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Archive for August 23rd, 2010

Working in Washington is a frustrating experience for many reasons, but my personal nightmare is that bad ideas refuse to die. Keynesian economics is a perfect example. It doesn’t matter that Keynesian deficit spending didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t work for the Japanese all through the 1990s. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t work for Bush in 2008. And it doesn’t matter that it hasn’t worked for Obama. The statists simply shrug their shoulders and say there wasn’t enough spending. Or that the economy would have been even worse with all the so-called stimulus. With this in mind, I was initially excited to read Kevin Hassett’s obituary for Keynesianism, but then I sobered up and realized that evidence is not enough to win this debate. Like a vampire or a Freddy Krueger movie, the bad guy (or bad idea) keeps getting resurrected. So while Kevin’s article is very compelling, I don’t expect that it will stop politicians from doing the wrong thing in the future.

…some Keynesians who supported Barack Obama’s $862 billion stimulus now claim it fell short of their goals not because the idea was flawed, but because the spending package was too small. Christina Romer, the departing chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has become a minor cult hero to the Keynesians, thanks to news reports that said her analysis in 2009 suggested the stimulus should be in the range of $1.2 trillion, or 40 percent larger than it turned out to be. The notion that a much-larger U.S. stimulus would have been more successful isn’t backed up by evidence. Maybe there would be an argument if some countries were now booming because their stimulus packages were larger. Or if some previous U.S. administration had tried a bigger stimulus and had better luck. The fact is, the U.S. stimulus was the largest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the biggest ever tried in the U.S. Nor does the academic literature support what we might call these Not-Enough Keynesians. A 2002 study by economists Richard Hemming, Selma Mahfouz and Axel Schimmelpfennig of recessions in 27 developed economies from 1971 to 1998 found that increased spending by government had, in almost all cases, a barely noticeable impact, and sometimes a negative one. Heavily indebted countries that spent more in recessions grew about 0.5 percent less, relative to trend, than countries that didn’t, the study found. …Supporters of this type of stimulus are either unfamiliar with the literature or willing to ignore it. The result is policy that is harmful to our country and inconsistent with modern economic science. If the Obama economic team were medical doctors, they would be pushing the use of medicine not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. As the economic data again head south, it will be much harder to devise successful economic policies because of the budgetary hole that the Keynesians have dug for us. In all likelihood, the data will soon be so convincingly bad that we’ll again debate the need for an economic stimulus. Let’s hope that when that begins, all will finally concede that the ideas of John Maynard Keynes are as dead as the man himself, and that Keynesianism is the real voodoo economics.

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If misery loves company, we can be very happy with these two stories about over-compensated bureaucrats from outside our borders. The first comes from Europe, where the Daily Telegraph reports that pension costs are skyrocketing for bureaucrats with the European Commission and other European Union entities. With the average pension being more than $88,000 per year, that’s hardly a surprise. This adds injury to injury since EU bureaucrats already get paid much more than workers in the productive sector of the economy.

Internal estimates, seen by The Daily Telegraph, show huge cost increases as growing numbers of officials in an expanded EU qualify for retirement, often at a younger age than the taxpayers who fund their generous pensions. Over the next three years alone, the cost of EU civil service pensions is expected to rise by 16 per cent to an annual bill for taxpayers of £1.3 billion. … EU officials are allowed to retire at the age of 63, younger than Britons who have just had their retirement age increased from 65 to 66 by 2016. …According to unpublished Commission figures, the pension bill will by 2040 risen 97 per cent to over £2 billion, with a British contribution of over £350 million. …The average annual pension pocketed by the 17,471 retired eurocrats benefiting from the scheme is £57,194, while the highest ranking officials can pocket pensions of over £102,000.

Our second story comes from the Cayman Islands, where bureaucrats (as well as some politicians) have figured out the double-dipping scam, getting a lucrative pension while still receiving a salary. But the Cayman Islands at least deserve credit for limiting the damage. All bureaucrats hired after 1999 participate in a mandatory savings system, thus limiting the long-run risk for taxpayers.

A significant number of employees in the Cayman Islands Civil Service receive a monthly pension as well as a salary, according to records obtained by the Caymanian Compass. There are 65 people who have retired from the civil service under the defined benefit pension programme – which means they are receiving a monthly pension while continuing to work in government, according to information from a Freedom of Information request made by the Compass. Those workers are typically employed on a fixed-term contract and, therefore, also receive a salary. …There were 171 employees working in the civil service who were age 60 or over at the date the Compass made its open records request. The ability of civil servants and Cayman Islands legislators to ‘double dip’ is not to the liking of at least one lawmaker, who raised the issue in the Legislative Assembly in June. North Side MLA Ezzard Miller told the assembly that a change in the parliamentary pensions law in recent years has allowed elected officials to receive the same benefit as civil servants – to retire while continuing to serve in the assembly. In essence, Mr. Miller said, those lawmakers can “get a double dip” – continue to receive their salaries while earning a pension at the same time. …Cayman Islands civil servants who joined the service after mid-April 1999 no longer receive defined benefit pension payments. In other words, the newer civil service employees will receive a lump sum payment from their pension funds rather than a monthly pension.

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For those who favor truth in labeling, the housing meltdown and related financial crisis and economic downturn should be brightly stamped with the phrase, “Made in Washington.” Here are two good pieces of evidence. First, this paper from the American Enterprise Institute is one of the best big-picture analyses on the issue. It identifies how “affordable lending” policies are at the heart of the problem. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract.

Government policies forced a systematic industry-wide loosening of underwriting standards in an effort to promote affordable housing. This paper documents how policies over a period of decades were responsible for causing a material increase in homeowner leverage through the use of low or no down payments, increased debt ratios, no loan amortization, low credit scores and other weakened underwriting standards associated with NTMs. These policies were legislated by Congress, promoted by HUD and other regulators responsible for their enforcement, and broadly adopted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) and the much of the rest mortgage finance industry by the early 2000s. Federal policies also promoted the growth of overleveraged loan funding institutions, led by the GSEs, along with highly leveraged private mortgage backed securities and structured finance transactions. HUD’s policy of continually and disproportionately increasing the GSEs’ goals for low- and very-low income borrowers led to further loosening of lending standards causing most industry participants to reach further down the demand curve and originate even more NTMs. As prices rose at a faster pace, an affordability gap developed, leading to further increases in leverage and home prices. Once the price boom slowed, loan defaults on NTMs quickly increased leading to a freeze-up of the private MBS market. A broad collapse of home prices followed.

Then, to show a good example of Mitchell’s Law, which is how bad government policy leads to more government policy, here’s a story about the fiasco surrounding President Obama’s mortgage subsidy program. The government is so bloody incompetent, it can’t even give away money effectively.

Nearly half of the 1.3 million homeowners who enrolled in the Obama administration’s flagship mortgage-relief program have fallen out. The program is intended to help those at risk of foreclosure by lowering their monthly mortgage payments. Friday’s report from the Treasury Department suggests the $75 billion government effort is failing to slow the tide of foreclosures in the United States, economists say. More than 2.3 million homes have been repossessed by lenders since the recession began in December 2007, according to foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc. Economists expect the number of foreclosures to grow well into next year. “The government program as currently structured is petering out. It is taking in fewer homeowners, more are dropping out and fewer people are ending up in permanent modifications,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. …Many borrowers have complained that the government program is a bureaucratic nightmare. They say banks often lose their documents and then claim borrowers did not send back the necessary paperwork. The banking industry said borrowers weren’t sending back their paperwork. They also have accused the Obama administration of initially pressuring them to sign up borrowers without insisting first on proof of their income. When banks later moved to collect the information, many troubled homeowners were disqualified or dropped out. Obama officials dispute that they pressured banks. They have defended the program, saying lenders are making more significant cuts to borrowers’ monthly payments than before the program was launched. And some of the largest mortgage companies in the program have offered alternative programs to those who fell out.

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