By Rosa Brooks, Special to the Los Angeles Times
Brother, can you spare $22 billion?
Back in the Great Depression, the song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" epitomized all the hurt that was going around:
Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
There's been some inflation since the 1930s. Today's panhandlers don't humbly ask passersby for a dime. Instead, they go to Congress and ask for a spare $22 billion or so.
That's what General Motors and Chrysler demanded Tuesday on Capitol Hill, in a form of panhandling that felt more like a stickup: "Give us another $22 billion or hundreds of thousands of autoworkers get the ax!"
If the iconic images of the Depression were of individuals -- a scruffy child in castoff clothes, a hollow-eyed mother in a bread line -- the iconic image of the current economic crisis is likely to be that of the ravenous corporation insisting, every month or so, it needs just a few billion dollars more.
It's not that the crisis has produced no needy individuals. Early indicators suggest a sharp rise in hunger, homelessness and every variety of human suffering. But don't think Congress is going to hand out huge wads of cash to the hungry or the newly homeless. In America, we only bail out banks and big corporations.
It's a sorry truth of modern human psychology that the more you already have, the more people will give you. In a classic experiment, well-dressed researchers posed as commuters who had lost their wallets and asked passersby for $20 to buy a train ticket home. Complete strangers gladly parted with large sums. In contrast, when the same researchers posed as homeless people asking for money to buy food, most either got a rude brushoff or loose change.
The same holds true for charitable giving. Most philanthropic money goes to institutions that are already wealthy (universities with large endowments, for instance) or arts organizations with largely affluent "clients." Only a tiny fraction goes to organizations that provide social services to the needy.
Apparently taking these insights to heart, many of the nation's largest corporations and banks continue to hit up the government for trillions in taxpayer dollars. No surprise that they're mostly getting what they ask for. So far, the government (that means you, girls and boys!) is on the hook for an estimated $8.7 trillion in assorted bailouts. There's $700 billion for the TARP, $300 billion for Citigroup, $17.4 billion already handed out to automakers, plus a lot of other bailout programs, most of which you've probably never heard of.
As they say on the Hill, "a billion here, a billion there ... pretty soon you're talking about real money." How real? That $8.7 trillion is more than the U.S. government spent on the Louisiana Purchase, the New Deal, World War II, the Marshall Plan and the Vietnam War -- combined.
The theory is that bailing out banks, the auto industry and other corporate giants will trickle down to the rest of us.
Too bad it doesn't seem to be working. Those bank loans that were supposed to start flowing as a result of the TARP? They didn't. The 20 biggest banks that received federal bailout funds gave out, on average, less mortgage and business loan money in the last quarter of 2008 than in previous quarters. Credit-card lending was up slightly, but those same banks also jacked up interest rates. And there's little comfort for those concerned about their retirement funds: On Tuesday, the Dow plummeted to pre-bailout levels.
Don't expect the auto industry bailout to produce better results. Detroit was in trouble before the economic crisis began because it couldn't produce reliable, efficient cars that people actually wanted to buy. Its restructuring proposals do little to change that. The bailouts seem to be so much taxpayer money going into a black hole, and the business plans the companies filed Tuesday anticipate that they'll need billions more.
What if the government focused on bailing out ordinary Americans instead? Divvy up the $8.7-trillion estimated bailout price tag and Uncle Sam could send every single household a check for nearly $80,000. Who knows -- maybe ordinary Americans would have put that money to good use, buying goods, starting businesses, sending kids to college.
I know, that's just a naive fantasy. Unlike the American bank, the American family isn't "too big to fail." So let's keep giving handouts to those downtrodden banks and corporations, and work on some updated lyrics to the old song:
Once I built a bank, it was such fun -- sold credit default swaps by the million.
Once I built a bank; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a billion?
Brooks is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center