The financial meltdown is old news already. Bankruptcies and foreclosures are endemic. Layoffs are skyrocketing. Congress is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into an economic recovery package.
A day spent acknowledging the problem and promising to do a better job than the last crowd did in solving it, which is what Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner did Tuesday, was not the confidence-boosting act that Wall Street needed.
Geithner and President Obama may have been hopeful that the sheer size of the revival package -- upwards of $2 trillion in funds from the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and private investors -- would be enough to shock the markets out of their slump.
But with so few details offered about how the plans would work -- where the money would come from, where it would go and who would benefit -- all the markets saw was more uncertainty. And it is confidence, more than any amount of real or imagined cash, that the markets crave right now.
That's why the markets dropped significantly Tuesday, even as the brows of economists furrowed and the faces of members of Congress expressed frustration.
There is no reason to consider Geithner insincere when he notes how complicated the problem is, and how he wants to be cautious in announcing the finer details of any recovery plan. He certainly does not want to repeat the picture of dithering painted by the Bush administration and its Treasury boss, Henry Paulson, being forced to take the embarrassing and destabilizing step of reversing course when something turns out to have been a bad idea.
Of course, as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Geithner was part of that process, as he was part of the regulatory regime that allowed the credit markets to get so drunk on the unregulated, incomprehensible, unsustainable financial instruments that have crashed and dragged the rest of the economy down with them.
Thus the widespread feeling, especially among those who weren't invited to that party in the first place, that Geithner's drive to protect the Masters of the Universe from the cosmic retribution they so richly deserve has so far been all too successful.
Geithner's accurate claim that the problem is complicated and the solutions unsure must not, however, lead to another round of secret bailouts and murky investments. The administration must quickly design a process that is open, instantly accountable and as clear as possible about the amounts of money to be put up, by whom, for whom, and with what expectations that the funds will go out as economy-thawing loans and/or come back to the taxpayers in repaid investments.
Properly designed -- and, more importantly, properly understood -- the final revival package may, in large part, be no more than a taxpayer-funded grubstake that will return itself many times over in economic activity and repaid investments.
But, until we see the details, we won't have the confidence that will be necessary to keep this balloon in the air.