Friday, February 15, 2013

Rubio and the Zombies

February 14, 2013


The State of the Union address was not, I’m sorry to say, very interesting. True, the president offered many good ideas. But we already know that almost none of those ideas will make it past a hostile House of Representatives.

On the other hand, the G.O.P. reply, delivered by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, was both interesting and revelatory. And I mean that in the worst way. For Mr. Rubio is a rising star, to such an extent that Time magazine put him on its cover, calling him “The Republican Savior.” What we learned Tuesday, however, was that zombie economic ideas have eaten his brain.

In case you’re wondering, a zombie idea is a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both. The classic zombie idea in U.S. political discourse is the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves, but there are many more. And, as I said, when it comes to economics it appears that Mr. Rubio’s mind is zombie-infested.

Start with the big question: How did we get into the mess we’re in?

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath, which we’re still dealing with, were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. Circa 2005, the usual suspects — conservative publications, analysts at right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, and so on — insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Instead of learning from this experience, however, many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

Every piece of this revisionist history has been refuted in detail. No, the government didn’t force banks to lend to Those People; no, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn’t cause the housing bubble (they were doing relatively little lending during the peak bubble years); no, government-sponsored lenders weren’t responsible for the surge in risky mortgages (private mortgage issuers accounted for the vast majority of the riskiest loans).

But the zombie keeps shambling on — and here’s Mr. Rubio Tuesday night: “This idea — that our problems were caused by a government that was too small  — it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.” Yep, it’s the full zombie.

What about responding to the crisis? Four years ago, right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Now, this argument was obviously fallacious from the beginning. As people like me tried to point out, the whole reason our economy was depressed was that businesses weren’t willing to invest as much as consumers were trying to save. So government borrowing would not, in fact, drive up interest rates — and trying to balance the budget would simply deepen the depression.

Sure enough, interest rates, far from soaring, are at historic lows — and countries that slashed spending have also seen sharp job losses. You rarely get this clear a test of competing economic ideas, and the right’s ideas failed.

But the zombie still shambles on. And here’s Mr. Rubio: “Every dollar our government borrows is money that isn’t being invested to create jobs. And the uncertainty created by the debt is one reason why many businesses aren’t hiring.” Zombies 2, Reality 0.

In fairness to Mr. Rubio, what he’s saying isn’t any different from what everyone else in his party is saying. But that, of course, is what’s so scary.

For here we are, more than five years into the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and one of our two great political parties has seen its economic doctrine crash and burn twice: first in the run-up to crisis, then again in the aftermath. Yet that party has learned nothing; it apparently believes that all will be well if it just keeps repeating the old slogans, but louder.

It’s a disturbing picture, and one that bodes ill for our nation’s future.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Friends of Fraud


Like many advocates of financial reform, I was a bit disappointed in the bill that finally emerged. Dodd-Frank gave regulators the power to rein in many financial excesses; but it was and is less clear that future regulators will use that power. As history shows, the financial industry’s wealth and influence can all too easily turn those who are supposed to serve as watchdogs into lap dogs instead.

There was, however, one piece of the reform that was a shining example of how to do it right: the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a stand-alone agency with its own funding, charged with protecting consumers against financial fraud and abuse. And sure enough, Senate Republicans are going all out in an attempt to kill that bureau.

Why is consumer financial protection necessary? Because fraud and abuse happen.

Don’t say that educated and informed consumers can take care of themselves. For one thing, not all consumers are educated and informed. Edward Gramlich, the Federal Reserve official who warned in vain about thedangers of subprime, famously asked, “Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers?” He went on, “The question answers itself — the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.”

And even well-educated adults can have a hard time understanding the risks and payoffs associated with financial deals — a fact of which shady operators are all too aware. To take an area in which the bureau has already done excellent work, how many of us know what’s actually in our credit-card contracts?

Now, you might be tempted to say that while we need protection against financial fraud, there’s no need to create another bureaucracy. Why not leave it up to the regulators we already have? The answer is that existing regulatory agencies are basically concerned with bolstering the banks; as a practical, cultural matter they will always put consumer protection on the back burner — just as they did when they ignored Mr. Gramlich’s warnings about subprime.

So the consumer protection bureau serves a vital function. But as I said, Senate Republicans are trying to kill it.

How can they do that, when the reform is already law and Democrats hold a Senate majority? Here as elsewhere, they’re turning to extortion — threatening to filibuster the appointment of Richard Cordray, the bureau’s acting head, and thereby leave the bureau unable to function. Mr. Cordray, whose work has drawn praise even from the bankers, is clearly not the issue. Instead, it’s an open attempt to use raw obstructionism to overturn the law.

What Republicans are demanding, basically, is that the protection bureau lose its independence. They want its actions subjected to a veto by other, bank-centered financial regulators, ensuring that consumers will once again be neglected, and they also want to take away its guaranteed funding, opening it to interest-group pressure. These changes would make the agency more or less worthless — but that, of course, is the point.

How can the G.O.P. be so determined to make America safe for financial fraud, with the 2008 crisis still so fresh in our memory? In part it’s because Republicans are deep in denial about what actually happened to our financial system and economy. On the right, it’s now complete orthodoxy that do-gooder liberals, especially former Representative Barney Frank, somehow caused the financial disaster by forcing helpless bankers to lend to Those People.

In reality, this is a nonsense story that has been extensively refuted; I’ve always been struck in particular by the notion that a Congressional Democrat, holding office at a time when Republicans ruled the House with an iron first, somehow had the mystical power to distort our whole banking system. But it’s a story conservatives much prefer to the awkward reality that their faith in the perfection of free markets was proved false.

And as always, you should follow the money. Historically, the financial sector has given a lot of money to both parties, with only a modest Republican lean. In the last election, however, it went all in for Republicans, giving them more than twice as much as it gave to Democrats (and favoring Mitt Romney over the president almost three to one). All this money wasn’t enough to buy an election — but it was, arguably, enough to buy a major political party.

Right now, all the media focus is on the obvious hot issues — immigration, guns, the sequester, and so on. But let’s try not to let this one fall through the cracks: just four years after runaway bankers brought the world economy to its knees, Senate Republicans are using every means at their disposal, violating all the usual norms of politics in the process, in an attempt to give the bankers a chance to do it all over again.