The Wisdom of America

I never thought I would find myself saying this but I actually think that Americans and congress have just demonstrated their intelligence in their reaction to the proposed $700 billion mortgage bailout plan. Maybe it’s just another example of “The Wisdom of Crowds” – the fact that a group of people can arrive at better decisions than a simple average of individual decisions – but I’m impressed with the results of a process that I usually despise. Not that I agree with everything that is being layered onto the plan, but for the most part I think it will actually end up being a better plan after all the obvious posturing is finished.

For starters, like most people, I am outraged that the government has to step in and clean up a mess in the private sector. I love the fact that Lehman died an unnatural death and would love to see even more of the culprits bite the dust. However, I believe Paulson and Bernanke when they tell us that without some intervention we will experience a catastrophe of biblical proportions:

Real wrath of God type stuff.
Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…
The dead rising from the grave!
Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

But do we give them a blank check? Well, the American people and congress have spoken and the answer is No! Here are some of the modifications being sought:

Execute this program on the installment plan, with additional draw downs needing approval. I like this idea, but maybe for different reasons than intended.  No one can know what the real need is but if they give Treasury $700 B then $700 B will be spent. One of my concerns is that the government isn’t merely trying to avoid a depression but they are also trying to avoid a recession. But a recession might actually be healthy for the economy in the long run. So if they have to go back for approval periodically that could discourage them from going overboard.

Take equity stakes in the companies being helped. Seems like a good idea to me. Look at Warren Buffet. He just negotiated a sweet deal with Goldman because he’s the  800 pound gorrilla. Well the US government is the 2000 pound gorilla and should be able to get an even sweeter deal. Besides, this bailout needs to be painful for those who screwed up.

Cap executive compensation within rescued companies. Now normally I would abhor the government influencing executive compensation, regardless of how outrageous it is. But this time it’s different. These companies are taking government money so it can’t be siphoned off into executives’ pockets. Besides, under my pain theory these CEOs need to suffer from their mistakes. There will probably even be a side benefit to a compensation cap. It will prevent CEOs from taking advantage of the taxpayer dollars if they don’t really need the help.

And I’m not the least bit worried about there being a talent shortage because I think these executive types are over-rated anyway. There are a lot of smart people out there waiting in the wings to jump in and take over for $400,000 per year. I don’t subscribe to the view that you have to have a celebrity CEO. In fact, I suspect that the celebrity types are not as smart as the underpaid quiet types. They got us into this mess.

Provide oversight. I have no idea how this would work but in principle it sounds like a good idea.

Helping distressed homeowners. This is the one that concerns me the most. As if this proposal doesn’t already help homeowners by propping up home prices? I’m OK with modifying the bankruptcy laws slightly but what more do they want?

Aside from this last add-on, by and large, the political process seems to be working. The key question that is still up in the air is how to set the purchase price for these assets. That issue alone could make or break this deal for the American taxpayer.

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