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Yesterday, Part I of this series looked at what motivates Barack Obama. We reviewed a Kevin Williamson column that made a strong case that Obama is an ends-justifies-the-means statist.

Today, we’re going to look at the President’s approach to economic policy and we’ll focus on an article by my former debating partner, the great Richard Epstein.

And since Epstein and Obama were colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School, he has some insight into the President’s mind.

In a nutshell, Professor Epstein says “Obama’s Middle Class Malaise” is the predictable result of bad policy. And the bad policy exists because the President has no clue about economic policy.

…the president is using the bully pulpit to argue for redistributive, pro-regulatory, pro-union policies that he claims will serve the middle class. …The President, who has never worked a day in the private sector, has no systematic view of the way in which businesses operate or economies grow. He never starts a discussion by asking how the basic laws of supply and demand operate, and shows no faith that markets are the best mechanism for bringing these two forces into equilibrium. Because he does not understand rudimentary economics, he relies on anecdotes to make his argument.

I’m not sure whether I fully agree. I suspect Obama doesn’t understand anything about economics, but it’s possible that he does understand, but simply doesn’t care.

Epstein then makes an elementary point about the harmful impact of government intervention.

Unfortunately, our President rules out deregulation or lower taxes as a way to unleash productive forces in the country. Indeed, he is unable to grasp the simple point that the only engine of economic prosperity is an active market in which all parties benefit from voluntary exchange. Both taxes and regulation disrupt those exchanges, causing fewer exchanges to take place—and those which do occur have generated smaller gains than they should. The two-fold attraction of markets is that they foster better incentives for production as they lower administrative costs. Their comparative flexibility means that they have a capacity for self-correction that is lacking in a top-down regulatory framework that limits wages, prices, and the other conditions of voluntary exchange.

I particularly like his point about self-correction. I frequently explain in speeches that markets are filled with mistakes, but that at least there’s a big incentive to learn from those mistakes. With government, by contrast, mistakes get subsidized.

Professor Epstein looks at recent economic history and wisely doesn’t get trapped in partisanship. He correctly notes that we got good results under both Reagan and Clinton when the burden of government was reduced.

Obama speaks first of how the economic engine began to stall, but he offers no timeline. His general statement may square with the economic malaise of the Carter years, but it hardly describes the solid growth during most of the Reagan and Clinton years, as both presidents grasped, however imperfectly, that any expansion of the government footprint on the economy could dull the incentives to production. The situation turned south the past ten years. The second George Bush administrative gave us No Child Left Behind and Sarbanes-Oxley, while Obama followed with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

The Bush-Obama years, by contrast, have been rather dismal.

Epstein next speculates whether Obama has any understanding that his policies hurt those he supposedly wants to help.

…his speech offers not one hint that he is aware of the deep conflict between his abject fealty to union objectives and the poor people he wants to lift up. Yes there is an increasing gap between the rich and poor, but that gap won’t narrow if the President keeps plumping for a higher minimum wage that will block poor individuals, many of whom are African-American, from getting a toehold in the economy. No jobs at artificially high wages—which is what will happen, per Wal Mart—is no improvement over plentiful jobs at market wages.

By the way, an even more egregious example of Obama hurting the less fortunate is his opposition to school choice.

Let’s conclude by looking at my favorite part of the article. Epstein writes that Obama is so deluded that he thinks his biggest failures are actually his greatest successes.

…he constantly thinks of his greatest regulatory failures as his great successes. No other president has “saved the auto industry,” albeit by a corrupt bankruptcy process, or “taken on a broken health care system,” only to introduce a set of unworkable mandates that are already falling apart, or “investing in new technologies,” which tries to pick winners and ends up with losers like Solyndra. The great advances in energy have come from private developments, most notably fracking, and not from the vagaries of wind and solar energy, which no one has yet figured out how to store for future use when needed. …It is easy to see, therefore, why people have tuned out the President’s recent remarks. They have heard it all countless times before. So long as the President is trapped in his intellectual wonderland that puts redistribution first and regards deregulation and lower taxation as off limits, we as a nation will be trapped in the uneasy recovery.

Here’s a good example of Obama’s upside-down world where he thinks failure = success. The Washington Examiner today commented on the President’s latest scheme to intervene in housing markets. They start by explaining how Obama’s policies already have failed.

…in February 2009, Obama spoke in Mesa, Ariz., on the housing crisis, promising that his then-forthcoming Home Affordable Mortgage Program would help “between seven and nine million families” stay in their homes. A little over four years later, HAMP was exposed as a flop by the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). Just 1.6 million households had actually received HAMP assistance, seven million fewer than Obama promised in February 2009. Worse, many of the HAMP-assisted households ended up defaulting again. As of March 31, according to SIGTARP, 46 percent of the oldest HAMP modifications re-defaulted, compared to 37 percent of the more recent beneficiaries. Many homeowners would have been better off without HAMP, according to SIGTARP: “Re-defaulted HAMP modifications often inflict great harm on already struggling homeowners when any amounts previously modified suddenly come due.”

But the President hasn’t learned from his mistakes. He still wants the government to dictate how the housing market operates.

…middle Americans have every right to be suspicious when Obama says his newest round of policies will make homes more affordable. …while Obama expressed mild interest in reducing the federal government’s role in the housing sector, he also insisted that the government must ensure that Americans will always be able to buy 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. Why? No other country on the planet has a housing market dominated by 30-year fixed mortgages, and many countries that have no long-term mortgage market at all, like Canada, avoided the 2008 housing bubble and financial crash entirely. There is simply no reason why America should repeat the same housing policy mistakes of the past. But for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, that appears to be pretty much what Obama is determined to do in his remaining years as president.

I especially like the point about Canada avoiding the financial crisis and the housing bubble. There’s a simple explanation. Our neighbors to the north avoided the government mistakes that caused the housing bubble in America.

Remember, if more government is the answer, you’ve asked a very strange question.

P.S. There’s no such thing as too much Richard Epstein. You can click here for his analysis of the flat tax and click here to watch him destroy George Soros in a debate.

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I suggested last year that President Obama adopt “my work here is done” as a campaign slogan.

Admittedly, that was merely an excuse to share this rather amusing poster (and you can see the same hands-on-hips pose, by the way, in this clever Michael Ramirez cartoon).

But I want to make a serious point.

For those of us who want the prosperity and liberty made possible by smaller government and free markets, it would be ideal if the President actually did think his work was done. If that was the case, presumably he wouldn’t propose new schemes to expand the size and scope of the public sector.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Indeed, he bragged about providing handouts, subsidies, and bailouts for housing in his recent pivot-to-the-economy speech and he specifically stated “We’re not done yet.”

As I said in this interview on FBN, that phrase could replace “I’m from Washington and I’m here to help you” as the most frightening sentence in the English language.

Obama’s phrase is particularly distressing since he wants more intervention in housing markets – yet it was misguided government intervention that caused the housing bubble and financial crisis in the first place!

Simply stated, you don’t solve the problems caused by the Fed’s easy-money policy with more government. And you don’t solve the problems caused by corrupt Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac subsidies with more government.

The right approach is to get government out of housing altogether. That means getting rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It means privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It even means eliminating preferences for housing in the tax code as part of a shift to a simple and fair system like the flat tax.

Once we achieve all these goals, then we can say “we’re done”…and move on to our other objectives, like dealing with the damage caused by government in the health sector, the education sector, the financial markets sector, etc, etc…

P.S. Some people doubtlessly will complain that bad things will happen if the government no longer is involved in housing, but I think we’ll survive just fine without bureaucrats screwing over poor people and mandating “emotional support” animals in college dorms.

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After the financial crisis, the consensus among government officials was that we needed more regulation.

This irked me in two ways.

1. I don’t want more costly red tape in America, particularly when the evidence is quite strong that the crisis was caused by government intervention. Needless to say, the politicians ignored my advice and imposed the costly Dodd-Frank bailout bill.

2. I’m even more worried about global regulations that force all nations to adopt the same policy. The one-size-fits-all approach of regulatory harmonization is akin to an investment strategy of putting all your retirement money into one stock.

I talked about this issue in Slovakia, as a conference that was part of the Free Market Road Show. The first part of my presentation was a brief description of cost-benefit analysis. I think that’s an important issue, and you can click here is you want more info about that topic.

But today I want to focus on the second part of my presentation, which begins at about the 3:40 mark. Simply stated, there are big downsides to putting all your eggs in one regulatory basket.

The strongest example for my position is what happened with the “Basel” banking rules. International regulators were the ones who pressured financial institutions to invest in both mortgage-backed securities and government bonds.

Those harmonized regulatory policies didn’t end well.

Sam Bowman makes a similar point in today’s UK-based City AM.

Financial regulations like the Basel capital accords, designed to make banks act more prudentially,  did the opposite – incentivising banks to load up on government-backed mortgage debt and, particularly in Europe, government bonds. Unlike mistakes made by individual firms, these were compounded across the entire global financial system.

The final sentence of that excerpt is key. Regulatory harmonization can result in mistakes that are “compounded across the entire global financial system.”

And let’s not forget that global regulation also would be a vehicle for more red tape since politicians wouldn’t have to worry about economic activity migrating to jurisdictions with more sensible policies – just as tax harmonization is a vehicle for higher taxes.

P.S. For a more learned and first-hand explanation of how regulatory harmonization can create systemic risk, check out this column by a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

P.P.S. Politicians seem incapable of learning from their mistakes. The Obama Administration is trying to reinflate the housing bubble, which was a major reason for the last financial crisis. This Chuck Asay cartoon neatly shows why this is misguided.

Asay Housing Cartoon

P.P.S. Don’t forget that financial regulation is just one small piece of the overall red tape burden.

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Young people voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers, but the question is why?

As I explain in this interview for Blaze TV, they are being hurt by his policies.

It’s not just that youth unemployment is high. Obama’s policies also are hurting those who found jobs. Simply stated, these “lucky” folks are getting below-average pay.

The Stepford Students?

I specifically explain that academics have determined that those entering the labor market in a weak economy will suffer a long-run loss of income.

Some of you may think I’m clutching at straws because I don’t like Obama, but perhaps you’ll believe the man who formerly served as the Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Here’s some of what Austin Goolsbee wrote several years ago for the New York Times.

…starting at the bottom is a recipe for being underpaid for a long time to come. Graduates’ first jobs have an inordinate impact on their career path and their “future income stream,” as economists refer to a person’s earnings over a lifetime. The importance of that first job for future success also means that graduates remain highly dependent on the random fluctuations of the economy, which can play a crucial role in the quality of jobs available when they get out of school.

Goolsbee cites some research based on the career paths of Stanford MBAs.

Consider the evidence uncovered by Paul Oyer, a Stanford Business School economist… He found that the performance of the stock market in the two years the students were in business school played a major role in whether they took an investment banking job upon graduating and, because such jobs pay extremely well, upon the average salary of the class. That is no surprise. The startling thing about the data was his finding that the relative income differences among classes remained, even as much as 20 years later.

He also reports on what other scholars found for regular college students.

Dr. Oyer’s findings hold for more than just high-end M.B.A. students on Wall Street. They are also true for college students. A recent study, by the economists Philip Oreopoulos, Till Von Wachter and Andrew Heisz…finds that the setback in earnings for college students who graduate in a recession stays with them for the next 10 years. These data confirm that people essentially cannot close the wage gap by working their way up the company hierarchy. While they may work their way up, the people who started above them do, too. They don’t catch up.

Now think about today’s young people. They’re buried in debt, thanks to government programs that have caused a third-party payer crisis. Yet they are having a hard time finding jobs because Obama’s policies are stunting the economy’s performance.

And even if they do find a job, the research suggests they will get paid less. Not just today, but for the foreseeable future.

Yet they gush over Obama. Go figure.

P.S. Goolsbee’s recent columns have been less impressive, perhaps because he feels the need to defend Obama.

P.P.S. I’m not suggesting that young people should have gushed over McCain or Romney. Just that they should view almost all politicians with disdain.

P.P.P.S. I also say in the interview that the government should get out of the housing business – both on the spending side of the budget and the revenue side of the budget. And it goes without saying that I also explain the need to reduce the burden of government spending.

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Let’s assume you didn’t understand how a garbage disposal worked and, for whatever reason, you decided to stick your arm in one and turn it on. You would do some serious injury to your hand.

The rest of us would wonder what motivated you to stick your arm down the drain in the first place, but we would feel sympathy because you didn’t realize bad things would happen.

But if you then told us that you were planning to do the same thing tomorrow, we would think you were crazy. Didn’t you learn anything, we would ask?

Seems like a preposterous scenario, but something very similar is now happening in Washington. The Obama Administration is proposing to once again put the economy at risk by subsidizing banks to give mortgages to people with poor credit.

“Let’s party like it’s 2006!”

Even though we’re still dealing with the economic and fiscal damage caused by the last episode of government housing subsidies!

Here are some of the unbelievable details from a report in the Washington Post.

The Obama administration is engaged in a broad push to make more home loans available to people with weaker credit…officials say they are working to get banks to lend to a wider range of borrowers by taking advantage of taxpayer-backed programs — including those offered by the Federal Housing Administration — that insure home loans against default. Housing officials are urging the Justice Department to provide assurances to banks, which have become increasingly cautious, that they will not face legal or financial recriminations if they make loans to riskier borrowers who meet government standards but later default.

Brings to mind the famous saying from George Santayana that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But what’s especially amazing – and distressing – about this latest scheme is that “the past” was only a couple of years ago. Or, to recall my odd analogy, one of our hands is still mangled and bleeding and we’re thinking about putting our other hand in the disposal.

Some people understand this is a nutty idea.

…critics say encouraging banks to lend as broadly as the administration hopes will sow the seeds of another housing disaster and endanger taxpayer dollars. “If that were to come to pass, that would open the floodgates to highly excessive risk and would send us right back on the same path we were just trying to recover from,” said Ed Pinto, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

What’s also discouraging is that the government already is deeply involved in the housing market – even though this is an area where there is no legitimate role for the federal intervention.

Deciding which borrowers get loans might seem like something that should be left up to the private market. But since the financial crisis in 2008, the government has shaped most of the housing market, insuring between 80 percent and 90 percent of all new loans, according to the industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance. It has done so primarily through the Federal Housing Administration, which is part of the executive branch, and taxpayer-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, run by an independent regulator.

So I guess the goal is to have taxpayers on the hook for 100 percent of loans.

“Don’t worry, it’s not our money”

Anybody want to guess whether this will end well?

By the way, this is bad policy even if we somehow avoid a new bubble and big taxpayer losses. Even in a”best case” scenario, the federal government will be distorting the allocation of capital by discouraging business investment and subsidizing residential real estate.

And as shown in this powerful chart, that will have adverse consequences for wages and living standards.

The part of the article that most nauseated me was a quote from the head bureaucrat at the Federal Housing Administration.

“My view is that there are lots of creditworthy borrowers that are below 720 or 700 — all the way down the credit-score spectrum,” Galante said. “It’s important you look at the totality of that borrower’s ability to pay.”

Gee, isn’t that nice that Ms. Galante thinks there are lots of borrowers with good “totality” measures? But here’s an interesting concept. Why doesn’t she put her money at risk instead of making me the involuntary guarantor on these dodgy loans?

I’ve already said on TV that we should dump Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the Potomac River. And I’ve  argued that the entire Department of Housing and Urban Development should be razed to the ground.

But perhaps this cartoon best shows the consequences of the Obama Administration’s new subsidy scheme.

P.S. We also should get rid of housing preference in the tax code. Our economy should cater to the underlying preferences of consumers, not the electoral interests of politicians.

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As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I had to decide which department of the federal government was most deserving of abolition.

With a target-rich environment of waste, fraud, and abuse in Washington, that wasn’t an easy question to answer. But I decided to pick the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and I had some good reasons for that choice.

Well, thanks to the sequester, we can say that we’ve achieved 1.9 percent of our goal. Here are some blurbs from a Reuters report.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Monday said it plans to shut its doors for a total of seven days between May and September due to budget cuts and will furlough more than 9,000 employees on those days. …The agency will determine the exact shutdown dates at a later time.

The motto of special interests

This is what I call a good start.

You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that the bureaucracy is whining that these tiny cutbacks will have horrible effects.

In cataloging the impact of sequestration to a Senate panel last month, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan warned lawmakers that the government spending cuts would have harsh consequences for housing programs and could threaten Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts in the U.S. Northeast. “The ripple effects are enormous because of how central housing is to our economy,” Donovan told lawmakers.

Well, I hope that the “cuts” will have “harsh consequences for housing programs.” I’ve read Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution, and nowhere does it say that housing is a function of the federal government.

And I’ve also explained that disaster relief is not Washington’s responsibility.

Most worthless department in Washington?

Last but not least, I agree that housing is important to our economy. But that’s precisely why I don’t want the federal government involved.

Didn’t we learn from the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac debacle that bad things happen when the federal government tries to subsidize that sector.

Heck, I don’t even want tax preferences for housing.

No wonder I picked the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the background for my video on bloated and wasteful bureaucracy.

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I was asked last week which entitlement program is most deserving of reform.

While acknowledging that Social Security and Medicare also are in desperate need of modernization, I wrote that Medicaid reform should be the first priority.

But I’d be happy if we made progress on any type of entitlement reform, so I don’t think there are right or wrong answers to this kind of question.

We have the same type of question this week. A reader sent an email to ask “Which federal department should be abolished first?”

I guess this is what is meant when people talk about a target-rich environment.

We have an abundance of candidates, including the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, etc.

But if I have to choose, I think the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be first on the chopping block.

Raze the building and put a layer of salt over the earth to make sure it can never spring back to life

I’ve already argued that there should be no federal government involvement in the housing sector and made the same argument on TV. And I’ve also shared some horror stories about HUD waste and incompetence.

Heck, I even made HUD the background image for my video on the bloated and overpaid bureaucracy in Washington.

It’s also worth noting that there’s nothing about housing in Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution. For those of us who have old-fashioned values about playing by the rules, that means much of what takes place in Washington – including housing handouts – is unconstitutional.

Simply stated, there is no legitimate argument for HUD. And I think there would be the least political resistance.

As with the answer to the question about entitlements, this is a judgment call. I’d be happy to be proven wrong if it meant that politicians were aggressively going after another department. Anything that reduces the burden of government spending is a step in the right direction.

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Even though I knew some people would call me Scrooge, I wrote a few days ago about why we should get rid of the tax deduction for charitable contributions in exchange for lower tax rates.

Simply stated, I’m a big advocate of fundamental tax reform, and I would like to scrap the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Needless to say, that also means getting rid of tax preferences for housing. I make the case against the home mortgage interest deduction in this interview on the Fox Business Network.

Since a short TV interview doesn’t allow much time for a detailed and wonky analysis of tax policy, this is a good time to explain why tax reform doesn’t really change the tax treatment of housing. But also I’ll explain why it is a big change.

I realize that makes me sound like a politician, talking out of both sides of my mouth, but bear with me.

One of the key principles of tax reform is that there no longer should be any double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As you can see in this chart, people who live for today and immediately consume their after-tax income are basically spared any additional layers of tax. But if you save and invest your after-tax income (which is very good for future growth and necessary to boost workers’ wages), then the government tries to whack you with several additional layers of tax.

The solution is a system that taxes income only one time. And that means all saving and investment should be treated the way we currently treat individual retirement accounts. If you have a traditional IRA (or “front-ended” IRA), you get a deduction for any money you put in a retirement account, but then you pay tax on the money – including any earnings – when the money is withdrawn.

If you have a Roth IRA (or “back-ended” IRA), you pay tax on your income in the year that it is earned, but if you put the money in a retirement account, there is no additional tax on withdrawals or the subsequent earnings.

From an economic perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs generate the same result. Income that is saved and invested is treated the same as income that is immediately consumed. From a present-value perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs produce the same outcome. All that changes is the point at which the government imposes the single layer of tax.

So why am I boring you with all this arcane tax info? Because the home mortgage interest can be considered as a front-ended IRA involving more than one party. The interest paid by the homeowner is deductible, and the interest received by the mortgage company is taxable.

Under a flat tax, the system gets switched to something akin to a back-ended IRA. The homeowner no longer deducts the interest and the recipient of the interest no longer pays tax.

Some of you may be thinking that this is a good deal for financial institutions, but a ripoff for homeowners. But here are two very important points.

  • First, homeowners that already have mortgages presumably would be grandfathered, thus allowing them to continue taking the deduction. Tax reform interest ratesThey made a contract under the old rules and shouldn’t have the rug pulled out from under them.
  • Second, people taking out new mortgages would benefit since mortgage interest would get the same tax treatment now reserved for tax-free municipal bonds. And because there’s no federal income tax on municipal bonds, that means there’s no tax wedge built into the interest rate.

In other words, homeowners or homebuyers in the new system won’t be able to deduct mortgage interest, but they’ll benefit from lower interest rates. Six of one, half dozen of another.

So why, then, is the housing lobby against the flat tax?

In part, they don’t know what they’re talking about. But what about the smart ones, the ones who understand that there’s no meaningful change in the after-tax cost of getting a mortgage in a flat tax world? Why are they opposed to tax reform.

The answer is very simple. They understand that housing isn’t directly affected by a flat tax, but they are very concerned about the indirect impact. More specifically, they understand that the flat tax eliminates all forms of double taxation in the tax code, and that would mean a level playing field.

In other words, the housing sector is now taxed rationally, and other investments are taxed punitively. Under a flat tax, by contrast, all would be taxed rationally.  So the housing sector would lose its relative advantage. 

So if your industry or sector is the beneficiary of a tilted playing field, then it’s understandable that you’ll be worried about tax reform even if there’s no real change in how you get taxed.

And I suspect the impact of tax reform wouldn’t be trivial.

To get an idea about the potential impact, let’s look at some academic research. Professor Dale Jorgenson of Harvard and another economist from Yonsei University in South Korea estimate that most of the economic benefit of tax reform occurs because capital shifts out of owner-occupied housing and into business investment.

…progressivity of labor income taxation is another major source of inefficiency in the U.S. tax system. This produces marginal tax rates on labor income that are far in excess of average tax rates. A high marginal tax rate results in a large wedge between the wages and salaries paid by employers and those received by households. A proportional tax on labor income would equalize marginal and average tax rates and would sharply curtail the losses in economic efficiency due to high marginal rates. An important challenge for tax reform is to eliminate the barriers to efficient capital allocation arising from ―double‖ taxation of assets held in the corporate sector and the exclusion of owner-occupied housing from the tax base… If both income taxes and sales taxes are replaced by a Flat Tax, and a lump sum tax is used to compensate for the revenue shortfall, the welfare gains are very substantial, $5,111.8 billion U.S. dollars of 2011 for HR and $5,444.3 billion for AS. …Our overall conclusion is that the most substantial gains from tax reform are associated with equalizing tax burdens on all assets and all sectors and eliminating the progressive taxation of labor income… We have shown that the most popular Flat Tax proposals would generate substantial welfare gains.

I don’t pay much attention to the estimates in the study about an extra $5 trillion-plus of wealth. That number is very sensitive to the structure of the model and the underlying assumptions.

But I do agree that tax reform will generate big benefits and that much of the gain will occur because there will be less tax-induced over-investment in housing and more growth-generating investment in business capital.

But as I note in the interview, that’s a good thing. It means more prosperity for the American people and a more competitive American economy.

Government shouldn’t be trying to lure us into making economically irrational decisions because of tax or regulatory interventions. Didn’t we learn anything from the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac fiasco?

The clowns in Washington have been mucking around in the economy for decades and they keep making things worse. Perhaps, just for a change of pace, we should try free markets and small government and see what happens.

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I don’t like coercive redistribution. But I really hate redistribution from ordinary people to rich and powerful vested interests, and I even developed an “ethical bleeding heart” rule to express my disdain for this approach.

Especially since programs that redistribute from the poor to the rich almost always involve corruption – often involving morally bankrupt Republicans.

For whatever reasons, the housing sector has a disproportionate amount of this type of redistribution. Here are some sordid details from a Reuters report about how housing subsidies are lining the pockets of the rich.

In Santa Clara County, the center of the global tech industry and one of the wealthiest places in the United States, most home buyers get help from the government, an analysis of government lending data shows. The same is true in other wealthy enclaves such as Nassau County, outside New York, and Arlington County, outside Washington, the analysis of more than 50 million loans finds. ..What the analysis by Reuters makes clear is the extent to which government programs have helped some of the nation’s most well-to-do communities.

The story provides an example, showing how the government is coercing the rest of us into subsidizing rich people.

Julie Wyss earns $330,000 a year selling real estate in Silicon Valley. When the time came to look for a new home for herself, Wyss settled on a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Los Gatos, California, an enclave of young technology entrepreneurs. It has about 2,400 square feet of floor space, four sets of French doors and a price tag of $1.45 million. When she bought the house in June, her main financing was a $625,500 mortgage from Wells Fargo guaranteed by government-backed Fannie Mae. The benefit to Wyss was an interest rate, of 4.125 percent, that was lower than she could have gotten on a loan that was not guaranteed by the government. “It’s a totally sweet deal,” Wyss said.

As happens so often, the government expanded bad policy when problems developed as a result of previous bad policy – sort of Mitchell’s Law on steroids in the case of housing.

Before the financial crisis, the limit on loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was $417,000. But in 2008, …Congress changed the rules so that the companies could back mortgages of up to $729,750 in high-priced areas like Santa Clara. The result is that the government guaranteed 89 percent of U.S. mortgages taken out in the first half of 2012, up from 85 percent in 2011 and 30 percent in 2006, according to data compiled by Inside Mortgage Finance. Big banks still offer mortgages without government backing, but interest rates are higher, standards are more stringent and most people don’t even consider them, said Dave Walsh, a realtor based in San Jose, California. …In 2006, the two entities guaranteed only about one-third of new mortgages in the 20 highest-income mortgage markets in the country. By 2010, that share had risen to about three in four, the data showed.

In other words, we have lots of rich people now sucking on the government teat. This is bad housing policy, bad fiscal policy, and bad social policy (and, as this cartoon illustrates, you eventually hit a point when there’s nothing left to steal).

I have nothing against rich people. But I utterly despise people who get rich using the state. If they earn their money honestly, I’ll defend them to my last breath and I’ll fight against those who want to seize their earnings via class-warfare tax policy.

Sadly, we may be getting to the point where there are more of the wrong kind of rich people in America. That may represent a very dangerous turning point for society, sort of a bizarre version of the famous riding-in-the-wagon cartoons.

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Even though it’s important – particularly in a world with slippery politicians – to define words and terms accurately, I haven’t focused on this issue.

Indeed, a quick search through my archives shows that the only glossary I’ve ever published was this humorous list of financial terms.

And the only dictionary I’ve ever published was this clever example of Republican-to-English humor by a leftist.

Fortunately, Thomas Sowell is taking this issue seriously and he has two columns addressing how certain words are distorted to advance a statist agenda.

Here’s some of what he writes in Part I. He starts with the elastic definition of “racism.”

“Racism” is another term we can expect to hear a lot this election year, especially if the public opinion polls are going against President Barack Obama. Former big-time TV journalist Sam Donaldson and current fledgling CNN host Don Lemon have already proclaimed racism to be the reason for criticisms of Obama, and we can expect more and more other talking heads to say the same thing as the election campaign goes on. The word “racism” is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything — and demanding evidence makes you a “racist.”

I also like his assessment of “compassion” and “greed.”

In the political language of today, people who want to keep what they have earned are said to be “greedy,” while those who wish to take their earnings from them and give it to others (who will vote for them in return) show “compassion.”

But my favorite from Part I is “hungry.”

A political term that had me baffled for a long time was “the hungry.” Since we all get hungry, it was not obvious to me how you single out some particular segment of the population to refer to as “the hungry.” Eventually, over the years, it finally dawned on me what the distinction was. People who make no provision to feed themselves, but expect others to provide food for them, are those whom politicians and the media refer to as “the hungry.” Those who meet this definition may have money for alcohol, drugs or even various electronic devices. And many of them are overweight. But, if they look to voluntary donations, or money taken from the taxpayers, to provide them with something to eat, then they are “the hungry.” I can remember a time, long ago, when I was hungry in the old-fashioned sense. I was a young fellow out of work, couldn’t find work, fell behind in my room rent — and, when I finally found a job, I had to walk miles to get there, because I couldn’t afford both subway fare and food. But this was back in those “earlier and simpler times” we hear about. I was so naive that I thought it was up to me to go find a job, and to save some money when I did. Even though I knew that Joe DiMaggio was making $100,000 a year — a staggering sum in the money of that time — it never occurred to me that it was up to him to see that I got fed.

Now let’s shift to Part II of Sowell’s glossary, which focuses on the meaning of “access.”

Politicians seem to be forever coming to the rescue of people who have been denied “access” to credit, college or whatever. But what does that mean, concretely? …To take a personal example, Michael Jordan became a basketball star — and a very rich man. I did neither. Was that because I was denied “access” to professional basketball? Anyone who saw me as a teenager trying to play basketball could tell you that I was lucky to hit the back board, much less the basket.

Sowell explains why this debate matters.

When statistics showed that blacks were turned down for conventional mortgage loans at twice the rate of whites, that was the clincher for those saying that “access” was the problem and that racial discrimination was the reason. Since this fit the existing preconceptions in many quarters, what more could you want? Other statistics, however, showed that whites were turned down for conventional mortgage loans at nearly double the rate for Asian Americans. By the very same reasoning, that would suggest that whites were being racially discriminated against by banks that were mostly run by whites. …Statistics on the average credit ratings of people in different racial groups likewise seldom saw the light of day. The average credit ratings of whites were higher than the average credit ratings of blacks, and the average credit ratings of Asian Americans were higher than the average credit ratings of whites. But to lay all these facts before the public and say, “We report, you decide” might well result in the public’s deciding that banks and other financial institutions prefer lending to individuals who were more likely to pay them back.

Fans of Professor Sowell can read more of his work here, here, here, here, hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. And you can see him in action here. A truly gifted public intellectual and (thankfully) a prolific writer.

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Remember my post from a week ago when I said I was not a Republican even though Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge are two of my heroes?

Well, now I have another reason to despise the GOP. Those reprehensible statists just voted to expand federal housing subsidies.

Here are some excerpts from an excellent National Review column by Andrew McCarthy.

Almost two weeks ago, when they figured no one was watching, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, by an overwhelming 292–121 margin, voted to increase funding for the Federal Housing Administration. Just as government debt hit $15 trillion, edging closer to 100 percent of GDP, these self-proclaimed scourges of spending decided Uncle Sam should continue subsidizing mini-mansion mortgage loans — up to nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.  Given the straits that the mortgage crisis has left us in, to say nothing of the government’s central role in getting us there, one might think Republicans would be asking whether the government should be in the housing business at all. …the Republican House — installed by the Tea Party in a sea-change election to be the antidote to Obamanomics — decided the taxpayers should guarantee FHA loans up to $729,750. Had they not acted, the public obligation would have been reduced to “only” $625,500 per FHA loan — couldn’t have that, right? …thanks to GOP leadership’s good offices, this government mortgage guarantor now sports expanding portfolios, capital reserves acknowledged only in the breach, and the potential for hundreds of billions of dollars in losses. …If Republicans really thought the growth of government was unsustainable, they’d stop growing it.

I complained last month when 8 Republican senators voted to expand housing subsidies via Fannie and Freddie. Well, 17 GOP senators voted for destructive FHA subsidies, along with 133 Republican representatives.

So let’s recap. Everyone knows that government intervention caused the housing crisis, which is why Republicans should be voting to shut down the Department of Housing and Urban Development and enacting legislation to get government out of the housing sector.

But they decided instead that campaign loot from the corrupt housing lobbies was more important than doing the right thing.

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I have no idea whether George Santayana was a good philosopher, but he certainly was right when he wrote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Consider the fools in the U.S. Senate. They just voted to expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies, apparently thinking that re-inflating the housing bubble would be a good idea when every sensible person thinks we should abolish these government-created entities.

Here are some blurbs from the Business Week story.

The U.S. Senate adopted a measure that would raise the maximum size of a home loan backed by mortgage companies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration to $729,750. Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, offered the increase as an amendment to a spending bill today. The measure was approved less than a month after the limit on so-called conforming loans was automatically reduced to $625,500. …The Senate adopted the amendment 60-31. The amendment required 60 votes for approval and was offered during the chamber’s consideration of a package of spending measures. If the Senate passes the underlying bill, the House would then have to vote for it to become law. …The limits, which vary by locale, apply to loans backed by the FHA and government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together buy or guarantee about 90 percent of all residential home loans.

For what it’s worth, every Democrat voted for the measure, as well as these Republicans.

Blunt – Missouri

Brown – Massachusetts

Chambliss – Georgia

Graham – South Carolina

Heller – Nevada

Isakson – Georgia

Murkowski – Alaska

Snowe – Maine

Maybe these feckless and irresponsible jokers should spend a bit of time reading Peter Wallison’s work. And here’s a George Will column if they can’t comprehend anything longer than 800 words.

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I’ve previously explained that the federal government should have no role in housing and that the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be abolished.

If I haven’t convinced you, then you should watch this powerful video from the folks at Reason TV.

What an outrage.

Politicians create a program, claiming that they will help the less fortunate. But as is so often the case, it’s a scam that winds up hurting poor people and instead lines the pockets of politically connected rich people.

Using the coercive power of government to redistribute from rich to poor is economically misguided. Using the coercive power of government to redistribute from poor to rich is far worse – a combination of bad economic policy and complete moral depravity.

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I’ve already explained why the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be eliminated, but a superb column in the Wall Street Journal by my old friend Jim Bovard has my blood boiling.

After reading Jim’s piece, I no longer want to merely abolish HUD. I want to bulldoze the building, cover the ground with six feet of broken glass and rusty nails, and then add a foot of salt to make sure nothing can possibly spring forth again.

In the 1990s, the feds were embarrassed by skyrocketing crime rates in public housing—up to 10 times the national average, according to HUD studies and many newspaper reports. The government’s response was to hand out vouchers to residents…, dispersing them to safer and more upscale locales. Section 8′s budget soared to $19 billion this year from $7 billion in 1994. HUD now picks up the rent for more than two million households nationwide; tenants pay 30% of their income toward rent and utilities while the feds pay the rest. Section 8 recipients receive monthly rental subsidies of up to $2,851 in the Stamford-Norwalk, Conn., area, $2,764 in Honolulu and $2,582 in Columbia, Md. But the dispersal of public housing residents to quieter neighborhoods has failed to weed out the criminal element that made life miserable for most residents of the projects. “Homicide was simply moved to a new location, not eliminated,” concluded University of Louisville criminologist Geetha Suresh in a 2009 article in Homicide Studies. In Louisville, Memphis, and other cities, violent crime skyrocketed in neighborhoods where Section 8 recipients resettled. After a four-year investigation, the Indianapolis Housing Authority (IHA) in 2006 linked 80% of criminal homicides in Marion County, Ind., to individuals fraudulently obtaining federal assistance “in either the public housing program or the Section 8 program administered by the agency.”

In other words, the federal government decided that it wasn’t doing enough damage by being a slumlord. It then decided to directly subsidize rents (often at scandalously high levels), often for the benefit of criminals.

Not surprisingly, proponents of big government are playing the race card, claiming that opposition to rental subsidies is a form of discrimination since a disproportionate share of recipients are minorities. Yet this controversy actually pits law-abiding people, regardless of color, against social-engineering bureaucrats.

…middle-class blacks are the program’s least inhibited critics. Sheldon Carter of Antelope Valley, Calif., testified at a recent public hearing on local Section 8 controversies: “This is not a racial issue. It is a color issue. The color is green and it’s my dollars.” Shirlee Bolds told Iowa’s Dubuque Telegraph Herald in 2009: “I moved away from the city to get away from all this crap. Dubuque’s getting rough. I think it’s turning into a little Chicago, like they’re bringing the street rep here.” Remarkably, HUD seems bent on creating a new civil right—the right to raise hell in subsidized housing in nice neighborhoods.

The bureaucracy’s perverse definition of civil rights is not a recent development, as illustrated by this previous post critiquing HUD’s bean-counting mentality.

The moral of the story, though, is that the federal government has no business being involved in housing. Jim’s closing sentences are a pretty good summary of this outrageous situation.

The Obama administration is now launching a pilot program giving local housing authorities wide discretion to pay higher rent subsidies to allow Section 8 beneficiaries to move into even more affluent zip codes. Hasn’t this program helped wreck enough neighborhoods?

Heck, let’s also add arsenic, lead, and strychnine to the glass, nails, and salt. Maybe some radioactive material as well. No sense taking any chances.

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Here’s a recent interview with Neil Cavuto about bailouts for Fannie Mae, one of the government-created entities used by Barney Frank, et al, to subsidize housing (and line the pockets of well-connected political insiders).

My main concern is not the bailouts, which surely are odious, but whether we can at least limit future damage by getting the government out of the business of misallocating capital and distorting markets.

When in a hole, put down the %*#(& shovel and stop digging!

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Here’s a related link if you want to get even more depressed about politicians digging the debt hole deeper.

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If you want to understand how government intervention screws up markets and damages an economy, there are two new publications worth reading. First, pick up a copy of Reckless Endangerment, a new book by Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, and Joshua Rosner, an expert on housing finance.

I’ll confess I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list based on two columns. Here’s some of what George Will wrote after giving it a read.

The book’s subtitle could be: “Cry ‘Compassion’ and Let Slip the Dogs of Cupidity.” Or: “How James Johnson and Others (Mostly Democrats) Made the Great Recession.” The book is another cautionary tale about government’s terrifying self-confidence. It is, the authors say, “a story of what happens when Washington decides, in its infinite wisdom, that every living, breathing citizen should own a home.” …“Reckless Endangerment” is a study of contemporary Washington, where showing “compassion” with other people’s money pays off in the currency of political power, and currency. Although Johnson left Fannie Mae years before his handiwork helped produce the 2008 bonfire of wealth, he may be more responsible for the debacle and its still-mounting devastations — of families, endowments, etc. — than any other individual. If so, he may be more culpable for the peacetime destruction of more wealth than any individual in history.

And here is some of what David Brooks wrote, in a column that focused on the sleazy insider corruption exposed by the book.

The Fannie Mae scandal has gotten relatively little media attention because many of the participants are still powerful, admired and well connected. But Gretchen Morgenson, a Times colleague, and the financial analyst Joshua Rosner have rectified that, writing “Reckless Endangerment,” a brave book that exposes the affair in clear and gripping form. The story centers around James Johnson, a Democratic sage with a raft of prestigious connections. …Morgenson and Rosner write with barely suppressed rage, as if great crimes are being committed. But there are no crimes. This is how Washington works. Only two of the characters in this tale come off as egregiously immoral. Johnson made $100 million while supposedly helping the poor. Representative Barney Frank, whose partner at the time worked for Fannie, was arrogantly dismissive when anybody raised doubts about the stability of the whole arrangement. …Johnson roped in some of the most respected establishment names: Bill Daley, Tom Donilan, Joseph Stiglitz, Dianne Feinstein, Kit Bond, Franklin Raines, Larry Summers, Robert Zoellick, Ken Starr and so on. Of course, it all came undone. Underneath, Fannie was a cancer that helped spread risky behavior and low standards across the housing industry. We all know what happened next. The scandal has sent the message that the leadership class is fundamentally self-dealing. Leaders on the center-right and center-left are always trying to create public-private partnerships to spark socially productive activity. But the biggest public-private partnership to date led to shameless self-enrichment and disastrous results.

Not surprisingly, politicians have not addressed the problem, even with the benefit of hindsight. The Dodd-Frank bailout bill, which was supposed to address the problems of the housing crisis/financial crisis, left Fannie and Freddie untouched. The two government-created entities are on life support after their bailouts (speaking of which, here’s a funny cartoon), so this would have been the right moment to drive a stake through their hearts. One can only wonder what damage they will do in the future.

But government intervention in housing is not limited to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A new report from Pew looks at the panoply of tax preferences for the industry, and analyzes the impact on overall economic performance. There are parts of the report I don’t like, such as the term “subsidies,” which implies that tax distortions are a form of government spending, but I fully agree that tax preferences harm the economy by causing capital to be misallocated.

Investment in owner-occupied housing faces an effective marginal tax rate of just 3.5 percent. In contrast, investment in the business sector faces an effective tax rate of 25.5 percent. This leads to a tax-induced bias for capital to flow into housing-related uses rather than other types of projects. As a result, businesses are less likely to purchase new equipment and less likely to incorporate new technologies than otherwise might be the case. Less business investment results in lower worker productivity and ultimately lower real wages and living standards. While the housing sector provides employment and has other positive effects on the overall economy and on society, the resources employed in the housing sector displace investment that would otherwise occur in the business sector were it not for the favored tax treatment of housing. The resulting distortion in the allocation of capital likely lowers overall output, because resources are allocated based on tax considerations rather than economic merit. In effect, the United States has chosen as a society to live in larger, debt-financed homes while accepting a lower standard of living in other regards.

The moral of the story is that if more government is the answer, someone has asked a very stupid question.

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My previous post looked at the federal government’s troubling decision to investigate, persecute, prosecute, and ultimately imprison a random home-loan borrower named Charlie Engle for the crime of mortgage fraud. Citing a column on the legal fallout from the financial crisis in the New York Times, I noted that it was rather odd that the government would target a nobody like Mr. Engle while letting all the big fish swim away.

This story certainly paints a picture of a government that has one set of rules for ordinary people, but an entirely different set of rules for the political elite and those who make big campaign contributions to that ruling class. But I also noted that I’m not a legal expert and was unsure about the degree to which the big players actually broke laws, or whether they simply made stupid business decisions (often encouraged by bad government policy).

The most upsetting part of the story, though, is how the government wound up targeting Mr. Engle. It turns out that an IRS agent, Robert Norlander, must have been competing for the IRS’s Thug-of-the-Year Award (or maybe it was A-Hole-of-the-Year or Jerk-of-the-Year) because here are some of the things he did:

o  Mr. Norlander decided to snoop into Mr. Engle’s because he saw a film about him training for a marathon. In other words, there was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, nothing. Just the perverse decision of an IRS bully to go after someone.

o  Mr. Norlander admitted a pattern of thuggish behavior, stating that he will snoop into someone’s private life simply because that person drives an expensive car.

o  Mr. Norlander continued to investigate and persecute Mr. Engle, subjecting him to undercover surveillance, even though his tax returns showed no wrongdoing.

o  Mr. Norlander even engaged in “dumpster dives” to look for evidence of wrongdoing in Mr. Engle’s garbage. Keep in mind that there is no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, and Engle’s tax returns were legit.

o  Mr. Norlander used a sleazy KGB tactic by sending an attractive woman to flirt with Mr. Engle in hopes of getting him to somehow admit to a crime.

o  Mr. Norlander failed to find any evidence of a tax crime. He couldn’t even hit Engle with a money-laundering offense. But the undercover agent who was part of the “honey trap” was wearing a wire and supposedly got Engle to admit to mortgage fraud and Norlander used that extremely flimsy evidence to justify a Justice Department case against Mr. Engle.

In other words, this whole thing has a terrible stench. Assuming the details in the story are accurate, we have an IRS agent engaging in a vendetta against someone, and then apparently justifying his jihad by figuring out how to nail the guy for a very weak charge of mortgage fraud. I would refer to Mr. Norlander as a “rogue agent,” but apparently his jackboot behavior is business-as-usual at the IRS.

Here are the relevant passages from the New York Times column.

Mr. Engle received $30,000 for his participation. The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.) Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly. In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments. …Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire. …No tax charges were ever brought, even though that was Mr. Nordlander’s original rationale. Money laundering, the suspicion of which was needed to justify the undercover sting, was a nonissue as well. As for that “confession” to Ms. Burrows, take a closer look. It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.

Now you understand why I’m a libertarian. As George Washington is reported to have stated, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Unfortunately, thanks to bad laws and thuggish bureaucrats, that government is now our master.

A previous post of mine addressed the issue of whether Republicans were right to trim the IRS’s budget. So long as the IRS is employing thugs such as Mr. Norlander, the answer is a resounding yes.

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Joe Nocera has a must-read story in the New York Times about how the legal fallout from the financial crisis. His basic theme is that the government let all the bigwigs get away with their crimes, but then has a fascinating discussion about how the government targeted an inconsequential mortgage borrower.

I’m not sure I accept the first part of his premise. There were lots of sleazy people taking advantage of the perverse system created by bad government policy, but I would like to see some clear evidence of actual crimes before hopping on that bandwagon. Selling mortgage-backed securities filled with crummy home loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may have been immoral, for instance (at least from a libertarian perspective), but I’m not aware that it is against the law to make choices that hurt the economy – particularly when government policy is designed to reward such stupidity.

That being said, I do wonder why there haven’t been any bribery prosecutions of the politicians who got sweetheart loans as part of the “Friends of Angelo” scheme. Actually, I don’t wonder why politicians such as Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad got a free ride. Politicians operate by the principle that law are only for the little people. Nonetheless, these are examples of real laws being violated.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this post is to show how the government decided to go through great effort and expense to nail someone who, at most, was willing to go along with the government-subsidized and government-created housing scam.

Here are the sordid details.

A few weeks ago, when the Justice Department decided not to prosecuteAngelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that none of the big fish were likely to go to prison for their roles in the financial crisis. …There was, in fact, someone behind bars for what he’d supposedly done during the subprime bubble. …Mr. Engle’s is a tale worth telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its punch line. Was Mr. Engle convicted of running a crooked subprime company? Was he a mortgage broker who trafficked in predatory loans? A Wall Street huckster who sold toxic assets? No. Charlie Engle wasn’t a seller of bad mortgages. He was a borrower. And the “mortgage fraud” for which he was prosecuted was something that literally millions of Americans did during the subprime bubble. Supposedly, he lied on two liar loans. …It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome about his prosecution. It is also the way the government went about building its case. …Even the jurors seemed confused about how to think about Mr. Engle’s supposed crime. When it came time to pronounce a verdict, the jury found him not guilty of providing false information to the bank, which would seem to be the only fraud he could possibly have committed. Yet it still found him guilty of mortgage fraud. “I think the prosecution convinced the jury that I was guilty of something but they weren’t sure what,” Mr. Engle wrote in an e-mail. …Even when he emerges from prison, though, his ordeal will not be over. As part of his sentence, Mr. Engle was ordered to pay $262,500 in restitution to the owner of his mortgages. And what institution might that be? You guessed it: Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America. Angelo Mozilo ought to get a good chuckle out of that one.

Later today, by the way, I’ll post about the IRS’s disgusting role in this story.

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Very few things that happen in Washington are legitimate functions of the federal government. I’ve already posted about the need to dismantle the Department of Transportation and send it back to the states, but some things  shouldn’t even be handled by state and local governments. Housing is a perfect example. There should be no role for government in building or subsidizing housing, period.

But I’ll be happy if we can simply get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. This $53 billion turkey should be the top target for GOP reformers.

Fealty to the Constitution should be the only reason lawmakers need to abolish HUD, but if they’re looking for some tangible examples of how the Department squanders money, J.P. Freire of the Washington Examiner opines on the issue, citing some devastating findings in a report from the Center for Public Integrity.

In the more than 3,000 public housing agencies nationwide funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and particularly inside the 172 that HUD considers the most troubled, ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity found a struggle to combat theft, corruption, and mismanagement. According to the report, one official embezzled $900,000 and bought a mansion. Other funds went to support sex workers. In other words, this is a perfect illustration of why recommending cuts to such assistance programs is not heartless but actually wise — waste is rampant:

The problems are widespread, from an executive in New Orleans convicted of embezzling more than $900,000 in housing money around the time he bought a lavish Florida mansion to federal funds wrongly being spent to provide housing for sex offenders or to pay vouchers to residents long since dead. Despite red flags from its own internal watchdog, HUD has continued to plow fresh federal dollars into these troubled agencies, including $218 million in stimulus funds since 2009, the joint investigation found.

These are horrific examples of government waste, and they are tailor-made for soundbites and blog posts, but waste, fraud, and corruption are not the real issues. HUD should be abolished even if every penny of the budget could be accounted for. If Republicans can’t get rid of HUD, voters should get rid of Republicans.

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Considering they could have sat on their hands and relied on unhappy voters to give them big gains in November, I’m not too unhappy about the House GOP’s “Pledge to America.” Yes, it’s mostly filled with inoffensive motherhood-and-apple-pie language, but at least there’s some rhetoric about reining in excessive government. After eight years of fiscal profligacy under Bush, maybe this is a small sign that Republicans won’t screw up again if they wind up back in power. That being said, I was a bit disappointed that the GOP couldn’t even muster the courage to shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two corrupt government-created entities that bear so much responsibility for the housing mess and subsequent financial crisis. The best the GOP could do was to say “Since taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that triggered the financial meltdown by giving too many high risk loans to people who couldn’t afford them, taxpayers were billed more than $145 billion to save the two companies. We will reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by ending their government takeover, shrinking their portfolios, and establishing minimum capital standards.” Is it really asking too much for Republicans to simply say “The federal government has no role in housing and Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be eliminated.” Heck, the GOP’s Pledge doesn’t even mention a penny’s worth of budget cuts for HUD. Here’s an excerpt from Peter Wallison’s Bloomberg column, which explains why Fannie and Freddie should be decapitated.

In a year when angry voters are demanding a reduced government role in the economy, it is remarkable that most of the ideas for supplanting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just imaginative ways of keeping government in the business of housing finance. …This is pretty astonishing. One would think that something might have been learned from the recent past, when two New Deal ideas for government housing support–the savings and loan industry and the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–failed spectacularly. It cost taxpayers $150 billion to clean up the first and may cost more than $400 billion to resolve the second. …government policy that deliberately degrades loan quality or creates moral hazard will eventually cause devastation in the housing market. …Government involvement in housing finance is an invitation to disaster. As illustrated by the S&Ls and GSEs, no matter how such a system is structured, government support will hide the real risks.

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George Melloan’s column in the Wall Street Journal discusses the new Basel capital standards and correctly observes that 22 years of global banking regulations have not generated good results. This is not because requiring reserves is a bad thing, but rather because such policies do nothing to fix the real problem. In the case of the United States, easy money policy by the Fed and a corrupt system of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies caused the housing bubble and resulting financial crisis. Yet these problems have not been addressed, either in the Dodd-Frank bailout bill or the new Basel rules. Indeed, Melloan points out that Fannie and Freddie were exempted from the Dood-Frank legislation.

There’s something to be said for holding banks to higher capital standards, even at the cost of more constrained lending and slower economic growth. But the much-bruited idea that Basel rules will make the world freer of financial crises is highly doubtful, given current political circumstances. The 2008 financial meltdown was not primarily the result of lax regulation but of co-option and abuse of the U.S. financial system by the political class in Washington. The federal government’s “affordable housing” endeavors, beginning in the 1990s, allowed and even forced banks to make highly risky mortgage loans. Those loans were folded into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) sold in vast numbers throughout the world, most promiscuously by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Federal Reserve contributed a credit bubble that caused house prices to soar, a classic asset inflation. When the bubble began to deflate in 2007, the bad loans in mortgage securities became poisonous. The MBS market seized up, and financial institutions holding them became illiquid and began to crash. The Lehman Brothers collapse was the biggest shock. The only way Basel standards might have helped prevent this would have been if they had been applied to Fannie and Freddie as well as to banks. They weren’t. President Bill Clinton exempted the two giants from Basel capitalization rules because they were the primary instruments of a federal policy aimed at helping more lower-income people become homeowners. This was a laudable goal that ultimately wrecked the housing and banking industries. Washington has learned nothing from this debacle, which is why the next financial crisis is likely to have federal policy origins and may come sooner than we think. Fannie and Freddie—now fully controlled by Uncle Sam and exempt from the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation—are still going strong, guaranteeing and restructuring loans while they continue to rack up huge losses for taxpayers. …The record since the Basel process began 22 years ago doesn’t generate faith in banking regulation either. Basel rules didn’t prevent the collapse of Japanese banking in 1990, they didn’t prevent the 2008 meltdown, and they are not preventing the banking failures that plague the financial system even today.

P.S. The bureaucrats and regulators who put together the Basel capital standards were the ones who decided that mortgage-backed securities were very safe assets and required less capital. That was a common assumption at the time, so the point is not that the Basel folks are particularly incompetent, but rather that regulation is a very poor substitute for market discipline. Letting financial firms go bankrupt instead of bailing them out would be a far better way of encouraging prudence.

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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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I appeared on CNBC earlier today to explain why a stake should be driven through the heart of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. My debate opponents seems to be somewhat on the right side and admits that Fannie and Freddie are bad news, but inexplicably wants to keep them alive.

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John Stossel appropriately scolds the former Federal Reserve Chairman for blaming the financial crisis on the free market. I’ll go one step farther and say that Greenspan’s behavior is a reprehensible example of someone lacking the cojones to take responsibility for his mistakes. Greenspan is surely not responsible for the corrupt system of subsidies from the government-created nightmares known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but he definitely deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the Fed’s easy-money policy of artificially-low interest rates. Greenspan presumably knows he screwed up, which makes his attack on free markets especially despicable. The icing on the cake is that he’s also sucking up to the political establishment by endorsing higher taxes. Hasn’t he already done enough damage?

I’m getting tired of Alan Greenspan. First, the former Federal Reserve chairman blamed an allegedly unregulated free market for the housing and financial debacle. Now he favors repealing the Bush-era tax cuts. …During a congressional hearing two years ago, Greenspan shocked me by blaming the free market — not Fed and housing policies — for the financial collapse. As The New York Times gleefully reported, “(A) humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets.” He said he favored regulation of big banks, as if the banking industry weren’t already a heavily regulated cartel run for the benefit of bankers. Bush-era deregulation is a myth perpetrated by those who would have government control the economy. We libertarians were distressed by Greenspan’s apparent abandonment of his free-market philosophy and his neglect of the government’s decisive role in the crisis. …now Greenspan, going beyond what even President Obama favors, calls on Congress to let the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts expire — not just for upper-income people but for everyone. …the stupidest thing said about tax cuts is the often-repeated claim that “they ought to be paid for.” How absurd! Tax cuts merely let people keep money they rightfully own. It’s government programs, not tax cuts, that must be paid for. The tax-hungry politicians’ demand that cuts be “paid for” implies the federal budget isn’t $3 trillion, but $15 trillion — the whole GDP — with anything mercifully left in our pockets being some form of government spending. How monstrous!

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Whether we’re looking at TARP bailouts, Obamacare, or tax loopholes, a common theme is that politicians implement a policy by arguing they want to help the less fortunate. When the dust settles, however, it is often the case that politically well-connected rich people are the big beneficiaries. The overall economy tends to be weaker, meanwhile, and the specific sector suffers because of resource misallocation, so poor people actually fall farther behind. A good example is rent control. The Wall Street Journal has an editorial citing the case of Bianca Jagger to illustrate how the law has become a giant rip-off that deprives landlords of their property rights while lining the pockets of the elite. Those lower on the income scale, by contrast, suffer because of a housing market crippled by government intervention.
Jetsetter and social activist Bianca Jagger has lost her legal bid to keep her knock-down-price rental at 530 Park Avenue. A New York state judge last week ordered Mick’s ex to pay $708,600 in back rent and other fines to her landlords. Ms. Jagger spent nearly 20 years in the two bedroom apartment—rent-stabilized at $4,600 a month. But then she complained about poor upkeep. The landlords in turn noted that Ms. Jagger, in the U.S. on a tourist visa, shouldn’t pay the lower rent since New York isn’t her “primary residence,” one of the criteria under rent control laws. A state appeals court sided with them in 2008 and last week another court upheld the decision and said she could be evicted. As part of the fine, the judge ruled that Ms. Jagger owes $246,468 for the “fair market use and occupancy” over the years she was in dispute with the landlords. They said the apartment would have gone on the open market for $8,800 a month. The case sums up the insanity of regulating prices in one of the world’s most competitive and dynamic real estate markets. Rent control, a “temporary” World War II-era measure that survives into this century, creates housing shortages, drives up prices for non-rent control real estate and contributes to middle class flight. As Ms. Jagger perhaps found out with her moldy apartment, artificially keeping down rents gives landlords the rational financial incentive to skimp on upkeep. Worse than that, rent control disproportionately subsidizes the affluent. A Harvard University study in the late 1980s found that rent-controlled apartments were in some of the cities best neighborhoods, that 94% of its tenants were white and roughly three-quarters were families without children.

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I did a post yesterday about the IRS screwing up and sending housing tax credits to prison inmates. Apparently, the 100,000 bureaucrats at the IRS were unable to put 2 and 2 together and realize that jailbirds – by definition – are not buying new homes. I also appeared on MSNBC to talk about the issue, and took the opportunity to explain that much of the blame belongs with politicians who created a tax code that nobody understands.

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There really isn’t much I can add to this story in USA Today about the IRS giving money to prisoners. Yes, it is a story about typical government incompetence. But it also shows the inevitable problems that occur when government engages in industrial policy and social engineering via the tax code. Let’s call this argument 1,549,628 in favor of the flat tax.

Despite efforts by the IRS to combat scams, thousands of individuals — including nearly 1,300 prison inmates — have defrauded the government of millions of dollars in home buyer credits, Treasury’s inspector general reported Wednesday. …1,295 prisoners, including 241 serving life sentences, received $9.1 million in credits, even though they were incarcerated at the time they reported that they purchased their home. These prisoners didn’t file joint returns, so their claims could not have been the result of purchases made with or by their spouses, the report said. 2,555 taxpayers received $17.6 million in credits for homes purchased before the dates allowed by law. 10,282 taxpayers received credits for homes that were also used by other taxpayers to claim the credit. In one case, 67 taxpayers used the same home to claim the credit.

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Russ Roberts of George Mason University has written a very good article for the Mercatus Center explaining – for economists and non-economists – how government intervention created distortions in the housing and finance sectors. He also blames Wall Street, paticularly for lobbying for the policies that caused the distortions and led to the financial crisis. Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary:

Some blame capitalism for being inherently unstable. Some blame Wall Street for its greed, hubris, and stupidity. But greed, hubris, and stupidity are always with us. What changed in recent years that created such a destructive set of decisions that culminated in the collapse of the housing market and the financial system? …public-policy decisions have perverted the incentives that naturally create stability in financial markets and the market for housing. Over the last three decades, government policy has coddled creditors, reducing the risk they face from financing bad investments. Not surprisingly, this encouraged risky investments financed by borrowed money. The increasing use of debt mixed with housing policy, monetary policy, and tax policy crippled the housing market and the financial sector. Wall Street is not blameless in this debacle. It lobbied for the policy decisions that created the mess. In the United States we like to believe we are a capitalist society based on individual responsibility. But we are what we do. Not what we say we are. Not what we wish to be. But what we do. And what we do in the United States is make it easy to gamble with other people’s money—particularly borrowed money—by making sure that almost everybody who makes bad loans gets his money back anyway. The financial crisis of 2008 was a natural result of these perverse incentives. We must return to the natural incentives of profit and loss if we want to prevent future crises.

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I debate my statist buddy Christian Weller on Larry Kudlow’s show.

 

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The Wall Street Journal opines about the Department of Housing and Urban Development extorting a local community into engaging in a perverse form of racial/social engineering. Apparently, the bureaucrats in Washington are upset that people self-segregate on the basis of income (which the pencil-pushers magically equate with racism even though well-to-do minorities have no problem living in nicer neighborhoods. The real lesson here, though, is that the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be dismantled. It is not the job of the federal government to subsidize housing. The nanny-state social engineering is just the insult added to injury:

The bad news is that Westchester County, the sprawling suburb just north of New York City, has been pressured to settle a federal lawsuit brought by liberal activists over “affordable” housing. The worse news is that the Obama Administration wants the settlement to be a template for the rest of the nation. The three-year-old lawsuit alleged that Westchester had accepted federal housing funds but failed to provide enough affordable housing and reduce segregation in some of its wealthier communities, such as Scarsdale and Chappaqua, home to Bill and Hillary Clinton. In February a U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan ruled that Westchester’s integration efforts were insufficient, and rather than risk losing out on more federal money, county officials struck a deal with the Department of Housing and Urban Development this week. Within seven years, the county will construct or acquire 750 homes or apartments, 630 of which must be located in communities that are less than 3% black and 7% Hispanic. “We’re clearly messaging other jurisdictions across the country that there has been a significant change in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and we’re going to ask them to pursue similar goals as well,” said HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims. …Blacks have long populated Westchester towns such as White Plains, New Rochelle and Mount Vernon, and the Administration is assuming that low percentages of racial and ethnic minorities in places like Scarsdale are a result of discrimination. Yet there’s no pattern of fair housing complaints or other evidence showing that black families with incomes similar to whites in more upscale neighborhoods were barred from those jurisdictions. History also demonstrates that racial and ethnic minorities have incurred far less resistance when they move into neighborhoods where they can afford to live. The black and Latino suburban population is increasing steadily as the household incomes of those groups rise. But social engineers who want to force the issue risk creating more problems than they solve. Most people believe in integrated neighborhoods provided they’re a consequence of genuine choice, not the government deciding where it wants people to live.

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