Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Lingo and the Ideas Behind the Bailout

Imagine this. You find yourself in a theater watching a drama in which the actors speak various foreign languages that you don’t understand. You’d walk out, right?.

That imaginary situation helps explain people’s reaction to the great Bailout drama. It’s all Greek to them. They’d walk out, except in this case they -– we -- can’t. We’re not in the audience but on the stage.

We are all participants, one way or another, in this real-life crisis, but few among us really understand the lingo or the ideas it hides. So what’s happening is a mystery to us. Yet we are faced with a clear warning from the highest authorities of the land: there will be dire consequences to all of us if we don’t agree to their solutions.

We are told to trust the proposed $700,000,000,000 proposal of the President and his experts from Wall Street. But these are the very guys that brung us here. No wonder people are frustrated and negative and skeptical.

At least, and at the very least, we need to get some demystification of the insider jargon of the authorities. So I was glad to see the Washington Post start to make a contribution toward filling that urgent need. On September 26 the Post business section ran two useful features:

--“A Glossary of Terms Behind the Terms Behind the Headlinez,” with definitions of 17 terms, and
--“Q&A: The Crisis and Your Pocketbook,” with answers to two questions, the second one from a homeowner who is keeping up mortgage payments but asks “Why should my tax money be used to help fix a problem I did not create?”

On September 28,I wrote the Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, a letter of congratulations on this initiative. I resisted telling her it’s about time. In a positive mood, I suggested that both columns should run at least once a week, because the crisis won’t be over soon.

I made these other suggestions on the Glossary of Terms:

First, define more terms. For example, derivatives, credit market, bond market, securities, asset backed securities, Federal Reserve Bank, highly leveraged, credit crunch, and other terms that are being used on TV and in your paper. Make distinctions: e.g., the difference between the capital market and the credit market.

Second, continue defining the terms you've already explained, expand them, and reword some to make them more understandable. For example, liquidity. Use a definition that explains a bank chairman's statement [which the Post quoted]: "We're drowning in liquidity."

Also, provide an Internet way for readers to question your definitions and ask for others.

Regarding the Question and Answer column, I wrote:
I hope that you answer more of the questions that you encourage readers to submit to your Website []. Surely there are more than two. And don't shy away from answering questions more fully. For example, your answer to question 2 neglects an important point: If Congress fails to approve a solid rescue plan, the resulting crash would hurt even families who keep up their mortgage payments, according to the Bush administration. If you don't believe the Bush administration, explain why you don't.

To be responsible, you ought to acknowledge that it was a failure of strong regulation that has brought us to the brink. The guilty should be held responsible, yes, but most of what they did was perfectly legal because no laws outlawed such actions.

I should have added these points, but didn’t:
-- The unethical, corrosive behavior is still legal.
-- And it is being taught in some of our best business schools, according to Peter Morici, economist at the University of Maryland. In fact, on his own shelves, he has a copy of a text being used, he said in a TV interview.
-- How about an investigative report on how the ideas taught in our business and economics classes contribute to financial crises, past, present, and future?

Update: A September 30 email from Ombudsman Howell said: “I’d like to put this in my weekly memo to the staff. OK?”


Further update: For a good discussion of the Bailout quandry, see the Weblog of economist Dani Rodrik here.

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