Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson finally confirmed what lonely bailout opponents tried to tell the American public all along: The man doesn't know what the hell he's doing.
Paulson held a bazooka to taxpayers' heads. He groveled on his knees in front of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He lured leaders from both political parties into linking arms in a panicked Chicken Little line dance for the beleaguered mortgage industry. Paulson demanded an unprecedented $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program for the good of the country. For the health of the housing market. For the survival of the economy. No time for deliberation. No time to review the failures of such interventionist approaches around the world. Now, now, now!
And now? The pulled-out-of-the-posterior "$700 billion" price tag has ballooned into the trillions. The "mortgage industry rescue" has expanded to banks, insurance companies, automakers, credit card companies and possibly the entire national volume of consumer lending. Oh, and that vaunted "TARP" component, Paulson admitted this week, is nothing but a four-letter word that rhymes with TRAP.
In September, Paulson offered his lofty pledge: "The ultimate taxpayer protection will be the stability this troubled asset relief program provides to our financial system, even as it will involve a significant investment of taxpayer dollars. I am convinced that this bold approach will cost American families far less than the alternative -- a continuing series of financial institution failures and frozen credit markets unable to fund economic expansion."
Two months later, Paulson's conviction melted faster than microwaved butter. "Our assessment at this time is that this is not the most effective way to use TARP funds," he sheepishly told the nation Wednesday.
Hey, who died and put Emily "Never Mind" Litella in charge of the economy?
Paulson explained at his non-mea culpa press conference that he knew when the bailout was signed that it wasn't going to work as sold: "It was clear to me by the time the bill was signed on October 3 that we needed to act quickly and forcefully, and that purchasing troubled assets -- our initial focus -- would take time to implement and would not be sufficient given the severity of the problem."
Now he tells us? Would have been nice if he had made this clear -- quickly, forcefully and publicly -- to the Beltway stooges who were pulling the TARP over our eyes. So much for Paulson's earnest transparency commitments on the Hill.