Dear Washington Post: It’s Still Not Nationalization

By October 15, 2008General

As documented in posts here and here yesterday, The Washington Post has called the Administration’s decision to invest $250 billion in banks “nationalization” and said the act represented a move “to partly nationlize.”

It’s an inaccurate and inflammatory terminology. Here in the United States, nationalization means a government takeover, control, ownership.

In today’s Post,  Dana Milbank uses the term, but he’s a columnist who specializes in political mockery, so who cares?  A front of the business section story also mentions nationalization, but only to describe Secretary Paulson’s objections to the appearances of nationalization. Harold Meyerson, a left-wing, anti-business Post columnist writes that “the most right-wing administration in modern American history [is] scurrying to nationalize the banks.” But Meyerson is a predictable scold and Bush detractor, so again, who cares?

Meanwhile, the editorialists and business writer Steven Pearlstein eschewed the term. All in all, seems like editors are doing their job. Except on Page A6, written early in the day by political reporter Dan Eggen, “Signaling a Shift to Europe’s Path“:

In announcing plans to partly nationalize nine major banks yesterday, President Bush found himself in the unusual position of having to reassure Americans that he was not, in fact, opposed to capitalism.

That’s just flat-out WRONG.

Treasury describes the capital purchase program here.

Under the program, Treasury will purchase up to $250 billion of senior preferred shares on standardized terms as described in the program’s term sheet. The program will be available to qualifying U.S. controlled banks, savings associations, and certain bank and savings and loan holding companies engaged only in financial activities that elect to participate before 5:00 pm (EDT) on November 14, 2008. Treasury will determine eligibility and allocations for interested parties after consultation with the appropriate federal banking agency.

The minimum subscription amount available to a participating institution is 1 percent of risk-weighted assets. The maximum subscription amount is the lesser of $25 billion or 3 percent of risk-weighted assets.

That’s not nationalizing. It’s not partly nationalizing. It’s the government buying shares in a bank in order to boost their capital, a major and even history-making policy and regulatory step, to be sure. But calling it partial nationalization does the reader a disservice.

Are we being too cranky? Too paranoid? Too distracted by trivia? Too amused by emulating a Soviet-era Kreminologist poring over the lines of Izvetsia?

Don’t think so. As Meyerson’s column demonstrates, the use of the term “nationalization” to describe the Administration’s actions is an element of a political attack.  A mulitprong attack, perhaps:

  • “Lousy plutocrats. They don’t believe in capitalism, just in lining their own pockets. We ought to really stick it to them. The caps on executive compensation are good, but next ….”
  • “Hey, we’ve already nationalized the banks. Why stop there?”

Ultimately, the most important reason the term should be dropped from the lexicon of serious, fair-minded journalists is because it misleads and misinforms the reader about an important matter during a time when markets and public confidence are fraying. Accuracy is essential.

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