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Frum: Banks are OK, but who cares?

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[CORRECTION 9/16/10: David Frum’s commentary about voters blaming President Obama and other politicians for a bank bailout that he believes saved the financial system omitted when the TARP lending program to banks began. It began before President Obama took office and has continued under his administration.]

Kai Ryssdal: With the primaries last night, we are now basically set for the fall elections. We know who’s going to be running against whom. And we know what we’re in for: Weeks of campaign ads about the direction of the country, how to bring back jobs and what to do to fix the economy.

Commentator David Frum has some observations about that intersection of politics and the economy.

David Frum: In the first days of the Obama Administration, early in 2009, an important decision had to be made. America’s banks had racked up $1.5 trillion in losses during the financial crises — more than their combined total capital. The banks were bankrupt.

Some economists argued that the best choice was to follow the example of Sweden in the 1990s: The government should nationalize all the banks, sift through the wreckage, transfer bad assets to a single government-owned “bad bank,” and then return the cleaned-up banks to private ownership.

This option was shot down by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and economic adviser Larry Summers. They advocated government help to recapitalize the banks without taking them into government ownership. And that is what happened.

The private banking sector has now recovered its profitability. It is rebuilding its reserves, and the banks have repaid most of the TARP loans they received from the government.

Everybody happy? Far from it. The TARP bailout may have averted a global depression, but it violated just about every idea of fair play. Voters don’t care that things might have been worse; you get no marks in politics for beating the spread. Dissatisfied voters seem almost certain to administer severe punishment to the administration in November.

Bailouts have become poison for Republicans too. In Utah, Republican Senator Bob Bennett lost his party’s nomination in large part because of his vote for the TARP bailout.

You can save the world — but still lose your job.

Politicians will learn different lessons from this story. Some will learn: Don’t stick your neck out for anybody. But there’s another possible lesson too: We’re all headed to retirement sooner or later, whether we like it or not. It’s not a bad thing to be able to tell your fellow retirees that you did something big and important during your time on the job.

Ryssdal: David Frum spent time writing speeches for President George W. Bush. He’s now the editor of Frum Forum. Next week in the rotation, Robert Reich is back.

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