The national credit card

Published 7:20 pm Friday, November 7, 2008

There is no issue weighing more heavily on the minds of Americans now than our nation’s economy.

Virginians are facing shrinking retirement accounts, reduced home equity and rising energy, food and college-tuition costs. Americans are frustrated with the lack of leadership in Washington and the lack of accountability on Wall Street. They are suspicious and feel deceived by their leaders — especially as they learn of luxurious retreats and exorbitant “golden parachutes” for executives of companies “bailed out” with the money they worked hard to earn.

Most personally, though, they are anxious about their own family’s financial future. Americans have watched their retirement accounts plummet right along with the hopes and plans they had made for these years. They are disillusioned with the daily roller-coaster ride of the stock market and the ever-changing implications that has for their future. They are concerned that their most valuable asset — their home — will continue to decline in value and how that will impact their ability to sell it if they choose to do so. They are anxious that they won’t have money left over after paying their monthly bills; worried that should they need to borrow money they won’t be able to; and nervous that continued economic decline could mean they won’t be able to save enough for their children’s college education, or worse yet that cutbacks at their company could mean they lose their job altogether.

It is no wonder that many Americans — myself included — wanted to believe that a silver-bullet Wall Street bailout could put our anxiety and fears over the economy to rest. But while we wanted, and still want, a clear, immediate and sure-fire fix to this financial crisis, sadly, the recognition that one does not necessarily exist has set in with many Americans. Many recognize, as perhaps their instincts originally told them, that the bailout plan may help people in the financial-services industry but will not do a lot to address the immediate concerns of everyday Americans.

Recently, I heard a speech from an individual who had made millions on Wall Street in which he said that Wall Street still operated today with the same values of hometown America. He went on to say how complex the situation with the economy was and that most of us were just not smart enough to understand why it was so important to spend $700 billion to cover the mistakes of his colleagues.

As I was listening to him, I could not help but think that he had a different set of hometown values than I had. I do not recognize the hometown value that allowed executives to run their companies in the ground and then spend $440,000 on a lavish retreat while taxpayers were paying to keep their company alive. I also do not recognize the hometown value of a business executive virtually bankrupting his company who drew $34 million in compensation and who was then hired as a consultant for that same company at $1 million per month.

I also think the individual was wrong to indicate that most of us were just not smart enough to understand the problem. In this case, I think Americans understand the problem all too well.

Americans knew the basic principles that had built America had not changed. The problem was that too many people in the financial sector had strayed from those principles.

Americans knew also that the first thing we needed to do was to strengthen our banks, because hometown America depended on those banks to survive. We could have done this by reforming the mark-to-market accounting required by the SEC, by fully insuring FDIC accounts, and by issuing “fair value” certificates to our banks like we did in the 1980s to allow them time to work out of their problems.

Finally, Americans knew that 70 percent of our economy depended on consumer confidence through consumer spending and that the core of that confidence is one word — trust. Until we restore that trust, all the bailouts the federal credit card can make will never put our economy on a path of long-term stability. That’s why many of us voted against the bailout, and unfortunately it seems clear now that we were right.