Ellen Goodman

BOSTON – I don’t know too many economists who get confused with preachers. But there are times when they talk about virtue and temptation as if they were free-market holy rollers.

BOSTON – I don’t know too many economists who get confused with preachers. But there are times when they talk about virtue and temptation as if they were free-market holy rollers.

Consider the phrase that has been popping up all over the Bear Stearns debacle: “moral hazard.” No, Moral Hazard is not the name of a country and western singer. It’s the phrase economists use to explain why people shouldn’t be protected from the consequences of their actions. In The Wall Street Journal’s definition, moral hazards are “the distortions introduced by the prospect of not having to pay for your sins.”

The idea began as an argument against insurance. If you had fire insurance, you’d be careless around matches. Zap, more fires. In recent decades, it’s been used as a righteous reason for shredding safety social nets and toughening laws like those against declaring bankruptcy. Such safety nets, it’s argued, only encouraged more sinners, excuse me, welfare mothers and bankrupt families.

The same language of morality has been used by economic fundamentalists who don’t want to help homeowners who got subprime mortgage loans and found find themselves in deep foreclosure weeds. Mike Huckabee once said that it “is not the purpose of government to prop people up from every poor decision they make. … It creates an enabling co-dependency.” And as recently as last weekend, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson insisted that government actions to prevent foreclosures would “do more harm than they would do good.”

I grant you that moral hazard is not a myth. But most of the sermons railing against the harm of helping others are directed at the poorer pews.

We don’t seem to worry about the moral hazard of, say, protecting a CEO from his failings. Need I remind you that Robert Nardelli got $210 million in severance after he hammered Home Depot? Or that he now resides at the top of Chrysler? What lesson did other chief executives learn from the Citigroup CEO who had $64 billion in market value evaporate on his watch and nevertheless exited with a $68 million package and a $1.7 million pension?

This leads us right into the den of Bear Stearns. Last weekend, while its chief executive was off playing bridge, one of the most aggressive, cowboy firms in the mortgage securities business collapsed. The government brokered a deal with J.P. Morgan Chase to buy the firm and guarantee its loans with your tax dollars.

Bailout is too strong a word for what happened. Teaspooned-out would be better. The Bear Stearns worker bees looking at their life savings and pensions disappear are not flitting off to the beach, although I was charmed to note that the company will have grief counselors at hand. But it is true that the government went to the rescue.

Suddenly, the risk of sin took a back seat to the risk of a full-scale economic disaster. As Rep. Barney Frank, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, says ruefully, “People in the financial community were able to take sectors of the economy hostage and we have to pay a ransom. The best we can hope for is to keep the ransom as low as possible and help the least undeserving.”

Is there a Sunday school lesson here? Economic fundamentalists preach that the market – that wonderfully anthropomorphized creature – needs absolute freedom to operate. As Jacob Hacker, author of “The Great Risk Shift,” says, “We’ve had this massive shift of economic risk from government to people. We got blinded by the idea that economic innovation benefits all of us. It’s not true.” The unregulated creativity to buy and bundle mortgages made many of these firms a real bundle. But when the scheme tanked, they too ran for help. If we’re going to rescue, we have to regulate.

And before we wrap up the sermon, a last word. If a financial firm is “too big to fail” – a status I’ve always aspired to – why aren’t homeowners? They too are on the brink of destroying not only themselves but their communities. At the very least, Frank and Sen. Chris Dodd have introduced homeowner bills that would contain and share the damage.

Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of Republicans, used to say, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” This notion infiltrated the national consciousness. Any sort of government help was framed as hapless, useless or, yes, a moral hazard.

Reagan’s line always got a belly laugh. Well, folks, not in this Bear (Stearns) market.