Bailout Nation

The four top business headlines in the Washington Post the other day were:

More Homeowners Getting Aid, but Demand Keeps Rising

AIG Could Repay U.S. in 3 to 5 Years, Chief Tells Congress

Treasury Clarifying Rules for Bailed-Out Firms

Small Auto Suppliers Seek Help in Wake of Giants’ Woes

It’s certainly true, as BBC and other journalists have noted, that the center of American business and finance is now Washington, not New York.  The headlines above (in the paper edition, but some of them can be found here) indicate that all sorts of businesses and individuals are looking to the Obama administration for bailouts and loans and “capital injections.” And one could find similar stories about federal money for states, cities, big insurance companies, and more. Money and credit were once allocated by owners of capital, who stood to gain or lose on the strength of their decisions. Now capital is being allocated by politicians and bureaucrats, who have none of their own money at risk and who may well see their own power enhanced by an economy that remains slow.

Back in September, as the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ushered in a new era of federal help for failing companies, I wrote a blog post titled “Bailout Nation.” I didn’t know the half of it; still to come were the AIG bailout, TARP, federal subsidies to banks and automobile companies, and more. But I warned then:

Capitalism is a system of profit and loss. It works because each person and each company, in seeking its own interest, is led “as if by an invisible hand” to supply goods and services that others want. Companies that satisfy consumers prosper. Companies that can’t produce goods that consumers want–like Chrysler, repeatedly–suffer and sometimes go out of business. The failures are often painful. But as Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie wrote in their book Failure and Progress (or at least in this column based on the book), “Economic failure is to the economy what physical pain is to the body. No one enjoys pain, but without it the body would lack the information needed to maintain its health.” Government subsidies to prevent business failure simply keep pouring money into businesses that are relatively unsuccessful at satisfying consumer desires. They are, among other things, censorship of vitally needed information. Employees, entrepreneurs, and investors need to know where their money and talent are most valuable. Profits and losses are key indicators of that.

Turns out that David Ignatius had warned of a “Bailout Nation” in a column a few months before that:

As every parent knows, the danger of cutting a special break for one child is that all the other children will demand the same thing. “It’s not fair,” goes the inevitable refrain. “You said Susie could eat ice cream and watch TV until midnight, so why can’t I?” The parents start caving, and family discipline is shot.

We’re now in a comparable cycle of bestowing special economic favors on members of the national family who have been hurt by the credit market crisis. “It’s not fair,” argue the housing interests and consumer advocacy groups. “Bear Stearns got a financial bailout, so why shouldn’t we?” And they’re right, by the simplest schoolyard definition of fairness.

So the line grows of people demanding breaks on financial obligations they can’t afford.

Neither of us is very happy about being so prescient. And what no one seems to discuss is, Where is all this bailout money coming from? Much of it is just being created on the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve, which portends rising inflation. Certainly it’s too much to be paid for in taxes, even in the fondest dreams of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.  Is Bernie Madoff advising the Treasury these days?

How much money is it? CNNMoney estimates that the federal government has now committed $10.5 trillion. Christopher Barker at the Motley Fool concludes that ”the combined total of existing, announced, and potential outlays from the Federal Reserve and U.S. government agencies that are directly attributable to the financial crisis will breach $13 trillion!”

This is nuts. Would Paulson and Bernanke have acted differently last April if they’d known where we would be in a year? They’d have known if they’d read David Ignatius’s column. Or if they’d read some history; when governments start handing out money to troubled institutions, there will be no limit to the number of troubled institutions. And in barely a year, you get small auto parts companies coming to Washington saying that if automakers and large suppliers are getting government help, they should too. President Bush and his Treasury secretary started this process, but Obama and the Democrats own it now. Do they have a plan that doesn’t end in inflation and bankruptcy?

The Closing of the Conservative Mind

If you’re unclear what’s wrong with conservatism these days, I urge you to check out the tragicomic dustup accidentally provoked last week by my colleague Jerry Taylor at National Review Online’s “The Corner” blog.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow recount of the fracas, but happily a convenient compendium of the relevant links is provided here. Go read the whole thing; you’ll be entertained, that’s for sure. For present purposes, suffice it to say that Jerry made two basic points: (1) talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are not popular outside the conservative movement; and (2) the two have a habit of making “dodgy” arguments even when their positions are sound. He might have added that the sky is blue and A comes before Z. For his effrontery Jerry was verbally beaten to a pulp by his fellow Cornerites.

The whole thing seems like an updated version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, except this time the crowd turns on the truth-telling kid and gives him the Rodney King treatment. And that response to Jerry’s innocent and obvious points captures the essence of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement. That the flagship publication of the movement will brook no criticism of demagogic blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity says it all:  A movement founded on the premise that “ideas have consequences” has suffered a calamitous decline in intellectual standards.

Richard Posner agrees. In a recent blog post, he offered this withering assessment of the state of the conservative mind:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of managment and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

I don’t endorse every detail of Posner’s bill of indictment, but the broad thrust is correct. Movement conservatism has regressed to something like the days before National Review was founded – back when Lionel Trilling could say that conservatism consisted of nothing but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” And as Jerry’s trip to the woodshed demonstrates, those gestures can be very irritable indeed! Conservatism today has degenerated into a species of especially unattractive populism, pandering to the pro-torture-and-wiretapping, anti-gay-and-Mexican prejudices of a dwindling, increasingly sectarian, increasingly regional “base.”

Some who sympathize with libertarian and free-market causes are cheered by the anti-government rhetoric and Tea Party theatrics now increasingly in evidence on the right. Perhaps, they think, the old Goldwater-Reagan conservatism is making a comeback. Sorry, but I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, I worry that good free-market ideas are going to get tainted by association with an increasingly brutish identity politics for angry white guys and the women who love them.

In order to make gains for the cause of limited government, we need to convince smart people that we are right. We need to win the battle of ideas in the intellectual realm by making better arguments than our opponents, and we need to educate the public so that it is less susceptible over time to “rational irrationality.” None of this can be accomplished by consorting with and apologizing for merchants of intellectual junk food, or by making common cause with some of the ugliest cultural attitudes in contemporary America. Greater economic freedom will not come with pitchforks and torches; it will come, as it has in the past, by reshaping the elite consensus.

Social Security: Debating the Ostriches

Over at Salon, Michael Lind takes me to task for raising the alarm about the latest Social Security Trustees report showing that a) Social Security’s insolvency date is growing closer, and b) the system’s unfunded liabilities have increased dramatically since last year’s report.

Like most of those who resist having an honest debate about Social security’s finances, Lind relies on a combination of economic flim-flam and political sophistry to obscure the true problem. For example, Lind points out that when I quote the Trustee’s assertion that the system’s unfunded liabilities currently top $17.5 trillion, that “assumes there are no changes made between now and eternity.” Well, duh! All estimates of US budget deficits assume that spending won’t be cut or taxes raised enough to eliminate the deficit. In fact, when I get my Visa bill and it shows how much I owe, it doesn’t tell me anything about whether I will or can pay that bill in the future. Obviously, if we raise Social Security taxes, cut Social Security benefits (or create personal accounts), we can reduce or even eliminate the program’s unfunded liabilities.

Lind then returns to the hoary idea of the Trust Fund. He objects to my characterization of the Trust fund “contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much the government owes the system.” This, he says, is the same as saying “government bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, a government that has never defaulted on its obligations in its entire existence since 1776, are not actual assets?” He points out that millions of Americans invest in government bonds through their retirement programs and consider them assets. “Are U.S. government bonds “actual assets” when they are part of IRAs but not “actual assets” when they are owed to the Social Security system?” he asks.

That’s right. If I write you an IOU, you have an asset and I have a debt. If I write an IOU to myself, the asset and debt cancel each other out. I haven’t gained anything, else it would be a whole lot easier to pay my bills. When Lind invests in a government bond, he has an asset and the government has a liability. But when the government issues a bond to itself (ie. Social Security), the asset and liability cancel each other out. There’s no net increase in assets.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what Bill Clinton’s budget had to say about the Trust Fund in FY2000:

These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…but only in a bookkeeping sense….They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

Lind then switches course and says, ok, forget about the Trust Fund. Think about Social Security like we do about defense spending. “Why do we never hear of the “unfunded liabilities” of Pentagon spending – the third of the big three spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, defense) that take up most of the federal budget? Defense spending comes out of general revenues, not a dedicated tax.”

Actually, that is a valid comparison. Both defense and Social Security spending for any given year are ultimately paid for out of that year’s tax revenue. The composition of the tax revenue is largely irrelevant. And, when taxes don’t equal expenditures, we get budget deficits. Those deficits will eventually have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending.

Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that unless we reform entitlements programs, government spending will reach 40 percent of GDP by mid-century. Paying for all that government will be a crushing burden of debt and taxes for our children and grandchildren.

No amount of obfuscation by defenders of the status quo can obscure that fact.

Topics:

Roxana Saberi Was Released

This is fairly old news, but in the event anyone had been hearing about the story only at C@L, I failed to note that last week the U.S. reporter I’d been posting about was released from prison in Iran.  She has left the country, flying to Austria with her family.

Interesting back story on the circumstances surrounding her arrest here.  Whatever the details, it’s good news that she was released.

Cops Gone Wild

Terrific editorial over at the Washington Times.

Excerpt:

The bad behavior of these police officers exposes a double standard. As one Nationals fan, who is a lawyer, told us: “There’s no way those cops could pass a street sobriety test right now. Just imagine how we’d get treated if they pulled us over having consumed half of what they’ve drunk tonight - and they’re packing heat.”

We don’t begrudge police officers having a little fun, but they need to abide by the same laws they enforce on the rest of us. When they go out for a few beers, they might want to leave their uniforms and guns at home.

The idea of a National Peace Officers Memorial Week is a fine idea but it is regrettable that the memorial and event is in Washington, D.C.   Just reinforces the wrongheaded notion that the federal government must be involved in everything.

Dick Cheney: Obama’s Enabler

That’s the theme of my Washington Examiner column this week:

Dick Cheney’s “Shut Up and Listen” tour continued last week on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” There, the former veep reiterated his favorite theme: Obama is putting America at risk by “taking down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe.”
 
What in the world is Cheney talking about? Granted, Obama’s anti-terror policies are clouded by rhetorical “Hope” and euphemism, and the new administration is less given to chest-thumping than its predecessor. Otherwise, Obama’s approach to terrorism is virtually identical to Bush/Cheney’s.

 Harvard Law prof and former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith makes a similar point in a New Republic piece out today, though Professor Goldsmith is happier about the continuity than I am.   For more, see Glenn Greenwald.