Topic: Government and Politics

“Gangster Government” at Work

With the Obama administration preferring to rely on politics rather than the law to “fix” the auto industry, bondholders have discovered that the new politics of this administration is quite a bit more brutal than the old politics practiced by the Bush administration.

Henry Payne and Richard Burr write of “gangster government” using not just demagogic public attacks on greedy bondholders but apparent threats of regulatory sanction to get its way in bankruptcy court.  They explain:

The holdout debtholders sought the refuge of the courts, where decades of bankruptcy law promised that secured lenders would receive just compensation for their investment. But then Obama called in his fixers.

In his April 30 news conference, Obama singled out Chrysler’s self-described “non TARP lenders” as “speculators” who sought to imperil Chrysler’s future for their own benefit. “I do not stand with them,” Obama thundered. “I stand with Chrysler’s employees and their families and communities… . (not) those who held out when everybody else is making sacrifices.” Michigan Democratic allies like Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. John Dingell piled on, calling the lenders “vultures.”

Then, on Detroit radio host Frank Beckmann’s show May 1, a lawyer for the lenders, Tom Lauria, chillingly revealed how “one of my clients was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight.”

Lauria later confirmed the threats came from Rattner and that the target was Perella Weinberg, which had suddenly withdrawn its opposition after the president’s April 30 press conference.

The White House denied the threats, but Business Insider subsequently reported that “sources familiar with the matter say that other firms felt they were threatened as well. None of the sources would agree to speak except on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of political repercussions.”

“The sources, who represent creditors to Chrysler,” continued the Insider story, “say they were taken aback by the hardball tactics that the Obama administration employed to cajole them into acquiescing to plans to restructure Chrysler. One person described the administration as the most shocking ‘end justifies the means’ group they have ever encountered… . Both were voters for Obama in the last election.”

The idea of the White House–with the IRS and SEC at its disposal–threatening investment firms should have sent off alarm bells in America’s newsrooms. Inexcusably, the media establishment largely ignored the hardball tactics. This is the same media that has doggedly reported on President Bush’s U.S. attorney firings and the post-9/11 interrogations of terrorist suspects.

I have no opinion on who should get what as part of Chrysler’s bankruptcy – other than that the taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for America’s version of lemon socialism so common around the world.  But crude political interference by the political authorities in Washington in a bankruptcy case erode the rule of law and administration of justice.  If Obama and company believe that the end justifies the end when it comes to handing the auto companies over to favored interests, who among us is safe from similar action by this or another administration in the future?

Handicapping the Justicial Horserace

The increase in chatter in Washington about Justice Souter’s replacement is a clear signal  that pundits have gotten about as much mileage as they can over speculation and want to have an actual nominee to dissect.

Even though the administration has been evaluating candidates since the inauguration (and before), there’s no real reason for President Obama to announce a replacement before the Court’s term ends in late June.

The only limiting factor is that the president needs to have a new justice in place by the time the Court resumes hearing cases in October. So, clearly, this politically savvy president will be weighing his legislative priorities against the relative amount of political capital he’ll have to spend to confirm possible nominees. Similarly, Republicans seem to be keeping their powder dry, hopefully in preparation for a serious public debate of competing judicial philosophies and theories of constitutional interpretation.

As far as handicapping goes, the smart money is now on Solicitor General Elena Kagan—because she was recently confirmed by a comfortable margin, has significant support in the conservative legal establishment, and is young (49)—but don’t count out either Judge Diane Wood or Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Or dark horse candidates like Senator Claire McCaskill. It’s really any woman’s ballgame at this point, and will be until Barack Obama—who famously holds his cards close to his vest—announces his pick, on his time.

For a geometric discussion (X-axis = desirable criteria; Y-axis = confirmability) of the above political calculus, see here.

Shocking News: Fannie Mae Is Losing More Money

Yes, I know.  It’s hard to believe.  Fannie Mae continues to lose money and, even more surprisingly, isn’t likely to ever pay taxpayers back for all of the billions that it already has squandered.  Rather, it says it will need more bail-out funds – probably another $110 billion this year alone.

Reports the Washington Post:

Fannie Mae reported yesterday that it lost $23.2 billion in the first three months of the year as mortgage defaults increasingly spread from risky loans to the far-larger portfolio of loans to borrowers who have been considered safe.

The massive loss prompts a $19 billion investment from the government to keep the firm solvent, on top of a $15 billion investment of taxpayer money earlier this year.

The sobering earnings report was a reminder of the far-reaching implications of the government’s takeover in September of Fannie Mae and the smaller Freddie Mac. Losses have proved unrelenting; the firms’ appetite for tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer aid hasn’t subsided; and taxpayer money invested in the companies, analysts said, is probably lost forever because the prospects for repayment are slim.

But the government remains committed to keeping the companies afloat, because it is relying on them to help reverse the continuing slide in the housing market and keep mortgage rates low.

Even as the government bailout of banks appears to be leveling off, the federal rescue of Fannie and Freddie is rapidly growing more expensive. Fannie Mae said that the losses will continue through at least much of the year and that it “therefore will be required to obtain additional funding from the Treasury.” Analysts are estimating that the company could need at least $110 billion.

Freddie Mac, which has been in worse financial shape than Fannie Mae and has obtained $45 billion in taxpayer funding, will report earnings in coming days.

The response of policymakers in the administration and Congress to this fiscal debacle?  Silence.  No surprise there, since many of them helped create the very programs that continue to bleed taxpayers dry.

Alas, this isn’t the first time that the federal government has promoted a housing boom and bust.  Instead, writes Steven Malanga in Investor’s Business Daily:

This cycle goes back nearly 100 years. In 1922, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover launched the “Own Your Own Home” campaign, hailed as unique in the nation’s history.

Responding to a small dip in homeownership rates, Hoover urged “the great lending institutions, the construction industry, the great real estate men … to counteract the growing menace” of tenancy.

He pressed builders to turn to residential construction. He called for new rules that would let nationally chartered banks devote a greater share of their lending to residential properties.

Congress responded in 1927, and the freed-up banks dived into the market, despite signs that it was overheating.

The great national effort seemed to pay off. From mid-1927 to mid-1929, national banks’ mortgage lending increased 45%. The country was becoming “a nation of homeowners,” the Times exulted.

But as homeownership grew, so did the rate of foreclosures, from just 2% of commercial bank mortgages in 1922 to 11% in 1927.

This happened just as the stock market bubble of the late ’20s was inflating dangerously. Soon after the October 1929 Wall Street crash, the housing market began to collapse. Defaults exploded; by 1933, some 1,000 homes were foreclosing every day.

The “Own Your Own Home” campaign had trapped many Americans in mortgages beyond their reach.

Financial institutions were exposed as well. Their mortgage loans outstanding more than doubled from the early 1920s to 1930 — $9.2 billion to $22.6 billion — one reason that about 750 financial institutions failed in 1930 alone.

The only serious option is to close down all of the money-wasting federal programs  and laws designed to subsidize home ownership.  A stake through the hearts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Federal Housing Administration, and Community Reinvestment Act, to start.  Otherwise the cycle is bound to be repeated, again to great cost for the ever-suffering  taxpayers.

What’s Government Good For?

Those of us who are critical of government usually admit that there are a few tasks that government must perform.  Run the roads, for instance.  Yes, toll roads can work well, but it’s hard to figure out a truly private system of , say, city streets.  I realize that some people might view me as being a hopelessly antiquated “policy libertarian” unable to see the possibilities of creative and entrepreneurial people.  But that’s just the way I am.

Still, I’m starting to wonder.  At least, it looks like maybe anarchy on the roads might be better than strict government regulation.  Reports the Times of London:

What would happen if traffic lights were suddenly switched off? Would there be gridlock or would the queues of frustrated drivers miraculously disappear?

People in London are about to find out the answer in Britain’s first test of the theory that removing lights will cure congestion.

For six months, lights at up to seven junctions in Ealing will be concealed by bags and drivers will be left to negotiate their way across by establishing eye contact with pedestrians and other motorists.

Ealing Council believes that, far from improving the flow of traffic, lights cause delays and may even increase road danger. Drivers race towards green lights to make it across before they turn red. Confidence that they have right of way lulls them into a false sense of security, meaning that they fail to anticipate hazards coming from the side. The council hopes that drivers will learn to co-operate, crossing junctions on a first-come first-served basis rather than obeying robotic signals that have no sense of where people are waiting.

Westminster City Council is also considering a trial but has yet to identify likely junctions.

Ealing found evidence to support its theory when the lights failed one day at a busy junction and traffic flowed better than before. Councillors have approved a report which recommended that they “experimentally remove signals since experience of signal failure showed that junction worked well”.

The Conservative-controlled council has won the support of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who is responsible for all 5,000 sets of lights in the capital through Transport for London.

One shouldn’t take Ealing’s lesson too far.  However, the experience suggests that one should never assume that the way things are done are the way they must be done.  We should always be willing to take a fresh look and rethink the status quo, even if we end up deciding that the status quo really is the best approach.

If You Like Fannie Mae, You’ll Love Auto Mac

While Bank of America and Citi grabbed most of the attention in the recently released bank “stress tests”  one of the biggest capital holes to be filled is that of GMAC, which under the stress test’s relatively light assumptions will need to raise another $11.5 billion in capital.

As one of the smaller of the stressed tested banks, and having almost no trading and counterparty risk – and hence little or no systemic risk, GMAC would hardly seem the candidate for any additional bailout funds.  Were GMAC to fold, our financial markets would hardly notice.  Who might notice is our auto manufacturers.

Just as easy credit inflated our housing market, it was easy credit – who can forget 0% financing – that lead the auto sales boom of the early 2000’s.  Just as many see Fannie and Freddie – along with help from the Federal Reserve – as leading us to a housing recovery, many also see GMAC as being at the heart of any recovery in the auto industry.

Given the state of the auto industry and the increasing level of defaults on auto loans, the safe bet is that GMAC will have a tough time rasing the needed $11.5 billion from non-governmental sources.

Once the government becomes a majority owner of GMAC, its only a matter of time until its focus shifts from re-bulding its financial health to expanding the American Dream of auto-ownership.

Defense Spending and “Global Public Goods”

Matt Yglesias picks up on a discussion between Will Wilkinson and Joseph Heath about American conservatives’ curious enthusiasm for providing “global public goods” (GPGs) in the form of enormous military spending to attempt to secure sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and do other things that are dubbed GPGs.

I think Matt is onto something bigger when he writes that

a considerable portion of American defense spending is genuinely wasteful. If we didn’t do it, it just wouldn’t be done. After all, it’s important to understand that excess capacity in military equipment is about as close as you can get to a real-world example of entirely wasteful public sector activity.

The economists tell us that one of the main properties of public goods is that they ought to be under-provided.  As Matt writes, it seems like we’re over-providing what are being called “public goods” here.  To my mind, this strongly implies that they aren’t public goods.

(Then again, if we’re going to accept that the entire globe is the jurisdiction to which the U.S. government is supposed to be providing public goods, you’re back to public goods – that is, we’re under-supplying the GPG of global security.)

While I’m not sure what my views are on traditional GPGs like a stable monetary or trading order, I’m very skeptical that anything related to security can be dubbed a GPG.  The two key properties of public goods are nonrivalrousness and nonexcludability.  Nonrivalrousness means that my consumption of the good doesn’t conflict with yours.  Nonexcludability refers to the idea that if you’re living within the jurisdiction of the provider of the public good, it’s impossible to opt out of consuming it.

Economists teach defense as the example of the quintessential public good.  For two people living in a country, one’s consumption of defense doesn’t conflict with the other’s and neither can be excluded from its benefits.

But I’m pretty sure you can’t move from the idea of a bounded jurisdiction like that of a state to the entire globe and still have public goods in a meaningful sense.  For example, the Japanese will recall from their experience in the 1930s that the control of SLOCs is very much excludable.  Our inability to supply truly global security means that we have to pick and choose to whom we allocate resources.  Our provision to one country of a formal alliance, for example, is very much rivalrous with neighboring countries’ security.

More generally, in the context of the defense budget at home, I’m more inclined to think that a big chunk of U.S. defense spending constitutes a public bad: transfer payments from taxpayers to defense companies.  Think about it for yourself; what is the marginal benefit to you of an extra F-22?  An extra nuclear warhead?  To whom is the social surplus (or more accurately, rents) allocated?

As is probably clear, my views aren’t terribly well formed here, but the problem is an interesting one.  Chris Preble discusses GPGs in The Power Problem, and a case against the defense budget as a pure public good is Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and Don Lavoie’s “National Defense and the Public-Goods Problem,” in Robert Higgs, ed., Arms, Politics, and the Economy (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990), pp. 37-60.

Civil Liberties Surge

There’s encouraging news in recent polls about two civil liberties issues — marriage equality and marijuana legalization — and it’s got some observers talking about “tipping points” and “a bandwagon effect.”

Take marijuana: A poll released yesterday by Zogby and the O’Leary Report found that 52 percent of respondents would favor legalizing marijuana, with 37 percent opposed. That’s the first poll I’ve seen that found a majority in favor. (The poll was released in a full-page ad in The Hill newspaper on May 6 and does not appear to be online. It had a sample of 3,937 voters from the 2008 election, weighted to reflect the election outcome. Presumably it was an online poll, but if it had any bias it appears to be in a conservative direction: other results included 57 percent support for the “tea parties,” 71 percent opposition to new gun control laws, 57 percent opposition to cap-and-trade, and 53 percent opposition to legislation that would pressure radio stations to provide “diversity.” Of course, it’s kind of scary that only 53 percent of respondents opposed ideological censorship of radio.)

Whatever you think of that poll, it’s not the only one. In February, Nate Silver posted a chart of polls on legalization, showing a slow but steady rise, up to about 40 percent. A Field poll in April showed that 56 percent of Californians support legalizing and taxing marijuana, the first time Field had ever found a majority in favor. The poll was largely on budget issues, and voters may have been desperately searching for new revenue sources other than general tax hikes. Also in April an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46 percent of respondents in favor of legalizing the use of small amounts of marijuana, an all-time high in that poll.

The New York Times points to other signs of change on the marijuana front: Pot has become essentially legal for anyone in California who can tell a medical marijuana clinic that it would make him feel better. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government would back off its attempt to enforce the federal laws against medical marijuana in the 13 states that have legalized medical use. The threats to prosecute Michael Phelps for a bong hit were widely ridiculed. These developments have led Andrew Sullivan and CBS News to speculate about a “tipping point” for change — at last — in marijuana prohibition. Just this week, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said there should be a major study of the possibility of legalization.

Meanwhile, TPM and AOL’s PoliticsDaily also see a tipping point for marriage equality. A majority of New Yorkers now join Gov. David Paterson in supporting same-sex marriage. That same ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that “in 2004, just 32 percent of Americans favored gay marriage, with 62 percent opposed. Now 49 percent support it versus 46 percent opposed — the first time in ABC/Post polls that supporters have outnumbered opponents.”

Over the past decade many states have passed bans on gay marriage, a fairly redundant exercise since none of those states had or were about to have marriage equality. But suddenly, since the narrow victory for California’s Proposition 8 in the 2008 election, and really within the past month, same-sex marriage is picking up steam. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that excluding same-sex couples from marriage violates the Iowa Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.  The Vermont legislature passed marriage over the governor’s veto. The Connecticut legislature and Republican governor Jodi Rell affirmed the state court’s ruling for marriage equality. Maine governor John Baldacci signed into law a freedom-to-marry bill overwhelmingly approved by the Senate and House. The D.C. Council voted 12-1, with only well-known marriage defender Marion Barry in opposition,  to recognize same-sex marriages from states that approve them. Both houses of the legislature in crusty libertarian New Hampshire have passed a gay marriage bill, which now awaits a decision by Democratic governor John Lynch. Marriage advocates are optimistic in New Jersey.

Some of these laws may be overturned by Congress or by popular vote. And some 30 states have constitutional bans on gay marriage, limiting the opportunity for progress in most of the country. But one of the striking things about the rapid succession of votes is the lack of public opposition. Conservatives have been remarkably silent, perhaps because some of them genuinely do feel less outrage about legislative action than about ”judicial tyranny,” and perhaps because opposition to gay marriage is getting to be embarrassing among educated people. My former colleague Ryan Sager, best known for his book The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, argues in his new Neuroworld column “that we may be starting to see a ‘bandwagon effect’ that will significantly increase support for gay marriage in the next few years.” He cites Nate Silver’s chart on rising poll support for marriage equality and notes that support for gay marriage is rising much faster than support for interracial marriage did in an earlier era. Zogby asks the same question: Has the tide turned for same-sex marriage?

One striking point in all these polls, of course, is the age difference. That ABC News/Washington Post poll “showed just how much of the movement is occuring among younger voters. Support for gay marriage has grown somewhat among voters over age 65, from 15 percent to 28 percent, but six in 10 remain strongly opposed. Among those under 35, though, two-thirds support it, up from 53 percent in 2006, and nearly half support it strongly.” And “[s]upport for legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use is nearly twice as high among young adults (57 percent of those under 30) as seniors (30 percent), with middle-aged Americans split about evenly.” Obama carried young voters by 2 to 1. If the Republicans get out front on opposing marriage equality and marijuana reform, they can make that a permanent Democratic majority.

By the way, that much-discussed ABC/Post poll also showed declining support for gun control. Trapped in the liberal-conservative paradigm, ABC discusses that point this way: “Other views tilt more to the right. Just 51 percent in this poll support the general principle of “stricter gun control laws,” about the same as last September (50 percent) and down sharply from its peak, 67 percent in mid-2000. The 48 percent now opposed to gun control is the most in polls dating to 1989, and the number “strongly” opposed, at 36 percent, its highest in that time. ” Those of us who have escaped the liberal-conservative paradigm recognize that the right to bear arms is also a civil liberty, and it’s entirely consistent to support marriage equality, marijuana legalization, and the Second Amendment.

The “shift to the left” that we seem to observe on economic policy is depressing to libertarians. But that’s mostly crisis-driven. When the results of more spending, more taxes, more regulation, and more money creation begin to be visible, we may see the kind of reaction that led to Proposition 13 and the election of Ronald Reagan at the end of the 1970s. Meanwhile, this cultural “shift to the left” is far more encouraging. And don’t forget, at 90 days into the Obama administration, Americans preferred smaller government to “more active government” by 66 to 25 percent.