Saturday, July 2, 2011

I Beg to Differ (in Part), Mr. Will

In 1994, Bill Clinton proposed increasing homeownership through a “partnership” between government and the private sector, principally orchestrated by Fannie Mae, a “government-sponsored enterprise” (GSE). It became a perfect specimen of what such “partnerships” (e.g., General Motors) usually involve: Profits are private, losses are socialized.
—“Burning Down the House,” George F. Will, Washington Post, today

Will’s column discusses a new book by Getchen Morgenson and housing-finance expert Joshua Rosner that Will says “will introduce you to James A. Johnson, an emblem of the administrative state that liberals admire.” Johnson, for those of you who (like me) don’t instantly recognize the name, headed Fannie Mae during (I guess; Will doesn’t specify the dates) the 1990s and early 2000s. He says the book details how Johnson and a few others, acting under the guise of compassion, used the government’s backing of Fannie and Freddie loans and the public policy of encouraging homeownership, to hugely enrich themselves.

Will writes:

Morgenson and Rosner report that in 1998, when Fannie Mae’s lending hit $1 trillion, its top officials began manipulating the company’s results to generate bonuses for themselves. That year Johnson’s $1.9 million bonus brought his compensation to $21 million. In nine years, Johnson received $100 million.

Fannie Mae’s political machine dispensed campaign contributions, gave jobs to friends and relatives of legislators, hired armies of lobbyists (even paying lobbyists not to lobby against it), paid academics who wrote papers validating the homeownership mania, and spread “charitable” contributions to housing advocates across the congressional map.

But he also suggests, if I understand correctly, that it was Johnson and the other Fannie and Freddie folks,rather than the Wall Street crowd, who instituted the concept of securitized mortgages in their recent, destructive form,* and credit default swaps—and (inferentially) then caused European banks to spur, say, the Irish housing bubble, which, last I heard, was not funded in any part by Fannie and Freddie. And he wrote the quote that opens this post, in which he claims that the government’s bailout—loans, most of which have been repaid—to GM and Chrysler have resulted in merely private profits. Unlike, y’know, the very substantial tax breaks given to oil companies.

The estimates about the number of jobs saved by those bailouts ranges from about 500,000 to (ultimately; i.e., indirectly) 1.5 million. Will is saying, in other words, that the federal government has no legitimate business involving itself so directly in the preservation of, or for that matter, the creation of jobs, because, after all, job preservation and job creation are private, not public, financial gains. The proposition is preposterous and relies upon the sleight of hand that only company and shareholder profits count as “profits”—a conceit that is likely to be seen for what it is, in places like Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Assuming, of course, that Will is read in such places, or that some other wingnut picks up the argument and runs (literally, may) be with it there.

(Please, please, Paul Krugman. Respond to Will’s bizarre claim. You’re the only one who could do this and who has a wide enough readership for it to matter. We both know that no response to this type of canard will be forthcoming from the White House. Ever. Okay, well, at least until 2017.)

Two or three weeks ago, Newsweek ran a lengthy article by Bill Clinton listing 14 proposals for job creation. (Oh, for the days when the Democrat in the White House had some actual ideas, some energy, and the willingness—the eagerness, in fact!—to discuss his policy proposals, in detail and concertedly, with the public.) One of them concerned one of the Obama administrations (very) few policy ideas: Substantial tax credits and outright loans to green-tech startups, which resulted in an increase in America’s share of worldwide production of batteries for battery-powered cars from 2% to 20% before our dear leader quietly—why raise this issue publicly during negotiations when it’s just so much easier to simply give the Republicans what they want—caved, er, negotiated away this law during last December’s budget white-flag waving, er, compromise. Clinton, of course, suggests that this program should be brought back, immediately, and expanded to other types of industries.

Won’t happen, of course. Well, maybe in 2017.

As for Johnson and his ilk, hopefully there’s still time, statute-of-limitations-wise, to prosecute these folks. And hopefully, the Morgenson and Rosner book will cause enough pressure for that to happen. And I agree with Will completely that one of the most despicable aspects of what happened with Fannie and Freddie was the fraudulent claim of compassion. Wonder, though, whether Will would agree with me that the Repubs’ genuine compassion for, say, oil company execs and shareholders is just as unseemly, in its own way. Nah.


*That sentence was amended on July 4 to add “in their recent, destructive form”, in light of comments to my identical post on Angry Bear indicating that mortgage-backed securities were conceived apparently all the way back in 1968 or so.

1 comment:

  1. Paul Krugman and George Will, Two opposites if I ever saw

    George Will is partially correct, we do tend to socialize losses especially on large companies deemed "to big to fail" (pardon the overly used phrase). I think letting Lehman brothers fail was one of the smarter things to do because it still shows we do let companies pay the consequences of their actions. I just hate to see the day when people start thinking private company profits are bad.

    I do agree that the republicans have a compassion for the oil companies, and a good reason too. They provide jobs and a needed source. Yes new battery technology is great and I think more investment is needed because that single industry could drive the US for years to come. But unless you can com up with a new source of energy quickly (and yes solar and wind are part of the future and need expansion) than I suggest we stop alienating them too much. Side note: BP deserves all the crap you can give them for their mess.

    Over the last 30 years or so Petroleum (oil, natural gas and coal) provided for almost 90% of the world energy production. Hydro-electric - 3%, Nuclear - 3% and renewable green sources you ask? less than 0.5%. Now we both look at that number and see that we do need a desperate expansion of the green energy industry and I agree, but that industry will not be our primary resource today, tomorrow or probably not in our life time. So like it not we need the oil industry.

    Oh and just a side note that probably doesn't have anything to do with anything. 37% of the jobs added since the "recovery" were added in Texas. And I don't thing it's a coincidence that there is a large energy industry there.