Topic: Regulatory Studies

Peer-to-Patent

Here’s a video highlighting the Peer-to-Patent project originated by Beth Noveck and New York Law School’s “Do Tank.”

Whether because of inappropriately low standards for granting patents or recent decades’ outburst of inventiveness in technological fields, the Patent and Trademark Office is swamped. Patent examiners lack the breadth of knowledge in relevant fields to do the job they should be doing on each patent application. Drawing on the knowledge of interested and knowledgeable people can only improve the process, and this project aims to do just that.

I’ve written favorably about Peer-to-Patent at TechLiberationFront a couple of times, but here’s a cautionary note: A successful Peer-to-Patent program would result in a dispersion of power from patent examiners and the USPTO to the participants in the project. Surface support from the USPTO notwithstanding, the application of public choice theory to bureaucracies (by Cato’s own Bill Niskanen) tells us that the agency won’t give up this power without a fight.

SCOCA Overturns Gay Banns Ban

As many expected, the California Supreme Court has overturned that state’s ban on gay marriage. So many expected it, in fact, that opponents have already submitted more than a million signatures through California’s initiative process to put an anti-gay-marriage amendment on the ballot this fall.

I wonder if opponents of gay marriage in California will rely on the same arguments as did the Washington Supreme Court

Can Congress Control Medical Spending?

At a recent health policy forum in Washington, D.C., noted health economist and wit Uwe Reinhardt shed some light on that question:

[T]he following can be said: the United States Congress has absolutely no interest in reducing … dubious Medicare expenditures. Let me repeat that. The United States Congress has no interest whatsoever in reducing dubious Medicare expenditures …

So the interesting and intriguing question for all, for journalists too, [is]: why is the Congress so disinterested in cost containment when it constantly whines about having to restructure Medicare? That is to me a huge mystery.

Obviously, Prof. Reinhardt hasn’t read this.

The Truth about Milton Friedman

Peter Goodman writes in the New York Times that we live in a laissez-faire world created by Milton Friedman and that that wild, unfettered market has led to our current economic problems.  David Henderson, the first editor of Cato Policy Report, begs to differ. David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, an economics professor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and the editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). Here’s his critique of the Times article:

In the April 13 New York Times, economics reporter Peter S. Goodman takes “A Fresh Look at the Apostle of Free Markets,” the late Milton Friedman.  Goodman’s goal seems to be to persuade the reader that we’re emerging from an era of laissez-faire that Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman implemented together, that laissez-faire didn’t work, and that now we need to reregulate.  No, really.  I’m not kidding.  That seems to be what he’s saying.

Now, Peter is a nice guy.  He’s interviewed me a few times and we had a nice hour-long talk at the Hoover Institution earlier this year.  But his article is full of confusions and misstatements and is crying out for an answer.  Here’s mine.  The quotes from Peter’s article are indented and my answers follow.

Joblessness is growing. Millions of homes are sliding into foreclosure. The financial system continues to choke on the toxic leftovers of the mortgage crisis. The downward spiral of the economy is challenging a notion that has underpinned American economic policy for a quarter-century — the idea that prosperity springs from markets left free of government interference. 

The first two sentences are probably correct.  The third might be correct.  The fourth, the most important in the paragraph, is badly wrong.  Markets haven’t been seriously free of regulation since before the Great Depression.  There were some major deregulatory victories—in airlines, railroads, and trucking—but interestingly, these victories preceded the last quarter century—they happened in the late 1970s and 1980, under President Jimmy Carter.  And they led to good results—cheaper air travel and shipping and more accountability for truckers and railroads, to name two.  It’s true that people give lip service to economic freedom.  But the current president nationalized prescription drugs for the elderly, nationalized airport security except in five cities, and dramatically expanded federal intervention in education.  The previous Congress banned Internet gambling and the current Congress has banned certain kinds of light bulbs.  The government is now pushing people into more-expensive sources of energy.  State and local governments have passed laws that prevent owners of bars and restaurants from allowing smoking.  Congress in the 1990s started to dictate that insurance policies cover certain medical procedures. And notably, federal regulations from mortgage subsidies to the Community Reinvestment Act encouraged ill-advised investments. Those are some of the increases in government regulation.  There have been few decreases. 

The modern-day godfather of that credo was Milton Friedman, who attributed the worst economic unraveling in American history to regulators, declaring in a 1976 essay that “the Great Depression was produced by government mismanagement.” 

True.  And, by the way, Friedman got this one right as even that superregulator, Ben Bernanke admitted.  At Friedman’s 90th birthday party, Bernanke said, “I would like to say to Milton and Anna [Schwartz]: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.” 

Five years later, Ronald Reagan entered the White House, elevating Mr. Friedman’s laissez-faire ideals into a veritable set of commandments. 

Oh, really?  Within a few months, Reagan had persuaded the Japanese government to forcibly limit the number of cars the Japanese auto companies could sell to the United States. And Reagan left almost all federal regulations in place. 

Taxes were cut, regulations slashed and public industries sold into private hands, all in the name of clearing government from the path to riches. 

Reagan did cut taxes in 1981–and then raised them in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987

As the economy expanded and inflation abated, Mr. Friedman played the role of chief evangelist in the mission to let loose the animal instincts of the market. 

This certainly is a “fresh” look at Milton Friedman.  It’s also wrong.  I don’t think Friedman ever thought that in advocating that humans be freer, he was advocating letting loose “animal instincts.”  Animals act far more like governments—that is, they use force against their competitors—than like peaceful market participants. 

But with market forces now seemingly gone feral, disenchantment with regulation has given way to demands for fresh oversight, placing Mr. Friedman’s intellectual legacy under fresh scrutiny. 

Unfortunately, Goodman doesn’t say how market forces have gone feral.  Government remains feral and government seems poised to use more force against more victims, but how markets do that is beyond me.  As for Friedman’s intellectual legacy, or anyone else’s, fresh scrutiny is always good.  You won’t find any of it in Goodman’s article, though. 

Just as the Depression remade government’s role in economic life, bringing jobs programs and an expanded welfare system, the current downturn has altered the balance. 

But wait a minute.  The Depression did alter the balance, increasing government power at the expense of people’s freedom dramatically.  Very few Depression-era programs were ended.  We’re still stuck with the SEC, agricultural subsidies, welfare, and Social Security.  Moreover, every president after Franklin Roosevelt increased government power, often, as with LBJ (Great Society), Nixon (price controls, OSHA, and EPA), and Bush Jr. (No Child Left Behind, nationalization of two industries), substantially.  So how can the current downturn alter the balance?  We’ve been moving away from economic freedom for 80 years.  (Herbert Hoover began what really should be called a mini-New Deal.)  How can more government programs alter the balance? 

As Wall Street, Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue seethe with recriminations, a bipartisan chorus has decided that unfettered markets are in need of fettering. Bailouts, stimulus spending and regulations dominate the conversation. 

It would be more accurate to say, “a bipartisan chorus has decided that fettered markets need to be fettered more.”  But that doesn’t have the same ring, does it? 

In short, the nation steeped in the thinking of a man who blamed government for the Depression now beseeches government to lift it to safety. 

So if the nation is “steeped in the thinking of a man who blamed government for the Depression,” wouldn’t you expect most people to have, until recently, “blamed government for the Depression”?  Is that really what Goodman perceives?  It’s not what my students think when they start out in my class.  Nor is it what their parents think.  Where is Goodman getting his information? 

If Mr. Friedman, who died in 2006, were still among us, he would surely be unhappy with this turn. 

Amen, brother.  Goodman finally got one right. 

“What Milton Friedman said was that government should not interfere,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist for Decision Economics Inc., a consulting group. “It didn’t work. We now are looking at one of the greatest real estate busts of all time. The free market is not geared to take care of the casualties, because there’s no profit motive. There’s no market incentive to deal with the unemployed or those who have lost their homes.” 

Where do I begin?  Sinai’s first statement is true.  But his second statement?  How could he say that not having government interfere didn’t work when through the whole era being discussed, government interfered?  Even if you were a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of government interference, you couldn’t make Sinai’s statement because throughout that era we had massive government interference.  And what are we to make of Sinai’s statement that the “free market is not geared to take care of casualties”?  Has he heard of insurance?  It’s a free-market way of taking care of casualties.  And there’s no profit motive?  Huh?  People don’t want to make profits?  And there certainly is a “market incentive to deal with the unemployed or those who have lost their homes.”  Employers deal with the unemployed through markets all the time—by hiring them.  And people who have lost their homes still want a place to live and so property owners want to deal with them by renting to them. 

To Mr. Friedman, such sentiments, when turned into policy, deprived the economy of the vibrancy of market forces. 

Somewhat true, but overstated.  One of Milton’s favorite lines was one from Adam Smith: “There is much ruin in a nation.”  He once explained to me that that meant that a whole lot of things can go wrong, and government can mess things up in many ways, but the desire to better ourselves can still make markets work. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1912 to immigrant parents who worked briefly in sweatshops, Mr. Friedman retained a sense that America was a land of opportunity with ample rewards for the hard-working. 

True. 

His intellectual bent was forged as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, a base for those who saw themselves as guardians of classical economics in a world then under the spell of woolly-headed revisionists. 

Not exactly.  The marginal revolution of 1870 had upset the classical school.  The Chicago School economists of the 1930s believed in the marginal revolution.  And many of them advocated, at the same time, a great deal of government intervention.  Read Henry Simons’s work of that era and see if you would ever dream of calling him an advocate of laissez-faire. 

The chief object of their scorn was John Maynard Keynes, and his message that government had to juice the economy with spending during times of duress. 

Not even close.  Milton Friedman was a Keynesian at least into his late thirties.  The shift in his thinking was gradual, so much so that he could never identify—we talked about this—when he became a non-Keynesian.   

That notion dominated policy in the years after the Depression. Mr. Friedman would spend much of his career assailing it: He argued that government should simply manage the supply of money — to keep it growing with the economy — then step aside and let the market do its magic. 

True.  But I don’t recall Friedman ever using the word “magic.”  The way markets work is a completely understandable result of private property and freedom. 

So firm was his regard for market forces, so deep his disdain for government, that Mr. Friedman once said: “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand.” 

I didn’t know that was his line, but it’s a good one. 

This antagonism toward bureaucracy seemed to spring from Mr. Friedman’s conception of his country as a bastion of rugged individualism. During an interview on PBS in 2000, he noted that Adam Smith, the father of classical economics, published his canonical work, “The Wealth of Nations,” in 1776, “the same year as the American Revolution.” 

Basically correct.  But his antagonism toward bureaucracy also sprang from his empiricism.  He saw how badly bureaucracy worked and how well economic freedom works. 

He spoke in the interview of his concern at the end of World War II that socialism was gaining adherents because countries had been forced to organize collectively to produce armaments. 

“You came out of the war with the widespread belief that the war had demonstrated that central planning would work,” Mr. Friedman said. “The left, in particular, … interpreted Russia as a successful experiment in central planning.” 

True. 

Mr. Friedman’s brand of libertarianism rested on the assumption that economic and political freedom were one and the same. It meshed with and fed the cold war thinking of his time, as the United States offered up capitalism as liberty itself in contrast to the authoritarian Soviet Union. 

The first sentence is absolutely false.  Friedman argued, in one of the classic passages in Capitalism and Freedom, that a great deal of economic freedom is required if we are to have political freedom.  He always distinguished clearly between them. 

Among professional economists, Mr. Friedman’s analytical mastery was near-universally admired. 

True. 

His first breakthrough came in the 1950s with his idea that people’s savings and spending were not a function of psychological factors, but based on rational estimations of wealth. 

That’s actually a nice statement of Friedman’s “permanent income theory of the consumption function.” 

His greatest contribution came the following decade, when Mr. Friedman dismantled the consensus view that inflation was a tolerable byproduct of high employment.  

No.  Friedman’s biggest contribution was his book, co-authored with Anna Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, their analytical contribution to, among other things, the view that Federal Reserve monetary policy was the major contributor to the Great Depression.  It was this work that led, four decades later, to Bernanke’s aforementioned apology.   

He demonstrated that high inflation would eventually cost jobs, as businesses were discouraged to invest by the higher wages they had to pay. 

Not even close.  Probably what Goodman is referring to is Friedman’s insight, in his 1967 Presidential address to the American Economics Association, that there is no long-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.  Friedman made an argument that Friedrich Hayek had made years earlier.  Friedman argued that an unanticipated spurt in inflation could reduce unemployment because unemployed workers would be “fooled” into accepting jobs at high nominal wages that were really low real wages.  Once workers figured this out, Friedman argued, unemployment would creep up to the “natural rate.” 

“This triumph, more than anything else, confirmed Milton Friedman’s status as a great economist’s economist, whatever one may think of his other roles,” Paul Krugman, an economist (and a New York Times columnist) wrote last year in The New York Review of Books. 

Overstated.  Friedman made steady headway all through the 1960s.   

Mr. Friedman captured the era with a new formulation known as monetarism: that the government should gradually and predictably inject cash into the financial system, and then let the market figure out where it should go. 

That’s one of the worst statements of monetarism I’ve seen.  Monetarism is the theory that monetary policy matters more than fiscal policy in its ability to affect nominal GDP, and that changes in the velocity of money are slow and predictable.  Actually, for the best succinct statement of monetarism, see Ben McCallum’s article, “Monetarism,” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Liberty Fund, 2008. 

“Any honest Democrat will admit that we are now all Friedmanites,” Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard economist and former Clinton administration Treasury secretary, wrote in an appreciation published in this newspaper when Mr. Friedman died. “He has had more influence on economic policy as it is practiced around the world today than any other modern figure.” 

Actually, I think Larry overstated the case.  I think you could be honest and not be a Friedmanite. 

But the reviews for Mr. Friedman’s work grow mixed when the subject moves to his role as chief proselytizer in the drive to reduce the role of government in public life. 

Too vague to evaluate.  Whose reviews?  He doesn’t say.  The reviews of Friedman’s work as proselytizer have always been mixed. 

He laid out a blueprint in his 1962 book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” calling for the end of the military draft, the abolition of the licensing of doctors and the creation of “education vouchers” that parents could use to send children to private schools, injecting competition into public education. 

True. 

Two years later, Mr. Friedman put those principles to work as an economic adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Arizona. The campaign called for the abolition of government oversight of the energy, telephone and airline industries and the dismantling of the Social Security system and national parks. 

That would have been nice, but I’m virtually positive that it’s untrue.  Goldwater said nothing about the energy, telephone, or airline industries: at least in all the books I’ve read about his campaign, I don’t recall a thing ever said about those issues.  He also did not call for dismantling national parks, whatever that means.  As for Social Security, Goldwater did say a few times that it should be voluntary but that thought did not rise to the level of campaign promise.   

Mr. Goldwater took a drubbing at the hands of Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Friedman would remain in the policy wilderness until the rise of President Reagan. Then, his notions about rolling back government took on the force of dogma. 

The first sentence is true.  The second is wildly inaccurate.  Friedman was active in the push to eliminate the draft, serving as a key member of the President’s Commission on the All-Volunteer Force in 1969, which agreed 14-0 with one abstention, to recommend ending the draft.  Call me crazy, but I think that removing the government’s gun from the heads of two million men every year is a little bit of an accomplishment.  Friedman was also active in various state tax limitation campaigns, which he always had more confidence in than any presidential candidate.  The statement about dogma is typically overdone; more’s the pity. 

This was so not only in the United States, but also throughout much of the world. As former Iron Curtain countries embraced free markets, they did so with Mr. Friedman’s books in hand. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank leaned heavily on his ideas in prescribing policies for countries from Asia to Latin America. 

The first sentence is correct.  The third is not.  They talked a good game but the IMF and World Bank still handed out taxpayers’ money to ruthless governments.   

“Among the cognoscenti, he became the figure that represented the war against the overwhelming welfare state,” said Hernando de Soto, a prominent Peruvian economist. “The idea that people are responsible for progress far more than government. One should reserve most of the action for the private sector. From Brazil to Mexico, that idea is still in place.” 

Even Mr. De Soto overstates.  That idea is in place in Mexico?  Where does it show up in Mexico’s policies? 

But Mr. De Soto faulted Mr. Friedman for failing to temper his admonitions with an understanding of poverty and income inequality. 

“The problem with Milton Friedman and his fellow libertarians is they never took into consideration the importance of class,” Mr. De Soto said. “They ignored the way elites were able to distort the policies they prescribed for their own benefit.” 

Well, I guess De Soto said it, but that doesn’t represent Friedman’s views.  Friedman has always been outspoken about well-heeled businesses seeking tariffs, import quotas, and regulation of their competitors.  Maybe De Soto has as much of a tin ear as Peter Goodman. 

In much of Latin America, economic growth never reached the poor, laying ground for the socialist backlash now led by Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. 

True.  But this is hardly a comment on Friedman’s beliefs in markets. Venezuela has had a combination of socialism and fascism for decades. 

In the United States, the reconsideration of the Friedman doctrine came via the global financial crisis that has resulted from the collapse of American real estate. Many economists blame regulators for ignoring warning signs that banks and investors were growing reckless. One Friedman acolyte has taken the brunt of such criticisms — Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve. 

If many economists blame regulators, couldn’t this reporter name three?  And what is their case?  And does he even consider the tremendous moral hazard that results precisely because of regulation via deposit insurance and implicit government guarantees?  Nope. 

But as America reaches for regulation to tame the markets, the keepers of the Friedman flame remain resolute that government is no solution. 

True.  We do. 

“Friedman taught some fundamental long-run truths and he was adept and skilled and almost brilliant at getting them into the public domain,” said Allan H. Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon. “Now we’ve come into a crisis that has dampened enthusiasm for those policies, and we’re headed back into a period of more regulations that will do the same bad things as in the past.” 

Almost?  Well, here my objection is to Allan Meltzer, not Goodman.  Everything else Meltzer said, though, is spot on.   

Does Mandating Diabetes Coverage Lead to Moral Hazard?

Economists Jonathan Klick and Thomas Stratmann find that it does.  In the latest issue of the Journal of Law and Economics, they write:

In the face of rising rates of diabetes, many states have passed laws requiring health insurance plans to cover medical treatments for the disease. Although supporters of the mandates expect them to improve the health of diabetics, the mandates have the potential to generate a moral hazard to the extent that medical treatments might displace individual behavioral improvements. Another possibility is that the mandates do little to improve insurance coverage for most individuals, as previous research on benefit mandates has suggested that mandates often duplicate what plans already cover. To examine the effects of these mandates, we employ a triple-differences methodology comparing the change in the gap in body mass index (BMI) between diabetics and nondiabetics in mandate and nonmandate states. We find that mandates do generate a moral hazard problem, with diabetics exhibiting higher BMIs after the adoption of these mandates.

The Remarkable Resilience of Nature

How often have you heard that coral reefs are fragile and would be wiped out by global warming?

If you google “fragile coral reefs” (without the quotes) you’ll get 493,000 hits. So imagine my surprise on stumbling on a news report titled, “Marine life flourishes at Bikini Atoll test site.” The report tells us:

It was blasted by the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by the United States but half a century on, Bikini Atoll supports a stunning array of tropical coral, scientists have found.

In 1954 the South Pacific atoll was rocked by a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the explosives dropped on Hiroshima.

The explosion shook islands more than 100 miles away, generated a wave of heat measuring 99,000ºF and spread mist-like radioactive fallout as far as Japan and Australia.

But, much to the surprise of a team of research divers who explored the area, the mile-wide crater left by the detonation has made a remarkable recovery and is now home to a thriving underwater ecosystem.

99,000 degrees Fahrenheit! By comparison the upper-bound estimate for global warming is a puny global temperature increase of 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit (less in the ocean). So even if global warming wipes out life on earth, global warming catastrophists can take comfort that nature will, as it inevitably must, reassert itself. Some, convinced that humanity is the problem, may even welcome such an outcome — no humans, but plenty of nature (over time). [Fifty-four years later at Bikini Atoll, recovery is not complete. Perhaps 28 percent of coral species may still be absent.]

Post Script: On the topic of corals and global warming, here’s an article on temperature tolerant corals off the coast of Eritrea, where waters can reach 98.6 degrees F, which incidentally is the average core body temperature of a human being.

Post Post Script: Also check this story from Science Daily: “Coral Reefs Living In Sites With Variable Temperatures Better Able To Survive Warm Water.”

The Housing Crisis: Maybe We Should Do Nothing?

Two weeks ago, the Senate passed legislation ostensibly intended to address home foreclosures. That legislation is now being criticized as little more than a handout to corporate interests. The criticism is legit; the bill is largely a package of tax breaks for developers (and other struggling industries, including those that have nothing to do with housing), along with tax credits for the purchasers of foreclosed homes (a provision that has its own criticisms) and grant money to local governments that want to play Flip This House.

Across Capitol Hill, the House is considering different foreclosure legislation that would give tax credits to first-time homebuyers and developers of lower-cost housing (proposals that are subject to some of the same criticisms now being lobbed at the Senate bill). House and Senate committees are also considering additional legislation that would permit the Federal Housing Authority to underwrite as much as $300 billion in mortgages for borrowers who are at risk of falling behind on their payments.

Lawmakers’ interest in combating the mortgage problem is understandable: default and foreclosure are painful for homeowners, clusters of vacant houses are hard on communities, and the struggling homebuilding industry is a significant contributor to the nation’s overall economic malaise. (Another factor that makes it understandable: this is an election year.)

However, before Congress puts taxpayers (most of whom are also paying mortgages or renting their homes) on the hook for billions of dollars in grants, tens of billions in tax breaks, and guarantees for hundreds of billions of dollars in mortgages, three points should be acknowledged:

  1. The bailout proposals are as much a benefit to lenders as borrowers.
  2. The homebuyers who are to be rescued are not the victims of “raw deals” (unless they were deceived or defrauded).
  3. The bailout could make the nation’s overall economic condition worse.

The housing market turmoil is the product of two related factors:

  • a decline in house prices in several geographic areas that were super-heated in recent years, and
  • the discovery that many mortgage borrowers are higher-risk than lenders had previously realized.

As long as house prices were rising, the risky borrowers were not a problem. Borrowers who fell behind in their payments could sell their houses (and usually reap capital gains). But when the market reversed, this “escape hatch” closed and defaults and foreclosures ensued.

The home loans at the heart of the mortgage meltdown are “subprime” loans — loans made to borrowers with less-than-stellar credit and/or little money down. Though subprimes constitute only 12.7 percent of all outstanding mortgages, they comprise 55.2 percent of mortgages that are in foreclosure. (Mortgage figures are calculated using data from the most recent National Delinquency Survey.)

The fact that subprime loan defaults are (literally) breaking the investment banks indicates that lenders were charging subprime borrowers too little — that subprime borrowers’ mortgage payments weren’t sufficient to cover their risk of default. That’s why investment banks are suffering severe write-downs (and in the case of Bear Stearns, near collapse) and brokerage firms have needed capital infusions. Those firms would benefit greatly from many of the proposed government interventions, even if they have to take a “haircut” on their loans. Hence, claims that bailout legislation is intended to “help Main Street, not Wall Street” should be taken with grains of salt.

Further, consider that 73.3 percent of the subprime loans in foreclosure are adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). ARM borrowers not only paid lower rates than what their default risk merited, but they also paid even-lower introductory rates for the first few years of their mortgages. In essence, the borrowers entered into “lease-to-buy” contracts, with the “buy” provision kicking in when the ARMs reset to higher rates. The increased foreclosures can be understood as borrowers deciding not to exercise the “buy” portion of the contract, either because the terms are relatively unaffordable or because the house is no longer worth the contracted amount.

Commentators err when they describe these borrowers as being irresponsible or foolish for signing such contracts. The borrowers simply made a risky but reasonable decision to try to buy a house, on very generous terms given their default risk, in a market that was experiencing tremendous appreciation. They are now making a reasonable decision to bail on their contracts and go back to renting in the wake of the housing market downturn. Of course, the borrowers feel pain when they lose their homes. But, unless they were deceived or defrauded, they were not the victims of raw deals.

Moreover, for the overwhelming majority of subprime loans, the borrowers’ original decision to buy has worked out nicely — more than 80 percent of subprime loans (and just under 80 percent of subprime ARMs) are currently in good standing. Moreover, many of the people who have used subprime loans, ARMs, and other oft-denigrated “exotic vehicles” over the past decade have realized significant capital gains, even with the recent decline in house prices. If some so-called “consumer advocates” get their wish and regulation is implemented to curtail or prohibit the use of subprime loans and ARMs, higher-risk would-be homebuyers as a group will be harmed.

Another worry is that the bailout and other interventions could make overall economic matters worse. The United States’ current economic malaise is partly the product of the housing market collapse and the associated mortgage woes, but it is also partly the product of higher energy prices. Put simply, current conditions indicate that market actors need to shift their investment and risk-taking away from housing and toward energy development and conservation.

However, government and Federal Reserve efforts to combat the housing crunch and the financial crisis could dampen the incentives to make that necessary investment switch. Ready money makes it easier to delay painful but necessary changes.

Economic corrections are always painful, but as GMU economist Alex Tabarrok and WaPo columnist Robert Samuelson each recently wrote, the pain is increased if the correction process is drawn out. Tabarrok’s NYT column compares the recent U.S. housing experience with Japan’s dramatic boom-and-bust cycle of 1985–2000. We should be mindful of Japan’s broader experience over the 1990s: the government struggled mightily to blunt the pain of a correction, resulting in an agonizing decade of economic stagnation.

All of this raises the question: Should government intervene at all in the foreclosure mess? In asking this, I’m not arguing that struggling borrowers should drop dead. But there is much more downside risk and much less justification for intervention than what proponents have acknowledged.