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The More Things Change...

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The country now has a new secretary of the treasury who sounds a lot like the old one. Maybe because Timothy Geithner was at Henry Paulson's right hand when that now former secretary of the treasury was doing everything he could think of (and re-think of) to save the country's and the world's financial superstructure. Which is still unsteady, Some say unsteadier.


To quote Mr. Geithner's boss over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who's also new on the job: "Tim's work and the work of the entire Treasury Department must begin at once. We cannot lose a day because every day the economic picture is darkening here and across the globe."

Some of us just hope Mr. Geithner will move faster on the country's problems than he did on his own, specifically his back taxes, which he neglected to pay for years, then paid only in part.

He'd made the same "careless mistakes" in earlier years, but Citizen Geithner was by now beyond the reach of the law for those way-past-due taxes, and he didn't pay them. Why do more than the minimal if you don't absolutely have to? So long as you're doing the legal thing, why bother about doing the right thing?

Not till he was being considered as secretary of the treasury did Tim Geithner cough up all the money he should have paid in the first place. That was surely the most troubling aspect of his nomination; it hints at calculation rather than just carelessness.

To quote The Hon. Robert Byrd, West Virginia's very senior senator, on Mr. Geithner's ethical threshold in these matters: "Had he not been nominated for treasury secretary, it's doubtful that he would have ever paid those taxes." For once Sen. Byrd, that great muddy font of endless oratorical folderol, may have said something short and to the point. No wonder a number of senators (34) refused to confirm Mr. Geithner's nomination.

But now Timothy Geithner is going to be responsible for collecting taxes from those of us who obey the law -- or at least make a stab at it, for the monstrous Internal Revenue Code is scarcely decipherable even to certified public accountants.


No, this is not a propitious start for an administration of Hope and Change, which is now just trying to do its best with what it's got -- perhaps not the most idealistic course but a realistic one.

The Age of Hamilton is definitely past, and the pickings are lean when it comes to national leaders of both genius and honor. Perfection is not to be achieved in this less than perfect world. An acceptable if not admirable choice, Mr. Geithner will have to do. Sad to say, he may be the best man, warts and all, for the job.

Secretary Geithner certainly has the requisite experience for his new assignment, and what is experience but another name for having made mistakes? The country will surely wish him the best, for as he succeeds, so may the rest of us.

For another important office, whom does our brave new president and harbinger of Hope and Change choose to head the Securities and Exchange Commission? That agency is much in need of rehabilitation after its last commissioner (Christopher Cox) pretty well destroyed its reputation for sharp-eyed regulation of the markets.

The new broom turns out to be an old one: Mary Schapiro. She was the head of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA for mercifully short) that pretty much ignored one warning after another from financial analysts about the now notorious Bernard Madoff. They rightly suspected he was running a Ponzi scheme that would have out-Ponzi'd Charles Ponzi himself.

But the only thing FINRA did was lecture Mr. Madoff about minor and purely technical violations. Which was a bit like issuing Enron's executives a warning ticket for double parking.


Once again the new president's need for an experienced hand in the financial markets has outweighed his rhetoric (and only rhetoric) about change. He may have low-rated experience during his presidential campaign, but now he seems to feel the need for it.

After all, what was the alternative to appointing these flawed characters?

(And who is not flawed?) Appointing someone who knew nothing about the securities market, except perhaps how to denounce it, would have been a much worse decision -- though it would certainly have pleased the nation's know-nothings on both the left and right.

Barack Obama, despite the messianic hopes he raised, turns out to be only human after all. The good news is that, by making these appointments, he seems to have recognized that he is -- and must do the best he can with the imperfect instruments he's got, to wit Tim Geithner and Mary Schapiro.

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