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James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute has an intriguing idea. Instead of a regular debate, he would like presidential candidates to respond to a handful of charts from the recent Economic Report of the President that supposedly highlight very important issues.

We’d quickly find out — I hope — who has real deep knowledge on key economic issues and challenges facing America.

I don’t always agree with Pethokoukis’ views (see here, here, and here), but he has a very good idea. He may not have picked the charts I would rank as most important, but I think 5 of the 6 charts he shared are worthy of discussion (I’m not persuaded that the one about government R&D spending has much meaning).

Let’s look at them and elaborate on why they are important.

We’ll start with the chart of labor productivity growth, which has been declining over time.

I think this is a very important chart since productivity growth is a good proxy for the growth in living standards (workers, especially in the long run, get paid on the basis of what they produce).

So what should we think about the depressing trend of declining productivity numbers?

First, some of it is unavoidable. The United States has an advanced economy and we don’t have a lot of “low-hanging fruit” to exploit. Simply stated, it’s much easier to boost labor productivity in a poor country.

Second, to the degree we want to boost labor productivity, more investment is the best option. That’s why I’m so critical of class-warfare policies that penalize capital formation. When politicians go after the “evil” and “bad” rich people who save and invest, workers wind up being victimized because there’s less saving and investment.

But this isn’t just an issue of machines, equipment, and technology. We also should consider human capital, which is why it is a horrible scandal that America spends more on education – on a per-capita basis – than any other nation, yet we get very mediocre results because of a government monopoly school system that – at least in practice – seems designed to protect the privileges of teacher unions.

The next chart looks at the number of companies entering and exiting the economy. As you can see, the number of businesses that are disappearing is relatively stable, but there’s been a disturbing decline in the rate of new-company formation.

As with the first chart, some of this may simply be an inevitable trend. In a mature economy, perhaps the rate of entrepreneurship declines?

But that’s not intuitively obvious, and I certainly haven’t seen any evidence to suggest why that should be the case.

So this chart presumably isn’t good news.

Some of the bad news is probably because of bad government policy (capital gains taxes, regulatory barriers, licensing mandates, etc) and some of it may reflect undesirable cultural trends (less entrepreneurship, more risk-aversion, more dependency).

Speaking of which, the next chart looks at the share of the workforce that is regulated by licensing laws.

This is a very disturbing trend.

Licensing rules basically act as government-created barriers to entry and they are especially harmful to poor people who often lack the time and money to jump through the hoops necessary to get some sort of government-mandated certification.

By the way, this is one area where the federal government is not the problem. These are mostly restrictions imposed by state governments.

The next chart looks at how much money is earned by the rich in each country.

I think this chart is very important, but only in the sense that any intelligent candidate should know enough to say that it’s almost completely irrelevant and misleading.

The economy is not a fixed pie. Income earned by the “rich” is not at the expense of the rest of us (assuming honest markets rather than government cronyism). It doesn’t matter if the rich are earning more money. What matters is whether there’s growth and mobility for people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

A good candidate should say the chart should be replaced by far more important variables, such as what’s happening to median household income.

Lastly, here’s a chart comparing construction costs with housing prices.

This data is important because you might expect there to be a close link between construction costs and home prices, yet that hasn’t been the case in recent years.

There may be perfectly reasonable explanations for the lack of a link (increased demand and/or changing demographics, for instance).

But in all likelihood, there may be some undesirable reasons for this data, such as Fannie-Freddie subsidies and restrictionist zoning policies.

As with the licensing chart, this is an area where the federal government doesn’t deserve all the blame. Bad zoning policies exist because local governments are catering to the desires of existing property owners.

By the way, while I think Pethokoukis shared some worthwhile charts, I would have augmented his list with charts on the rising burden of government spending, the tax code’s discrimination against income that is saved and invested, declining labor-force participation, changes in economic freedom, and the ever-expanding regulatory burden.

If candidates didn’t understand those charts and/or didn’t offer good solutions, they would be disqualifying themselves (at least for voters who want a better future).

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More than 100 years ago, George Santayana famously warned that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

At the time, he may have been gazing in a crystal ball and looking at what the Obama Administration is doing today.That’s because the White House wants to reinstate the types of housing subsidies that played a huge role in the financial crisis.

I’m not joking. Even though we just suffered through a housing bubble/collapse thanks to misguided government intervention (with all sorts of accompanying damage, such as corrupt bailouts for big financial firms), Obama’s people are pursuing the same policies today.

Including a bigger role for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two deeply corrupt government-created entities that played such a big role in the last crisis!

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about this crazy approach.

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt has one heck of a sense of humor. How else to explain his choice of a Las Vegas casino as the venue for his Monday announcement that he’s revving up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to enable more risky mortgage loans? History says the joke will be on taxpayers when this federal gamble ends the same way previous ones did. …unlike most of the players around a Mandalay Bay poker table, Mr. Watt is playing with other people’s money. He’s talking about mortgages that will be guaranteed by the same taxpayers who already had to stage a 2008 rescue of Fannie and Freddie that eventually added up to $188 billion. Less than a year into the job and a mere six years since Fan and Fred’s meltdown, has he already forgotten that housing prices that rise can also fall? …We almost can’t believe we have to return to Mortgage 101 lessons so soon after the crisis. …Come the next crisis, count on regulators to blame everyone outside of government.

These common-sense observations were echoed by Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia, writing for Real Clear Markets.

The housing market meltdown that began in 2007 and helped trigger the recent recession was completely avoidable. The conditions that created the slow-growth rush into housing did not arise by accident or even neglect; rather, they were a direct result of the incentives in the industry and the involvement of the government. Proving that nothing was learned by housing market participants from the market meltdown, both lenders and government regulators appear intent on repeating their mistakes. …we have more or less completed a full regulatory circle and returned to the same lax standards and skewed incentives that produced the real estate bubble and meltdown. Apparently, nobody learned anything from the last time and we should prepare for a repeat of the same disaster we are still cleaning up. Research has shown that low or negative equity in a home is the best predictor of a loan default. When down payments were 20 percent, nobody wanted to walk away from the house and lose all that equity. With no equity, many people voluntarily went into foreclosure because their only real loss was the damage to their credit score. …The best way to a stable and healthy real estate market is buyers and lenders with skin in the game. Unfortunately, those in charge of these markets have reversed all the changes… The end result will be another big bill for taxpayers to clean up the mess. Failing to learn from one’s mistakes can be very expensive.

Though I should add that failure to learn is expensive for taxpayers.

The regulators, bureaucrats, agencies, and big banks doubtlessly will be protected from the fallout.

And I’ll also point out that this process has been underway for a while. It’s just that more and more folks are starting to notice.

Last but not least, if you want to enjoy some dark humor on this topic, I very much recommend this Chuck Asay cartoon on government-created bubbles and this Gary Varvel cartoon on playing blackjack with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

P.S. Now for my final set of predictions for the mid-term elections.

On October 25, I guessed that Republicans would win control of the Senate by a 52-48 margin and retain control of the House by a 246-189 margin.

On October 31, I put forward a similar prediction, with GOPers still winning the Senate by 52-48 but getting two additional House seats for a 249-187 margin.

So what’s my final estimate, now that there’s no longer a chance to change my mind? Will I be prescient, like I was in 2010? Or mediocre, which is a charitable description of my 2012 prediction?

We won’t know until early Wednesday morning, but here’s my best guess. Senate races are getting most of the attention, so I’ll start by asserting that Republicans will now have a net gain of eight seats, which means a final margin of 53-47. Here are the seats that will change hands.

For the House, I’m also going to move the dial a bit toward the GOP. I now think Republicans will control that chamber by a 249-146 margin.

Some folks have asked why I haven’t made predictions about who will win various gubernatorial contests. Simply stated, I don’t have enough knowledge to make informed guesses. It would be like asking Obama about economic policy.

But I will suggest paying close attention to the races in Kansas and Wisconsin, where pro-reform Republican Governors are facing difficult reelection fights.

And you should also pay attention to what happens in Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, all of which are traditionally left-wing states yet could elect Republican governors because of voter dissatisfaction with tax hikes.

Last but not least, there will be interesting ballot initiatives in a number of states. Americans for Tax Reform has a list of tax-related contests. I’m particularly interested in the outcomes in Georgia, Illinois, and Tennessee.

There’s also a gun-control initiative on the ballot in Washington. And it has big-money support, so it will be interesting if deep pockets are enough to sway voters to cede some of their 2nd Amendment rights.

Returning to the main focus of the elections, what does it mean if the GOP takes the Senate? Well, not much as Veronique de Rugy explains in a column for the Daily Beast.

Republicans are projected to gain control of Congress this time around, worrying some Democrats that major shifts in policies, cutbacks in spending, and reductions in the size and scope of government are right around the corner. I wish! Rest assured, tax-and-spend Democrats have little to fear. Despite airy Republican rhetoric, they are bona fide big spenders and heavy-handed regulators…. Republicans may complain about bloated government and red tape restrictions when they’re benched on the sidelines, but their track record of policies while in power tells a whole different story—and reveals their true colors. …When in power, Republicans are also more than willing to increase government intervention in many aspects of our lives. They gave us No Child Left Behind, protectionist steel and lumber tariffs, Medicare Part D, the war in Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security and its intrusive and inefficient Transportation Security Administration, massive earmarking, increased food stamp eligibility, and expanded cronyism at levels never seen before. The massive automobile and bank bailouts were the cherries on top.

Veronique is right, though I would point out that there’s a huge difference between statist Republicans like Bush, who have dominated the national GOP in recent decades, and freedom-oriented Republicans such as Reagan.

We’ll perhaps learn more about what GOPers really think in 2016.

In the meantime, policy isn’t going to change for the next two years. Remember what I wrote last week: Even assuming they want to do the right thing, Republicans won’t have the votes to override presidential vetoes. So there won’t be any tax reform and there won’t be any entitlement reform.

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People sometimes think I’m strange for being so focused on the economic harm that results from third-party payer. But bear with me and we’ll see why it’s a very important issue.

If you’re not already familiar with the term, third-party payer exists when someone other than the consumer is paying for something. And it’s a problem because people aren’t careful shoppers when they have (proverbially) someone else’s credit card.

Moreover, sellers have ample incentive to jack up prices, waste resources on featherbedding, and engage in inefficient practices when they know consumers are insensitive to price.

I’ve specifically addressed the problem of third-party payer in both the health-care sector and the higher education market.

But I’ve wondered whether my analysis was compelling. Is the damage of third-party payer sufficiently obvious when you see a chart showing that prices for cosmetic surgery, which generally is paid for directly by consumers, rise slower than the CPI, while other health care expenses, which generally are financed by government or insurance companies, rise faster than inflation?

Or is it clear that third-party payer leads to bad results when you watch a video exposing how subsidies for higher education simply make it possible for colleges and universities to increase tuition and fees at a very rapid clip?

That should be plenty of evidence, but I ran across a chart that may be even more convincing. It shows how prices have increased in various sectors over the past decade.

So what make this chart compelling and important?

Time for some background. The reason I saw the chart is because David Freddoso of the Washington Examiner shared it on his Twitter feed.

I don’t know if he added the commentary below, or simply passed it along, but I’m very grateful because it’s an excellent opportunity to show that sectors of our economy that are subsidized (mostly by third-party payer) are the ones plagued by rising prices.

It’s amazing to see that TVs, phones, and PCs have dropped dramatically in price at the same time that they’ve become far more advanced.

Yet higher education and health care, both of which are plagued by third-party payer, have become more expensive.

So think about your family budget and think about the quality of PCs, TVs, and phones you had 10 years ago, and the prices you paid, compared with today. You presumably are happy with the results.

Now think about what you’re getting from health care and higher education, particularly compared to the costs.

That’s the high price of third-party payer.

P.S. This video from Reason TV is a great illustration of how market-based prices make the health care sector far more rational.

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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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