titanicToday is the Labor Day holiday in the USA, so to honor the more vulnerable parts of our society and economy I’m engaging in this fantasy rethinking of our current economic crisis.  If only……

When the “unsinkable” ship Titanic hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage in 1911, as any teenage girl will tell you, the rich people got nearly all the lifeboats (except for John Jacob Astor IV who ordered another drink, giving up his seat), dooming the lower-class passengers including, of course, poor Leonardo DiCaprio. Much the same thing seems to be happening in the case of the current economic crisis, where the people who are hurting the most seem to be getting the least.  I’m beginning to believe the crisis could have been fixed quicker and cheaper simply by helping the women and children instead of the bankers.

This began as a mortgage crisis.  Lenders dropped their standards on loans, giving them to people who shouldn’t have qualified (yes, they applied for those loans so are also culpable), driving housing prices up in a bubble that eventually popped and here we are with eight percent of all mortgaged houses in foreclosure and home prices down 30-40 percent from two years ago.  The technique our government used to deal with this was to prop-up the bankers, not the borrowers.


That’s a question I have been asking all over and the smart money answer generally comes down to: 1) that’s the way the system is set-up; 2) that’s the way we’ve always done it, and; 3) it would be too complex to deal with individuals — better to deal, instead, with a few dozen banks.


The system was widely perverted to deal with the current crisis; it wasn’t “business as usual” at all.  Companies that weren’t (and still aren’t) bank holding companies were declared to be so and got money from the Fed and Treasury as a result.  Same for insurance companies and brokerage firms and car companies that remained as they were but got money still from the Congress or through sleight-of-hand by Fed chairman Bernanke.

Doing things “the way we’ve always done it” is what got us into this mess.

And the miracle of information technology makes it just as easy to send money to people as it is to take it from them in the form of taxes.  Saying that a bank has to be in the middle makes no sense at all. PayPal would gladly assume that function, if it is truly needed.

I’m beginning to realize we could have taken a completely different approach to the problem and simply treated the symptom, inserting what computer jocks call a “wait state” into the mortgage system so panic could subside, rational adjustments could be made, and life could be eased back to normal.

Remember that economies are cyclical and a lot of good financial planning is simply having enough reserves to survive until things get better.  That could have been our major economic tactic in dealing with the crisis in 2008. Instead of pumping $700 billion to $1.3 trillion (nobody knows the real number) into economic stimulus and bail-outs, the U.S. government could have simply paid everyone’s mortgage — EVERYONE’S — for six months.

There are 51 million mortgages in America and the average mortgage payment in 2006 was $1686, so paying everyone’s mortgage for six months would have cost $516 billion — hundreds of billions less than the Bush/Paulson/Obama/Geithner/Bernanke plan, and quicker, too.

The money that people would otherwise have used to make their mortgage payments could have gone in part for other things, making it effectively a huge economic stimulus in its own right.  With mortgages paid in full there would have been no foreclosures OR bank failures during that six month period.  Yes, there would still have been problems with the banking system that needed  correction, but there would have been six months to do the correcting.

Lehman Brothers would still be in business, Bear Stearns, too.  Merrill Lynch would be independent. AIG would not have failed. Even Bernie Madoff would probably still be in business — at least for awhile.

So why didn’t we do it that way?  Because it would have been putting women and children first.

I need a drink.