Average Joe: Why Should I Bail Out Wall Street?

Most Americans pay their mortgages on time and did not directly contribute to what is being called the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The idea that taxpayers might foot the bill for bailing out Wall Street investment banks for bad bets makes them furious. Paul Bayne of Annapolis, Md., says, "I feel like we're bailing out people who were either greedy or dumb."

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

As you just heard, politicians in Washington are getting an earful from people back home. NPR's Frank Langfitt ventured beyond the beltway to hear firsthand what people are saying about the bailout.

FRANK LANGFITT: Paul Bayne is standing on the wharf in Annapolis, Maryland, and he's angry about what's going on down the road in Washington.

PAUL BAYNE: As someone who is responsible, got a mortgage well below the means that I could afford, and I feel like we're bailing out people who are either greedy or dumb.

LANGFITT: Bayne works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He teaches students about conservation aboard an old oyster dredger. He opposes the bailout. He thinks ordinary citizens shouldn't have to clean up a mess created by wealthy investment bankers.

BAYNE: Mostly the top end of Wall Street got to play around for years with money. And yeah, we are just bailing them out. So, basically it spreads the pain to not only the people who made poor decisions, but everyone who's been doing it right.

LANGFITT: By doing it right, Bayne means being fiscally responsible. When he and his wife went house hunting here a few years ago...

BAYNE: Instead of figuring out what's the most we can possibly buy, we figured what's something we can afford even if the economy turns sour?

LANGFITT: As people continue to default on risky mortgages that are at the heart of this crisis, Bayne finds solace in his modest home.

BAYNE: My wife and I, right now, we've talked about how it's the ultimate, you know, kind of vindication of our decision making.

LANGFITT: Closer to Washington, inland over Maryland, a group of truckers gathers in the parking lot of the Redskins' stadium. A stiff wind whips the American flags that fly from their rigs. They've come to the capital to protest high gas prices. The proposed bailout only makes them madder. They say they don't want to spend taxpayer money helping high-paid executives who've mismanaged their companies.

CHARLIE CLAIBORNE: I feed my family on 60,000 a year, so how can they justify paying somebody $22 million a year?

LANGFITT: This is Charlie Claiborne. He's from upstate New York. To emphasize his point about executive pay, he turns to fellow trucker, Uriane Martin(ph).

CLAIBORNE: Uriane could have probably run AIG and ended up in a better position than what they did, and probably for about 30 million less. You know, you could have done it.

LANGFITT: Complaints like Claiborne's reverberated in Washington this week. Yesterday, the Bush administration reversed course and agreed to limit the pay of executives who participate in the bailout. Claiborne says he understands financial mistakes. He's made them himself. Instead of saving money to cover rising gas costs this year, he blew it on tools and clothes. He suffered for those bad moves, and thinks Wall Street executives should pay for theirs.

CLAIBORNE: I paid the price. I sold my truck. I lost things. But they were my decisions. You don't see somebody on Capitol Hill running down here writing me a check, bailing me out.

LANGFITT: Colin Watmore(ph) knows why people like Charlie Claiborne are angry. He's mad too.

COLIN WATMORE: The real tragedy and drama of this has been a totally irresponsible, you know, no-holds-barred capitalism that's got us into this mess.

LANGFITT: I met Watmore enjoying a skim latte at an outdoor cafe in Annapolis. Retired from the pharmaceutical business, he was wearing cargo shorts and a white polo shirt. While Watmore is unhappy with the nation's financial leadership, he says this is the wrong time to focus on blame.

WATMORE: I think that's a meaningless debate, you know, how we got here. And I'm sure that can be analyzed and sub-analyzed. But I mean, I think the first priority is to, you know, get the situation stabilized. I mean, I don't think anger helps a lot.

LANGFITT: He thinks the economy is at such risk, the government has to bail out Wall Street, and fast.

WATMORE: The ramifications and repercussions of this are going to affect everybody, whether you happen to be a homeowner or not. I mean, credit would be tight, values would continue to spiral down, and I mean, this is a landslide that's going to kill everybody unless it gets under control.

LANGFITT: And right now, that is probably the single greatest fear. With markets and consumers still jittery and uncertain, everyone is looking for a way out of this crisis. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: For continuing coverage of the $700 billion bailout bill, go to npr.org/money.

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