The International Herald Tribune explains to the world that the U.S. has history of intervention, including nationalizing companies. The article notes that whereas the term “nationalizing” is OK to use in Europe, we aren’t supposed to use that word in Americca:
In other countries, the government bank-investment programs are routinely called nationalization programs. But that is not likely in America, where nationalization is a word to avoid, given the cultural aversion to anything that hints of socialism.
“Putting this plan on the table makes a lot of sense, but you can’t call it nationalization here,” said Simon Johnson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. “In France, it is fine, but not in the United States.”
In times of war and national emergency, Washington has not hesitated. In 1917, the government seized the railroads to make sure goods, armaments and troops moved smoothly in the interests of national defense during World War I. Bondholders and stockholders were compensated, and railroads were returned to private ownership in 1920, after the war ended.
During World War II, Washington seized dozens of companies including railroads, coal mines and, briefly, the Montgomery Ward department store chain. In 1952, President Harry Truman seized 88 steel mills across the country, asserting that unyielding owners were determined to provoke an industry-wide strike that would cripple the Korean War effort. That forced nationalization did not last long, since the Supreme Court ruled the action an unconstitutional abuse of presidential power.
In banking, the U.S. government stepped in to take an 80 percent stake in the Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust in 1984. Continental Illinois failed in part because of bad oil-patch loans in Oklahoma and Texas. As one of the country’s top 10 banks, Continental Illinois was deemed “too big to fail” by regulators, who feared wider turmoil in the financial markets. Continental was sold to Bank of America in 1994.
Yet the nearest precedent for the plan the Treasury is weighing, finance experts say, is the investments made by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in the 1930s. The agency, established in 1932, not only made loans to distressed banks but also bought stock in 6,000 banks, at a total cost of about $3 billion, said Richard Sylla, an economist and financial historian at the Stern School of Business at New York University.
A similar effort these days, in proportion to the current economy, would be $400 to $500 billion, Sylla said.
When the economy eventually stabilized, the government sold the stock to private investors or the banks themselves.
That program was a good one, experts say, but the U.S. government moved too slowly to deal with the financial crisis, which precipitated and lengthened the Great Depression. The lesson of history, it seems, is for Washington to move quickly in times of economic crisis to revive the patient.
So we did it before, though it was once ruled unconstitutional and an abuse of presidential power. Doesn’t that constitute a legal precedent? Why does this not make me feel better?