So, who should go to jail?
John McCain insists that the financial crisis is the direct result of Wall Street's "unbridled corruption and greed." Sarah Palin says likewise. Senator Obama, for the most part, has merely echoed what Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has already said. Obama has an excuse though: He hasn't finished conducting his seminar on what's going on; he'll get back to us after a rousing multivariate analysis of the value of "decisiveness." Joe Biden says the Wall Street crisis is the result of George W. Bush's tax cuts, which makes as much sense as blaming the rising price of fairy dust. But as a wise man once asked, Who gives a rat's patoot what Joe Biden thinks?
Nonetheless, blame is settling on those old standby scapegoats, Wall Street fat cats.
So, I ask again: Who should go to jail? And the answer, as far as I can tell, is: no one - at least no one on Wall Street. That may turn out to be wrong. But even if there's a bad penny or two in the pile, nobody will say this CEO or that banker is responsible for the mess. And so far, despite a flood of coverage and speeches and finger-pointing, nobody's aimed their bony finger of condemnation at any Wall Street fat cat who did anything criminal.
Criminal stupidity is another issue entirely. But the beautiful thing about our economic system is that bad decisions are punished in the marketplace.
The starting line for the parade of falling dominoes doesn't begin on Wall Street. Nor, alas, will the parade end there. But if you want to know where it really begins, look to the Capitol steps.
The self-proclaimed angels in Washington will tell you they've been working tirelessly to expand the American dream of homeownership by making mortgages available to people unable to plunk down 20 percent on a house. Franklin Raines, the Clinton-appointed former head of Fannie Mae from 1998 to 2004, made it his top priority to make mortgages easier to get for people with poor credit, few assets and little money for a down payment.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, reinterpreted the Jimmy Carter-era Community Reinvestment Act to politicize lending practices. Under the CRA, the government forced banks to prove they weren't "redlining" - i.e., discriminating against minorities - by approving loans to minorities and various left-wing "community group" shakedown artists whether they were bad risks or not. (A young Barack Obama got his start with exactly these sorts of groups.) Sen. Phil Gramm called it a vast extortion scheme against America's banks. Still, the banks were perfectly happy to pass the risky loans to Raines' Fannie Mae, which was happy to buy them up.