Tag: elizabeth warren

Student Loan Gifts Don’t Help

Today must be student loan day in President Obama’s “year of action” – also “year of midterm elections” – as the President announced he will expand eligibility for student loan repayment capping and forgiveness. In addition, this week the Senate is set to take up Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) bill to federally refinance student loans at lower interest rates, including truly private loans.

Let’s review the folly of such seemingly well-intentioned efforts:

  • Making student loans cheaper, which includes indicating that Washington will always soften your loan terms if politically possible, mainly encourages students to demand more stuff, and colleges to charge more. They’re called “perverse incentives.”
  • In the name of helping them, federal politicians, and many other people, massively oversell higher education to the detriment of students. Perhaps as much as half of people who enter college don’t finish; a third of people with a bachelor’s degree are in jobs not requiring the credential; underemployment is even worse for graduate-degree holders, and; cheap college has almost certainly fueled credential inflation, not major increases in knowledge or skills.
  • Decreasing what borrowers will repay means taxpayers – who had no choice in whether the loans were made – have to make up the difference. And there is a little matter of being nearly $18 trillion in debt already.
  • The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program encourages people to work for not-for-profit entities, especially government. As if government work were a major sacrifice, and things produced or operated for profit such as iPads, grocery stores, bicycles, door knobs, restaurants, books, airplanes, and on and on, didn’t make us better off.

Someday, I hope somebody’s “year of action” will finally deal with the crippling reality of federal student aid “help.” But that will only happen if the public gets tired of sweet-sounding “solutions,” especially in years of elections.    

No Big Deal. Just Taxpayers Getting Clobbered

According to Ben Jacobs at the Daily Beast, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will soon be introducing legislation to allow holders of federal student loans to refinance at lower interest rates. There’s no indication that the new rates would be in exchange for longer terms, or anything like that. Just lower rates because someone might have borrowed at 7 percent, rates for new loans are now at 3 percent, and, well, paying 7 percent is tougher.

According to Jacobs, the proposal “seems to encapsulate…free-market principles” because recent changes to the student-loan program connect rates on new loans to broader interest rates. Apparently, pegging interest rates to 10-year Treasuries is very free market-y.

Perhaps more concerning than the questionable use of the term “free-market principles,” however, is the article’s handling of my reponse to the author’s request for comment. Apparently, I was fine with Warren’s rough idea, except for one little thing. Writes Jacobs:

In fact, Neal McCluskey, a higher education expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, had difficulty finding objections to the concept of Warren’s bill though he cautioned that was without any legislation for him to read. Instead, he was agog at the issues involved with reducing government revenue through lowering interest rates because the lender has to pay for it and, in this case, the lender is the American taxpayer.

How much bigger an objection could there be to “the concept of Warren’s bill” than that such a move would leave taxpayers holding the bag? As I often try to emphasize, taxpayers are people, too. There are lots of other concerns – most centrally, easy aid fuels tuition inflation – but to gently paraphrase Vice President Biden, reducing revenue that’s already been budgeted is a big deal!

Let me rephrase that: It should be a big deal. But as proposals like this indicate, it’s not nearly as big as it ought to be.

 

Elizabeth Warren, Fair Play, and Soaking the Rich

Elizabeth Warren’s recent remarks on class warfare, made during a campaign stop in her quest for a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat, provide a nice microcosm of the broader philosophical views behind much contemporary political debate.

Here’s Warren:

The relevant bit that has her supporters so fired up goes like this:

I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there–good for you.

But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory.

Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea–God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Fully exploring the thinking behind Warren’s remarks would demand a book at least. We might point out that most of the rich got that way by creating value for others, meaning they gave back in the process of getting rich. Or we might wonder if her thinking implies that, because the state is responsible in part for the environment in which all of us earned what we have, the state is the actual owner of what we have.

To spare you having to read that book, however, I’m going to instead address just two points I find particularly interesting. First, we can tease out the theory of political obligation Warren advances and see if it holds up to scrutiny. Second, we can ask whether her argument, even if we accept it on its own terms, supports a tax increase on high income earners.

In a 1955 essay, H. L. A. Hart articulated what’s come to be known as the “fair play” principle of political obligation.

When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to those restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.

Framed in Warren’s language, “the rest of us” restricted our liberty by paying taxes for the creation of roads, the formation of police forces, the funding of fire departments, and so on. And the rich benefited from our submission to taxes by getting rich (in part) because of the existence of roads, police, and fire departments. Therefore, we have a right to a similar submission from the rich in the form of them paying an increased amount in taxes to fund roads, police, and fire departments, too.

So by her account, this can’t be class warfare because it’s a simple matter of obligation. But is that true? Does the so-called “fair play” account of political obligation work?

Not really. Robert Nozick famously knocked it down in Anarchy, State, and Utopia with a thought experiment about a neighborhood public address system. And A. John Simmons went even further—and did so more persuasively—in his 1979 classic, Moral Principles and Political Obligations.

But the basic response to “fair play” is pretty simple: It seems awfully weird to demand that we repay benefits we never had a choice about accepting in the first place.

Nobody approached the rich before they were rich and said, “Hey, we’re all pitching in to pay for roads and police, which we all think are pretty valuable. If you’d like to benefit from those things like we would, we ask that you pay for them. Are you up for that?” A (pre-)rich person might very well say, “Yes, I’m game.” In that case the principle of fair play would apply. But it would only apply if he had a meaningful choice about the matter. On the other hand, he might say, “Yes, I think we do need roads and police, but I also think they’d be better provided by an alternative cooperative scheme (the market, a different government, a different voluntary group, etc.) to the one you’re offering.”

Simmons calls this the distinction between “receiving” benefits and “accepting” them. The fair play principle creates obligations when benefits are accepted, but not when merely received.

With that in mind, Warren would have a difficult time arguing that any of us genuinely accepted the particular roads and police provided by the particular scheme she supports. We’ve received them, yes, and may rather like what we received—but we were never presented with an actual choice.

There may, of course, be plenty of other good reasons to feel obligated to pay our taxes—or to even pay more taxes than our neighbors—but fair play, at least in the form Warren presents it, doesn’t quite get us there.

Still, let’s set such concerns aside and grant to Warren that, if the rich did benefit from the particular services paid for by the rest of us, they have a duty to pay (more) for them. Would that allow us to justify asking the rich to pay more taxes today?

Again, probably not. Just look at the beneficial services Warren draws our attention to.

  1. Roads
  2. Police
  3. Fire departments
  4. Education

She tacks an “and so on” to the list, but there’s something striking about the concrete examples she does give. Namely, they’re all the kinds of things you’d expect even from a much smaller state than the one we have today.

In other words, the need to raise taxes at the present moment (if such a need exists) is precisely not to pay for roads, police, fire departments, and education. We had those—and they were functioning quite nicely—for a good while before the explosion of federal spending under the last two administrations.

If Warren’s claim is that the rich got rich because of certain benefits they received from government and so should pay more to provide those benefits to others, then the overwhelming bulk of government spending is completely outside the scope of her argument.

It’s not obvious that many rich people got to be rich because of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or military expenses. (Those who got rich because of subsidies are another matter, but she doesn’t draw that distinction, nor is she calling for an end to government handouts to the wealthy and politically connected.) But those are where we’ve seen so much of the spending increases that now demand, according to Warren and her peers, that all of us pony up more cash to the federal government.

This means that an easy response to Warren is to grant her general philosophical point but then add that what it leads to is not increased taxes but cutting government back to those programs that do make people rich and only then worry about how much of what remains the rich should pay for.

Of course we might also point out that, even with the bloated leviathan we have in Washington—one that does far more than provide roads, police, fire departments, and schools (which are, after all, chiefly state and local matters)—the rich still pay for most of it. Certainly more than “the rest of us” pay. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out back in May, “the highest-earning 10% of the U.S. population paid the largest share among 24 countries examined, even after adjusting for their relatively higher incomes.” The top 20% of American income earners pay over half the federal taxes. Which means that “the next kid who comes along” already is getting his federal benefits from the rich. To Warren and her supporters, I ask, “How much is enough?”

If Warren’s moral case for increasing the tax burden of the rich doesn’t hold up, can she still maintain her claim that this isn’t class warfare? Probably not. By her arguments, the rich are not obligated to pay more than they already are. Nor will their paying more do much of anything to ameliorate America’s fiscal woes. That means it’s rather difficult to see her speech as anything but a ploy to fire up her base by attacking a disfavored minority.

If that’s not class warfare, I don’t know what is.

Update: I just finished a podcast on the subject of this post with Caleb Brown.

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?

Perhaps Another Reason the White House Isn’t Pushing Elizabeth Warren…

One of the biggest inside-the-Beltway battles continues to be over the nomination of Elizabeth Warren to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Recently the White House floated the name of Raj Date, one of Ms. Warren’s hand-picked staffers at the CFPB, as a substitute.  Many on all sides of the issue continue to wonder why the White House doesn’t just nominate Warren and make Republicans (and not a few Democrats) vote against her.  After all she appears to be beloved on the Left. 

Perhaps the White House already knew what I had suspected, but only recently confirmed: that Professor Warren is neither as well known or liked as commonly believed.  A recent poll in Massachusetts by Democratic pollsters Public Policy Polling, who tend to over-sample Democratic voters, found about as many respondents had a unfavorable view of Warren as favorable, 21% vs.17%.  And that’s in left-leaning Massachusetts.  I have to imagine the results look even less favorable for Warren in places like Montana (maybe Jon Tester could tell us).  Perhaps less surprising is that over 60% had no opinion, probably because they had no idea who she is, and this in a state where she might run for Senate.   (I’d probably poll 90% plus not knowing who I was, and I’d like to keep it that way.) 

Obviously we shouldn’t read too much into any one poll.  But I think this helps remind us that sometimes what Washington cares about does not really matter much to those outside the Beltway.

Bill Daley and ‘Too Big To Fail’

MIT Professor Simon Johnson recently argued that Bill Daley’s appointment as Obama’s Chief of Staff signals that “too big to fail,” as it relates to our largest financial institutions, is here to stay.  Personally I never thought it was in doubt.  With Geithner at Treasury and Dodd-Frank further codifiying “too big to fail,” its been clear for some time that the bailout net is larger than it’s ever been, and is not being pulled back. 

That said, Professor Johnson’s focus on Daley distracts from the real issue, which is changing our bank regulatory structure to end bailouts.  The focus on Daley has the potential to lead us down that path of “if we just had the right people in government…”  We shouldn’t be designing our regulatory structures with the “right” people in mind, but rather with the rule of law in mind.  In fact, one of the benefits of the Obama administration is that it serves as a great test of the “right people” hypothesis of government.  One is unlikely to see a more left-leaning White House than this one, so if this one gets captured by special interests, including Wall Street, than it’s a safe bet that any future administration will as well. 

Since I believe most of us actually want to end “too big to fail,” the real question is how to do it.  It strikes me that we have three options:  regulate the largest institutions to death (or competitive disadvantage), break them up, or credibly impose losses on their creditors.  Ultimately I think the regulation approach is bound to fail, if for no other reason than regulatory capture.   (Even Elizabeth Warren seems to get this: “Regulations, over time, fail. I want to see Congress focus more on a credible system for liquidating the banks that are considered too big to fail.”)  Breaking them up might sound attractive in theory, but I have a hard time seeing how it truly works in practice.  After all, few in Washington viewed Bear Stearns as “too big to fail.”  Accordingly, I believe the best approach would be to force creditors to take losses or be converted into equity.  To make this credible, we must bind the hands of the regulators.  As long as the Fed, Treasury, or the FDIC can inject money, then bailouts are always on the table.    

Sadly, what the Daley appointment reminds us is that any attempt to end “too big to fail” will likely have to wait until the next administration.  Not only is this one wed to bailouts, the President would likely veto any bill that really tied the hands of the Fed.