On May 2, 2011, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent his third ultimatum to Congress noting that the US is set to reach its statutory debt limit of $14.3 trillion by May 16, and unless the ceiling was raised by August 2, the country could face default. ‘The economy is still in the early stages of recovery,’ he warned, ‘and financial markets here and around the world are watching the United States closely. Delaying action risks a loss of confidence and accompanying negative economic effects.’ These will have a ‘catastrophic economic impact’ and ‘broad range of government payments would have to be stopped, limited or delayed, including military salaries, Social Security and Medicare payments, interest on debt, unemployment benefits and tax refunds.’ It will also lead to ‘sharply higher interest rates and borrowing costs, declining home values and reduced retirement savings for Americans.’ Mostly ominously, it will ‘cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.’
The situation doubtless sounds dire, but there is something mildly ironic about a Treasury Secretary warning the government against losing the trust of an industry which he only recently rescued with an extraordinary cash transfusion of $4.1 trillion in public money. The real costs of the bailout are estimated by Bloomberg at $ 12.8 trillion. But it is easy to overlook the consistency in Geithner’s assessment: the US government was a hostage to the financial industry when it faced collapse, and it is a hostage to it when its own economic future turns increasingly uncertain. The doubling of US national debt between 2004 and 2011 is merely a symptom of the problem—two wars and the bailout have both paid a part—but at its root are the regulatory failures and conflict of interests which are embodied in the person of Timothy Geithner. For over two decades the US Treasury has functioned as a de facto arm of Wall Street, eschewing its regulatory function to act as a passive enabler. Little surprise then that three years after the crisis the institutions that caused the collapse continue to evade responsibility and the price is instead paid by the taxpayer in exorbitant, lost homes and depleting employment opportunities.
How did things go so bad?