Washington: Over the edge

Michael Lewis diagnosing political insanity as only he can:

1) To the political process all big numbers look alike; above a certain number the money becomes purely symbolic. The general public has no ability to feel the relative weight of 173 billion and 165 million. You can generate as much political action and public anger over millions as you can over billions. Maybe more: the larger the number the more abstract it becomes and, therefore, the easier to ignore. (The trillions we owe foreigners, for example.)

2) As the financial crisis has evolved its moral has been simplified, grotesquely. In the beginning this crisis was messy. Wall Street financiers behaved horribly but so did ordinary Americans. Millions of people borrowed money they shouldn’t have borrowed and, not, typically, because they were duped or defrauded but because they were covetous and greedy: they wanted to own stuff they hadn’t earned the right to buy.

On the Line

But now that taxpayer money is on the line the story has changed: innocent taxpayers are now being exploited by horrible Wall Street financiers. The guy who defaulted on mortgages on his six spec houses in the Nevada desert has turned himself into the citizen enraged by the bonuses paid to the AIG employees trying to sort out the mess caused by his defaults.

3) The complexity of the issues at the heart of the crisis paralyzes the political processes’ ability to deal with them intelligently. I have no doubt that, by the time this saga ends, we will all know what happened to every penny of that $165 million in bonuses and each have our opinion of the morality of it.

I doubt seriously we will ever understand the morality of the $173 billion payment that is the far more serious issue. For instance, Goldman Sachs, which received about 8 percent of the pile, or $13 billion, has claimed publicly that the money was, to them, a matter of indifference, as Goldman had hedged itself against a possible collapse of AIG — by making bets against AIG.

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