ABOARD THE ELECTION EXPRESS
BATESVILLE, Mississippi (CNN)– Whatever they end up doing in Washington about bailing out the Wall Street financial giants– and whatever John McCain and Barack Obama may say about it if it should come up in the debate Friday night– there’s only one word that concisely sums up what people around here are saying about the government’s rescue mission:
Batesville is a rural town of around 7,000 people, about half an hour’s drive from Oxford, where the debate will be held. Economic conditions here are, to put it kindly, not good. We’re staying in Batesville before heading over to Oxford for the event; in town I ran into Jim Vinson, the chief financial officer of the Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association.
(If that word sounds vaguely familiar: yes, this is the part of northern Mississippi about which the great and haunting 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” was written: “. . .the day that Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge. . . .”)
Jim Vinson was with his wife, Peggy; she’s a teacher at the North Delta School in town. When I brought up the financial calamity on Wall Street, they looked at each other and he said: “I was just ranting a little bit about that."
“Why and how did we let it get so bad?” Mrs. Vinson said. “Everyone knew it was coming; as a teacher of economics at a high school in Mississippi, I saw it coming. So they knew it was coming, and they let it happen."
That, they said, is where the unfairness comes in. If an individual American does a sloppy job of handling his or her personal finances, then he or she loses everything. But if prestigious Wall Street financial giants do a sloppy job, the taxpayers are expected to bail them out– and the taxpayers are threatened that if they balk at the bailout, the entire economy will collapse.
“I’ll tell you one thing about the salary side of it,” Jim Vinson said. “If there is a bailout, then the compensation of the key executives at those companies should be taken down to zero. The bailout money shouldn’t go to any of them, that’s for sure.”
Did he think that was a harsh punishment for the Wall Street titans– taking their entire paychecks away?
“I’ll tell you what would happen if the place where I work found itself in the same situation– I’d be out and they’d be looking for a new CFO,” he said.
Peggy Vinson said: “All of us are going to be paying for the mistakes of individuals who took advantage of deregulation, of the rules being relaxed. But I tell my students that every market, no matter what, has to have rules that people follow and play fair."
Jim Vinson said that, as a man who works with numbers and has to make them balance, this is by far the worst national financial situation he has seen in his lifetime.
But, he said, his real fear is that it may be even more dire than that.
“Peggy’s dad is 81, and lived through the Great Depression," he said. “He sees a lot of similarities between what’s happening now and what happened then.”
I asked them if they believed that either of the presidential candidates who are coming to their part of Mississippi for the debate Friday night has a plan or a program that will quickly lead the nation out of this crisis.
“No,” he said.
“No,” she said.