The New Deal, and the Era of Angry Populism

repo.gifThe Senate voted Wednesday night; the House is scheduled to vote today. Will the deal fly? Probably. Wall Street’s gyrations since Monday have scared the hell out of a number of holdouts, notwithstanding all the negative emails and phone calls they continue to receive from constituents.

An important distinction here. While more Americans are coming around to “supporting” the bailout bill, the vast majority still hate the idea of bailing out Wall Street. They’re for the bailout bill now only because they fear that a failure to pass it will have worse consequences — drying up credit at a time when Main Street is struggling. But make no mistake: America is mad as hell. They resent what they perceive as extortion by the Masters of the Universe.

Angry populism has always been a potent force in American politics. And now, with wages dropping, jobs insecure, fuel and food and health-insurance costs soaring, and millions of homes in jeopardy — and what’s perceived to be a massive tax-payer bailout of some of the richest people in the land — angry populism is about to explode. McCain has already tried to cast himself as an angry populist, even though he still wants to give the very rich a bigger tax cut than George W. gave them, and cut taxes on big corporations (oil companies alone would reap $1.2 billion a year under McCain’s plan). Barack Obama, whose plans for middle-class tax relief and afforable health care will genuinely help America’s middle and working classes, has been expressing more indignation lately on behalf of them. But anger doesn’t come as easily to Obama as it does to McCain — even though McCain seems quite ready to aim his anger anywhere and everywhere.

Democrats should be angry populists, given their traditional role of protecting and championing the underdogs in American politics, and especially considering the absurdly wide gap that’s opened up between the rich and everyone else. But in recent years Democrats have ceded the mantle to Republicans, who now mimic the faux populism of Sean Hannity and other right-wing talk show demagogues. (The recent maneuvering in the House over the bailout bill is really over this. House Democrats are getting the same angry mail that House Republicans are receiving, and don’t want to be seen as lending their support to this ugly bill without Republicans signing on.)

In fact, the bailout bill isn’t really taxpayer supported. It will be funded by additional federal debt, issued mostly to foreign governments — especially the Chinese and in the Middle East. And, strictly speaking, it’s not even a bailout. The Treasury will buy and hold mortgage-backed securities whose value is now unknown because there’s no market for them, until housing prices start rising again, by which time the securities should be worth something — perhaps even more than the Treasury pays for them. (Note that there continues to be great confusion about the extent to which the Treasury will hold a reverse auction, paying banks the minimum price at which they’re willing to sell the securities — perhaps 20 cents on the dollar — or whether the Treasury will buy the securities outright for their face values and take warrants or shares of stock in return.)

But whatever it’s called and however it’s financed, it’s still an outrage. America’s foreign policy is made no more flexible by going into deeper hock to the Chinese and the Middle East. And the deal still subjects American taxpayers to some risk, especially if the housing market doesn’t bounce back for many years. Worse, the bill can’t help but prop up the earnings many Wall Street executives whose malfeasance, greed, and stupidity got us into this mess in the first place. And it does nothing for average Americans except avoid economic calamity. (The provision ostensibly helping distressed homeowners is to be used at the discretion of the Treasury Department, so it’s mostly a sham.)

robert_reich.jpgThe larger economic outlook is not encouraging. All signs point to the economy worsening, bailout or no bailout. Unemployment will continue to rise. Median earnings will continue to drop, adjusted for inflation. More Americans will lose their health insurance.

The Era of Angry Populism has only just begun. Let’s hope Obama wins, and is able to mobilize the anger into fierce pressure on Congress to get his agenda enacted, as well as reform Wall Street and Washington.

by Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission

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