President Bush sought to provoke a financial panic to push legislation for the bailout through Congress. (Artwork: Edvard Munch)
This is the first time in the history of the United States that the president has sought to provoke a financial panic to get legislation through Congress. While this has proven to be a successful political strategy, it marks yet another low point in American politics.
It was incredibly irresponsible for President Bush to tell the American people on national television that the country could be facing another Great Depression. By contrast, when we actually were in the Great Depression, President Roosevelt said that, "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself."
It was even more irresponsible for him to seize on the decline in the stock market five days later as evidence that his bailout was needed for the economy. President Bush must surely understand, as all economists know, that the daily swings in the stock market are driven by mass psychology and have almost nothing to do with the underlying strength in the economy.
The scare tactics of President Bush, Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke created sufficient panic, so that by the time of the vote, much of the public believed that the defeat of the bailout may actually have had serious consequences for the economy. Millions of people have changed their behavior because of this fear, with many pulling money out of bank and money market accounts, and in other ways adjusting their financial plans.
This effort to promote panic is especially striking since the country's dire economic situation is almost entirely the result of the Bush Administration's policy failures. First and foremost, the decision of Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke (and previously Alan Greenspan) to ignore the housing bubble, allowed for the growth of an $8 trillion bubble, which is now collapsing.
It is the collapse of this bubble, which has already destroyed more than $4 trillion in housing wealth, and is likely to destroy another $4 trillion over the next year, that is at the root of the economy's problems. While competent economists were warning of the bubble and the dire consequences of its collapse, the top officials in the Bush administration were celebrating the rise in homeownership rates.
The Bush administration made the crisis even worse by deregulating Wall Street. This led to the huge over-leveraging of financial institutions, which has vastly complicated the country's economic policies. It is especially disturbing that Secretary Paulson personally profited from these policies, earning hundreds of millions in compensation from Goldman Sachs during his years there as its CEO.
The collapse of the housing bubble, while falling short of the magnitude of the Great Depression, is likely to lead to the worst recession since World War II. Repairing the damage caused by this bubble will be a long and difficult process. Cleaning up the damage to the political system from President Bush's unprecedented fear campaign may prove to be even more difficult.