Are We Courting a Populist Backlash?

The government is doing a lousy job helping distressed homeowners. And according to John Dugan, the Comptroller of the Currency, the little that’s been done has had surprisingly little effect. Nearly 36 percent of homeowners holding mortgages whose terms were adjusted to give them more leeway defaulted on payments within three months, and almost 53 percent were behind on payments by six months.

What’s going on? It’s hard to know for sure, because the homeowners who have qualified for help so far were supposed to have been fairly good credit risks to begin with. My guess is the worsening economy is making it harder for just about all homeowners to pay their mortgages, and those who were teetering on the edge months ago — although perhaps good credit risks before that time — are now way under water. Two of the biggest culprits: Layoffs and fewer working hours. With far less money coming in, more and more people have to choose between paying their mortgages and trying to keep up with larger and larger credit card debt. They’re trying to manage both while paying the medical bills and the food bills and energy bills, and they can’t make it.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of these Americans were starting to look at the size of the bailouts of Wall Street and the bailout of the Big Three — at the executives, well-paid professional employees, upscale creditors and shareholders, and even well-paid blue-collar workers, who are the major beneficiaries of this federal largesse — and conclude that a fundamental principle of fairness is being violated.

These Americans aren’t revolutionaries. To the contrary, they’re deeply conservative. They’ve worked hard, but their hard work hasn’t paid off. Some have tried to save, only to see their savings disappear. They’re worried about the future and about their kids’ futures. They never expected anything like this.

This is the angry soil in which populist backlashes can take root.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. 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.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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