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Back in November, I wrote about my suspicion that we'd just gotten mugged by the original Troubled Asset Relief Program. As far as I can tell, we just keep on getting mugged … over and over, and always in the name of averting imminent disaster.
Stick 'em up!
TARP has turned out to be an expensive and chaotic nightmare lacking in accountability or transparency. For example, a Wall Street Journal article in January pointed to political interference in some bank bailouts that took place under TARP. OneUnited Bank, a seemingly insignificant name, appeared to be getting TARP money because of the intercession of Rep. Barney Frank, who wrote into the bill a provision specifically intended to help that bank … which just happens to do business in his home state.
This kind of chicanery is by no means uncommon. In fact, there's about $300 billion in spending in the "new and improved" TARP package that seems a little frivolous, considering how dire we keep being told our circumstances are. Allotting $200 million to "design and furnish" the Department of Homeland Security headquarters? Maybe the government can hire John Thain to advise on ways to waste other people's money on decorating, since he apparently knows about cool things like $35,000 commodes.
So much for the government's self-righteous indignation about the greediness of the free markets -- apparently, Capitol Hill has some of its own tendencies to engage in self-interest at the expense of others.
Other people's money
Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) just keep getting more and more funding from the government. How is that working out? If General Motors (NYSE: GM ) is any indication, not so well. The automaker recently said that -- surprise! -- despite its last dose of highly controversial public money, it already needs of another bunch of billions or it's going down … suckers.
The stimulus package has also inspired lots of controversy over boneheaded ideas like an ill-conceived "Buy American" provision that many companies drooled over -- although notable standouts such as General Electric (NYSE: GE ) and Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) took a stand against any such provisions.
Meanwhile, our new Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, has come up a bit short on details -- again, what a shock -- with the new version of TARP. All we're getting is exactly the same kind of financial "bazooka" rhetoric that was supposed to instill confidence back in the fall -- even though there wasn't a coherent, understandable plan to be found.
If nothing else, the Obama administration is sure keeping the scare tactics from last fall ratcheted up, now that we've endured the threat of a complete economic catastrophe if the $787 billion stimulus package hadn't passed.
And don't even get me started on the ugly irony with Geithner's tax problems. Since he's so busy doling out taxpayer money, I'd like to think that he -- the Treasury secretary, of all people -- would at least pay his own taxes.
Mugging one's neighbors
The $75 billion plan to attempt to stem foreclosures is supposed to help 9 million borrowers, but here comes moral hazard again. How many of these borrowers couldn't afford their homes in the first place? And what about those who saved money, paid their mortgages regularly and on time, or rented and waited for prices to fall to the point where they could buy? Those people are screwed. They get no justice. In fact, they'll end up subsidizing all kinds of other people, including those who didn't act as responsibly.
There was always a commonsense, buyer-beware risk that the housing market was in a bubble and that asset prices simply do not always go up, especially when they've gone up in such an unprecedented fashion in so short of a time.
I think we need a lot more foreclosing, and maybe even a good bit of bulldozing. Sorry, Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL ) and Beazer (NYSE: BZH ) . The building frenzy was part of a massive disconnect from reality, and the growth wasn't real. The homebuilders came up with bizarre growth models that reflected the complete dream state that suggested that everybody could have a McMansion.
It's too bad, but the American dream turned into a nightmare, and trying to coerce some of us to pay for others so that we can attempt a return to that dream state isn't going to put us back on the path to true prosperity.
Grab your Mace … here come the suits again
The bailout mentality -- whether it involves bailing out Wall Street or (supposedly) Main Street -- absolutely stinks. Moral hazard is alive and well and causing a lot of resentment among lots of Americans. Taxpayers are on the hook, and our future generations are hopelessly indebted as the powers-that-be scramble to save people from their own faulty decisions and reinflate a bubble that was never economically feasible in the first place.
A consumer-debt-driven economic utopia with something close to full employment, and in which we could all have whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it, with the bill coming due at some indistinct point in the future, was never realistic. It was a Siren song, and like all Siren songs, it was dangerous and left us in a mess.
What's real are the trillions upon trillions of dollars in debt that our country is racking up. And that debt is not only propping up bad players -- it could well take our troubled economy and mess it up even more. (Fellow Fool Christopher Barker recently came up with a tally of about $10 trillion in outlays.)
So there you have it. We're all getting mugged, again and again -- and it all gets a little scarier with every passing day. For all of the talk of restoring confidence, I don't how we're supposed to feel better when we just keep on getting rolled. Do you think these muggings are anywhere near over? I sure don't.
Of course, there's no use in practicing your self-defense moves; these guys aren't too worried about you or me, or what we think of their thuggery. Just get the ice packs ready for your aching head and your bleeding wallet -- and those of your descendants. See you again in a couple of months.