There remains, however, the "TARP Recipient Ownership Trust Act," introduced by Sen. Bob Corker, another Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. It says that when the government owns more than 20 percent of a company (today, AIG, Citigroup and GM), that stake will be controlled by an independent trust administered by three unpaid trustees appointed by the president. The trust would have two primary responsibilities.
One would be to guarantee that the companies are run not as political pawns but as profit-making entities seeking to maximize shareholder value. As Alexander notes, "there are at least 60 congressional committees and subcommittees authorized to hold hearings on auto companies and most of them will, probably many times." Another responsibility would be to divest the government's ownership stake by Dec. 24, 2011, thereby giving friends of private enterprise a merry Christmas. That, however, would be a lump of coal in the stockings of many giddy people in today's Washington.
Even more than the New Deal and the Great Society, Obama's agenda expresses the mentality of a class that was nascent in the 1930s but burgeoned in the 1960s and 1970s. The spirit of that class is described in Saul Bellow's 1975 novel "Humboldt's Gift." In it Bellow wrote that the modern age began when a particular class of people decided, excitedly, that life had "lost the ability to arrange itself":
"It had to be arranged. Intellectuals took this as their job. ... This arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project. A man like Humboldt, inspired, shrewd, nutty, was brimming over with the discovery that the human enterprise, so grand and infinitely varied, had now to be managed by exceptional persons. He was an exceptional person, therefore he was an eligible candidate for power."
So, shrewd and nutty people such as Rep. Barney Frank are brimful of excitement about arranging American life. What will stop them? The president accurately says Americans are "reluctant shareholders" of GM, AIG and Citigroup. But is he?
If the Corker-Warner legislation is defeated, as Alexander's bill was, on an essentially party-line vote, this will be redundant proof that Obama's professed reluctance is fictitious. If it is, then what is real is what the Democratic left desires, an Obama Doctrine that says the trumpet of state capitalism -- capital increasingly controlled from Capitol Hill and the Treasury Department -- will never sound retreat.