The 3 AM Call

Monday, 29 September 2008 11:15 By Paul Krugman, The New York Times | name.

The 3 AM Call
(Photo: Redhotphones.com)

    It's 3 a.m., a few months into 2009, and the phone in the White House rings. Several big hedge funds are about to fail, says the voice on the line, and there's likely to be chaos when the market opens. Whom do you trust to take that call?

    I'm not being melodramatic. The bailout plan released yesterday is a lot better than the proposal Henry Paulson first put out - sufficiently so to be worth passing. But it's not what you'd actually call a good plan, and it won't end the crisis. The odds are that the next president will have to deal with some major financial emergencies.

    So what do we know about the readiness of the two men most likely to end up taking that call? Well, Barack Obama seems well informed and sensible about matters economic and financial. John McCain, on the other hand, scares me.

    About Mr. Obama: it's a shame that he didn't show more leadership in the debate over the bailout bill, choosing instead to leave the issue in the hands of Congressional Democrats, especially Chris Dodd and Barney Frank. But both Mr. Obama and the Congressional Democrats are surrounded by very knowledgeable, clear-headed advisers, with experienced crisis managers like Paul Volcker and Robert Rubin always close at hand.

    Then there's the frightening Mr. McCain - more frightening now than he was a few weeks ago.

    We've known for a long time, of course, that Mr. McCain doesn't know much about economics - he's said so himself, although he's also denied having said it. That wouldn't matter too much if he had good taste in advisers - but he doesn't.

    Remember, his chief mentor on economics is Phil Gramm, the arch-deregulator, who took special care in his Senate days to prevent oversight of financial derivatives - the very instruments that sank Lehman and A.I.G., and brought the credit markets to the edge of collapse. Mr. Gramm hasn't had an official role in the McCain campaign since he pronounced America a "nation of whiners," but he's still considered a likely choice as Treasury secretary.

    And last year, when the McCain campaign announced that the candidate had assembled "an impressive collection of economists, professors, and prominent conservative policy leaders" to advise him on economic policy, who was prominently featured? Kevin Hassett, the co-author of "Dow 36,000." Enough said.

    Now, to a large extent the poor quality of Mr. McCain's advisers reflects the tattered intellectual state of his party. Has there ever been a more pathetic economic proposal than the suggestion of House Republicans that we try to solve the financial crisis by eliminating capital gains taxes? (Troubled financial institutions, by definition, don't have capital gains to tax.)

    But even President Bush has, in the twilight of his administration, turned to relatively sensible people to make economic decisions: I'm not a fan of Mr. Paulson, but he's a vast improvement over his predecessor. At this point, one has the suspicion that a McCain administration would have us longing for Bush-era competence.

    The real revelation of the last few weeks, however, has been just how erratic Mr. McCain's views on economics are. At any given moment, he seems to have very strong opinions - but a few days later, he goes off in a completely different direction.

    Thus on Sept. 15 he declared - for at least the 18th time this year - that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." This was the day after Lehman failed and Merrill Lynch was taken over, and the financial crisis entered a new, even more dangerous stage.

    But three days later he declared that America's financial markets have become a "casino," and said that he'd fire the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission - which, by the way, isn't in the president's power.

    And then he found a new set of villains - Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored lenders. (Despite some real scandals at Fannie and Freddie, they played little role in causing the crisis: most of the really bad lending came from private loan originators.) And he moralistically accused other politicians, including Mr. Obama, of being under Fannie's and Freddie's financial influence; it turns out that a firm owned by his own campaign manager was being paid by Freddie until just last month.

    Then Mr. Paulson released his plan, and Mr. McCain weighed vehemently into the debate. But he admitted, several days after the Paulson plan was released, that he hadn't actually read the plan, which was only three pages long.

    O.K., I think you get the picture.

    The modern economy, it turns out, is a dangerous place - and it's not the kind of danger you can deal with by talking tough and denouncing evildoers. Does Mr. McCain have the judgment and temperament to deal with that part of the job he seeks?

Last modified on Monday, 29 September 2008 11:58