Topic: Government and Politics

It’s Not a Pretty Picture

The failure of the bailout plan essentially shows the huge lack of confidence among the public that it would achieve its objectives. It also registers doubt about the government’s ability to implement it successfully.

The impasse shows how blunt fiscal policy is and how inept politicians are in managing the economy. The current set of problems did not arise overnight — they festered in the form of government favoritism toward housing finance companies which overextended their operations and ultimately toppled over. Now, those policies have come full circle to rest at Congress’s doorstep. Problem is, they will soon visit our doorsteps too in the form of a weaker economy.

Now that the bailout proposal has failed, Congress may seek a new approach. More likely, the existing plan will be tweaked to enable passage in a re-vote. But delay and political drama will further sap public confidence in Congress and weaken consumer confidence in the economy.

That may mean a deeper recession and trigger calls for still larger bailouts to salvage the financial sector in the future. But a larger bailout package will also be more dangerous. Larger short-term increases in federal borrowing may destabilize international capital inflows and reduce confidence in the dollar.

Overall, it’s not a pretty picture — but score one for supporters of the free market who insist on allowing market reorganization of the financial sector to continue unimpeded…albeit at high risk to the economy over the next few months.

Repeal the Income Tax?

The New York Times takes note of the brewing tax revolt in Massachusetts, where a grassroots group has put an initiative on the ballot to repeal the state income tax. The Times headline (on paper) reads, “On Massachusetts Ballot, a Tax Repeal That Worries Leaders.” Why does a newspaper that purports to be a check on government so often present questions from the government’s point of view? Did they once publish headlines like “On Washington Mall, a Peace March That Worries Leaders” or “In Massachusetts, a Civil Rights Crusade That Worries Leaders”? I doubt it.

And I should in fact congratulate reporter Pam Belluck for writing

It would save the average taxpayer about $3,600 a year. Annual revenue from the tax is about $12.5 billion, roughly 45 percent of the state’s budget of about $28 billion.

Too often, as we’ve noted before here on Cato@Liberty, the mainstream media use the formulation “the proposed cut would cost the government millions of dollars.” At least this time Belluck started with the taxpayer.

In 2002 a ballot measure to repeal the income tax got very little attention and still won 45 percent of the vote. This year, with a perception of hard economic times, it might do better. But this time the Establishment is on the alert. The advocates of repeal have raised some $270,000, and after their signature-gathering have only $25,000 left to spend. The special interest groups that thrive on taxpayer money have raised $1.3 million to oppose the initiative.

Let’s hear it for Carla Howell and the Committee for Small Government, who are at least forcing the government–and its beneficiaries–to explain why they need more than the $16 billion of citizens’ money that they would still have after repeal of the income tax. And let’s hear it for pizza shop owner Lakis Theoharis, who tells the Times, “I’m for the repeal of the tax. To me, the smaller the government, the better for the citizens.”

Let Palin Be Palin

Some commentators are suggesting that the McCain campaign has panicked about Sarah Palin’s appeal, trying to cram her head with policy-wonkery and then hiding her in a closet when that didn’t work. Let Palin be Palin, they say – let her show her authentic self, the gun-totin’, family-raisin’, reformist governor that Alaskans love.

Good idea. Let’s start with the bailout. Surely a rugged individualist reformer from way outside the Beltway is champing at the bit to denounce this $700 billion bailout for Wall Street insiders cooked up by Washington insiders behind closed doors, without public hearings, with the unanimous support of the mainstream media. Let ‘er rip, Governor Palin. Tell the Wall Street bankers that when a small business makes bad decisions in Wasilla, it goes out of business, and the same rules should apply to large businesses in Manhattan. That’s the Sarah Palin conservatives say America would love.

I Stand Corrected

In a blog last week, I suggested that after years of carrying water for the Bush administration’s big-government agenda, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Oh) had “suddenly found a spine” and learned to say no.    Apparently not.  Accepting little more than a fig-leaf of change, Boehner now has endorsed the president’s $700 billion bail-out of Wall Street.

Only When Necessary

In his speech on the financial crisis, President Bush remarked:

Our system of free enterprise rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in the marketplace only when necessary.

Hmm.  I wonder what happens if I substitute other words for “free enterprise” and “in the marketplace.”

Our system of free speech rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in the marketplace of ideas only when necessary.

Eeew.  I don’t like the sound of that.  But I guess it’s consistent with the Bush administration’s policy of paying columnists for sympathetic opeds.  Let’s venture on.

Our system of a free press rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in the media only when necessary.

Well … The New York Times might object … but I guess if George W. Bush says it’s necessary …

Our system of freedom of religion rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in your church only when necessary.

Holy smokes.

Our system of freedom from unreasonable search rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in your phone calls only when necessary.

It isn’t interfering if they’re just listening in … is it?

Of course, I’m being snarky and completely unfair to the president.  After all, economic freedom – the right to control what you produce – isn’t nearly as important as the rights to think, write, or worship.  (Or so say those who want to control what you produce, without being told what to think, write, or worship.)

Obama’s Free Ride on Fannie Mae

A page one Washington Post headline reports, “Credit Crisis Has Given Obama a Distinct Edge.” Which must be really frustrating for McCain, because McCain did try to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac back in 2006. Obama, meanwhile, as I reported at the American Spectator, received more donations from Fannie Mae in four years than any other senator (except Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd) received in twenty years. That’s quite an accomplishment–more money from a primary creator of the financial meltdown in just four years than senior members of Congress like Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Richard Shelby, Spencer, Bachus, John Kerry, and Roy Blunt got in entire 20 years that the Center for Responsive Politics tallied. And of course, Obama chose former Fannie Mae CEO James Johnson, who was found to have jiggered the books, to head his search for a vice president.

Shouldn’t somebody in the media ask Obama why he was Fannie Mae’s favorite senator?

Deal or No Deal?

Arnold Kling makes an important observation that “Democrats want to [pass the Paulson-Bernanke bailout proposal] without deliberation, because putting the financial sector under government control is what they want.”

Despite the sturm und drang of the Left blogosphere (not to mention protesters) over the proposal, it is not their Blue Team heroes who are standing against the proposed bailout. Instead, a bloc of limited-government Republicans is providing the only significant congressional impediment to the proposal. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill Democrats are ready to embrace Paulson-Bernanke and the Left punditocracy is miffed that John McCain helped to disrupt the endgame.

Why would a cadre of Republicans side against a plan drawn up by a Republican Treasury secretary and Fed chair, while Democrats favor it? One reason, as Arnold diagnoses, is that the bailout would give Congress justification to intervene (further) in financial markets. That should worry us because earlier congressional mischief deserves much blame for the current financial mess — and portends future mischief and crises.

The meltdown of recently developed products in the financial markets — like the sale of tranches of collateralized debt obligations and derivatives connected with those products, primarily credit-default swaps — are at the heart of the financial crisis. It is important to remember who fueled the market for those products: congressional puppets Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

For decades, the federal government (and other levels of government) have pursued the (questionable) goal of ever-higher homeownership rates. However, politicians (correctly, I suspect) believed that the public would oppose a broad, explicit taxpayer subsidy program for homebuyers.  So federal lawmakers encouraged the development of elaborate financial products to provide loans for higher-risk mortgage borrowers — the financial products that have now gone toxic following the collapse of the real estate bubble.

Fannie and Freddie did not issue these higher-risk subprime and “Alt-A” mortgages as part of their traditional operation of purchasing and packaging low-risk “conforming” loans in the secondary market. However, as Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison explain in their excellent Tuesday WSJ op-ed, Freddie and Fannie became the dominant players in the subprime and Alt-A market, sinking (along with their GSE brethren) more than $1 trillion into the riskier mortgages and growing them from 8 percent of all U.S. mortgage originations in 2003 to more than 20 percent by 2006.

Freddie and Fannie arguably have more government oversight than any other corporations in the United States, with their own federal regulator, regular congressional oversight, and board members appointed by the White House. Yet, all that oversight did not keep the firms from fueling the high-risk mortgage industry; as Chris Edwards notes, their regulator gave them a clean bill of financial health less than a year ago.

Why the forbearance? Because Fannie and Freddie’s government overseers wanted the firms to achieve political goals, despite the risk that posed. Calomiris and Wallison have the money quote from Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), now chair of the House committee that oversees Freddie and Fannie:

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have played a very useful role in helping to make housing more affordable … a mission that this Congress has given them in return for some of the arrangements which are of some benefit to them to focus on affordable housing.”

One can appreciate Frank’s sentiment. He highly values homeownership for low-income Americans, and he believed that allowing Freddie and Fannie to play (heavily) in the subprime and Alt-A markets would bring the American dream to poor people without (directly) burdening American taxpayers. However, these machinations proved too clever by half.

If the Paulson-Bernanke plan gives Congress enduring justification to become more involved in financial markets, can you imagine how much more clever lawmakers will get?

Postscript: Hat tip to Susan Semeleer for sending along this Barney Frank quote from the 2003 effort to increase regulatory oversight of Fannie and Freddie:

”These two entities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are not facing any kind of financial crisis,” said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. ”The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing.”