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Robert Reich: The Real Difference Between Bankruptcy and Bailout

November 12, 2008

Robert Reich

When a big company that gets into trouble is more valuable living than dead, there used to be a well-established legal process for reorganizing it – called chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. Under it, creditors took some losses, shareholders even bigger ones, some managers’ heads rolled. Companies cleaned up their books and got a fresh start. And taxpayers didn’t pay a penny.

So why, exactly, is the Treasury substituting government bailouts for chapter 11? Even if you assume Wall Street’s major banks and insurance giant AIG are so important to the national and global economy that they can’t be allowed to fail, that doesn’t mean they have to be bailed out. They could be reorganized under bankruptcy protection. True, their creditors, shareholders, and executives would take bigger hits than they’re taking now that taxpayers are bailing them out. But they’re the ones who took the risk. We didn’t.

It would be different if Main Street was getting something out of all this. But credit still isn’t flowing to small businesses or distressed homeowners, and unemployment is skyrocketing.

The Treasury seems to have lost sight of its real client. It’s client is not the creditors, shareholders, or executives of any of these firms. Its sole client is the American people.

It would be different if Main Street was getting something out of all this. But credit still isn’t flowing to small businesses or distressed homeowners, and unemployment is skyrocketing.

There’s more at stake for Main Street when it comes to General Motors and other automakers now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, because two and a half million households depend directly or indirectly on them for their paychecks. But the best way to protect all these people is not to pay off the automakers’ creditors, shareholders, and executives, with no strings attached. Recall that when the government bailed out Chrysler in the early 1980s, a third of its employees lost their jobs.

In exchange for government aid, the Big Three’s creditors, shareholders, and executives should be required to accept losses as large as they’d endure under chapter 11, and the UAW should agree to some across-the-board wage and benefit cuts. The resulting savings, combined with the bailout, should be enough to allow the Big Three to shift production to more fuel efficient cars while keeping almost all its current workforce employed. Ideally, major parts suppliers would adhere to the same conditions.

Remember: The underlying goal is to help Americans through this crisis and come out of it with a stronger economy.

Remember: The underlying goal is to help Americans through this crisis and come out of it with a stronger economy.

And what a tragedy it would be if the government spends so much on these bailouts there isn’t enough money left for the next administration to help average people get affordable health insurance, send their kids to good schools, and find good jobs — including jobs rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and finding alternative sources of energy.

It’s not the big guys who need rescuing. It’s the small. Right now, the government has its priorities upside down.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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