Tag: economic stability

2011 Budget Battle in Perspective

Today the Cato Institute placed an ad in major newspapers highlighting specific spending cuts that policymakers should make to restore our country’s fiscal sanity and economic stability. Our public call for policymakers to demonstrate leadership on spending cuts comes in the midst of the on-going battle on Capitol Hill over funding the government for the remainder of fiscal 2011.

A graphic at the top of the ad measures the $61 billion in cuts that Republicans have proposed against fiscal 2011 estimates for total spending, the deficit, and interest on the debt. As the graphic shows and the ad notes, it is clear that “leaders and members of both parties are in deep denial about the fiscal emergency we face.”

There are news reports that Republican and Democrat negotiators are heading toward a compromise figure of $33 billion in spending cuts. Let’s put that figure in perspective alongside the GOP’s original proposal to cut a whopping $61 billion:

Record spending levels…trillion dollar plus deficits…mountainous debt…a weak economy…

What, Congress worry?

Wikileaks Cable: Martinelli Is a Threat to the Rule of Law in Panama

Last August I warned about the troubling signs coming from Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli. Elected in 2009 on a free market platform, Martinelli has quickly embraced interventionist economic policies (particularly a sharp increase in public spending) that sooner or later will take a toll on Panama’s macroeconomic stability. More worryingly, I pointed at a disturbing pattern of cronyism, erosion of democratic checks and balances, and harassment of the media emanating from the Martinelli administration.

A cable released by Wikileaks this week seems to confirm many of these fears. Dated August 2009 and signed by then U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson, it describes Martinelli’s “autocratic tendencies” such as asking the U.S. government for help to wiretap political opponents—a request that was promptly rejected by the U.S. embassy in Panama. Stephenson goes on to say that, after meeting the Panamanian president, she is under the impression that Martinelli “may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals.”

According to the cable, Martinelli has resorted to “bullying and blackmailing” of private businesses. Stephenson describes how the Panamanian president told her that “he had already met with the heads of Panama’s four mobile phone operators and discussed methods for obtaining call data.” A bill has also been introduced in the National Assembly (where Martinelli’s coalition enjoys a large majority) that would “require registry of prepaid cell phones and compel mobile operators to submit call data to the government for criminal investigations.” Martinelli also told Stephenson that “he had twisted the arms of casino operators and threatened to cancel their concessions if they did not pay their back taxes and cut their ties to the opposition political figures who had granted their generous concessions.”

The cable ends noticing how “[m]ost of [Martinelli’s] government appointments have favored loyalty over competence.” That is, the Martinelli administration is riddled with cronyism– as I wrote back in August.

There is new evidence outside of the Wikileaks cable which confirms Martinelli’s ominous autocratic inclinations. For instance, international media organizations have lambasted the Martinelli administration in recent months for its encroachment on independent media. Reporters Without Borders dropped Panama 30 spots in its latest Press Freedom Index, noticing that the country “has taken an opposite direction, in an atmosphere growing increasingly tense between the media and the authorities.” The Interamerican Press Association says in its most recent report on Panama that “[o]ver the past six months, freedom of the press has been threatened by actions by institutions belonging to the government of President Ricardo Martinelli, as well as from the Judicial Branch and the Prosecutors’ Office.” As I pointed out in my August op-ed, Martinelli has appointed loyal (and controversial) figures to both the Supreme Court and the Prosecutors’ Office.

The diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks as well as these reports by international organizations lend credibility to the argument that Ricardo Martinelli is a growing threat to Panama’s rule of law and democratic institutions. Panamanians have a lot to be worried about.

New HUD Same as Old

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan recently gave a speech in New York in which he spoke of a “new direction in housing.” If there’s one constant with cabinet secretaries, it’s that they all promise that their department will be new and improved. The following are a few of Donovan’s lines that deserve comment.

The Federal Housing Administration is providing another critical bridge to economic stability…And with nearly half of first-time buyers using FHA loans, it is clear that the FHA has been central to recovery.

Thanks to his predecessor, Alphonso Jackson, who was “absolutely emphatic about winning back our share of the market,” the FHA’s willingness to pick up the subprime lending slack when the housing bubble burst has opened the door for a potentially huge taxpayer bailout. In fact, the government hasn’t just come to dominate the housing finance market – it practically is the housing finance market. Thus, there are plenty of doubts as to whether the housing “recovery” Donovan speaks of is sustainable without the government crutch.

In crisis comes enormous opportunity for change – as Rahm Emanuel says, ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ Ensuring we don’t starts with getting the government back into the business of building and preserving affordable housing. Homeownership is incredibly important. But if this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that it is long past time we had a balanced, comprehensive national housing policy – one that supports homeownership, but also provides affordable rental opportunities, and ensures nobody falls through the cracks.

Like his boss, Donovan’s use of the word “change” is just a euphemism for bigger government. His contention that the government needs to get “back” into affordable housing is laughable. When did it leave?

This crisis has illustrated that only the Federal government has the scale and mechanisms to deal effectively with some of the forces that caused it.

It was the federal government’s “scale and mechanisms” that helped cause the crisis! Only powerful institutions with national “scale” such as the Federal Reserve, Fannie and Freddie, and HUD had the power and potential to create such a nation-wide bubble, bust, and recession. Donovan wants the arsonist to put out the fire.

The Federal government can be a key partner in helping communities foster the kinds of synergies between housing, education, public safety, and health you’ve helped nurture at the neighborhood level.

Words like “synergy”, “nurture”, and “foster” are vacuous bureaucratic rhetoric. They are supposed to imply that the federal government can turn decaying urban centers into utopias with gobs of taxpayer money and bureaucratic meddling. That’s just bunk.

In my recent paper on three decades of scandals, mismanagement, and policy failures at HUD, I show that little has changed at HUD other than the individuals occupying the throne. The history of Shaun Donovan’s tenure is yet to be written, but his speech makes me pessimistic.

What Fed Independence?

More than 250 economists have signed an “Open Letter to Congress and the Executive Branch” calling upon them to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.”

Allan Meltzer is not a signatory to the petition and he has explained why not.  The Fed has frequently not shown independence in the past, and there is no reason to expect it to do so reliably in the future.  Professor Meltzer has just completed a multi-volume history of the Fed and knows all-too-well of the Fed’s willingness to accommodate the policies of administrations from FDRs to Lyndon Johnson’s. 

I would add that the Fed’s behavior under Chairman Bernanke breaks new ground in aligning the central bank’s policy with Treasury’s.  Much of what the Fed has done, first under Bush/Paulson, and now under Obama/Geithner, involves credit allocation.  Since that ultimately involves the provision of public money for private purpose, it is pre-eminently fiscal policy.  Central bank independence is a fuzzy concept.  If it means anything, however, it is that monetary policy is conducted independently of Treasury’s fiscal policy.

In short, it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control.  The Fed is a creature of Congress and ultimately answerable to that body. 

The petition raises legitimate concerns about whether the Fed will be able to tighten monetary policy when the time comes, and exit from its interventions in credit markets.  But it is precisely the Fed’s own recent actions that raise those problems.  Critics of recent Fed policy actions have for some time complained that the Fed has no exit strategy.  Apparently the critics are now going to be blamed for the Fed’s inability to extricate itself from its interventions.

Cross-posted at ThinkMarkets