Does the government really deserve Buffett’s thanks for financial rescue?

In an op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Times, Warren Buffett offers a belated thank-you to the U.S. government for averting a financial collapse back in 2008. “In this extraordinary emergency, you came through,” writes the Oracle of Omaha. “And the world would look far different now if you had not.” Buffett praises Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, current and former Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner, and FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair for acting with “courage and dispatch.”

The Berkshire Hathaway founder doesn’t go into detail about the costs and benefits of the government’s various rescue efforts. But his piece takes another high-profile step toward bolstering the emerging consensus among experts that the bailout, despite its extreme unpopularity, was in fact remarkably successful — saving the economy for what turned out to be a bargain price.

That stance has some merit. But it also glosses over some of the rescue effort’s less tangible — but still enormous — costs. So it’s worth taking a more detailed look at where things stand.

Right now, we simply don’t have all the necessary information to do a comprehensive accounting of the final tab for the bailout — by which we mean not just the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program for banks, but also the efforts to prop up mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the flailing automakers at GM and Chrysler, together with additional spending programs by the Federal Reserve. But here’s what we can say: To date, the government has spent, invested or loaned $546 billion, according to figures compiled by the nonprofit investigative project ProPublica. Of that amount, $251 billion has been returned. That leaves $296 billion still outstanding — already far less than the $700 billion price tag that was bandied about for the TARP alone. And it’s likely that figure will go down as more banks make repayments.

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