In fact, it really does look as if the foundations of US capitalism have shattered. Since 1864, American banking has been split into commercial banks and investment banks. But now that’s changing. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch — overnight, some of the biggest names on Wall Street have disappeared into thin air. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are the only giants left standing. Despite tolerable quarterly results, even they have been hurt by mysterious slumps in prices and — at least in Morgan Stanley’s case — have prepared themselves for the end.
“Nothing will be like it was before,” said James Allroy, a broker who was brooding over his chai latte at a Starbucks on Wall Street. “The world as we know it is going down.” . . .
The only thing that is certain is that the era of the unbridled free-market economy in the US has passed — at least for now. The near nationalization of AIG, America’s largest insurance company, with an $85 billion cash infusion — a bill footed by taxpayers — was a staggering move. The sum is three times as high as the guarantee provided by the Federal Reserve when Bear Stearns was sold to JPMorgan Chase in March.
The most breathtaking aspect about this week’s crisis, though, is that the life raft — which Washington had only previously used to bail out the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — is being handed out by a government whose party usually fights against any form of government intervention. The policy is anchored in its party platform.“I fear the government has passed the point of no return,” financial historian Ron Chernow told the New York Times. “We have the irony of a free-market administration doing things that the most liberal Democratic administration would never have been doing in its wildest dreams.”
Friends, this is President Bush doing this! The Republicans! The conservatives! Barack Obama isn’t president yet, but the current administration may be outdoing him. Or, looked at another way, if the Republicans are so little committed to free market capitalism, what will the Democrats do?
Meanwhile, there are signs that the free market actually is working as it’s supposed to. Now that the price of houses in California has plunged, ordinary people can afford to buy their own homes again, so the housing market is booming. Now that the stock market has plummeted, cagy investors such as Warren Buffett are buying up companies at bargain rates. The market destroys but it also builds out of the rubble.