Thursday, December 22, 2011

UN Embarrasses Itself - Again

The United Nations General Assembly (GA) has once again made a fool of itself. In proceedings today, it held a minute of silence as a sign of respect for the death of North Korean dictator (and general madman) Kim Jong-il, who died this past Saturday. The president of the GA, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, called for a twenty-five second ovation, stating:
It is my sad duty to pay tribute to the memory of the late Kim Jong-il, Secretary-General of the Workers Party of Korea, Chairman of the National Defence Commission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, who passed away on Saturday, December 17...
While Western leaders boycotted the ceremony and the GA meeting was sparsely attended, the honoring of such a tyrant as Kim Jong-il rudely displays the daftness of the UN, representing yet another utter failure to even approach a reasonable interpretation of the United Nations' founding principles. It also signifies a capitulation to the worst form of North Korean propagandizing, creating even more material for the North Korean leadership to brainwash their people into accepting the supposed successes and laudatory nature of the failing regime.

Of course such behavior from the UN General Assembly is not surprising. However, as it continues to let itself be used as a political forum for the world's most hateful regimes, despotic dictators, and terrorist organizations to spew their hatred, it only serves to undermine any sense of morality in the international system.

Was It Wall Street or the Government?

A recent Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that were integral to the housing boom and bust, now formally argues that these two organizations committed massive fraud, which underrepresented their exposure to subprime mortgages and contributed to the economic meltdown.

The Wall Street Journal expounds how this investigation blows holes in the argument, often proffered by anti-capitalist Democrats, that Wall Street is solely to blame:
Democrats have spent years arguing that private lenders created the housing boom and bust, and that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac merely came along for the ride. This was always a politically convenient fiction, and now thanks to the unlikely source of the Securities and Exchange Commission we have a trail of evidence showing how the failed mortgage giants turbocharged the crisis. 
That's the story revealed Friday by the SEC's civil lawsuits against six former Fannie and Freddie executives, including a pair of CEOs. The SEC says the companies defrauded investors because they "knew and approved of misleading statements" about Fan and Fred's exposure to subprime loans, and it chronicles their push to expand the business.
And while the GSEs were somewhat independent from the legislature and the bureaucracy, the paper trail seems to go further back. At least some of the incentive for the alleged fraud was directly caused by government's social policy of getting every American his or her own house - regardless of the ability to afford it.
The Beltway story of the crisis claims that Congress's affordable housing mandates had nothing to do with it. But the SEC's lawsuit shows that Fannie degraded its underwriting standards to increase its market share in subprime loans. According to the SEC suit, for instance, in 2006 Fannie Mae adjusted its widely used automated underwriting system, "Desktop Underwriter." Fannie did so as part of its "Say Yes" strategy to "provide more 'approve' messages . . . for larger volumes of loans with lower FICO [credit] scores and higher LTVs [loan-to-value] than previously permitted."
Unfortunately, this is what happens when the government meddles in private-markets for social engineering purposes - prices (and risk) get mispriced, bubbles are grown, and then busts bring the economy down. And while this does not fully absolve Wall Street (fraud did occur and non-criminal stupid decisions were made) or the consumer (the role that greedy homeowners played in buying too much house or refinancing to buy flat-screen TVs and BMWs is unfortunately overlooked), it does shed light on the harm government can do. Sometimes trying to help people ends up with a worse outcome than doing nothing, especially if all potential consequences are not considered from the outset.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Stop Trying to Control Everything

For a long time, Americans have turned to the government to solve their woes. When things "go wrong" the government has been the readily accessible and presumably best organization to make things right. Social problems, economic recessions, health concerns, cultural discords, and the like have all been placed under  government oversight.

Government officials have often done a poor job at solving these problems, partially because the solutions are outside the scope of what a government can successfully do, partially because legislators and bureaucrats often fail to appreciate unintended consequences, and partially because rigid bureaucracy is generally ill-formed to adapt to changing circumstances in the real world. Yet, unfortunately many Americans still turn to the government as the problem-solver. This impulsive desire to turn to the almighty government comes from a general malaise in the American psyche that wants others to carry the tough burdens (or at least a lack of confidence in the ability to achieve), a human desire to control his environment, and an undue confidence that the government is the only institution that can solve big problems. The latter, of course, is rooted in a fundamental lack of imagination on how other forces can have tremendous impacts. The government can be seen, it is tangible, and thus to the naive it is the only means to implement solutions. The less tangible - social, cultural, and economic forces - are summarily dismissed.

But while there has long been criticism of expansive government, there appears to be growing popular antagonism to these outmoded ways of thought. Former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, writes a powerful critique of the need for the "right to rise." He argues that government causes more harm than benefit by its incessant interloping in the marketplace and its attempts to solve the 'problem' of risk.
But when it comes to economic freedom, we are less forgiving of the cycles of growth and loss, of trial and error, and of failure and success that are part of the realities of the marketplace and life itself. 
Increasingly, we have let our elected officials abridge our own economic freedoms through the annual passage of thousands of laws and their associated regulations. We see human tragedy and we demand a regulation to prevent it. We see a criminal fraud and we demand more laws. We see an industry dying and we demand it be saved. Each time, we demand "Do something... anything."
He goes on to discuss the pressures he faced, as a governor, to always find a solution, to always be the one to "do something," even though there was not always something to be done. The pattern is emblematic of the corrosion of the American way, where Americans now look for the easy way out, for someone else to solve their problems, and for a cushy, utopian lifestyle free from any possible harm.

In a similar vein, Robert J. Samuelson argues that Keynesian economics, the economic theory that has justified government management of and intervention in Western economies since the interwar period, is on its deathbed. Government management of the economy may have been appropriate when governments were small, nimble, and able to tweak the economy at the margin; however, now these policies are increasingly a disaster.
Deficit spending and pump priming were plausible responses to economic slumps. Now, huge governments are often saddled with massive debts. Standard Keynesian remedies for downturns — spend more and tax less — presume the willingness of bond markets to finance the resulting deficits at reasonable interest rates. If markets refuse, Keynesian policies won’t work.
However, governments have long since abandoned prudent use of such policies, distorting the original intent of Keynesianism to justify massive government control and intervention in the private sector. This has not only rendered Keynesianism ineffective but created ripples of problems across the American landscape. The death knells of this philosophy, are deeply rooted in a growing lack of confidence that some enlightened, technocratic government is truly able to solve the country's woes.

Unfortunately, some still tenaciously cling to the outmoded confidence in government. They cannot envision an alternative. They cannot accept that not only can we as humans, with our minimal capacity, not fix every problem, but that it is often not desirable to try and do so. Failure can be a good thing, self-reliance can be empowering, problem solving can build character, and being independent can yield a better world than  stifling, top-down control. Mankind cannot control every aspect of its environment, not through individual or government action. The sooner we let go of this pernicious desire to shape our surroundings into some ideal and the sooner we let go of the false hope that only through government's magical hands will we better our world, then the sooner this country will be able to progress.