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Who Benefits From The Bailout?

David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his innovative coverage of our tax system, retired this year as a investigative reporter for The New York Times. He is the author of Free Lunch: How The Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expenses (and Stick You with the Bill).

So just who stands to benefit if Congress agrees to borrow another $700 billion to address what the administration says is a financial crisis that threatens to bring back Hoovervilles?

Who will bear the burdens, and who will receive the benefits, of the proposed fast-track bailout of Wall Street firms, banks and others who got rich selling financial products that some of have warned for years were toxic?

The burdens will fall on the taxpayers, who, if some version of the bailout goes through, will take the risk that they might get some of their money back, but may see the entire $700 billion go poof--and be asked to pony up more.  

If this goes badly we will be paying $35 billion a year in additional interest basically for the rest of all of our lives, money we will not have for investing in the future through education, research and fixing up our rotting infrastructure.

And who will benefit? The market knows.

Just look at what happened to shares of Goldman Sachs, the country's biggest investment bank and a major player in creating, selling, and dumping onto the less sophisticated the opaque financial products that are so toxic that the president says economic Armageddon is almost here.

Two weeks ago today, shares of Goldman Sachs traded as high as $161.77. But when the markets opened on Monday the volume of shares sold exploded and the price started dropping. By Thursday of last week they fell as low as $85.88, losing nearly half their value in a week.

What was even scarier was that the volume of shares traded was exploding, with more than seven times as many shares traded last Thursday as just six days before. The smart money was dumping Goldman faster than Superman can fly away from kryptonite.

Today, Goldman is trading as high as $137.99 a share.

The market believes that some sort of taxpayer bailout is coming, as does Warren Buffett, who put $5 billion of cash into Goldman this week because he, too, sees fat profits.

A sharp rise in shares of Goldman sounds reasonable to me. After all, the bailout plan was put forth by Henry Paulson, who was the chairman and CEO of Goldman before he was treasury secretary and who swung into action right when Goldman's shares appeared to be sinking like a Spanish galleon weighted down with too much gold.

Oh, by the way, Secretary Paulson was the guy in charge, and grew mega-rich, when Goldman was in the lead in pushing what it said were innovative financial products. And one does not rise to become head of Goldman (or keep that job) by doing anything less than making your underlings richer than they ever imagined possible, whether you are Henry Paulson, Jon Corzine, or Robert Rubin.

Now that is not to impugn Paulson's integrity. Based on the known facts, Mr. Paulson has worked himself to exhaustion trying to do what he thinks is right for the country.

But what he thinks is right is as shaped by where he worked and made his fortune and became the boss as your and my ideas on how best to solve a public issue are by our experience and background.

Make no mistake, this is a solution designed to help the Masters of the Universe directly in the expectation that economic salvation will trickle down to Main Street.

Don't take my word for who this plan is designed to help, either. Look at what the fiscally responsible Republicans are saying - they are against this deal, although with enough pressure, and promises of future favors, even they may wilt in the hours ahead.

By the way, to put $700 billion in perspective, it is the equivalent of a one-time 55 percent income tax surcharge on every American.

It will not be financed with cash, of course. Instead, the money will be borrowed. Think about that--borrowing to pay off for bad borrowing.

But then there is a way to spin this--your share of the interest bill will only be $116 a year. That's not much more than it takes to fill the gas tank each week on that SUV so many Americans financed by taking out new mortgages on homes that are now worth less than is owed on them, mortgages made possible by the financial geniuses at firms like Goldman Sachs.

--David Cay Johnston