Friday, July 10

The Case for Doing Nothing

The first thing to note about the financial crisis is that the federal government never had any business intervening in the personal decision of whether you want to own a home. There is no rational economic argument, or any argument I know of, that says the market of buying and selling homes is imperfect in some way, requiring government action.
Bailouts took money from the taxpayers and gave it to banks that willingly, knowingly, and repeatedly took huge amounts of risk, hoping they’d get bailed out by everyone else. It clearly was an unfair transfer of funds.
The problem isn’t only that the bailout wasn’t necessary in the first place. The bailout may have made the credit situation worse. When banks hear that the Treasury Department is dangling hundreds of billions of dollars out there to purchase their toxic assets, what are they going to do? Sell their assets for 20 cents on the dollar, or hold onto them in the hope that the government will eventually buy them for 80 cents on the dollar?
President Obama’s mortgage plan uses $275 billion in tax funds to help homeowners refinance and lower rates, to subsidize payments from borrowers to lenders, to get lenders to modify loans, and so on. It gives another $200 billion to the government-created home mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This is exactly the wrong approach.

The aim is to reduce foreclosures, so the delinquent or nearly delinquent borrowers can stay in their homes. That sounds like a laudable goal, but it ignores a fundamental reality: This money is coming from somebody else. So what the plan is doing is penalizing relatively responsible homeowners or renters—everybody who pays taxes—and rewarding those people who should have known, or at least should have had some inkling, that the loans they were being offered were too good to be true. This program creates exactly the wrong incentives for people deciding whether to borrow and whether to be homeowners.

More generally, it continues the policy of promoting homeownership. We got in this situation because the government wanted to promote homeownership. Until we create a situation where people make decisions based on their own resources and have to think about bearing the consequences of the decisions they make, the root cause of the financial crisis will only get worse.


Add in Obama’s $787 billion stimulus and his $3.6 trillion budget, and a picture emerges of an administration totally unapologetic about its designs to expand the size and scope of government. There is no question that the people advocating this spending want much more government intervention with respect to unions, energy, health care, infrastructure, and other areas. The crisis has given them the opportunity to ram through a bunch of things they’ve been pursuing for a long time.
The stunning thing about Obama’s spending proposals is that there’s almost nothing you could defend from the perspective of efficiency. It’s all about redistribution--not redistribution to the poor but redistribution to Democratic interest groups: to unions, to the green lobby, to the health care industry, and so on. At some point these everescalating government interventions will affect the size of the economic pie.
And yet so many are still in love with him.

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