Archives: July, 2011

The CAP-AEI Fannie Mae Food Fight

It’s probably never wise to inject oneself into the middle of a food fight, but since I think both sides actually have something right and something wrong, its been a worthwhile debate to follow.  That is the ongoing debate between Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute and David Min at the Center for American Progress (at least we can all agree we love America) on the role of Fannie Mae (and Freddie Mac) in the financial crisis.  If you can’t guess, Peter says Fannie/Freddie caused the crisis, David says they didn’t.

David makes an interesting point, one I’ve actually argued, in his latest retort.  That is, this wasn’t exclusively a housing crisis/bubble.  Other sectors, like commercial real estate, boomed and then went bust; other countries, with different housing policies, also had bubbles.  True from what I can tell.  I will also add that the U.S. office market actually peaked and fell before the housing market, so we can safely say there wasn’t contagion from housing to other parts of the real estate market. 

But the problem with this argument, at least for David, is that it undercuts the Dodd-Frank Act, which he has regularly defended.  The implicit premise of Dodd-Frank is that predatory mortgage lending caused the crisis, so now we need Elizabeth Warren to save us from evil lenders.  But how does predatory lending explain the office market bubble?  Do we really believe that deals between sophisticated parties, poured over by lawyers, were driven by predatory lending practices?  Do we also believe that other countries were also plagued by bad mortgage brokers?  Again, I think David is right about the problem being beyond housing, but he can’t have it both ways.

What is the common factor driving bubbles in commercial real estate, housing, and foreign real estate markets?  Maybe interest rates.  This was a credit bubble after all.  Especially since the Fed basically sets interest rate policy for the world.  It is hard for me to believe that three years (2002–2004) of a negative real federal funds rate isn’t going to end badly.  This is what I think Peter misses, the critical role of the Federal Reserve in helping blow the bubble.  But Dodd-Frank does nothing to change this. 

Now there are a ton of things I think both still miss.  We could argue all day about what a subprime mortgage is.  I think the definitions used by Wallison (and Pinto) are reasonable.  There is also a degree, a large one, to which David and Peter are just talking past each other.  For instance, there is something special about the U.S. housing market that transfers much of the risk to the taxpayer.  In contrast, the bust in the office market didn’t leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab.  That has to count for something, unless one just doesn’t care about the taxpayer. 

There are a few other issues that make Fannie/Freddie uniquely important in the crisis, but I lack the space to go into them here. Instead, I’ll wrap up by saying that their role in the overnight repurchase (re-po) market is under-appreciated and their ability to essentially neuter the Fed was critical in keeping the bubble going.  What’s for dessert?

How Sweden Profits from For-Profit Schools

The brass ring of education reform is to find a way to ensure that the best schools routinely scale-up to serve large audiences, crowding out the mediocre and bad ones. Over the past twenty years, the United States and Sweden have taken two very different approaches to achieving that goal, which I wrote about in a recent op-ed.

In the U.S., our main strategy has been for philanthropists to fund the replication of what they deem to be the academically highest-performing networks of charter schools. In a recent statistical analysis of California, the state with the most charter schools, I discovered that this is not working out particularly well for us. There is no correlation between charter school networks’ academic performance and the philanthropic funding they’ve raised. And, at any rate, charter schools still enroll less than 3 percent of the nation’s students.

In 1992, Sweden introduced a nation-wide public and private school choice program. Private schools went from enrolling virtually no one to enrolling about 11 percent of the entire student population–a figure that continues to grow with each passing year. Moreover, recent research finds that these new private schools outperform the public schools. And which private schools are growing the fastest? The chains of for-profit schools that are in greatest demand, and that have an incentive to respond to that demand by opening new locations. The popular non-profit private schools tend not to expand much over time.

Given that Sweden is universally regarded as a liberal nation, and the U.S. is seen as a bastion of capitalism, one wonders why they got to the brass ring first, and why it is taking us so very long to get there now that they’ve shown us the way.

Vive La Revolution?

Today is the 222nd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the date usually recognized as the beginning of the French Revolution. I’ll be speaking this weekend at FreedomFest on the topic, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: A Libertarian Version.” I previewed part of my talk at this week’s Britannica Blog column. So what should libertarians think about the French Revolution? The great Henny Youngman, when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?”

Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it….

Lord Acton wrote that for decades before the revolution “the Church was oppressed, the Protestants persecuted or exiled, … the people exhausted by taxes and wars.” The rise of absolutism had centralized power and led to the growth of administrative bureaucracies on top of the feudal land monopolies and restrictive guilds….

The results of that philosophical error—that the state is the embodiment of the “general will,” which is sovereign and thus unconstrained—have often been disastrous, and conservatives point to the Reign of Terror in 1793-94 as the precursor of similar terrors in totalitarian countries from the Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

In Europe the results of creating democratic but essentially unconstrained governments have been far different but still disappointing to liberals….

Still, as Constant celebrated in 1816, in England, France, and the United States, liberty

is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

Compared to the ancien regime of monarchy, aristocracy, class, monopoly, mercantilism, religious uniformity, and arbitrary power, that’s the triumph of liberalism.

Read the whole thing.

New Study from Swedish Economists Allows Us to Quantify the Cost of the Bush-Obama Spending Binge

The United States has been on a decade-long spending binge. Thanks to the profligate policies of both Bush and Obama, the burden of federal spending has climbed to about 25 percent of economic output, up from 18.2 percent of GDP when Bill Clinton left office.

The political class tells us that more government is good for the economy since it an “investment” and/or a “stimulus.”

The academic research, however, tells a different story. Here are some brief excerpts from a recent study by two Swedish economists, including a critically important observation about the impact of bigger government on economic performance.

…most recent studies typically find a negative correlation between total government size and economic growth. …the most convincing studies are those most recently published. …In general, research has come very close to a consensus that in rich countries there is a negative correlation between total government size and growth. It appears fair to say that an increase in total government size of ten percentage points in tax revenue or expenditure as a share of GDP is on average associated with an annual lower growth rate of between one-half and one percentage point.

Let’s focus on the last sentence of the excerpt and contemplate the implications. The research cited above tells us that annual growth is 0.5 percentage point-1.0 percentage point lower if the burden of government rises by 10 percentage points of GDP. Well, the burden of federal spending has jumped by more than 5 percentage points of GDP during the Bush-Obama years, indicating that annual growth in America is now 0.25 percentage point-0.5 percentage point lower than it otherwise would be.

Now let’s take the best-case scenario, and assume that annual growth has only dropped by 0.25 percentage points, and consider what that means. It may not sound like much, but even small differences in growth rates become very important over time. For an average household over a 25-year period, the loss of 0.25 percentage points of growth means annual income will rise, but the total increase will be about $5,000 smaller by the 25th year.

The budgetary implications of growth also are rather important. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the economy’s performance has a large impact on tax receipts (more growth means higher incomes and more taxpayers) and a small effect on government spending (more growth means fewer people at the public trough). CBO even publishes a “sensitivity table” with specific estimates (Table B-1).

If we once again use the best-case scenario and assume the Bush-Obama spending binge has reduced annual growth by only 0.25 percentage points, the CBO numbers show this means more than $750 billion of additional red ink. This is something to keep in mind as the White House argues that job-killing class-warfare tax hikes will somehow improve the budget situation.

Let’s now return to the academic research. The authors included a very helpful table showing the results of recent studies on the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. Click on the image for a full-size look at how the majority of scholarly research this century confirms that big government is bad for prosperity.

For all intents and purposes, all this research shows that developed nations are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve. Named after my Cato colleague Richard Rahn and explained in the video below, the Rahn Curve is sort of a spending version of the Laffer Curve.

It shows that growth is maximized by small governments that focus on core “public goods” like rule of law and protection of property rights. But when governments expand beyond a certain growth-maximizing level (the research says about 20 percent of GDP, by I explain in the video why the right number is probably much smaller), the result is slower growth and less prosperity.

With the exception of high-growth Hong Kong and Singapore, all developed nation have public sectors that consume at least 30 percent of economic output. This means that government spending is undermining prosperity all around the world. And since the burden of government spending is close to 40 percent of GDP in the United States…well, you can fill in the blanks.

Overregulation: The View From a Helicopter Cockpit

Philip Greenspun discovers that an FAA inspector is happy to march a little helicopter charter outfit run by a single owner/pilot through the same paperwork slog that a much busier operation would face:

Finally, the FAA inspector looked at my random drug testing program to make sure that everything was in place. I’m subject to the same drug testing requirements as United Airlines. I am the drug testing coordinator for our company, so I am responsible for scheduling drug tests and surprising employees when it is their turn to be tested. As it happens, I’m also the only “safety-sensitive employee” subject to drug testing, so basically I’m responsible for periodically surprising myself with a random drug test. As a supervisor, I need to take training so that I can recognize when an employee is on drugs. But I’m also the only employee, so really this is training so that I can figure out if I myself am on drugs. As an employee, I need to take a second training course so that I learn about all of the ways that my employer might surprise me with a random drug test and find out about drug use. But I’m also the employer so really I’m learning about how I might trap myself. … Five minutes after the FAA inspector left, I received a phone call. “I’m from the FAA and we’d like to schedule an audit of your drug testing program.”

Things proceed to get crazier from there. And none of the craziness is likely to change so long as being worried about regulatory overkill is construed in Washington as being Against Air (or Food or Toy or Drug) Safety.

SB 1070: Constitutional But Bad Policy

That’s the title of an essay I wrote for SCOTUSblog as part of their symposium on United States v. Arizona.  This is the big immigration case that will hit the Supreme Court’s doorstep later this month when Paul Clement, recently hired by Arizona, files his cert petition.

Here’s an excerpt:

…state governments, feeling tremendous pressure from their citizens to address the consequences of the federal failure to meet this nation’s immigration needs, are acting for themselves.  Arizona happens to be the “tip of the spear,” but we’ve also seen various other immigration-related laws passed in states as different as Utah, Georgia, and California.  Whether related to enforcement, expanded work permits, sanctuary cities, or other types of policy innovations, Congress’s abdication of its duty to manage our immigration system has spawned a host of federalism experiments.

And so we come to S.B. 1070 (as amended by H.B. 2162), which exemplifies the crucial distinction between law and policy that both liberals and conservatives tend to forget.  A law that is good policy might be unconstitutional or preempted by some higher law.  Here we see the converse: while S.B. 1070 is (with the exception of one provision) constitutional, it’s bad policy.

Read the whole thing.