Bailout Nation

“If only we had a Republican administration in office, none of this would have happened,” my friend Deroy Murdock emailed me this morning. He meant the nationalization of two large companies, of course, though he could have been talking about a trillion-dollar spending increase, the expansion of entitlements, the federalization of education, or indeed the great leap forward to the imperial presidency.

But the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is another giant step toward government control of the economy. NPR reported this morning that the government takeover “could turn out to be a smart one.” Yes, if you think nationalization of the means of production just might work. The government is writing a blank check on the taxpayers. It might cost nothing, it might cost $25 billion, it might end up costing trillions of dollars, given the size of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s portfolios and the risk of further large declines in housing prices.

And speaking of the imperial presidency–all these huge new powers and expenditures are being conducted without any sanction from Congress and with little public debate. This isn’t Venezuela, but the executive branch is certainly expanding its powers on its own authority. If only President Bush would put his new powers to a public referendum, maybe a Yon Goicoechea could arise to block them. Certainly no Friedman Prize candidate has stood up in Congress.

But the Fannie-Freddie takeover is not the only bailout in the works these days. There was the Bear Stearns bailout back in March. Which might not be considered a real bailout, as Bear Stearns shareholders lost most of their investment, though it was certainly a then-unprecedented assertion of federal power. Arnold Kling noted in April that the housing bill, at least, was a pure bailout for homebuilders. Now the Big Two and a Half automobile makers are asking for $50 billion of federal help. (Didn’t we already bail out Chrysler once? How many bailouts does one company get?) And now Congress is talking about “a second economic stimulus package, totaling $50 billion in the form of money for infrastructure projects, relief for state governments struggling with rising Medicaid costs, home heating assistance for the Northeast and upper Midwest, and disaster relief for the Gulf Coast and the Midwestern flood zone.” And Transportation Secretary Mary Peters wants “an $8 billion infusion” for the federal highway trust fund. It’s a good thing that the federal government is so flush with money these days, or we might be risking a large deficit.

Capitalism is a system of profit and loss. It works because each person and each company, in seeking its own interest, is led “as if by an invisible hand” to supply goods and services that others want. Companies that satisfy consumers prosper. Companies that can’t produce goods that consumers want–like Chrysler, repeatedly–suffer and sometimes go out of business. The failures are often painful. But as Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie wrote in their book Failure and Progress (or at least in this column based on the book), “Economic failure is to the economy what physical pain is to the body. No one enjoys pain, but without it the body would lack the information needed to maintain its health.” Government subsidies to prevent business failure simply keep pouring money into businesses that are relatively unsuccessful at satisfying consumer desires. They are, among other things, censorship of vitally needed information. Employees, entrepreneurs, and investors need to know where their money and talent are most valuable. Profits and losses are key indicators of that.

When businesses make bad decisions, they should suffer economic losses. That’s how we keep the system honest and productive. Caroline Baum of Bloomberg points out that the bailout for subprime borrowers involved helping people to stay in homes that they couldn’t afford, in many cases because they misled lenders or connived with lenders who knew they could package and resell bad mortgages. When governments make bad decisions, they should not pour good money after bad. Instead, they should try to repeal burdensome regulations, privatize functions that ought to be private, and be willing to sell purchases they shouldn’t have made, even at a loss.

Plenty of people had warned about the problems of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As Arnold Kling notes in a new Cato Briefing Paper, the current crisis ” may have been the most avoidable financial crisis in history.” Treasury Secretary Larry Summers was one of those Cassandras back in 1999. So was Lawrence J. White in a 2004 Cato Policy Analysis calling for privatization, or failing that, a clear removal of the federal guarantee for the two companies. Instead, Congress and successive administrations continued to push Fannie and Freddie to get bigger and to buy mortgages that were in clear jeopardy of default. And now, having created this crisis, the federal government proposes not to wind down the overextended companies but to take them over so they can get all the benefits of crack federal financial management. Kling proposes a better exit strategy.