We know what the bailout bill might cost. What about not passing it?

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I wrote an article this afternoon for TIME.com. It begins:

By voting down the proposed $700 billion financial bailout package — and causing a spectacular stock market rout — a majority of members in the House of Representatives made a clear statement that they didn’t want to put taxpayers on the hook for the failures of financial institutions.

But there’s a catch: taxpayers are already on the hook for the failures of financial institutions, and it’s possible that the bill will actually be larger without bailout legislation than with it. That’s because the regulators who mind the financial industry — the Federal Reserve, Treasury and FDIC — will keep doing what they’ve been doing: stepping in to prevent the chaotic failure of banks and other large financial institutions. This means continuing to put hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars at risk, but in a way that adheres to no clear plan of action and doesn’t require members of Congress to explicitly approve their actions.

On Monday afternoon, Wall Street basically stopped trading to watch TV — mainly CNBC — to see how the House of Representatives would vote on the $700 billion bailout package. When it first started looking like the bill would fail, the Dow plummeted 389 points, or 3.6%, in just seven minutes. If it had continued at that pace for much longer, this would have been perhaps the most harrowing day in stock market history. It didn’t, but things were still really, really bad. The Dow ended the day down 778 points, or 7%, and the S&P 500 — a better measure of the overall market — was down 107 points, or 8.8%, its worst performance since the 1987 market crash. And markets for bonds and short-term loans were, for the most part, nonexistent. Read more.

Basically, I’m still up in the air about whether the Paulson plan–either in its original form or as introduced in the House today–is a good idea. But make no mistake: American taxpayers are eventually going to have to put up a bunch of money to restart the financial system.

Update: Oh, and I should mention that I’m watching CNBC Asia at the moment and some Aussie says there’s cahnage in Asian markets. Cahnage!

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