Topic: Government and Politics

The President Talks Too Much

At least Cato Vice President Gene Healy thinks so.

In an interview on Obama’s 50th day in office, Healy explained why  the president should consider staying out of the spotlight:

The president wasn’t supposed to be a national guardian angel. He was supposed to be a limited constitutional officer whose main job was faithful execution of the laws. And I don’t see a lot of evidence that Barack Obama’s omnipresence is really helping him or the country.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a few bloggers who are writing, citing and linking to Cato research and commentary:

  • David Kirkpatrick links to Richard W. Rahn’s op-ed in The Washington Times about the increasing loss of liberty in the United Kingdom.
  • Free-market energy blogger Robert Bradley, editor of Master Resource, cites Cato’s recognition of the women who launched the libertarian movement: Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson.
  • Scott Horton 0f Anti-War Radio interviews Doug Bandow about relations between the US and China.

Let us know if you’re blogging about Cato by emailing cmoody [at] cato.org (subject: blogging%20about%20Cato) or drop us a line on Twitter @catoinstitute.

No Wonder the GOP Has No Credibility on Spending

You would think Barack Obama’s tsunami of federal spending would provide an easy target for Republicans.  But they apparently haven’t learned the right lessons after two successive electoral debacles.

Earmarks don’t account for a lot of money in Washington terms.  You know, just a few billion dollars out of trillions or quadrillions or whatever we are now up to – it’s so easy to lose track!

Nevertheless, earmarks are a powerful symbol.  So trust the “stupid party” to muff its chance.  Reports Politico:

Bashing Democrats on the day President Obama signed the $410 billion omnibus spending bill was the easy part for Republican leaders Wednesday.

But getting Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell on the same page on earmarks will be a lot tougher.

At a joint press conference designed to present a united Republican front against Democratic spending habits, McConnell (R-Ky.) and Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared to diverge on earmark reform.

“I think the president missed a golden opportunity to really fulfill his campaign commitment to not sign bills that have a lot of wasteful spending and are overburdened with earmarks,” Boehner said. “If you look at the earmark reforms that he proposed, the question I have is, ‘Where’s the beef?”

McConnell declined to answer the question about earmarks, and instead criticized the president’s contention that the omnibus bill was simply last year’s unfinished business.

“Let me tell what was not last year’s business was plussing the bill up 8 percent, which is twice the rate of inflation,” McConnell said. “This bill is not last year’s business. … It further illustrates my point that when you add up the stimulus and the omnibus, the spending in the first 50 days of the administration [comes] at a rate of $1 billion an hour.”

Republicans have tried to come up with a unified earmark reform plan, but have struggled as GOP appropriators are reluctant to sign on. McConnell is on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has called for earmark reforms, but he and many lawmakers defend Congress’ constitutional right to direct spending.

In the omnibus bill, McConnell secured some $75 million worth of earmarks, while Boehner, a long-time critic of earmarks, did not. Boehner says Congress should freeze earmarks for the rest of the year, saying it leads to wasteful and potentially corrupting Washington spending.

Of course, Democrats have taken not.  In signing the latest spending bill President Barack Obama landed a nice blow against GOP hypocrisy:

And I also find it ironic that some of those who rail most loudly against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own and will tout them in their own states and their own districts.

If Congress can’t take a vow of poverty on distributing pork when the nation faces a $1.3 trillion budget deficit and trillions more in deficits over the coming years, then it isn’t likely ever to be more responsible with the public’s money.

Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators…and Pork

I’m sympathetic to the oft-repeated saying that there are really three parties in Washington: Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators.  This situation is likely to be demonstrated this evening when Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee provide enough votes for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid to close off debate and proceed to final passage of the pork-laden $410 billion fy2009 omnibus appropriations bill.

Greasing the skids for bigger government will be almost $8 billion in earmarks contained in the bill.  Fox News is pointing out that almost all of the Republican Senators expected or likely to support the Democratic measure stand to deliver quite a bit of pork to constituents and special interests.  Not coincidentally, all of the senators named, except Sen. Snowe of Maine, are appropriators.  As a matter of fact, if you look at the top 20 senators (both parties) in terms of dollars of earmarks secured for this bill, 15 are appropriators.

Bottom line: Appropriators love spending and they particularly love pork.  Sen. Snowe just likes the government spending other people’s money.

**Update: Cloture was invoked on a 62-35 vote and the legislation subsequently passed by voice vote.  Every single Democratic member of the Senate Appropriation Committee voted for cloture.  Republican appropriators Sens. Cochran, Specter, Bond, Shelby, Alexander, and Murkowski voted yes; Sens. McConnell, Gregg, Bennett, Hutchison, Brownback, Collins, and Voinovich voted no.  Thus, without the support of these Republican appropriators, the bill would have been effectively killed.  Of the top 20 recipients of earmarks in the bill, only 2 – Sens. Inhofe and McConnell – voted no.

Solve the Financial Crisis (and Make Some Serious Money)

Peter Van Doren and I have been puzzling over this very interesting NYT op-ed on home foreclosures by Yale economist John Geanakoplos and Boston University law professor Susan Koniak. If G&K’s story is right, then shouldn’t there be an opportunity for some clever financiers to help struggling homeowners keep their houses, help banks and other investors repair their balance sheets — and the financiers could help themselves to piles of cash in the process?

G&K argue that all three parties to a home mortgage — the homeowner, the lender, and the loan servicer who works as a go-between — currently face grim financial prospects:

  • Many homeowners are “underwater” — that is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth. According to First American Core Logic, some 20% of mortgages were underwater as of December 2008. The percentage varies greatly from state to state, with 55% of mortgages underwater in Nevada, but only 7% in New York. The homeowners who are underwater include not just those who purchased with little down payment, but also many people who put down the traditional 20 percent when they bought in 2005 or 2006, at the peak of the real estate bubble. According to Case-Shiller index data, house prices nationwide have fallen 27% (as of December) from their May 2006 peak. Some local markets have experienced more dramatic declines, highlighted by Phoenix’s 46% slide. Rental prices are now far below many homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments, and lots of underwater homeowners will have to make payments for years before they have some equity stake in their homes. Many of those homeowners would rather default and risk foreclosure. G&K’s op-ed includes this figure showing that defaults increase dramatically as homeowners sink further and further underwater. Given their current options, default is rational.
  • The mortgage lender faces heavy losses if the home enters foreclosure. According to G&K, ”the subprime bond market now trades as if it expects only 25 percent back on a loan when there is a foreclosure.”
  • The servicer also is at risk. According to G&K, the servicer is obligated to continue paying the lender its monthly payment even if the borrower is in default. That obligation only lifts at foreclosure.

Because of the servicer’s obligation, the servicer has strong incentive to push for quick foreclosure. However, the homeowner and the mortgage lender would likely benefit from a loan modification — even a significant write-down of principal — because that would keep the homeowner in his house and it would deliver a better return to the lender than the 75% loss from foreclosure. G&K thus argue that government, instead of continuing to bail out the banking industry and struggling homeowners (and putting taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars), should simply require that the lenders write down the mortgage principal.

But is government action needed? Couldn’t some private actors accomplish the same thing — and make some serious scratch in the process?

A financial wizard with sufficient backing could approach a troubled lender and offer, say, 50% of the original loan amount in order to take some of the toxic mortgages off the lender’s hands. Now, the lender won’t be happy with selling at a 50% loss, but that certainly beats a 75% loss, so the lender would grudgingly agree. The financial wizard would then approach the homeowner and offer to write down the mortgage principal to, say, 60% on condition that the homeowner purchase mortgage insurance. The homeowner should jump at the offer because it would put him back above water, purchasing a home that’s worth more than its debt. Finally, the financial wizard would get the servicer to release its control over the loan, because the servicer would want to be freed from the risk of having to cover the payments to the lender. The financial wizard would then pocket a cool 10% of the original mortgage’s value.

That is not chump change. G&K estimate some 8 million homes could be foreclosed upon in the coming years. Assume the original mortgage on each of those houses is $199,025 (95% of the median sale price of new U.S. homes in January 2004, about halfway up the bubble); that 10% would represent almost $160 billion.

Of course, if the bank proves recalcitrant and demands more than 50%, or the homeowner demands a write-down of more than 40% or he’ll walk away, that would cut into the profits. And the financial wizard would have to cover his costs and possible risk premiums. Still, at least in theory, there would seem to be a significant pile of money on the table.

So why isn’t this happening? Are there no money-loving financial wizards out there?

To some extent, they are. Last week, the NYT reported that some former Countrywide executives have formed a firm called PennyMac that, with financial backing from hedge funds and other investors, purchases toxic mortgages from insolvent banks at low prices, modifies the loans to increase homeowners’ likelihood of making payments, and profits from the rekindled mortgage revenue stream. In the particular case reported in the NYT, PennyMac paid 38 cents on the dollar. But PennyMac seems like very small potatoes compared to the $160 billion that may be on the table. And the banks were forced to sell the loans because they had been taken over by the FDIC.

So why aren’t there more firms doing what PennyMac is doing, or following the strategy that Peter and I have laid out above? And why aren’t banks lining up to offload their toxic mortgages (or to do the write-downs themselves and pocket the 10%)? Peter and I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. As G&K note in their op-ed, banks and other investors who’re currently saddled with toxic assets may be waiting for some form of government rescue that would enable them to recoup far more than the 50% or so that would be offered by our financial wizards.
  2. Banks are keeping bad mortgages on their books at values much higher than the 25 to 40 cents on the dollar observed in the rare sales of troubled assets, and so the banks are unwilling to sell the assets for 50 cents on the dollar. (Remember that PennyMac is purchasing assets from banks that have been taken over by the FDIC — in other words, these are forced sales.) The banks (and their managers) may strongly prefer to keep the assets on their books rather than sell them at a 50% loss.
  3. The transaction costs involved in this scheme (e.g., analyzing the toxic assets to determine which ones to buy, negotiating with the delinquent and at-risk homeowners) are prohibitively large.

Government can address (1) by committing not to bail out the investors. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how reliable that commitment would be, especially given government actions so far in this financial crisis.

Fixing (2) is difficult. Accounting rules could be changed to force the banks to lower their book values for bad mortgages, but it would be difficult to get that accounting change passed quickly. Besides, some accounting experts argue that, in stressful times, accounting rules should have more wiggle room rather than less.

As for (3), the PennyMac guys claim that the work is difficult. But c’mon, there could be a $160 billion payday for the guys who can figure it out.

So, come on you money-loving financial wizards: your country needs you!

He Has a Point

Stung by accusations that he is a “socialist,” President Obama pointed out to two New York Times reporters that, “it wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn’t on my watch. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement -– the prescription drug plan – without a source of funding.”

Not to defend Obama’s unprecedented increase on government spending or plans to involve the government in almost every area of our lives…but he does have a point. As I pointed out in Leviathan on the Right, the Bush administration’s brand of big-government conservatism was, at the very least, the greatest expansion of government from Lyndon Johnson to, well, Barack Obama.

Mr. President, If You’re Involved It’s Already Politicized

Yesterday, President Obama coupled his lifting of an executive order banning federal funding for embryonic stem cell research with the signing of a memorandum directing “the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.” In other words, at the very moment he was directly injecting politics into science by forcing taxpayers to fund research that many find immoral – and that could be funded privately – Obama declared that he wouldn’t politicize science.

Don’t insult our intelligence. When government pays for scientific work that science is politicized. Yes, it could be argued that government not funding something is also political, but which is inherently more politicized, government forcing people to fund research, or leaving it to private individuals to voluntarily support scientific endeavors they believe of value?

You don’t have to be a scientist to grasp the obvious answer to that one.  And as I’ve laid out very clearly regarding education, this kind of compelled support ultimately leads not only to ugly politicization, but social conflict and division.

Culture wars, anyone?

The rhetoric supporting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research – and lots of other science – may sound noble, but the means-ends calculations are anything but. They are divisive incursions on liberty, and make political conflict inevitable.