to disaster.

I remember reading that Marie Antoinette had a new dress made to wear at her beheading. That may not be true, but for some reason it pops into my mind.

Listen, guys, “disaster” has already arrived. The ship has struck the iceberg. Just because the water hasn’t reached the upper decks yet doesn’t mean life can go on as usual. It’s time to put down the brandy and cigars and work with the rest of us to keep the boat afloat, or else we’re all going to end up in the water grabbing for ice floes. Is that clear?

We Are Really, Really Angry

Welcome to another episode of AIG: The Outrage. People are angry! They are really, really angry! They are starting to remind me of Mr. Furious, Ben Stiller’s character in Mystery Men. Which is a pretty good film, btw. If you’ve never seen it, add it to your Netflix queue.

Anyway, being angry is so de rigueur in Washington right now that even Edward Liddy, CEO of AIG, is angry. CNN reports that Liddy is expected to tell Congress today, “We are meeting today at a high point of public anger. I share that anger.” That’s one hell of a bandwagon effect.

Public discussion is devolving into anger correctness. Mo Dowd says President Obama is not angry enough. On the other hand, Ruth Marcus of WaPo thinks Obama is way overdoing the anger. Clearly, we need an Emily Post-type arbiter of what’s appropriate, anger-wise.

David Stout reports for the New York Times that there is an outpouring of anger on the Hill today. I’d turn on CSPAN, but I’m afraid my television set would melt.

It’s not so clear to me that anything will have changed after all the public displays of anger are done and everyone goes home for a nap.

In their defense, AIG’s management team explained that they asked employees last year to go without their bonuses, and the employees said, take a hike. So AIG execs were helpless. They had to pay out those bonuses. I’m sure they are angry about it.

As for politicians, I’ve seen news stories saying the feds knew for months that bonuses would be paid, and others saying they were caught by surprise. Whatever. I just want to know what they’re going to do now, other than be really, really angry about it.