Name the crisis the $700 billion bailout is designed to tackle

As the debate goes on over whether Congress should approve a $700 billion bailout for the financial industry, I think we need to be clear on one thing:

This is not a plan to fix the U.S. economy. This is a plan that’s intended to stem the credit crisis.

The credit markets are certainly an important subset of the $14 trillion U.S. economy. But even if Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke convince Congress to OK some sort of bailout, the U.S. economy will remain weak.

No one’s calling for robust growth in gross domestic product. Consumer spending is trending down. Employers are cutting jobs and the unemployment rate has been on the rise.

A $700 billion TARP (which stands for the “troubled asset relief program” that Paulson invoked in his testimony) isn’t going to make us all feel like making this the best Christmas ever.

Far from it. As a nation, we appear to have run out of assets to make a quick killing on. Whether it was tech stocks, resort-area condos or Beanie Babies, those things we could buy and sell at ever-escalating prices are few and far between.

Unless you own some land that sits on top of the Marcellus shale formation (believed to contain one of the biggest deposits of natural gas in the United States), you probably aren’t bragging about how much you’re worth right now.

And deleveraging this nation is simply going to take years. As this spring’s $160 billion tax rebate effort showed, scattering huge amounts of money across the land isn’t going to fix the “systemic problems,” as Paulson calls them, that have built up over the years.

Will a $700 billion bailout aimed at lenders begin to fix the systemic problems? Paulson and Bernanke believe so. And they want Congress to believe and all of us too. But they’re not sure it will work and they can’t be, because we haven’t faced a problem of this magnitude before.

They’re trying to restore confidence in the credit markets where banks are leery of lending to other banks, where few in business seem willing to trust the person sitting across the table.

They warn that the risks of doing nothing are greater and could cost all of us even more. What if, instead of rubber-stamping the Paulson/Bernanke TARP, Congress approves a general framework to begin to assume this toxic debt? Sure, approve some money to actually buy these assets, but not the full bazooka.

Wouldn’t it send more of a message to the global markets that the Bush administration and lawmakers were methodically tackling possible solutions, rather than what it appears: A panic to pass something - anything - fast.

Over the last 13 months, the Federal Reserve has employed a number of its traditional tools and tried other quite inventive approaches to keep the credit markets moving.

Still the financial sector has limped from crisis to crisis. As a total outsider, the last two weeks have looked to me like the Washington financial intelligentsia have been making it up as they go.

How can that possibly inspire confidence?