Defenders of Infamy

I’m posting this with the caveat that one can always cherry pick sound bytes to make a point.¬†Nevertheless, whatever else may have been said, or by whom, the record shows that Republicans have tried repeatedly to curb Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while Democrats have strenuously resisted tighter regulation (or even oversight)¬†of the two entities at the root of the currrent financial crisis.

I know there were Republicans in the pocket of Fannie and Freddie as well. And, if anybody can provide a counterpoint video that shows Democrats trying to curb their excesses, and Republicans vehemently opposing closer scrutiny, I’ll be happy to post that as well.

We may be focusing too narrowly on the presidential race in this election, when we should be taking a good hard look at Congress.

Hoping isn’t what’s going to bring about the change that we desperately need.

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Social Engineering as Economic Policy

What we are witnessing today is not a failure of the free market. It is the failure of social engineering as economic policy. And it’s a disaster of epic proportions.

Nobody’s disputing that this disaster was precipitated by irresponsible lending practices, or that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were at the root of the whole debacle, though the ramifications have now spread far beyond them. What people are arguing about is the interpretation of the events that led us here, what should have been done differently, and what should be done to contain the fallout now that the pyramid scheme has blown up.

Hard core free market proponents, like me, will say that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were a mistake from the beginning. The government should have kept its nose out of the home mortgage industry, and not attempted to manipulate the market to enable people who couldn’t afford houses to buy them. On the other hand, proponents of the “government is good” and “more is better” philosophy will say the problem was that there wasn’t enough government manipulation. (Could there ever be?)

But, curiously, in 2005, when Alan Greenspan told Congress that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “placing the total financial system of the future at a substantial risk,” and the Senate Banking Committee proposed a reform bill requiring tighter regulation of those two entities, the Democrats opposed it, on a strict party line vote, crushing the bill before it got out of committee. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Christopher Dodd all voted against it. (John McCain, incidentally, was one of the co-sponsors of the bill.)

Huh? Democrats voting against more regulation? Republicans voting for it? One would expect Republicans to favor less regulation, as regulation is antithetical to a free market. But, in this case, it already wasn’t a free market. A free market has its own natural checks and balances. Once the government has removed or impaired any of those natural checks and balances, the market loses its equilibrium and bad things can happen. What the Republicans were attempting to accomplish by proposing tighter regulations on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was to artificially restore the natural constraint that had been removed by shifting the risk from the lenders to the taxpayers.

In a free market, the desire for profit is counterbalanced by the aversion to risk. If the risk incurred by an investment or loan outweighs the profit potential, it’s not in the investor’s/lender’s best interest to participate, so the transaction doesn’t occur. However, when the government removes the risk associated with a bad transaction, by assuming the risk itself, then the natural constraint of risk aversion that would apply in a truly free market is eliminated, and investors will take risks that would otherwise be unacceptable. That’s what happened in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The taxpayers assumed the risk, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made unsound investments.

In today’s mortgage industry, mortgages are always packaged up and sold to aggregators, who sell them to bigger aggregators, with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at the top of the pyramid as the granddaddies of all aggregators. Because Fannie and Freddie had no risk aversion, lenders further down the chain were free to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take, knowing the aggregators would buy up the high risk (subprime) mortgages anyway. This was intentional.

Affordable housing is a euphemism for making home loans available to people who would not qualify for a loan under a free market system. The reason someone would not qualify for a loan in the free market is because they present too high a risk. In other words, they can’t afford to pay off the loan. Fannie and Freddie represented a wide scale experiment in social engineering. It was an attempt to use federal policy to “level the playing field” so anybody could “afford” to buy a home whether they could actually afford to pay for the home or not.

When the Republicans wanted to tighten the reins on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and preclude them from making excessively risky investments, it would have meant they could no longer fulfill the mission of making homes “affordable” to those who couldn’t afford them. That’s why the Democrats opposed the bill. And that’s why we’re where we are today.

The great experiment in social engineering has now failed. Dramatically. And, because the experiment was backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. taxpayer, it is our money, and our future, that is getting called in as collateral for this grand social experiment.

Anybody who blames this failure on the free market is either dishonest or naive. It was liberal social policy masquerading as economic policy that got us into this mess. If you want to see more of the same in the future, there are plenty of Democrats still in Congress. And there’s one running for president, too.

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No Federal Bailouts!

Many people are insisting that the government has to bail out AIG because, in the current situation, if the government didn’t step in, the result could be a worldwide depression. I understand that. I still think it’s the wrong thing to do.

If the government doesn’t bail them out, we’re going to have an economic crisis. But we’re going to have one anyway, whether they bail them out or not. The money with which the government bails out these failed institutions will be borrowed from other countries. Then the taxpayers will be stuck with the bill for not only the bailouts, but the interest on the money to bail them out. And, when the bill comes due to the taxpayers, where will all that money be going?

The situation is going to get worse, whichever way we play the cards. But the way in which it gets worse will be different, depending on what we do now. And that’s important. Because our nation’s future depends on it. Do we want to let a failed system collapse, knowing it will have a seismic impact on the whole world economy? That would be bad. Or do we want to indenture our nation’s future to other powers whose interests are not necessarily aligned with ours? What other option is there?

This whole gigantic mess was caused by wide scale irresponsible borrowing. How is borrowing on an inconceivably more massive scale going to solve the problem? We are already the biggest debtor nation in the world.

Liberals are quick to blame it all on capitalism, but what actually got us here was government meddling. Further government meddling isn’t going to get us out. For years, the Fed kept interest rates low deliberately to fuel the housing bubble. It was a specific federal policy intended to make it easier for first time homebuyers to be able to buy homes they couldn’t otherwise afford. (Now strike the word “otherwise” from that sentence, and there’s the root of the problem.)

Federal policy was designed to encourage overspending. It was a government-subsidized Ponzi scheme, with the FHA, FannieMae, and FreddieMac at the top of the heap, backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. taxpayer. All accountability was shuffled away, through multiple layers of loan aggregation. When people started defaulting on loans that should never have been made, and institutions started defaulting on their debts to other institutions, speculation on defaults (aka “swaps”) to hedge the bad bets became rampant. (That’s what brought down AIG.)

The entire economy, from the top down, is built on debt. At the bottom of the pyramid are millions of individuals borrowing from banks, who borrow from government sponsored agencies, while the government borrows from foreign countries, granting them financial power to wield over us in the future. Even as individuals are going bankrupt from bad debt, the nation is sinking ever deeper into deficit spending. The problem is systemic. The madness has to stop.

This country is headed for disaster because of fiscal irresponsibility at every level, encouraged by those who think the government can just manipulate the economy a little bit more, just another tweak here or another pinch there. A push here or a squeeze there. But it’s all an illusion as long as the debt keeps growing.

Debt is dangerous. We are selling our sovereignty, like a drunken wastrel squandering his children’s inheritance. Our deficit spending increases exponentially decade after decade. The national debt balloons. Instead of having any plan to pay it off, we keep borrowing more.

Stop the presses! (The ones printing up the dollars, that is.) Stop the borrowing. Stop the spending. Stop overregulating industry and labor so corporations have to send jobs overseas to stay competitive. Stop the subsidies for farmers not to grow crops. Stop all the greasy earmarks. Stop foreign aid. We need our leaders to sit down and acknowledge the fact that the nation is broke — worse than broke. We have a negative net worth!

We cannot go on as we have been. That’s a fallacy. Prolonging the inevitable just gets us deeper in the hole we’re going to have to eventually dig ourselves out of. Let’s stop now, and start demanding fiscal responsibility from our leaders and ourselves.

People don’t learn from their mistakes. They learn from the consequences of their mistakes. If you shield them from the consequences, they’ll make the same mistakes again. I say, no bailouts for lenders or borrowers or gamblers with other people’s money! Let the market correct itself, as painful as that correction will be, and then laissez-faire.

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