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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Sometimes Nothing is the Right Thing to Do

I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers.
John McCain

Despite the fact that Senator McCain has said the economy isn’t his strong point, he has a lot stronger grasp of basic economic principles than anybody else running for president, not to mention a lot of other people in Washington who ought to know better.

In addition to the Bear Stearns bailout, since the beginning of the year, the Fed has loaned over $260 billion to banks that got into financial trouble by making bad mortgage loans. The Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008 is on the horizon, and there’s another bill lined up behind it to extend an additional $300-400 billion in federally guaranteed (that means guaranteed by you and me) mortgages for people who overextended themselves to buy houses that were well beyond their means.

Senator Obama talks about “folks [being] tricked into purchasing loans they can’t afford.” Both Senators Obama and Clinton think we need to kick in a $30 billion dollar emergency housing fund (at taxpayer expense) to help bail out these poor victims, never mind that they’re victims of their own greed and irresponsibility. Senator Clinton also wants to freeze subprime mortgage rates and impose a 90 day moratorium on foreclosures for the poor dears. And, earlier this week, Senator Clinton suggested that perhaps the government should start buying up foreclosed homes. It’s not enough for the government to be in the healthcare business, now she wants to get it into the real estate business, too. (Is there any business Mrs. Clinton doesn’t think the government should be in?)

While Senators Clinton and Obama are leaping over one another trying to come up with more innovative and expensive ways for the government to manipulate the housing market, Senator McCain is quietly saying it isn’t the role of the government to bail out either the banks or the borrowers. The Democrats scoff. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean sneers that McCain is taking “the same hands-off approach that President Bush used to lead us into this crisis.”

What the Democrats fail to understand is the basic principles of economics. (But what else is new?) It was not a “hands off” policy that got us into this mess, but a “hands on” policy of lowering interest rates and expanding FHA, FNMA, and FHLMC financing to encourage unprecedented (and unwarranted) growth in the housing market. The government got us into this situation by meddling in the free market. It isn’t going to get us out by meddling more. What needs to happen is the market needs to find a balance where the demand meets the supply. The only way for that to happen is to let it occur naturally. Yes, it means housing prices will drop. They’re doing that anyway. Yes, it’s painful. But it has to happen.

Federal policies aimed at making it easier for first time home buyers to buy houses before they could actually afford those houses led to an artificially high demand, which artificially inflated prices. People (and financing companies) started playing fast and loose, speculating that the manic spiral in home prices would continue indefinitely. But it couldn’t. Supply increased to meet demand, interest rates went up, people who overextended themselves couldn’t meet their payments and started defaulting, demand fell off just as supply was peaking, and the market was oversaturated. Now it has to correct.

The laws of economics weren’t made up by economists, any more than the laws of physics were made up by physicists. These “laws” are based on observation and analysis of naturally occurring phenomena. They can’t be changed or wished away. Imbalances do occur but, over time, they correct themselves. The housing market is self-correcting now. It will eventually reach equilibrium. Any measures that attempt to forestall that will only postpone the inevitable. A problem deferred is not a problem solved.

The Democrats insist that the government can’t just stand by and do nothing. Something bad is happening. We must do something! Anything! They have no idea how to solve the problem, because the problem can’t be solved by more government meddling, and government meddling is the only thing they know how to do. But, since they can think of nothing more embarrassing than standing around doing nothing, they’re leaping over each other trying desperately to show us that they will do something. (Not nothing, like Senator McCain.) And what they’ll do is what they always do. When they see a problem, they throw money at it. Your money. My money. Everybody’s money. Unfortunately, that won’t solve the problem. Because, sometimes, nothing is the right thing to do.

The Democratic response, as usual, is like a parent with a spoiled child. They think it’s their job as parent to prevent their child from ever experiencing any pain, so they go to any lengths to shield it from the consequences of its own actions. But a child who never faces consequences never learns. Sometimes pain is necessary, especially when it’s a natural consequence of irrational behavior.


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