Like most statists and interventionists, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson raises the economic equivalent of monsters under the bed when justifying more government. Here’s a blurb from a story about his recent testimony on Capitol Hill:
…former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on Wednesday defended his decision to complete a $182 billion bailout of American International Group Inc., arguing that the unemployment rate would have risen easily to 25% without the bailout. “If the system had collapsed millions more in savings would have been lost,” said Paulson, who was Treasury Secretary at the time of the bailout, at a hearing. “Industrial companies of all size would not have been able to raise funding and they would not have been able to pay employees, this would have rippled through the economy.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume he is right and that the economy would have collapsed without huge amounts of money being pumped into the financial system. Does that justify Paulson giving money to his friends on Wall Street? Not at all. The crowd in Washington could have used what’s known as the FDIC-resolution approach, which would have resulted in the government paying healthy financial institution to take over the insolvent ones. In effect, this is what happened during the savings & loan crisis twenty years ago. It’s not an ideal libertarian solution since tax dollars are pumped into the financial system and there is some degree of increased moral hazard since consumers/customers have less reason to monitor the safety and soundness of the banks they patronize. But the FDIC-resolution approach has one enormously good feature, at least compared to the Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner bailout: Bad banks are shut down, meaning that shareholders lose all their money and senior managers lose their jobs.
There was no justification for bailing out the institutions that went under water. To the extent a system-wide collapse was a real possibility, the FDIC-resolution approach would have worked. Indeed, it would have worked much better since the economy would not be plagued by the zombie banks that are only alive because of handouts from the Treasury (similar to what happened in Japan). But politicians instead chose the approach that was bad for the economy, but good for raising campaign cash and increasing the power of government.