The party's over: Let's clean up

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John O'Connor, Editorial Director
John O'Connor, Editorial Director
As this goes to press, lawmakers are deciding how to set aside $700 billion or so for distressed financial institutions. Most sides seem to agree that a massive capital infusion is the only way to avoid a complete economic meltdown.

It's easy to blame this mess on the Wall Street swells who took the art and science of repackaging risky real estate loans to ridiculous extremes. Actually, blaming them is entirely justified.

After all, they almost singlehandedly brought our nation's economy to its knees. But they were just doing what they always do: trying to make as much money as quickly as possible. Getting angry at i-bankers for cutting deals is like getting angry at dogs for barking. What else would you expect?

By all accounts, this is the worst financial crisis our nation has faced in more than 70 years. But if you want to know what it's like to survive really tough times, ask some of your residents what they endured while growing up.
There appears to be a lot of seething resentment in the Heartland, and few people demand scalps as quickly as voters who believe they've been played. Millions of people are watching their retirement funds turn to dust while they're being forced to pay for Wall Street's latest bender. Of course they're furious.

As we sort through this mess, it's fair to ask what kinds of lessons can be taken from this episode. A few come to mind.

One is that while opinions legitimately vary on how much regulatory oversight the government should put in place, pretending to police is simply not acceptable. We're now seeing why.

My concern is that the backlash against recent decades of dwindling to non-existent oversight may push the pendulum dramatically in an opposite direction. The result, from the eldercare industry's view, could be new rules that make OBRA '87 seem like optional suggestions.

The second lesson is really the reprisal of an old one: When things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Real estate inflation has defied the usual laws of physics for most of the past decade. While general inflation has been hovering around 3%, the figure for land and the buildings atop it usually has been in the double-digit range. The conventional wisdom appeared to be that this misalignment could continue indefinitely. Apparently not.

While it's too soon to tell, I'm hoping the third lesson will be that the American economy is up to any challenge. We have faced tough times before, and we will again. But we've always rebounded. Does that mean there aren't important problems that need to be addressed? Of course not. But this truly is the land of opportunity. It's going to take more than a modern-day Ponzi scheme to change that. At least, let's hope so.
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