Robert Reich on why democracy should trump finance in Greece.
Shouldn't Greeks be able to make this decision for themselves?
Of course, if Greek defaults on its loans, global investors (fearing that a default in Greece sets a dangerous precedent) may yank their money out of Italy. This would almost certainly bust several big European banks -- and generate panic on Wall Street. That's why Tim Geithner has been pressing Europe to bail out Greece.
We've been here before, remember? Here in the United States, at the end of 2008 and start of 2009. Wall Street had made lots of bad loans, and the question we faced then was whether to bail out the Street.
The difference is, we didn't hold a referendum. Instead, the Bush administration told Congress the nation risked "economic Armageddon" if it didn't immediately authorize a giant bailout of the Street -- with no strings attached. Of course Congress hastily agreed. Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner (as head of the New York Fed) then doled out the money. And the Obama administration (with Geithner installed as Treasury Secretary) gave out more.
So instead of allowing the Street to live with the consequences of its negligence, we bailed it out -- and allowed the Main Streets of America to suffer the consequences.
If Americans had been consulted about the bank bailout, I doubt it would have happened the way it did. At the very least, strict conditions would have been placed on the banks in return for the money. The banks would have had to eat the losses of the predatory mortgages they sold, and help homeowners reduce those mortgages. They'd be required to improve the capitalization of small banks in communities across the country. They'd be forced to accept stringent new regulations, including resurrection of Glass-Steagall.
But Americans weren't really consulted. It was an inside job.
As a result, Wall Street has prospered but the rest of the nation hasn't. One out of four homeowners is underwater, owing more on their homes than the homes are worth.
And with the worst economy since the Great Depression, we're now embarking on fiscal austerity. Either Congress's super-committee comes up with $1.2 trillion of federal budget cuts that Congress agrees to -- going into effect a little over thirteen months from now -- or $1.5 trillion of cuts are made across the board. Meanwhile, states and cities have been slashing public services for the past three years.
So which is it? Rule by democracy or by financial markets? Based on what's happened in America, I'd choose the former.
Robert Reich is the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, now in bookstores. This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.