The Great TARP Cover-Up

Some folks want to pretend government intervention never happened.

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, by Thomas Frank, Metropolitan Books, 240 pages, $25

In one of his reportedly few sober moments, the legendary statesman and tippler Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) is rumored to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Weirdly, the lack of definitive sourcing for that quotation only confirms its essential validity. But what happens when the facts seem so different to different people that there is virtually no common ground for conversation, much less resolution of basic differences?

I thought a lot about that question—not to mention drinking—while reading Thomas Frank’s new book, Pity the Billionaire, which he describes as “a chronicle of a confused time, a period when Americans rose up against imaginary threats and rallied to economic theories they understood only in the gauziest of terms.” A University of Chicago–trained historian who co-founded the hip left-wing journal The Baffler and did a stint as the token liberal on The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages, Frank has written a series of books about American culture and politics, most famously What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004). He now occupies the “Easy Chair” column at Harper’s, a centuries-old seat of curmudgeonly, anti-capitalist editorializing once held by Lewis Lapham.

To Frank, fears that debt-fueled spending and government intervention in the economy helped cause and perpetuate the financial crisis are plainly “imaginary.” He believes the economic “theories” America is currently embracing are hardcore austerity measures ripped from the playbook of Herbert Hoover, circa 1929. “The revival of the Right,” says Frank, “is as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster; if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national hero.”

Where to begin separating facts from opinions? For starters, it’s simply wrong to claim, as Frank does, that “the main political response to [the financial crisis of 2008] is a campaign to roll back regulation, to strip government employees of the right to collectively bargain, and to clamp down on federal spending.”

Certainly the Tea Party, a handful of people in Congress (most of them with the last name Paul), and some policy wonks would welcome such moves. But far from being powerbrokers, these folks are little more than marginalized dreamers, as likely to be attacked by their allies as by their enemies. The toughest fight that Tea Party favorite Rand Paul had in becoming the junior senator from Kentucky in 2010 came not from his Democratic opponent but from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who did everything he could to keep Paul from gaining office.

Lest we forget, the major response to the financial crisis in 2008 was the bailing out of Wall Street and the auto companies under a conservative Republican president and the implementation of an $840 billion stimulus plan promoted by a Democratic president. That’s not to mention a massive overhaul of the nation’s financial regulations and a health care reform package that was routinely described as “historic” and “transformational” at its passage. Ironically, such immediate, massive and—in the case of the stimulus—ineffective actions are in keeping with Herbert Hoover’s policies. 

That’s because, contrary to Frank’s claims, Hoover was never a fan of government austerity (at least while in office). According to Florida State University economist Randall G. Holcombe, Hoover increased federal expenditures in real terms by 88 percent between 1929 and 1933.

Perhaps the major interventions of the last few years sneaked through under the wire because too many of us were traumatized by the collapse of Bear Stearns. But in fact, spending and regulations ballooned tremendously all through George W. Bush’s presidency—and still show no sign of slowing down.

In constant 2010 dollars, the federal government spent about $2.3 trillion in 2001. By 2010 the total was around $3.6 trillion. And although the federal government has not passed (and will not pass) a budget for a third straight year, the two plans currently on the table envision spending either $4.7 trillion or $5.7 trillion in 2021. The lower figure comes from the budget that passed the GOP-controlled House last spring. The higher number comes from President Barack Obama’s budget proposal.

If austerity is the new black, the news has yet to reach the people who actually wield power in the capital. And if the Washington elite aren’t serious about cutting spending, they sure aren’t hell-bent on cutting red tape and regulations either. For self-evident reasons, George W. Bush and the Republicans soft-pedaled the fact that over the course of his presidency he hired 90,000 net new regulators; signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, which radically complicated corporate accounting practices; passed a record number of “economically significant” regulations, costing the economy $100 million or more per year; and, according to economist (and reason columnist) Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, spent more money issuing and enforcing federal regulations than any previous chief executive. Obama is continuing the trend, increasing employment at regulatory agencies by more than 13 percent and issuing 75 major rules in his first two years.

All this happened during what Frank calls “the golden years of libertarianism.” So I have difficulty understanding what he is talking about when he issues dicta such as “free-market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud.”

Frank is surely correct that many anti-government types conveniently minimize the role that private-sector bad actors at banks, financial houses, and elsewhere played in causing the financial crisis. But he also never provides a compelling response to the argument (common among libertarians) that the root of the problem is implicit and explicit bailout guarantees that socialize the costs of irresponsible risk taking. When it comes to free markets, I feel like quoting Gandhi’s answer when asked how he felt about Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Pity the Billionaire suffers not just from a lack of engagement with what I consider reality. It dismisses out of hand those with whom the author disagrees. Members of the broadly defined right, says Frank, “blow off the facts when they feel like it; they swipe symbols from the other side.” I hear him, and I even have some sympathy when he cries in exasperation, “What kind of misapprehension permits the newest Right to brush off truths that everyone else can see so plainly?”

We live in an era of “beer summits,” diplomatic “resets,” and a screwed-up economy in which inflated housing prices are not allowed to fall to the depressingly low levels they might actually be worth. In ways he surely didn’t intend, Frank’s Pity the Billionaire helps explain why so many of us seem to be talking past each other.

Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of reason.tv and reason online, is the co-author, with Matt Welch, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs). A version of this article originally appeared in The Daily on January 7, 2012.

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  • UvalDuvalCuckoo||

    Although I didn't support TARP, there are fair arguments on both sides about whether or not *an* intervention should have happened - but for the life of me I can't see any defense of this particular intervention.

    Then again, I'm a Gambol Lockdown Supporting Fibertarian who spends more time studying AI than I do posting about goofy forms of anarchy - so what the hell do I know?

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  • T||

    Thomas Frank, wrong again. There's a shocker.

  • ||

    I could not stand Thomas Frank when he wrote for the WSJ. As far as I am concerned he ended up on the incorrect side of virtually every argument he attempted to make in his [thankfully short-lived] WSJ column.

    In the famous words of Bugs Bunny: "What a maroon."

  • Raymond Luxury Yach-t||

    François Mackandal was a maroon.

  • Suki||

    Well played Nick. The perfect commentary on this government-do-gooder created fiscal swamp.

  • cowardly commenter some guy||

    Caption:

    "We really fucked 'em this time..."

    "Hell's to the yeah!"

  • Comcast Sucks (Coxswain Hardy)||

    As long as a single dollar remains in private hands, govt cannot be blamed for any bad economic news.

  • Comcast Sucks (Coxswain Hardy)||

  • The New Black||

    austerity is the new black

    No, we're moving on up!

  • Obama supporter||

    I thought Obama was the New Black?!

  • Editor||

    But what happens when the facts seem so different to different people that there is virtually no common ground for conversation, much less resolution of basic differences?

    Nick, I honor you for not putting a comma after but.

  • ||

    I like that phrase: "The Golden Years of Libertarianism." Of course, if that were the case, I be smoking a lot of skunk weed during such golden years on all my tax-free income.

  • Tony.0||

    Frank is surely correct that many anti-government types conveniently minimize the role that private-sector bad actors at banks, financial houses, and elsewhere played in causing the financial crisis.

    I think my head just exploded.

  • ||

    Would those be the same anti-government types wondering why Corzine is still walking around free, and why the greatest financial disaster in history has resulted in exactly no criminal indictments?

  • Tony.0||

    That's a MYTH! No such people exist!

  • shrike||

    RC, you are sounding like the OWS nuts who say "Lock up Lloyd Blankfein!". You/they have no case.

  • WTF||

    I think you meant "you/christfags".

  • ||

    Oh, there's plenty of fraud around the whole MBS business. Plenty of it. Starting with the misrepresentation of the quality of loans and going right through to the fact that many of the loans supposedly backing MBSs were never actually transferred to the pools.

    I suspect there's also been more than a little Enron-style accounting fraud as well, with cataclysmic liabilities being kept off-balance sheet, etc.

  • shrike||

    MBS misrepresentation has been rigorously pursued in civil court. Those who issued MBS have paid.

  • ||

    There hasn't been any criminal prosecution of these frauds. In sharp contrast to the way fraud was treated after the S&L meltdown.

    And, the civil awards have been few, and a minuscule fraction of the profits of the fraud.

  • ||

    Shrike,

    Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior? Have you thought about it? Maybe that is where all this anger comes from. Jesus loves you you know.

  • shrike||

    Yes, I have. Jesus told me as a yute to go have a good time. Not all of us are cut out to evangelize.

  • Paul||

    We also find the term "christfag" insulting and homophobic... we'd prefer "christgays".

  • Jodi Carroll||

    Please check out, and share, this new fact checking website!

    www.VoteFacts.org

  • shrike||

    Yes, the center of the financial collapse (Wall St investment banks) were unregulated except for minimal SEC rules that apply to any public company.

    Lehman, Bear, Merrill, Citi (the I-bank side), and Morgan Stanley pretty much offed themselves. They in turn brought AIG down with CDS exposure.

  • Commentariat GOP Shill||

    Huh, I wonder what role 80 years of regulation had in creating massive banks that are now "TBTF".

    Oh, pshaw. Regulation never causes any of these problems, right my "classical liberal" friend?

  • shrike||

    You don't know the difference between an investment bank and a commercial bank.

    I-banks are similar to public hedge funds. There are thousands of the latter of all shapes and sizes.

    Commercial banks grew TBTF mostly due to relaxed state banking laws.

  • Commentariat GOP Shill||

    You don't know the difference between an investment bank and a commercial bank.

    Yes I do. My statement stands.

    Commercial banks grew TBTF mostly due to relaxed state banking laws.

    This makes no sense. most banks are NA, not state banks, so the Federal Government regulates them.

    You know, you claim to be some Wall Street Whiz Kid and then you flunk the basics.

  • adam||

    In fact, the federal government regulates state chartered banks too. Federal reserve regulates state chartered banks and the OCC regulates NAs.

  • shrike||

    Not from an M&A perspective. Interstate banking was severely restricted by state law at one time.

  • ||

    There's a cycle to banking regulation that follows the credit cycle more or less. How long do you expect banking regulators--in a democracy--to stand between voters and the home loans they want?

    It's actually good news that the level of regulation ebbs and flows--can you imagine how pathetic it would be if our regulators and the politicians they answer to both completely ignored reality?

    What this does underscore, however, is how stupid and ridiculous Obama and his supporters are in suggesting that regulation will somehow protect us from future downturns. If regulation were somehow the solution to credit expansions and downturns in the economic cycle, Obama might make sense--but regulation has never been the answer, isn't now, and never will be.

  • ||

    How long do you expect banking regulators--in a democracy--to stand between voters and the home loans they want?

    If our government would stop standing between banks and the risks they take, the regulators wouldn't have to stand between voters and home loans they want. The banks would do that all by themselves, in the absence of moral hazard and government subsidized risk shifting.

  • ||

    You're absolutely right, RC.

  • Paul||

    If our government would stop standing between banks and the risks they take, the regulators wouldn't have to stand between voters and home loans they want.

    This sums up well the entire issue in way less than 900 characters.

  • ||

    When the economy comes back and investors and banks are looking for places to make loans, and everyone's chasing the American dream of home ownership again, do you really think politicians won't respond to that--and all those regulations that are protecting wanna be home owners from the home loans they want, do you really think our politicians are going to let regulators, at the state level or anywhere else, stand between them?

    Who really wants a world where our politicians have to answer to the regulators anyway? And all of this stupidity, just because Obama wanted to look like he was doing something before the midterms--and he didn't want to do anything that might be misinterpreted as support for capitalism.

    There's no logic behind any of it. It's all projected onto him by his supporters. Nobody who knows anything really thinks regulation is the solution to market bubbles.

  • Commentariat GOP Shill||

    Not from an M&A perspective. Interstate banking was severely restricted by state law at one time.

    Oy. So your solution to TBTF Commercial Banks is to grant even more regulatory power to, presumably, the Powers that Be that determine whether M&A is permissible.

    Leading, of course, to "power banks" being able to get around the regs easier than smaller ones.

    Thereby contributing even further to TBTF.

    Way to be, shrike.

  • shrike||

    My only solutions to TBTF are adequate capital level requirements and transparency.

  • Commentariat GOP Shill||

    My only solutions to TBTF are adequate capital level requirements and transparency.

    Both of which are easier for larger banks to comply with than smaller ones. Therefore, once again, your policy prescriptions contribute to the problem.

  • ||

    Ever notice that out of one side of their mouths, the same administration that's complaining about TBTF is seizing Washington Mutual's assets and grafting them onto an investment bank in a crisis?

    Ever notice that the same people complaining about TBTF aren't even giving BofA much of a choice--Merrill Lynch WILL be part of BofA in a crisis!

    ...out of one side of their mouths. Out of the other--and at the same time--the problem is TBTF. How can forced mergers be the solution to TBTF?!

    Meanwhile, how much damage did Lehman cratering really cause? Would it have been better if a one or two had gone the way of Lehman?

  • KPres||

    Scottish free banking held together with ~2% reserves. That's the kind of territory only Fannie and Freddie can venture into.

  • ||

    My only solutions to TBTF are adequate capital level requirements and transparency.

    One solution to TBTF is to stop perpetuating the myth that they're too big to fail.

    Bear and Lehman put together weren't too big to fail. We know this becasue they failed.

    How many hundreds of banks put together have failed since 2007? How many loan originators went belly up? Collectively, they weren't too big to fail. ...and we know this becasue they failed.

    So there is a second solution to TBTF. Stop perpetuating the MYTH that any institution is too big to fail.

    Too big for the president to watch it fail and do nothing--and not get hammered for doing nothing by the idiots in the media--does not equal "too big to fail".

  • Anton Sherwood||

    "Too big to fail" is shorthand for "too big to be allowed to fail".

  • Suki||

    National socialism is the fundamental that shrike excels in.

  • ||

    Nothing he has commented on here is remotely related to socialism.

  • Metazoan||

    Minimal regulations? You're not familiar with business, are you?

  • ||

    I think we can all agree that there is enough blame to go around.

  • KPres||

    "Yes, the center of the financial collapse (Wall St investment banks) were unregulated except for minimal SEC rules that apply to any public company."

    That's only half the story. The problem is they were unregulated and INSURED at the same time. You can have one or the other, but you can't have both.

  • Jodi Carroll||

    Please check out, and share, this new fact checking website!

    www.VoteFacts.org

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Lest we forget, the major response to the financial crisis in 2008 was the bailing out of Wall Street and the auto companies under a conservative Republican president...

    ¿Qué?

  • ||

    What conservative republican? I guess I was so blinded by the libertarian golden age that I missed that entire administration.

  • shrike||

    Your mistake is in confusing a conservative with a libertarian. There is no intersection on a Venn diagram.

  • sarcasmic||

    Conservative politicians and pundits talk about smaller government to draw in libertarian minded voters, but in practice the only difference between liberals and conservatives is their stance on abortion.

  • KDN||

    He was a social conservative. Therefore, he must have been an economic libertarian. Is it not obvious?

  • shrike||

    That is why I hated him so much. A SoCon, big government, big spending, nation-building, war-monger (via Cheney).

    Clinton was the Libertarian of the two by any measure.

  • Commentariat GOP Shill||

    That is why I hated him so much. A SoCon, big government, big spending, nation-building, war-monger

    Right, so the rational thing to do by this criteria is to...support Obama?

    *barf*

  • wareagle||

    Clinton was the Libertarian of the two by any measure.
    --------------------
    right...because nothing spells Libertarian quite as convincingly as Hillarycare.

  • Killazontherun||

    In the 90's. we had a near perfect balance of opportunist on both sides who had little incentive to upset the applecart after the Hillarycare debacle helped put an end to forty years of Dem rule on the Hill. Good times.

    To be fair to Bill, her plan resembled what he put forth in an excellent speech in the Fall of 93 not in the least.

  • ||

    We did end up with Chafeecare, however. Under a Democrat, no less. Go figure.

  • KPres||

    "right...because nothing spells Libertarian quite as convincingly as Hillarycare."

    That's what I was going to say. But, then again, he didn't GET Hillarycare. So maybe his presidency was more libertarian than Bush's, even if he personally was not.

  • Suki||

    Right. Clinton was so Libertarian that it took Gingrich to force him into a slower increase in spending. It is like comparing the Libertarianism of Stalin vs. FDR.

  • shrike||

    You fucking idiot twins.

    I specifically compared Clinton to Bush and that is no contest. Clinton is easily MORE libertarian - not A libertarian.

    And Gingrich opposed Clinton's budget cuts.

  • Suki||

    Where did Gingrich do that? Better review what a Medicare Part B premium is first, like that will help. Maybe your jackboots are pinching this morning.

  • shrike||

    A Team Red Bush Fan to the end. Even with the Godwins piling up.

    I laugh at you reich-wing nutjobs who only claim to be libertarian.

  • Suki||

    The Nazis and Fascists were Keynsians, just like you.

  • ||

    Shrike,

    Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior? Have you thought about it? Maybe that is where all this anger comes from. Jesus loves you you know.

  • Jesus||

    Soothing relief to obscure ALL your problems. Now with menthol!

  • ||

    Saying Clinton was slightly more libertarian than Bush is like saying one retard is a little more socially adept than another retard. They are both still retards.

  • shrike||

    The primary difference is $1.5 trillion a year in deficits.

    And a colossal ground war and foreign policy failure. And civil and personal liberties.

    And one blowjob he lied about - Republicans will remember that the most.

  • ||

    The deficit declined every year from 04 through 07. The deficit was 598 in 2004 and declined to 500 in 07. It then hit a trillion thanks to TARP in 08. Bush never had a 1.5 trillion deficit. And he only had a trillion in 09 because of TARP, a bipartisan program that was both voted for, supported by and expanded by first Senator and now President Obama.

    I don't know why you keep peddling that deficit lie. I am going to rub your nose in that little pile of shit every time you do it. I guess you just like sucking shit up your nose you little fucking turd.

  • Jodi Carroll||

    Please check out, and share, this new fact checking website!

    www.VoteFacts.org

  • Mikheil||

    +1
    Saying you're conservative doesn't mean you are. Like the big government fuckwads running for the republican nomination now just like glenn beck or bill mahar sayin theyre libertarians--theyre full of shit id wish they'd admit who they are what they believe

  • wareagle||

    Beck's claim of libertarianism is like Obama pronouncing himself anti-union. Glenn supports Ricky, a guy so fundamentally non-libertarian that it boggles the mind. When did representing the Taliban wing of conservatism become equated with libertarians?

  • shrike||

    Even Ayn Rand does not pass the libertarian purity test. Stay small so you can bitch at more people!

  • KPres||

    Milton Friedman doesn't pass in some parts either.

  • UvalDuvalCuckoo||

    Really? I guess by qualifying the statement w/ "Some" you can hide behind a nut job or two which you can always find on the internet somewhere but the implication of your statement is that he'd fail on some somewhat mainstream L groups - please post some links and/or state specific Friedman beliefs that are disqualifying him.

  • SIV||

    Beck is more "libertarian" than say, Megan McArdle.Of course you can substitute the name of almost anyone for Beck and the statement remains true.

  • sarcasmic||

    Conservative means opposing abortion and giving empty lip service to smaller government.

  • ||

    It certainly looks that way judging by the amount of support for big government loving Santorum.

  • UvalDuvalCuckoo||

    I'm not arguing w/ sarcasm's statement - in fact I think he's right. But I have a feeling that a lot of the 'support' for Santorum has more to do with "Anyone but Romney" sentiment than any true affinity for Santorum. I think most of the supporters also know he's not going to win so they feel they're making a statement. He's the new Christine O'Donnell although he lost his last election by an even bigger margin than she did.

  • ||

    That and the fact that all of the evangelical Religious Right numbnuts want to glob onto the guy who they think has real religious wacko bona fides. Romney is disqualified by virtue of being a Mormon; Gingrich by virtue of his affairs; Paul by virtue of the fact that doesn't see the government as a branch of the holy trinity.

  • Matrix||

    The government is SO arrogant, they think they can change time!

  • Suki||

    Another of Ben Franklin's big government schemes gone wild.

  • SkepticalinNC||

    Unfortunately the article is moot until someone figures out how to get past the roadblocks laid out in the first paragraph. I presented the very same arguments, perhaps not as eloquently as Nick, with my liberal parents this weekend. They had either a dead battery in their hearing aids or I was speaking in a different tongue. Just when I think "facts" are going to finally win them over......

  • Suki||

    Try to relate it to a car in a ditch.

  • ||

    Better yet: call them sluts :D

  • D Byrne||

    facts are simple and facts are straight
    facts are lazy and facts are late
    facts all come with points of view
    facts won't do what I want them to do
    facts just twist the truth around
    facts are living turned inside out
    facts are getting the best of them
    facts are nothing on the face of things

  • Killazontherun||

    In other news, I'm getting an ad on the side with an incredible redhead lifting up her plaid shirt.

  • ||

    I am not getting that. I do want to come back as the keeper of the casting couch for the Snorg Tees girls. The brunette in the zombie I am tripping you shirt and biker shorts is just lovely.

  • Killazontherun||

    I got that one up now. She looks like she could use a sugardaddy to set her up nicely given that lost and confused look on her face.

  • UvalDuvalCuckoo||

    Lucky bastard. I've refreshed several times and only get the Virtual Assistant and Reason cruise ads. I need to start ensuring better stuff in my browser cache I guess

  • ||

    I had to read "What is the matter with Kansas" in graduate school and I thought Frank was speaking nonsense then - now I know he is.

    I can only reach one of 2 conclusions about this guy - he isn't that smart or he doesn't care about the facts and wants to make a quick buck by preaching to the choir.

  • ||

    I think it is both. It is not so much that Franks is stupid. It is more that he is just not that great. So he has to find some way to distance himself and make a career for himself. His way of doing that is to tell leftists how smart they are.

  • sarcasmic||

    His way of doing that is to tell leftists how smart they are.

    And here I thought Krugnuts had cornered that market.

  • Killazontherun||

    The entire field of history is depressing on that score. So few understand social science or ideas outside the vantage point of 'great leaders accomplishing great things' that pathetic ignorance is the norm in that field. When one of their own, like Frank, ventures forth, they do so with the naivete of a character straight out of Candide.

  • KPres||

    "if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national hero."

    Seriously, why the fuck does everybody act like Watergate some terrible thing? So he broke into the Dems house and stole some papers. Big fucking deal. I barely even consider that wrong.

    The guy ended the fucking draft, for God's sake! One of the most horrible, anti-liberal policies imaginable. Forcing somebody to kill or be killed against their will? And people bitch about a fucking piece of paper he stole? F'n insane.

  • ||

    The only difference between Nixon and any other chief executive from the past century of American government is that he got caught.

  • ||

  • sam||

    Nice article.

  • Jodi Carroll||

    Please check out, and share, this new fact checking website!

    www.VoteFacts.org

  • CatoTheElder||

    I simply cannot believe you really read an entire book by Frank. I could barely tolerate reading a few paragraphs of his nonsensical assertion and opinion in his old WSJ columns. I eventually just quit reading Frank's column because it was a such a dreadfully tiresome way to get statist opinion, and went to the source instead. Marx's Capital was lively and coherent in comparison Frank's drivel.

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    Great work Use this page to your ally told you. I am constantly followed to get more in rank concerning this topic. thanks
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