Steve Chapman

But if a stock market's performance is the test of a policy, this one has failed. At best, the passage of the measure did no evident good. At worst, it backfired.

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron suspects the latter. "The bailout approach will generate uncertainty about what's going to happen," he told me. "It's quite plausible that it has not calmed markets because no one knows what it means."

Instead of stimulating productive activity by removing doubt, it has impeded it by multiplying doubt. It has also encouraged lenders to hold off dealing with their bad debt in hopes of getting a better deal from the Treasury than they can dream of getting from anyone else. But postponing the banks' rendezvous with reality will not speed recovery.

The sheer size and unprecedented nature of the intervention generates a different kind of uncertainty -- about how extensively the federal government will immerse itself in the economy from now on. The spectacle of Washington nationalizing private assets is bound to dishearten millions of investors who think that generally, the most helpful economic role for government is staying out of the way.

The rescue surrenders an important principle: that private sector mistakes should be borne by the people who make them. If the bailout means we may all get the bill anytime a company implodes, it will undermine the critical incentives of the market. In the long run, that will not strengthen the economy but weaken it.

Ditto if it means we are resolved to do the impossible -- namely, live indefinitely even further and further beyond our means. Which, by the way, it does.

But none of this will deter our policymakers from sticking to their approach. Waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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