When Uncle Sam plays banker

Today’s lesson on How America Really Works begins with a question: What is the largest and most influential financial institution in the world? It’s not J.P. Morgan, or even Goldman Sachs. It’s the U.S. government.

That’s the verdict of Brookings Institution banking expert Douglas J. Elliott, and the numbers back him up. By the end of 2011, the federal government’s housing, farm, business and educational credit programs had $2.7 trillion in loans and guarantees outstanding. That’s not counting the $5 trillion-plus, mostly related to housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that Washington took on its books amid the financial crisis that began in 2008.

We’ll find out soon enough whether these “emergency” programs gradually become permanent, as did Great Depression emergency programs such as the Export-Import Bank and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

The federal government’s massive intervention in the credit markets, necessary as it might be in a crisis, shows that our nation often honors its commitment to free markets in the breach.

Rest here…