Don’t Waste Two Months

Posted Dec. 04, 2008, at 4:53 p.m.

This interregnum seems interminable. Barack Obama was elected president on Nov. 4 and now the country must wait until Jan. 20 for him to take over from George W. Bush.

It would have been an uneasy gap in any case. But it catches the United States (and the rest of the world) in the throes of financial crisis, recession and panic. All this on top of an outgoing administration that seems unable to make up its mind what to do about it all. Only this week did the Bureau of Economic Research tell us that we have been in a recession for a year. And things are getting worse day by day.

The Bush administration, after months of Hoover-like assurances that recovery was just around the corner, at last realizes the seriousness of the crisis. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has suggested that steps other than a further reduction of short-term interest rates may be in store to deal with soft spots in the job market, household finances, exports and financial markets. But Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has been lurching from one remedy to another, in a worsening economy that, to be sure, keeps changing.

What is urgently needed is decisive leadership and a clear and public understanding and explanation of what went wrong and a plan for fixing it. President-elect Obama’s new economic team seems ready and capable of performing that function. It should and probably will soon lay out such a diagnosis and plan of action without waiting for Inauguration Day. And the head of a new congressional panel to monitor the bailout, Elizabeth Warren, can be expected to help set an overall framework in the panel’s first report due Dec. 10. She told The New York Times: “Our role is to make sure that the right questions are asked as early as possible.”

The new Congress should get to work as soon as it convenes on Jan. 6 on the start of a new economic plan. It is also possible that President Bush will call the lawmakers back for a December session to complete the business they left unfinished in November.

Basic decisions await action by the new president and the new Congress on how to halt what looks like a spiraling descent into depression. Major questions await answers.

Among them is why credit isn’t moving through the system and whether the banks actually do or do not have enough money to lend.

Another is whether to extend help to ordinary folks as well as the banks and the huge troubled corporations.

Still another is how to regulate compensation in entities being bailed out, so as to attract skilled top executives and hold onto skilled subordinates without further enriching the people whose greed and ignorance got us into this mess.

Above all, should we save all the tottering corporations or let the unfit go bankrupt in a sort of financial Darwinism?

We need a plan, not the present Dutch-boy model of sticking a finger in every new hole in the dike.

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