Mr. Fix-It doesn't have a credible plan to fix the economy's biggest problem
What's black and white and red all over? I have no idea. But here's what I do know. Mitt Romney's housing plan is an even worse joke.
It's hard to imagine a bigger vulnerability for Obama than housing. The administration's policy has been too little, too late for too long. To borrow a phrase from Ben Bernanke, it's been a case of self-induced paralysis due to a pair of fears. For one, they were worried about forcing banks to recognize even more losses on mortgages back when the financial system's solvency was far from a sure thing. For another, they were worried about a Rick Santelli-led populist backlash against bailing out "loser" homeowners.
So they went small. Refinancings have barely been a rumor, even after Treasury expanded the program. That's still more than can be said for writedowns. Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) chief Ed DeMarco has blocked those -- and Obama has inexplicably refused to recess appoint his replacement. The result has been a tragedy, both for families and for taxpayers. As the New York Fed pointed out, we would save $134 million for every $1 billion of refinancings thanks to lower default rates. It turns out keeping people in their homes is good for everybody.
In other words, Romney had a big opening to go big on housing. Maybe he would come out for a massive refinancing program, like his top adviser Glenn Hubbard wants. Or maybe he would come out for privatizing the government-sponsored entities (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.Something. Well, the Romney housing plan certainly is something -- something "laughably vacuous" that is, as Matt Yglesias of Slate justifiably lampoons it.
The Romney housing plan comes in two parts: embarrassing, and more embarrassing. Consider this section about fixing the financial system and the GSEs -- and all, as Brad DeLong points out, in 85 words or less!
End "Too-Big-To-Fail" And Reform Fannie Mae And Freddie Mac. The Romney-Ryan plan will completely end "too-big-to-fail" by reforming the GSEs. The four years since taxpayers took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, spending $140 billion in the process, is too long to wait for reform. Rather than just talk about reform, a Romney-Ryan Administration will protect taxpayers from additional risk in the future by reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and provide a long-term, sustainable solution for the future of housing finance reform in our country.
There are so many problems crammed into so few words. For starters, too-big-to-fail is not about the GSEs; too-big-too-fail is about Wall Street. In other words, it's about the heads-we-win; tails-taxpayers-lose calculus behind big bank bets. Taking the GSEs off government life support does nothing to fix this. Then, of course, there's the question of what reforming the GSEs means. Romney says he won't "just talk" about it -- which makes sense, since he doesn't talk about it here either. It's anybody's guess what Romney wants to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But there are ways to actually end too-big-to-fail. One way is to tackle the "too big" half of the phrase; the other is to take on the "fail" part. In other words, you can either break up big banks until they are small enough to fail, or create a system where big banks can safely fail. Dodd-Frank tries the latter. Its logic is that even a relatively small bank like Lehman Brothers -- or a hedge fund like Long-Term Capital Management -- can topple the financial system if its counterparties are big and numerous enough. Too-connected-to-fail can be just as much a problem as too-big-to-fail. Now, there's still a political economy argument for breaking up the big banks -- so they aren't quite as powerful -- but it seems clear that we need some sort of resolution authority. Except to Romney. Perhaps. He thinks Dodd-Frank is too complicated -- maybe it is! -- and he thinks its Byzantine structure is holding back the recovery. He wants to repeal and replace it with ... something.
Sensible, Not Overly Complex, Financial Regulation That Gets Credit Flowing Again. By replacing the Dodd-Frank Act with sensible regulation (instead of the 9,000+ pages, and counting, of new rules for financial institutions), a Romney-Ryan Administration will usher in a new era of responsible lending. Sensible regulation will allow banks to approve loans for families with good credit rather than rejecting their mortgage applications. A return to more normal lending standards would produce an estimated 640,000 more home sales and 320,000 jobs next year.
Did you catch that Romney wants to do something sensible? What does that mean? Who knows! Something sensible, probably. What about Romney's claim that nixing Dodd-Frank would add 320,000 jobs in 2013 -- is that a sensible? Not so much. Would you believe it if I told you that number comes from the National Association of Realtors (NAR)? Yup, these guys.
That was from Feburary 2008, two years after housing prices peaked. That uncomfortable reality wasn't lost on NAR when they cut this ad two months later, telling people not to worry about falling prices -- increased affordability! -- because housing tends to double every decade.
I could go on. The point isn't that a self-interested group was epically wrong about a once-in-a-generation housing bust. That's true of plenty of others. The point is that Romney is relying on a self-interested group that has been epically wrong to make the case for his -- albeit, nonexistent -- housing plan. It'd be like listening to this guy about, well, anything.
It didn't have to be this way. Conservative wonks have serious ideas about what to do with housing. Mitt Romney even employs some of them as his top advisers. This ambiguity is even more baffling when you consider our jobs slump is the result of our investment slump, which is itself the result of our residential investment slump. Fix housing and you might fix the economy. Now, housing might already be fixing itself, but helping it out would be great policy -- but equally terrible politics.
Obama isn't the only one afraid of anti-bailout rage. Romney is too. Maybe even more so. After all, Romney is counting on the Santellis of the world to back him. And that's why Mr. Fix-It is running on a housing plan short of an actual plan -- a plan that actually fixes things wouldn't pass the Tea Party's ideological sniff test. It would mean helping out homeowners who might not "deserve" help. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Romney is boxed in. He feels like he has to kowtow to the base, but the base does not want to kowtow to the reality of what it will take to get the economy moving again.
Romney is running as an economic expert, but his economic plans either do not add up or do not exist. That leaves him with little more than magical thinking. The joke's on us.
The MIT economist Peter Temin argues that economic inequality results in two distinct classes. And only one of them has any power.
A lot of factors have contributed to American inequality: slavery, economic policy, technological change, the power of lobbying, globalization, and so on. In their wake, what’s left?
That’s the question at the heart of a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin, an economist from MIT. Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.
New presidents often err by either trying to impose their will on Congress or being too hands-off. Trump is on course to commit both errors on his top two legislative priorities.
Mucking up an interaction with Congress is a rite of passage for every new president—usually on health care, and especially for those with limited experience in Washington.
The twin pitfalls for a new president are the same ones the great Tommy Lasorda described in his approach to baseball: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” A president can try to push his vision aggressively on Congress, risking backlash from members—let’s call that the Bill Clinton approach. Alternatively, he can try to hang back and let Congress act, risking the chance that without presidential leadership, members will come up with something he doesn’t like, or even worse that they can’t pass. We’ll call that the Barack Obama approach.
Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang was right that "privilege" is a problem, but not about why.
Poor Tal Fortgang. (Well, perhaps “poor” isn’t the right word.) Not long ago, the Princeton freshman’s white male privilege was known only to those in his life. Then he published an essay about this privilege in a conservative student publication, arguing that because his ancestors had struggled, he personally doesn’t benefit from unearned advantage. If he’s not privileged, no one should be asking him to check his privilege, right? After all, some of his advantage was earned; he just doesn’t happen to be the one who earned it.
Because “privilege” is clickbait, Fortgang’s piece made the rounds, culminating in the New York Times interviewing his classmates about his privilege and whether he had, in fact, checked it. The consensus is that he did not. Fortgang’s privilege has now been checked not only by his classmates and Facebook friends but by the entire Internet.
In 1985, Neil Postman observed an America imprisoned by its own need for amusement. He was, it turns out, extremely prescient.
Earlier this month, thousands of protesters gathered at Washington’s National Mall to advocate for an assortment of causes: action against global climate change, federal funding for scientific research, a generally empirical approach to the world and its mysteries. The protesters at the March for Science, as scientists are wont to do, followed what has become one of the established formulas for such an event, holding clever signs, wearing cheeky outfits, and attempting, overall, to carnivalize their anger. “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again,” read one sign at the March. “This is my sine,” read another. “I KNEW TO WEAR THIS,” one woman had written on the poncho she wore that soggy Saturday, “BECAUSE SCIENCE PREDICTED THE RAIN.” Three protesters, sporting sensible footwear and matching Tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waved poster boards bearing messages like “Jurassick of this shit.”
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
All over America, people have put small "give one, take one" book exchanges in front of their homes. Then they were told to tear them down.
Three years ago, The Los Angeles Times published a feel-good story on the Little Free Library movement. The idea is simple: A book lover puts a box or shelf or crate of books in their front yard. Neighbors browse, take one, and return later with a replacement. A 76-year-old in Sherman Oaks, California, felt that his little library, roughly the size of a dollhouse, "turnedstrangers into friends and a sometimes-impersonal neighborhood into a community," the reporter observed. The man knew he was onto something "when a 9-year-old boy knocked on his door one morning to say how much he liked the little library." He went on to explain, "I met more neighbors in the first three weeks than in the previous 30 years."
Recent border battles have once again redrawn the lines of the metro area.
On the Saturday before Election Day last November, Jason Lary, a former insurance executive, crouched on a rough patch of grass at the center of a busy intersection 20 miles outside of Atlanta in DeKalb County. Lary was holding a hammer, and he tapped carefully on the thin wire base of a campaign sign. “My hand is like Fred Flintstone’s right now because I banged my hand in the night,” he said, noting his latest sign-related injury. This hazard, though, was worthwhile: “If you don’t start [the sign] with your hand, it will bend. It takes longer—guys are 10 times faster than I am. But my sign’s still gonna be up.”
This was a non-trivial advantage for Lary, who for the past month had begun most mornings with a kind of ground-game whack-a-mole. He would put up signs under the cover of night, only to have his opponents dislodge them by hand or, when that failed, run over them with their cars. Nevertheless, Lary was feeling good. “My opposition? Worn down,” he told me. “They don’t even have any more signs. And I kept a stash, knowing this time was coming. This is not my first picnic with nonsense.”
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
It's okay for parents to nurture, protect, and encourage their children, especially when they're very young.
I still remember the first time someone spoke to me about grit. It wasn’t when I lost my dad and saw my mother fall apart.
It wasn’t when my mother died, and I felt like I was falling apart.
It wasn’t when people who I believed would invest in my business didn’t. It wasn’t when the great recession hit our advertisers and my business had to stop publishing a magazine.
It was when I was thinking of pulling my 3-year-old out of a preschool in which she clearly wasn’t thriving. She was anxious, frozen, a shadow of the child she used to be before she started there.
But it was a co-op preschool, meaning I couldn’t just turn around and leave. When you sign up to join a co-op, you also sign up to work various jobs around the school and to commit to being an active part of a larger community. In other words, I had to talk to the other parents at the co-op about my decision. One of them cautioned me: "What about grit?" she said. For a minute, I was taken aback. Was she talking about me or my 3-year-old?
On Wednesday, the administration launched a new office to “assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens.” Some rang in with reports of UFOs.
The term “alien” is used in legal contexts to denote those present in the United States who aren’t citizens. But some callers are using a new hotline launched on Wednesday for victims of crimes committed by aliens to report that they’ve been victimized by extraterrestrials.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration launched the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office. The office, which was originally announced in a January executive order on immigration, intends to “assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“All crime is terrible, but these victims are unique—and too often ignored,” said DHS Secretary John Kelly in announcing the office. “They are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place—because the people who victimized them often times should not have been in the county in the first place.”