Tag: housing subsidies

No Hope or Change When it Comes to Fannie Mae

The Washington Post is reporting that President Obama has assigned his staff with the task of designing a new set of government guarantees behind the U.S. mortgage market. Although as the Post also reports the “approach could even preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” That’s correct. Despite their role in driving the housing bubble and the already $160 billion in taxpayer losses, President Obama appears to be considering just putting the same failed system in place. Of course, we’ll be promised that it will all work better this time.

Perhaps most offensive is that the Post reports that Obama “officials don’t want to punish the thousands of Fannie and Freddie employees who have specialized knowledge about the mortgage market.” Seriously? What about the many blameless employees of AIG, Lehman Brothers, or Bear Stearns? Or New Century for that matter. Did the janitors and receptionists at those firms really cause the crisis? The truth is that the employees of Fannie and Freddie have been lining their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer for years. What the Administration is really saying is that they wouldn’t want all the political operatives at these favored firms to lose their perks. After all, Obama officials will need somewhere to land after 2012 and Goldman Sachs has only so many slots.

What’s most depressing is that you can’t say Obama hasn’t been given the facts. As the Post makes clear, his economic advisers spelled out the case against massive subsidies for the mortgage market. Austan Goolsbee, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, points out: by subsidizing mortgage investments, the government drives capital away from other types of investments. If Obama truly wants to help the middle and working class, then he’d want capital to flow into investments that increase labor productivity, which is the ultimate source of wage growth.  Running up asset prices, like houses, does not make us wealthier in the long run.

But then what should I expect. The President has already entered campaign mode. It would be nice to see the economics win over the politics. But it looks like such a thing will have to wait for another administration.

WaPo’s Fiscal Truths

A Washington Post editorial today discusses the National Academy of Sciences “Fiscal Future” study. The NAS report modeled four possible tax and spending paths for the nation over the next 70 years.  I was one of the NAS report’s co-authors.

The Post focuses on the “low spending and revenue” path, which would keep federal revenues below about 19 percent GDP and keep spending below about 21 percent of GDP. The Post argues that both tax hikes and spending cuts will be needed to fix the government’s budget problem because the “pain and sacrifice” would be too large if we just cut spending, as under this “low” path. But the Post’s conclusion is based on faulty one-sided accounting, only considering the recipients of government largesse.

The reality is that every dollar the government spends imposes ”pain and sacrifice” on current or future taxpayers. Thus, spending cuts may impose temporary pain on people whose benefits are withdrawn, but they create equal or greater pain on the taxpayers who foot the bill. Indeed, standard economic theory suggests that the economy gets a “free lunch” when spending and taxes are reduced in tandem because the deadweight losses caused by government coercive actions are reduced.

Note that I say “temporary” pain because to a substantial degree, benefit recipients will adjust their lives as subsidies are withdrawn, and most people will prosper without government help, as we saw following welfare reform in 1996.  Misguided government spending programs–like welfare–cause damage to society and the economy, so that reducing spending doesn’t increase pain, it ultimately reduces it. Consider how government housing subsidies ended up causing widespread damage, including for many people who initially benefited. For a guide to damaging federal programs, see www.downsizinggovernment.org.

The Post is right that the NAS study’s “low spending” path would require “broad areas” of federal spending to be cut, such as K-12 school subsidies and other state aid programs. But that would be a good thing for citizens, the economy, and for responsible government. Federal spending on properly state and local activities has been a giant failure, and it should be ended whether or not there is a budget deficit. 

The Post is on sounder footing with its observation that many Republicans do not seem to grasp the magnitude of spending reforms that are needed in the years ahead. The GOP does need to “get specific” and push for particular cuts. Let’s have national debates on federal involvement in K-12 schools, raising the Social Security retirement age, and cutting the corporate welfare programs mentioned by the Post. Let’s start that “adult conversation” right now, because as the NAS report warns, the longer we wait, the more the federal debt monster grows.

For the record, the NAS report did not endorse tax hikes or any other particular fiscal solution. It simply provided four possible combos of future tax and spending levels as starting points for discussion. It also usefully described how to overhaul the income tax and replace it with a much simpler and flatter tax system, as I’ve described here.

Don’t Need More Rental Subsidies

At Tuesday’s congressional hearing on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) said that “It’s a mistake for the government heavily to subsidize homeownership.” Coming from one of the biggest cheerleaders for federal homeownership subsidies, and an architect of the housing meltdown, a conversion from Frank would be welcome.

Unfortunately, Frank followed the comment with a call for more rental housing subsidies:

We are much better off trying to subsidize rental housing, because when you put people into decent rental housing, you do not confront the problems we have seen putting people inappropriately into homeownership.

Frank is correct that tying oneself to a mortgage is much riskier than renting. The federal bias toward homeownership has been predicated on its alleged civic virtues, but there’s no virtue in being a slave to an expensive mortgage, especially when one’s house is worth less than the note.

But the government’s dismal experiences with rental subsidies, including public housing, demonstrate that more federal interventions are unwarranted. In addition to abolishing homeownership subsidies, the federal government should also abolish rental subsidies, as a Cato essay by Howard Husock argues.

The following are some key points from the essay:

  • Before federal subsidy programs were begun, and before the widespread use of detailed housing regulations and zoning ordinances, private markets did a good job of provided housing for lower-income Americans. During the period from 1890 to 1930, for example, vast amounts of new working-class housing were built in American cities. Data from that period show that a significant percentage of residents of poor neighborhoods did not live in overcrowded tenements, but instead lived in small homes that they owned or in homes where the owners lived and rented out space.
  • Since the 1930s, the federal government has funded one expensive approach to low-income housing after another—without seeming to notice that the new approaches were made necessary less by market failure than by the failure of past public policies. Public housing projects erected to replace slums soon became severely distressed, housing vouchers meant to end “concentrated poverty” instead moved it around, and the low income housing tax credit program provides large subsidies to developers and few benefits to low-income families.
  • A major social benefit of private and unsubsidized rental and housing markets is the promotion of responsible behavior. Tenants and potential homeowners must establish a good credit history, save money for security deposits or downpayments, come with good references from employers, and pay the rent or mortgage on time. Renters must maintain their apartments decently and keep an eye on their children to avoid eviction. By contrast, public housing, housing vouchers, and other types of housing subsidies undermine or eliminate these benefits of market-based housing.
  • Federal housing subsidies are very expensive to taxpayers. In 2010, the federal government will spend about $26 billion on rental aid for low-income households and about $8.5 billion on public housing projects.