Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Let them eat cake. Or, should we say, just go pound cake.
Thursday night’s U.S. Senate defeat of a bailout measure for the car manufacturers in the United States may prove to be the disaster so many people have been foretelling, or it may be the greatest exaltation of the free market system known to man. What it won’t be, though, is a shining moment for the people in Congress who hung tough for ideological reasons.
Marie Antoinette did that a long time ago, suggesting that people too poor and destitute to afford one square meal should instead eat cake — as if they even knew what that was. In this case, those who killed the government’s effort to save — at least for a while — the car industry in this country and the 3 million or so jobs attached to it have told the people most directly affected, American workers, that pounding the cake they should eat was good enough.
Shame on us.
Shouldn’t we be able to do better as a country? First, we provide hundreds of billions of dollars to financial institutions that gladly scarfed up taxpayer dollars and have given nothing in return. Then we refuse to do what we could to save millions of jobs at a time when every working man and woman is essential to any kind of economic recovery?
It isn’t as if government isn’t at least partially to blame for the mess we are in and it isn’t as if those in Congress who are glorifying the beneficence of the markets aren’t the same ones who applauded its excesses just a few months ago.
It just seems to me that we are going about this all wrong.
If we are to be purists in this thing, there never should have been a bailout of any kind, millions of homeowners should have been displaced, tens of millions of American jobs lost and hundreds of thousands of small businessmen and women should have gone begging and lost their life’s savings.
That’s what efficient markets do.
But that is not what America and Americans should do. We are capitalists, to be sure, but we also have a greater calling, and that is to “promote the general welfare” and “secure the blessings of liberty” for all Americans. We can hardly do that when they are standing in soup lines and begging on our streets because we failed to provide the kind of economic system safeguards that earned the trust of the people.
Who knows, at this date, what will ultimately happen to the auto manufacturers bailout because life is fluid in the fast lanes of the U.S. Congress and in the West Wing of the White House, but I believe there are some guidelines that we should be promoting regardless of who is asking for taxpayer help.
The first is that nothing should be for free. If the taxpayers are providing the money, it is the taxpayers who should get the benefit of such largesse. And that is more than just a modest interest rate should the money actually get repaid. How about doing what private lenders do? Not only do we get interest on our money but we get interest in the companies we help. If they do well, the taxpayers do very well.
Second, we should be adamant that no U.S. taxpayer money goes to any company or institution that does not act in the best interests of the country first. Enough of the lame excuse corporations have used for far too long that starts and ends with the words “shareholder value.” Those two words have covered the displacement of millions of jobs to overseas locales, closed plants in dozens of U.S. cities, leaving those towns barren of most life forms, and promoted in many cases an environment that says giving back is secondary to taking far more than what is remotely reasonable.
Shareholder value used to be values of shareholders who contemplated doing what was best for the communities in which they functioned. But somehow it all came down to just money.
That’s fine, I suppose, for those companies that don’t prosper, in part, courtesy of the American taxpayer — a rare bird, I might add. But, as we look into 2009 and the potentially hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that will be doled out for building and rebuilding infrastructure across the country, we should demand that those monies go only to the companies that demonstrate a willingness to give back, and give back and give back.
There is no room for those who would profit at taxpayer expense in the next few months who have no desire to help pull the oars on the boat that will carry us all to a better economic place.
I would start with the banks. Those that took our money and aren’t lending it out — let’s take it back. Next, I’d go to the construction companies that will rebuild our bridges, roads and dams and say you only get the dough when you share the wealth with those who don’t have but need it badly. If you refuse, you lose the bids to the fellow who gives a darn about this country.
The new year will be a watershed year in the United States in which the word “resetting” will be so overused that Merriam-Webster may ban it from the dictionary. But the truth is that everything we know, how we live, how and where we spend our money, and what kind of work we reward in the future will be subject to being reset, reworked and redefined.
And, if we are really lucky, we will learn that resetting our personal priorities isn’t as hard as we once thought. Reducing carbon footprints, living greener lives, honoring hard work and public service and requiring that those who wish to do well at the public trough must also do good, should be front and center of the way we think about our lives going forward.
All that means that government’s role in this whole thing must have more to do with a bottom line that does promote the general welfare than a bottom line that only increases “shareholder value.”
There was a time when American values carried the day and were the envy of the world. Through this hardship we will face in the coming year, we would do well to remember the difference between what made us a great country and what got us to the miserable point we are at today.
It has something to do with an attitude about eating cake. Those who have the wrong one should just pound it.
Brian Greenspun is editor of the Las Vegas Sun.